Vilifying a Rebbe: On Subculture vs. Underworld and the Orientalization of Chassidic Jewry in American Cinema

Day in and day out, each sunset and each dawn, I find myself one in a sea of oscillating black hats; a single wave, contributing to the rhythmic ebb and flow of black and white in heavy motion, and the mellifluous collective murmur of engaged voices swelling around shtenders (podium-like study posts), shteiging feverishly. I am a Chassidic Jew. Technically you're not supposed to call yourself a Chassid, but for the sake of specifying my so-called "insider's perspective" on the matter at hand, it is probably requisite that I affix this label to myself early on. Mostly contrary to my general upbringing, I have taken it upon myself to openly and full-heartedly accept a Chassidic lifestyle as a Lubavitcher Chassid.  I am a full-time yeshiva bokher (Jewish seminary student) and have begun pursuing a rabbinical ordination (semicha as it is formally called). I pour over Talmud and Tanakh day and night and, contrary to what many might have you believe, I live a happy and fulfilled existence met with mostly little resistance. To some degree, I knew that I had been headed to this point of Jewish observance all throughout my life, and Judaism has always been central to my identity.

I am especially unusual because I am a Chassidic filmmaker. Oh yes, there are others of us (most notably another Chabadnik, Marc Erlbaum of Philadelphia). I do not portend to know precisely what my kindred spirits have weathered or will weather in terms of quasi-clever quips leveled at them by others, but I have been called both a "Chassipster" (yes, that is a friend-patented term meaning "Chassidic hipster"), "Chassidic hippie" and "the soon-to-be Matisyahu of independent cinema". Filmmaking to me is my parnassah (a means of survival) but also a form of avodah (in this context, a service that serves some higher purpose). Up to now, I have made only a single film about Jewish issues, all the rest tackling secular topics, albeit often with a keenly Jewish perspective. I am currently at work on a script, ironically entitled Parnassah, which will mark my first feature-length foray into Jewish-themed filmmaking, namely a look into the world of a Chassid which defies earlier permutations of the Chassidic film.

It upsets and disillusions me that not just seldom but in fact never has a truly accurate portrait of Chassidic Jewry been offered up maturely in American cinema -- at least none that I know of. The autopilot button that American filmmakers, outsiders all, seem to push when depicting what is to them almost an underworld renders a highly unfavorable and insensitive view of Chassidism -- an oppressive subculture populated by all manner of stereotypes, from uptight and often grossly unhappy religious zealots to servile women without persona which make the filmmakers go to absurd lengths to make it clear to the viewer that, "Hey, it looks like they obviously missed out on the whole women's lib thing, heh, nudge nudge?". Aim is taken at the flagrantly obvious and the surface-level with any attempt at complexity left discarded to amp the box-office receipts. There is a reason that neatly wrapped packages are attractive to the eyes. An often-used plot device is that one or many of these stock characters are bent on restricting the freedoms of a "free" protagonist who is made to appear free in the most banal of ways. People have often come to accept the illusion that there is a single type of Chassid...the kind that Annie Hall's granny envisions Woody Allen as, at the dinner table scene in Annie Hall. One size fits one and all. That's one of the reasons why that scene, to me, is extraordinary and, in its own way, profound about the image the world has of practicing Jews.

Even in films that take on an overall more "sensitive" approach like 1981's The Chosen, directed by Jeremy Paul Kagan, the son of a conservative rabbi, films often end with a character leaving, at least in some degree, the cloistered environs of the Chassidic world. 2002's The Believer observes Talmudic discourse in a yeshiva as close-minded and closed off to anything that could even remotely ask the bigger questions that emerge in such a dialectical event, and serves in the film to explain partly why our Jewish lead character becomes a skinhead neo-Nazi. The fairly recent film Holy Rollers does not even seem to know, even in any simplistic terms, the hashkafot (sects) that comprise the entirety of the Chassidic world. Behaviors of one hashkafoh will differ in the minhagim (customs) from another hashkafoh. The 2003 low-budget, shoddily produced indie film Mendy is just another tired drama on the tired subject of a restless Chassidic youth looking to free himself from the constraints of the Chassidic world. I am not saying that such stories do not exist. I admit that I am privileged to have lived a wholly other life before resigning myself to my current one, but these truly are the only types of Chassidic stories that are told in American film. Fleeting references in films like this year's It's Kind of a Funny Story are placed carelessly for audiences to gawk and laugh at people, like Chassidim doing things they would not likely do (e.g. taking acid and roller-blading over the Brooklyn Bridge). There is reason why those photos of farm animals smoking cigarettes were never funny. Cinematographers are also keen on photographing yeshivas as dark, bat-cave-like, candelit rathskellers lit only by lush amber hues every other here-and-there. If I studied in a place as dark as that, I'd be like Mr. Magoo by age 35. I am reminded of the 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet, a documentary history of homosexuality in cinema. Everyone interviewed observed how it was once the key trend in mainstream cinema for gays and lesbians to die by a given film's final fade-out, either by murder or suicide. And so it is the trend that Chassidim will leave the fold by the final fade-out in films about Chassidism.

