The missing Jewish reaction

By BARRY NEWMAN
January 23, 2006 01:38

4 minute read.



John Wayne, I suspect, is rolling over in his grave. And his soul, wherever it happens to be residing, is undoubtedly writhing in torment. How else can a two-fisted, frontier-taming man of the range react to the news that a "gay cowboy movie" has just won the prestigious Golden Globe award as 2005's best picture, making it a frontrunner for an Oscar? The rough-and-ready Duke would find unbearable the very thought that a critically-acclaimed movie could have a couple of guys who wear jeans, ride horses and earn a living in the great outdoors of the Wild West depicted as lovers. And, in fact, go at it under the stars. I recently had the opportunity to see Brokeback Mountain, and although the film is a love story that's been told hundreds of times before, it's nonetheless made thought-provoking and complicated by the added dimension of homosexuality. The yearnings and anguish of ill-fated love - immortalized, if not invented, by Shakespeare - are Hollywood standards, and have been the underlying themes of countless productions since the days of the silents. Similarly, the debate over homosexuality has been put on the big screen from time to time, so a film featuring a gay hero is no novelty. That these two themes have been intelligently and realistically combined, however, is somewhat groundbreaking, and has generated more than a little controversy. SOME ARGUE that the homosexual affair between the two sheep herders highlighted in the film - which probably could have been treated less explicitly - should be viewed as nothing more than incidental, and that it's the story of the star-crossed lovers viewers should focus on. That, though, would have turned the achievement into an imaginative fantasy. Even though the film, spanning the period from the early sixties to the late seventies, coincides with the time when gays were emerging from the closet, a same-sex affair, then and now, must remain out of sight. The world is simply not ready for an open, unapologetic romance - be it comedy or drama - featuring two ordinary, red-blooded males who just happen to be gay. Tragedy, by necessity, must be written into the script. And the tragedy depicted in the closing scenes of the movie rivals the best Hollywood has yet come up with. Strangely missing in the noise of the last month or two, though, has been a "Jewish reaction" to the film, or how rabbis and educators from across the religious and cultural spectrum see what is a poignant call for accepting homosexuality as a "normal" way of life. Jewish leaders have never been bashful about condemning films regarded as potentially inflammatory or politically problematic. Why they've adopted a hands-off attitude to this one calls for some attention. Brokeback Mountain, located against the rugged backgrounds of the American west, is by no means a Jewish film. Neither of its two main characters are Jewish, there are no references to Jewish laws forbidding homosexuality. The bias of the film is most definitely red-necked and not stiff-necked. BUT HOMOSEXUALITY has most surely become in recent years a Jewish issue, and high-profile, well-received films have had both impact and influence on social trends and attitudes, even Jewish ones. For this reason the silence of the Jews, which might be interpreted as supportive of the movie's message, is most certainly not golden. The film, admittedly troubling in its content and demanding openmindedness that many moviegoers find overly challenging, is not quite a box-office blockbuster, which might explain, in part, why there has been no forthright Jewish reaction. That, though, is a cowardly way out. Gay-tinted issues - same-sex marriage, equal opportunity, leadership roles and responsibilities - have drifted into the realm of synagogues, community centers and universities. More troubling to Jewish movers and shakers, I guess, is that there's no politically correct way to respond to the message the film sends out. Although "Jews and homosexuality" has been the subject of debates and symposiums - here in Israel as well as throughout North America and Europe - the topic is still regarded as something of a land mine. It's far safer to go public when the Holocaust, anti-Semitism or historical accuracy are the subject. Homosexuality and the Jewish community is, for the most part, treated as a touchy area on which there is no consensus, and to enter a fray in which no Jew or Jewish issue is directly involved is undoubtedly seen as senseless and counterproductive. Others, though, have been less circumspect. A number of conservative groups, not surprisingly, have expressed outright condemnation of Brokeback Mountain. Some anti-Semitic web sites have even accused Jewish moguls of being behind what they view as morally objectionable trash. Similarly, some on the other side of the divide see the film as a wondrous accomplishment and regard as culturally significant a work of cinema that projects heterosexual and homosexual love as equal. That there are varied opinions on whether Ang Lee, the film's director, is an angel or a devil is understandable. That there aren't any emanating from Jewish sources is not. I CAN appreciate the skill that went into making Brokeback Mountain, as well as the courage and sensitivity required in intertwining the two divergent themes. As an observant Jew, however, I'm more than a little bothered by the cry for acceptance the film powerfully projects, even if the two gay cowboys are not Jewish. Homosexuality, as far as I'm concerned, should be neither condoned or encouraged, and I do believe that an unambiguous expression of condemnation from Jewish voices is called for. But a gentle one. The film, after all, is a tragedy in the truest sense of the word, and the movie is in essence the story of two honest and perfectly ordinary people lucky enough to find true love but prevented from making it blossom. Which is something even John Wayne, I suspect, could readily relate to. The writer is a technical communicator.


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