This program invites senior citizens to review their favorite Jewish themed books and films.
WINNERS in 2014
The “Book Thief” review was submitted by Josef Brand, Silver Spring, MD, a former high school English teacher
A couple or so decades ago, I read a book review of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. Full of scholarly disquisitions, the review told me everything I would ever want to know about the book and its author except whether the reviewer liked it. I think giving thumbs up or down is the sine qua non of a critical review; all else is commentary.
Movie critics must face the same criterion. It’s not too hard to do. So, heeding my own advice, let me say at the outset that I did not like the movie The Book Thief. Briefly, it deals with a husband and wife in Germany who adopt the teenage daughter of a Communist family, now presumably murdered by the Nazis; later they provide a hiding place in their basement for a young Jewish adult.
Liesel, the teenage girl and main character of the movie, is spunky and assertive, but illiterate. The rest of the cast consists of stock characters: the lovely, thoroughly understanding husband, who provides a warm and welcoming environment for Liesel; his wife, who constantly berates Liesel but who we know all along (because the cliché demands it) to have a heart of gold; and the fugitive Jew, who is convenient for the plot, but largely undeveloped. He joins his host in teaching Liesel how to read. She becomes so passionate about literature that she steals books and, after reading them, returns them surreptitiously to their owners—hence the title of the movie.
The dialogue is in English but the players speak with a German accent. Why on earth do they do so? Since the language of narration is English, a German accent indicates that the speakers are of foreign origin, immigrants to their own country. To add specious verisimilitude to the story, the scriptwriter has characters pepper their speech with ja, nein, und, and Saumensch, as if they were performing in a Sid Caesar skit.
The most compelling member of the dramatis personae is one that does not appear in the flesh but as the chilling, disembodied voice of Death. The voice tells us what we already know but shrink from hearing: “Everybody dies.”
Despite its faults, the film is not awful. I rather suspect that a great many people will like it. It is well-acted; the plot is filled with enough narrow escapes and false alarms to keep the action moving; hints of poetry occasionally take us out of ourselves; and we have the chance, once more, to rage at the bestiality of Hitler and his cohorts.
The book review “The Color of Water” was submitted by Joan Curry, Washington, DC
From the author of The Good Lord Bird (winner of the 2013 National Book Award), Song Yet Sung and Miracle at St. Anna comes the memoir The Color of Water. In it, James McBride, the son of the late Reverend Andrew McBride, struggles to understand what he perceives as unconventional behavior of his mother during his childhood: She looks white, yet refuses to tell her children of her ethnic roots (she was a Jewish immigrant from Poland); marries twice outside her race (both husbands were African-Americans); gives birth to 12 biracial children; chooses to rear her family in a predominantly black housing project in Brooklyn; and does little to provide her children plausible insights to the nagging complexities of the historical socio-political issues that potentially triggered racial confrontations on and off the streets..
The backdrop of this memoir spans through the historic 1960s and 70s. Circumstances during the Civil Rights Movement protests were often hair-triggered and violent. Ordinary citizens—intentionally or not—could be tragically affected. This awareness, in part, causes McBride to fear for his mother’s safety when she goes on her errands in the community. Frustrated by his mother’s strict parenting and the sudden and cruel timing of the death
of his stepfather Hunter Jordan, James turns to the streets searching for identity and direction. He pushes aside the values of his hard-working parents who expect the children to focus on good grades and the church. Some readers may question the authenticity of the McBride siblings’ encounters with racism or their discussions about their own varied skin colors. As a reader, I find his encounters believable as they were personally applicable during my childhood.
Having been a member of the only black family in an all-white working-class district on the outskirts of a southwestern Michigan town, I can identify with McBride’s fear for his mother’s safety. My father and family received threats from the White Citizen’s Council in this small Michigan town. I learned that the Council warned us not to move into a two-story house set aside by the city. My father, a newly appointed city hall employee, could walk to his office from there, but instead, my father and the city decided that living further away from downtown would decrease tension. Being called the “N-word” was rare but unsurprising. Over time, my community leaned to relax over the idea of us being their neighbors. If any child asked me for permission to rub the brown off my arms, my parents advised me to patiently allow them to try, then explain that skin color, like hair color or eye color, can’t be washed or rubbed away, and that my brown is not a tan!
The Color of Water acts as James’s tribute to his mother, in spite of James wondering about her seemingly tormented life coping skills. She tells James that God doesn’t have a color. God is like water—the basic substance—without which life dies. From that platform, it can be said it’s his mother’s choice to deemphasize the superficial color debate. It is about acceptance and love among all people, and trusting God’s will and forgiveness. With those basic teachings, James and his 11 siblings went on to win scholarships, attend college and beyond. The accomplishment of her family is remarkable, thanks to the iron will and love of his twice-widowed mother.
“The Producers” review was submitted by Ellen Sue Spicer-Jacobson of Bala Cynwyd, PA. She is a former educator of young children
Make no mistake—Mel Brooks is clever, witty, funny and irreverent. But do not be misled. Underneath all the humor and wittiness is a genius-mind that works to wake up our humdrum life and think more about what is important in the world.
Take the movie The Producers. On the surface it seems to be merely a funny story about two men scamming the public with a play that is sure to flop. They go to great lengths to make it as terrible as possible—including a number called “Springtime for Hitler”—and then the play ends up being a hit!