Even when films are not explicitly about Chassidism and merely possess a definitively Jewish voice, a strictly borscht-belt sensibility is the presiding state of normalcy. Well, either that or the films become pale Woody Allen clones. Jewish humor is vital to our culture, without a doubt, but in American cinema, it assumes such a front-and-center status almost as a means of safety. I am reminded of an actor friend who wrote a script with explicitly Jewish characters, set around the world of horse racing. When pitching the project to Hollywood types, he was told by producer Jennings Lang to "cut the Jewish bit and you got a deal". To most producers, Jewishness is just often too strange and foreign to warrant the posting of funds for a "Jewish film". It's the Orient, the unknown, that spells danger in a world that gambles with investments the way the film business does. A non-Jewish friend of mine is keen on the term "Jewish magic" because of the very insularity with which we, to him, seem to conduct our spiritual affairs. This is to say nothing of the ultimate level, which of course is Chassidism.

Keep in mind that I am not stating that the yeshivishe world and the Chassidishe world is free of stringency. That is an equally absurd illusion and I am not in any way looking to maintain it. It is a challenge and one that, for good reason, most Jews choose not to withstand or ever even attempt. Chassidism is clearly not for everyone and it is no wonder why my new direction has turned a lot of heads and incited panic in many people I know. Implicitly, there is this barrier. What can't be said, done, etc.? What would offend him? Better be careful. How do I act? Questions like this seem to quietly consume those I have chosen to keep close in my life. Valid points all, granted, but a lot of this nervousness is informed by the distorted way media portrays my shady "underworld". At the same time, there is a fascination the world has for the way my brethren and I live. We're among the collective proverbial car crash? No one wants to look, but they cannot look away.

I specifically remember watching Sidney Lumet's 1992 film A Stranger Among Us (or, as many critics dubbed it, "Vitness"), I became actively angered and offended at the depiction of Borough Park Chassidim. I might add that it is not easy to offend me. Melanie Griffith's female cop cruises through Brooklyn in a car and Lumet prefers the tiresome old "babe in Jewland" approach, streets teeming with Hebrew signage, young boys with swinging tzitzis and/or payis, parades of women with strollers, and beards beards everywhere. This is of course accompanied by klezmer music so over-the-top in its placement that it, with very little effort, becomes a heightened parody of itself. This is all coming from Sidney Lumet, a Jew himself, the son of a popular Yiddish theater actor. The film is known as a particular low-point in the director's career, but it speaks to often how Jewish directors picture their own concealed identity when they tackle Jewish subjects, and how alienated they have become from the shtetl that reared their ancestors on a mamishe machmeer (extremely stringent) yeshiva experience. Joan Micklin Silver's Hester Street explores Jewish assimilationism in America at its most critical juncture, in the America of the 1900's. A dream project of mine would be to adapt one of the most scathing and complex Jewish assimilation stories ever told, Abraham Cahan's novel The Rise of David Levinsky, to the screen one day.

I do not wish to reveal very much about my next project Parnassah. It just suffices to say that Chassidism will just simply be in this proposed film, and twists and turns will present themselves, but never in a way that impugns the entire way of life as every single film with a Chassidic subject seems to have done blithely. Sure, I live a life far removed from the lives most are used to observing or even noticing. History, among other things, has taught Jews, not just Chassidim, to be cautious and more insular than most ethnic or religious groups. Another kind of history informs popular conception, i.e. that which is presented in media. As a Chassid then, I have something ahead of me to accomplish. This also engenders something else. On a pay-job shooting a fundraising trailer for a film to be shot in Borough Park, Chassid after Chassid would pass by, catch a glimpse of me on the camera dolly with payis ("sidelocks") untucked and tzitzis out and look at me with wonderment and pointed confusion. Like I said, there are other Chassidic filmmakers, but no one has truly emerged as a voice for our startling minority. Sure, the fact that in many hashkafot (sects), filmmaking may very well be asur (forbidden) might have been a factor. A great deal of weight is placed on "hamavdil beyn kodesh l'chol" (separating the holy from the secular). I happen to belong to a sect that thankfully encourages it more, as Lubavitchers believe that much of everything can be used for tachlit hakadosh (a holier purpose). I think the reason for its asur status is that no filmmaker has delivered an honest portrayal of their lifestyle, therefore no worth can be seen for the greater good, and for it being an avodah. Cinema can aspire towards higher purposes, and I (along with others of my kind), are out to achieve that. We are in search of search of truth and honesty to the extent that film can capture it.

