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Every year a small village in late medieval Japan faces the terror of being invaded by roving bandits who steal crops and even kill the farmers and their families. In a last ditch effort to save themselves from the invaders, the villagers hire samurai - members of the feudal warrior class - to defend them. The samurai successfully defeat the bandits' attack in a series of battles, some dying in the defense. The villagers are finally able to live in peace. The samurai bury their dead and depart the scene of their triumph. Life in the village goes on.
This is the deceptively simple story told in grand yet subtle fashion by master filmmaker Akira Kurosawa in his classic 1954 work The Seven Samurai. I first discovered this film and its director more than 25 years ago at the Metro Theater on Manhattan's Upper West Side. At the time I was a sophomore at Columbia University, studying comparative religion and history.
While I devoted much of my time to learning the details and trends of Jewish history, a class titled "Japanese Religious Traditions" intrigued me. The marquis of the Metro announced an upcoming festival celebrating 50 years of Japanese film. I was hooked. Since my sister worked for the company that owned the theater, I secured free passes to see as many films as I wanted in three weeks. Most of the movies I imbibed were by Kurosawa. To experience the fruits of his genius was a revelatory experience.
Such films as Rashomon, Yojimbo and Throne of Blood did not disappoint me. In his work, Kurosawa presents himself as a master storyteller with a sharp eye for detail, a keen sense of humor and pathos, a deep understanding of the acting craft and, in his later films, a brilliant ability to exploit color. What impressed me most, however, was Kurosawa's use of medieval and early modern Japanese history as the setting for many of his films.
The Seven Samurai takes place in the 16th century, during the civil wars that racked feudal Japan. Kagemusha, one of Kurosawa's later films, is a wonderful tale set in the early modern Japan of the Tokugawa shoguns. Both Yojimbo and Sanjuro depict the life of the decline of the samurai class in the 18th century. Kurosawa based a number of these period films on actual events in Japanese history.
SEEING THESE films in a short span of time both exhilarated and overwhelmed me. As a student of Jewish history, I must admit that I felt cheated - and I still feel that way today. While American-Jewish filmmakers do present films that focus on the Holocaust - Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List comes to mind immediately - one wonders why directors and screenwriters are not exploiting the great events and figures of ancient, medieval and early modern Jewish history. We have seen many films focusing on the Shoah, the State of Israel, and contemporary Jewish life in America. I have yet to see a film biography of Judah Maccabee, Moses Maimonides, or Gracia Nasi.
Historians have written thousands of studies of the Jewish past that are available for everyone to read. Is there not one story of ancient or medieval Jewish life that deserves a film adaptation? Have we not had enough telling of stories of Jewish history's disasters? Is there not one director or screenwriter that can chronicle the triumphs of Jewish history?
The great Jewish historian Salo Baron warned against historians treating the Jewish past as a series of pogroms, persecutions, exiles and mass murder. He argued that this "lachrymose" perception of Jewish history is a distortion of the reality of the past. Where are the filmmakers, both Jewish and non-Jewish, who can begin to tell us the story of our people that is both meaningful and inspiring?
As a student of Jewish history and a lover of classic films, I have always imagined that the historical experiences of the Sephardi Jews could be a gold mine of material for any director or screenwriter. The "Golden Age" of Jews in medieval Muslim Spain alone provides many great stories to tell. The epic life of Samuel Hanagid, the prime minister of Granada - the story of a Jew who led Muslim armies out to battle for 20 years - could be a wonderful vehicle for a filmmaker who wants to tell a tale from the past packed with action, drama and humor, as well as be relevant to the conflict between Jews and Arabs in our own times.
The cinematic treatment of the life of Judah Halevi, the great Hebrew poet of Andalusia who yearned to return to the Land of Israel but tragically was never able to realize his dream, would be a showcase for wonderful Hebrew poetry, both liturgical and secular. Gracia Nasi's dramatic and exciting life would be the perfect basis for a film that could explore the role of a powerful woman in an early modern world dominated by powerful men. Her story could also be an inspiring testament to the power of Jews who embraced Jewish belief in the face of persecution and the Inquisition.
These are only three examples from the rich history and heritage of the Jews of Spain and Portugal. There are hundreds of stories that need to be told. They could inspire a new generation of Jews - both in the Diaspora and Israel - who are ignorant of their past, their culture and their tradition.
There is more to the history of our people than suffering and disaster. We would not be here today as a people if Jews were not proud of their past and of their heritage. It is time for a renaissance in the world of Jewish culture. Let us work together to creatively present the Jewish past in a meaningful and profound way that will also entertain.
Filmmakers should continue telling the stories of the Holocaust and of contemporary Israel and Jewish life in America. But let us all learn from Akira Kurosawa. Although he is no longer alive to make new films that resurrect the past, he still serves as a model and an inspiration to Jewish filmmakers, writers and artists. We cannot live as an amnesiac people. The past has played a great part in making us who we are. We must explore that past without denigrating it or idealizing it. Kurosawa has taught me that lesson.
The writer is on the faculty of Nova Southeastern University's LifelongLearning Institute in Davie, Florida.