The most important scene for me is “Springtime for Hitler,” which has genius
written all over it. Brooks, an American Jew who lived in the United States during World War II and the Holocaust, still had his pulse on the evil that Hitler perpetrated. By making it as ridiculous as he does in the movie, he can get away with outrageous words and actions that display Hitler as an evil, offensive oaf, which is exactly Brooks’s intention.
Brooks is able to use his humor to educate us as well as provoke us to think more seriously about the world, such as Hitler’s evil actions and The Holocaust. By couching his theme in humor, he can make his point without intimidating his audience. Some will be offended; that’s to be expected. But others will get his point while laughing in the aisles.
All of Brooks’s efforts seem to have a double meaning. On the surface is the humor and hilarity, and underneath is the humanity and humility of his role as writer, producer, and actor. Taking a theme such as “Springtime for Hitler” to convey the horror of the
Holocaust is both outrageously witty and gut-wrenching, because Hitler was a maniac, and Brooks’s antics emphasize that aspect of Hitler as a person without a conscience.
While I have to admit that The Producers was not one of my favorite productions from Mel Brooks, the Hitler number is my favorite of all his works. It tops everything I have ever seen about Hitler, and I laugh and cry at the same time. Brooks is a genius and I am grateful for his body of work and the humor and humanity he has brought to the world.
The review “Hanns and Rudolf” was submitted by Robert Abrams
This is a diabolical book about the lives of Hanns Alexander and Rudolf Hoss, the Kommandant of Auschwitz. Hanns is a German Jew reared in an affluent home in Berlin soon after the Nazis came to power. Hanns’s father, Alfred Alexander, was a distinguished German-Jewish doctor who earned an Iron Cross in World War I; he was highly regarded by his peers and affluent Berliners regardless of their religious beliefs. Hanns’s parents, a twin brother and two sisters all escaped Nazi Germany in the mid-1930s after paying a heavy ransom for their release.
The author’s technique uses dual biographies of Hanns and Rudolf, alternating chapters to make it an easily read book that keeps the reader wanting to get into the next chapter and continue the story. Since everyone knows that Hanns is the pursuer and captor of Hoss before starting the book, Harding’s achievement to keep the reader glued to the text is admirable.
Harding describes the early lives of both antagonists. Hoss was born into a lower-middle-class family in Germany and grew up with the notion that racial purity was needed by the German nation. He married a woman with similar views. Hoss’s family suffered the humiliation and economic perils of the WWI peace treaty that harshly penalized the German citizenry. Conversely, Hanns’s family was able to migrate economically to the affluent classes of Berlin because of Dr. Alexander’s exceptional reputation.
Hitler was the kind of leader that Hoss admired and wanted to follow. He joined the SS early, like so many other under-educated German men. He was a diligent worker intent on being acknowledged for his hard work and he was rewarded with promotion. Himmler recognized his efforts and eventually made him Kommandant of the death factory, Auschwitz, which was designed with one purpose in mind: the complete annihilation of the Jews of Europe.
Hoss is the originator of the mass killings using Zyklon B gas. Ironically, he thought himself a compassionate leader because he was concerned with the psychological well being of his executioners, who had mental problems after days of shooting innocent men, women and children. Hundreds at a time could be jammed into the gas chamber and within minutes their dead bodies dragged to the crematoria by other untermenschen (“inferior people”), thus unburdening his monsters with having to watch the victims dying. Hoss bragged that he could kill 4000 Jews and other untermenschen in a single day.
Thomas Harding is a great-nephew of Hanns Alexander. He thoroughly researched hundreds of documents and frequently uses quotes from Hoss to demonstrate the beast’s efforts to overcome any personal sympathy for the millions of victims. This “will power” allowed him to be praised and promoted by Himmler. The man had no regrets of his actions and no humanity in his body or soul.
This is not a book for the faint-hearted. It will wrench the reader’s conscience, but it is a must-read.
The Color of Water (1996) James McBride
Walking the Bible (2005) Bruce Feiler
The Red Tent (1997) Anita Diamant
The Dovekeepers (2012) Alice Hoffman
Everything is Illuminated (2003) Jonathan Safran Foer
How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick (2013) Letty Pogrebin
Don’t Call It Night (1997) Amos Oz
Bee Season (2000) Myla Goldberg
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000) Michael Chabon
My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner: A Family Memoir (2011) Meir Shalev
Mazel (1995) Rebecca Goldstein
Norwegian by Night (2013) Derek B. Miller
Paper Clips (2004) Elliot Berlin, Joe Fab
Everything is Illuminated (2005)
The Producers (1968) Mel Brooks
Funny Girl (1968) William Wyler
Quiz Show (1994) Robert Redford
Dirty Dancing (1987) Emile Ardolino
Hester Street (1975) Joan Micklin Silver
The Book Thief (2013) Brian Percival
The Graduate (1967) Mike Nichols
Hava Nagila: The Movie (2012) Roberta Grossman
Anyone 70 years and up is eligible. We encourage people of all faiths to enter. Please send entries by email to firstname.lastname@example.org, with the subject heading “Senior Critics” Paste each review directly into the text of your email. On the top of your review, include your full name, age, home address, home phone number. Each review should be 1 to 2 pages double spaced, 250-500 words. Each person can send one review for a book and/or one review for a movie on the list. Each review should be sent in a separate email.
We want to read your reactions to the film or book. What was the director’s style or author’s style? Were there elements that were timeless or dated? How would you describe the main characters? Could you relate to what was being told? Would you recommend it?