There is friction between the dubitably termed "civilization" and one of its under-realms. I am not going to say that there has not been the occasional difficulty of existing fully in the real world. I have never been able to fully return to my old way of living one-hundred percent and this has deeply affected me on an emotional level, especially as one afflicted by the most intense premature nostalgia. My old self is now just a shadow. As Rabbi David Aaron eloquently says, "We are not human beings but human becomings." It is the friction that is truly interesting. I am resigned, currently with no question in my mind, to live the rest of my years this way. I have seen my fellow bokherim (students) undergo the quandaries of occasional rebirth. Rebirth is always depicted in culture and the natural world as a joyous event, a celebration, a bacchanal. What of rebirth as trauma? What of the story of someone of deep faith and piety who does not wish to escape with any permanence into a new world, but to simply take a brief jaunt into it, bearing in mind his conduct and duty as a Chassid...and the ultimate trauma this Chassid undergoes. I have a stirring story in mind. The political ramifications of this, to me, emerge without them fully meaning to.

This is all to say that subcultures, not just Chassidism, have been branded too often in both Hollywood and independent American cinema as underworlds -- mysterious underbellies of society from which types can easily be manufactured, even by those who should know better.

POST SCRIPTUM: For an interesting and compellingly complex non-filmic portrait of the lives of ex-Chassidim which runs thankfully counter to that of film's one-dimensional portraits, visit One of my brother's students at Stony Brook writes for this blog.

Calling Morocco at 2 A.M.: The Fundamental Reasons Why I Hate Jean-Luc Godard

My apologies for another long absence from the blogging world. I am in post-production on my upcoming feature film and a deadline is looming. However, I figured that since most of this article had been written in another form completely (mostly on Facebook), all I'd have to do was organize the points a bit and post it on here.

To quote Mark Borchardt in the popular 1999 documentary American Movie, "Is that what you wanna do with your life? Suck down peppermint schnapps and try to call Morocco at two in the morning? That's senseless! But that's what happens, man..." Or likewise, to quote from another favorite documentary Crumb, "How perfectly G-ddamned delightful it all is to be sure."

So what does all that have to do with Jean-Luc Godard and my hatred of him? In my recent Facebooking, I posted a status update in response to certain things I had been reading in the articles reviewing this year's New York Film Festival. The status update was an impulsive, impassioned and sincerely felt sentiment that erupted in a heated debate and a flurry of responses. I wrote, "Daniel Kremer thinks Godard needs to quit already. No one ticks me off in cinema (for all the wrong reasons) more than that pretentious sack of hot air who is idolized just because he has a few so-called 'classics' to his name. If you want French New Wave, check out some Rivette, Truffaut or Rohmer instead." Okay, so I was kind of looking for trouble in a sense. I was inviting conflict and scrutiny, and playing the provocateur a bit. So what? I liked the irony. The act of posting that update in and of itself was rather Godardian. I responded at one point, stating that "no filmmaker has enjoyed such flagrant display of titanic ego and misanthropy."

Among the criticisms levelled at my statements: "What about James Cameron?," "Godard is self-conscious, but Rivette isn't? Resnais? Godard's pretentiousness is worse than Truffaut's sentimentality, Chabrol's pandering, Rohmer's arch-Catholicism? Please...," "Film, like rock music, is so much a populist art form that oftentimes films and filmmakers are reduced to a vulgar reactionary quip in a Facebook comments box," "It's the idiotic critique that every film student from here to Tokyo feels empowered to offer up on your average legendary octogenarian cineaste. Spare us all."

Then, out of a comment I made that I have often been tempted to don a pair of shades, an unlit cig and a strip of film, take a photo of myself to mimic the famous one of Godard and caption it with 'I too can be look like an egomaniacal, arrogant reprobate who thinks he's Cool' came my favorite response: "Why do you make movies, Dan? To be thought of as cool? To be praised for your vision, your genius? To get laid? Only you know the answer to that. Just like only Godard knows for certain why he made Vivre sa vie, 2 ou 3 choses..., Le Mepris, Masculin feminin , Pierrot le fou, les Carabiniers, A bout de souffle." This was followed by theorizing that I hated Godard because he was politically Marxist in his work.


