When cinema was still in its youth, Hollywood built a story around the High
Holidays. Its tale was a measure of Jewry’s ties to tradition, but also a gentle
sign of its loss.
In The Jazz Singer (1927), America’s first feature-length
sound film, Jakie Rabinowitz is a cantor’s son whose father expects him to
follow tradition and stand by his side in the synagogue to chant Kol Nidre, the
prayer that opens the Yom Kippur service. But as the eve of the holiday
approaches, the father is told that 12-year-old Jakie is singing in a saloon.
The cantor angrily fetches him home and gives him a thrashing. Jakie vows to
leave home for good. As the father chants Kol Nidre at shul, the son takes to
the streets and embarks on a life singing jazz.
Years later, his career
on the rise, his name now changed to Jack Robin (played here by the great Al
Jolson, whose life had inspired the story), he visits his parents on his papa’s
60th birthday, announces he’ll soon be starring on Broadway, and hopes to make
peace with his folks. Jack’s mama welcomes him back eagerly, but the father
orders him to leave. Soon after, the cantor grows ill and hovers between life
and death. Jack’s mother appears at the Broadway rehearsals and begs him to sing
Kol Nidre in place of his father. But Yom Kippur is also the show’s opening
night. The film constructs a virtual morality play around this dilemma.
The film would be incomplete without a
Jolson version of Kol Nidre. Or at least it sounds like Kol Nidre—but in
Jolson’s handling, the Aramaic-language lines are radically abridged and
repeated, over and over, in a reverie of improvisation. In effect, Kol Nidre as
jazz. The film here subtly portrays the passing of tradition into a creatively
eroded form—symbolic of what New World Jews have done with the old.
In 1937, Jews in Poland did
a film version of S. An-sky’s acclaimed Yiddish play, The Dybbuk. In the film,
two Hasidic Jews, Sender and Nisn, are longtime friends who meet up only
infrequently during holiday pilgrimages to the Rebbe of Miropolye. One such
time, they pledge their yet-unborn children in marriage. Soon after, Nisn is
drowned and Sender, preoccupied with money, forgets his promise to his
Years later, an impoverished scholar named named Khonen makes his
way to Brinitz, Sender’s town, where, as a Sabbath guest at Sender’s, he
instantly falls in love with Sender’s daughter Leah, who loves him in return.
The father, unaware that Khonon is the son of his long-departed friend, is
determined to betroth Leah to the richest suitor he can find. Desperate to win
Leah’s hand, Khonen immerses himself in kabbalistic magic so he can conjure up
barrels of gold. Intensely ascetic, Khonen grows ever more unbalanced, and when
Leah’s engagement to a rich man’s son is announced, he calls on Satan for help,
then keels over and dies. When Leah is later about to be married, she becomes
possessed by her dead lover’s spirit. Her father then takes her to Miropolye,
where he petitions the Rebbe to exorcise the wayward soul.
The film, one of the
last great cultural products of Polish Jewry, is a rich portrait of pre-modern
Jewish life and custom. Unlike the play, it opens with an impassioned table
sermon by the Rebbe on the youthful days of the fathers-to-be. The sermon deals
with the Yom Kippur ministrations of the High Priest in ancient times—if an
impure thought were to enter his mind in the Holy of Holies, “the entire world
would be destroyed.” The Rebbe compares this to the precarious journey of some
unfortunate souls, who pass through several lifetimes (these Jews believed in
reincarnation) in striving toward their source, the Throne of Glory—only to be
cast down, just as they reach celestial heights. As this point in the Rebbe’s
sermon, Sender and Nisn inopportunely try to inform him of their
When, a generation later, Khonon fantasizes union with his beloved
Leah, he refers to it as “the Holy of Holies.” In retrospect, the Rebbe’s sermon
becomes a prophecy of Khonon’s disastrous fall. But The Dybbuk never ceases to
exalt the lovers’ bond, though the Rebbe and his court try their best to undo
it. The holiest moment of Yom Kippur, though fraught with catastrophe, remains a
symbol for the resistance of these lovers to a world enslaved by money and
A third film, Barry Levinson’s Liberty Heights (1999), is a
nostalgic comedy about growing up Jewish in 1950s Baltimore.
It both opens and
closes on Rosh Hashana, when the Kurtzman family customarily attend synagogue.
Nate Kurtzman (Joe Mantegna) has his own New Year custom of exiting early from synagogue to stroll to the nearby Cadillac showroom, where the coming year’s models
are on display. Each year, Nate trades in his Caddy for a spiffy new one, which
he can afford—not from fading profits of the burlesque house he owns but because
of his thriving illegal numbers racket. Nate is otherwise a solid citizen, a
devoted husband and father, who has raised himself up from humble origins, and
had often, in his youth, proven himself a scrappy street fighter against
Most of the film deals with the adventures of Nate’s
sons, Van and Ben (Adrien Brody and Ben Foster) and and their relations with
gentile girls—Van’s pursuit of a beautiful, Old-Money debutante named Dubbie,
whom he met at a party; and Ben’s friendship with Sylvia, a black
Levinson’s framing the story inside the Jewish New Year and
Nate’s Cadillac ritual is important. The Kurtzmans are nominally observant
Jews—perhaps even Orthodox, but in a laid-back, assimilated way. Though Nate’s
wife shows remnants of clannishness, the Kurtzmans are open to the winds of
change. While both the New Year and the “new car year” are equally important to
Nate, their overlap seems a portrait of the tradition’s loosening grip since the
days of The Jazz Singer.
Even The Dybbuk, flawless as its command of pre-modern
tradition had been, was the creation of Jewish moderns: playwright An-sky had
been a secularist and socialist revolutionary, folklorist, and humanitarian
activist. The film’s creators were immersed in avant-garde theater and
Expressionist idioms, and director Mihał Waszyński was a gay man who had left
behind his orthodox background and pretended he knew no Yiddish. But what unites
these three films is not just their deep awareness (hidden in The Dybbuk) of the
secular world, but also their willingness to invoke tradition as a yardstick.
The High Holidays might be a site of fading cultural memory, but the theme still
strikes a responsive chord among film goers, Jewish and gentile alike.
Rosenberg teaches film and Judaic studies at Tufts University. His articles on
the cinema of Jewish experience have appeared in various journals and
collections, and he has recently completed a book, Crisis in Disguise: Some
Cinema of Jewish Experience from the Era of Catastrophe (1914-47).