The Guardian critic Xan Brooks wrote an article entitled "No Joy in Godard" about Godard's newest film Film Socialisme and its premiere at this year's Cannes Film Festival. He writes, "Jean-Luc Godard continues to haunt the wings of the Cannes Palais. There is little hope of arriving at a consensus over his latest (and reputedly last) film. Some say Film Socialisme is an eccentric masterpiece; others that it's an eccentric mess. File me in the latter camp. My sense is that old age has soured Godard: he has grown so disdainful of his audience, and society in general, that he can barely be bothered to invite us in anymore. Again, I fear I was duped by the title. Isn't "socialism" about inclusivity, about pulling together and meeting as equals? Film Socialisme has no interest in that. It is Godard's arrogant repudiation of the world around him; a burst of lofty non-communication. Crucially, the subtitles are rendered in what he has described as 'Navajo English', a kind of semiotic sloganeering that strips out the verbs and teeters on the verge of nonsense."

This is the type of thing that is said most about Godard's latter day work, including his previous film In Praise of Love. So okay, here's a for-instance. Writer Thomas Hardy at the end of his career felt much the same way as Godard now seems to, but at least Hardy welcomed his readers to share in his disillusionment and to lament it with him. He still told compelling stories that refused to alienate his readers in bold strokes. Godard pushes us away. So Mr. Godard is much older than I, and has experienced so many more years, but one who subjects an audience to what is described above in the Guardian should have his or her ego checked by an egotrician. And yes, egotrician is a made-up word on my part.

What was startling and fascinating for me to discover was that Truffaut and Godard had a major falling-out in 1973, which precipitated in Truffaut writing Godard a 20-page letter lambasting his behavior. Truffaut writes, "Jean-Luc, So as not to oblige you to read this disagreeable letter to the end, I begin with the essential: I will not enter co-production in your film. Second, I am returning your letter to Jean-Pierre Leaud: I have read it and find it disgusting. It is because of this that I feel that the time has come to tell you, at length, that in my view you behave like shit." In this letter, Truffaut went continued calling Godard out in degrees of “shit” for, among other things, trying to seduce his female actresses and calling French producer Pierre Braunberger a “dirty Jew.” Truffaut continued:

“Anyone who has a different opinion from yours is a creep, even if the opinion you hold in June is not the same one you held in April. In 1973, your prestige is intact, which is to say, when you walk into an office, everyone studies your face to see if you are in a good mood. You have never succeeded in loving anyone or in helping anyone. Other than by shoving a few banknotes at them."

Truffaut then added in the letter of all the times he went to bat for Godard, helped him financially especially in Le mepris when Truffaut was asked to replace Godard and refused. He also told Godard that he was jealous of him, and included passages from a letter in which Godard demanded money from him for the production of 2 or 3 Choses.... The letter ended with “In any case, we no longer agree about anything.”

In 1977, he did a talk with students and reviewed his career and said that he was relieved that his films after A bout de souffle were failures. In his mind, he felt it kept him from becoming what he thought Truffaut had become: someone who “Talks to nobody, except to Polanski”. Godard felt that Polanski and Altman films “pretend to be intellectual when it’s pure merchandise”. He felt their style was dishonest. He felt that Truffaut was part of that group.

I am one who steadfastly believes that personal and artistic life should be separated. What do you do about Wagner or Ezra Pound, who were raging anti-Semites, or any legion of others whose personal views do not accord with one's own? I freely admit however that, as a Jew, I find value in both Wagner and Pound. But it is when personal life shrilly eclipses the artistic life yielding masturbatory work that the product(s) and the individual behind it cannot avoid intense scrutiny. What is identified as "joie de vivre" in his early work, to me, looks like a lot of back-patting, the success of which hinged on people's latent need in the 60's for that type of freedom. Pierrot le fou is the closest he has come to my liking him. Even Jean Eustache, whose La maman et le putain (1973) took us through a similar milieu, speaks to more of a humanity and an artist's commune with his audience than any of Godard's work.

I have no issue with Marxism or Marxists really at all. Many of my favorite artists have been far left of center, and I am rare among my kind as an intensely religious liberal, a left-wing Chabad Lubavitch Chassid, and a Zionist all at the same time. It's kind of complicated. Wouldn't it be? I take no issue with the fact that Godard is a Marxist and that he's made "political cinema" and beloved as a polemic. What bothers me, however, and what really "cheeses me off" about his work is that he makes films like he expects automatic commendation from intellectuals, complacent and comically indifferent anger from the "capitalist pigs," the middle class and its sell-outs, and impassioned cries of hurrah hurrah from fellow artists and cineastes...for what are really and ultimately stunts. It's like filmmaking on auto-pilot. You cannot make Marxist films and be a flagrant narcissist the way he is. It's not Marxism anymore. I cannot wrap my head around those mincing, pompous, cutesy stunts he uses in his films, even ones as fleeting as the opening "film from the cosmos" title-card in Week End. And that's really what they are...stunts. As much as people try to glean gold from them, they are like most everything else from Godard, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. His almost sociopathic personality, which everyone blithely characterizes as temperamental artist syndrome, is just the cherry on the cake for me. It just compounds my hatred of him.

But my hatred really does begin with the work (although I believe that his work and personality go hand in hand), which if we are talking about why I dislike his canon, the hatred should begin there, but one should always seeing from where that type of work stems. For instance, Vivre sa vie is beautifully shot and keep in mind that I am not underselling Godard's technicians. I love most all of cinematographer Raoul Coutard's work. But as for the actual film, I have seen similar stories told better elsewhere, with more heart and honesty than that film. There is no doubt Truffaut saw Godard as a genius in his work, but I really do think he saw his friend's reprehensible behavior in life undermining his artistry. Nowadays, it is like Godard's favorite toast, when he can bring himself to be around people, is "Here's to art in vacuums...and the people who toast it!"

His omnibus episodes in Paris vu par and Amore e Rabbia are laughable compared to his compatriots, and these are the only times his work can be explicitly compared. Chabrol, who one of my Facebook debaters identified as "pandering," really showed up his overpraised contemporary in the former. Godard's episode in that film about a love letter sent to the wrong male suitor, or whatever it was (it was so forgettable to me), was the very epitome of tired and tiresome.

Yeah, I really dislike no one in film as much as I do Godard. Alright, maybe M. Night Shyamalan, but that guy is just a universal joke in general anymore, so it almost kind of goes without saying. People think I'm just being contrarian and vainglorious or whatnot when I communicate my vehement dislike of the man and his work. Someone I know threatened to disown me as a friend if I didn't take back my "Godard is a hack" comment. I generally think that Truffaut, more accessible as he is and more commercial as he is (and, yes, perhaps cloying), is a much more successful type of filmmaker. His films are not always great and yes, I dislike quite a few of them as well, but even the ones I dislike still feel like they probe the depths of what fascinates, moves and inspires him as a filmmaker and as a human being (which, even before the duties of being a filmmaker, is first and foremost in its own duties, because the quality of life you lead ultimately, even if you're hermetic, speaks to the kinds of films you make and I don't think anyone can deny that). Rivette's films, good or bad (but most often good in my opinion), often speak to something so intensely personal and deep rooted, and become politically profound as a result, almost inadvertently. I couldn't believe how quickly the 13-hour Out 1 (and most of his long movies) just kind of flew right by. To quote another indie filmmaker, "If you make a film to be liked, it’s not your film anymore that’s being liked. It’s what you did to get liked. I don’t know how you can have worth as an artist if you are full of it as a person. I don't know how." My mantra: Be a mensch first and a filmmaker later, even if you're angry and embittered at the world and the people in it.

I don't take issue with Marxism. I feel like getting out of this country because, yes, as a political animal (surprise surprise, peoples' assumption about my aversion to politics is incorrect), I cannot stand living in this country anymore, in the current climate of Obama-bashing, middle-class racism and intolerance of progressivism for the sole reason that it comes from an alleged "radical black man" (I've seen people lambast him with very little education on the state of things to back it up) and the fever-pitch moral corruption by pop culture and corporations of people my generation and younger. I had to listen to an hour and a half of party-orgy talk from a group of teenage girls on the subway the way back from JFK after my India trip, while they sat directly in front of American Apparel ads of a scandalously young girl in bra and panties. This is not to mention the counter to all this, which is the Bible-beating of America's Breadbasket to smear the lives and livelihoods of those with whom they disagree. Everyone and everything in this country is just ridiculous to me now. This is coming from a Chassidic Jew. Amazing, no? I am devout, but not at the expense of my fellow man. Okay, all that I just said was said with great ferocity. However, I just don't make films about overtly political things, because I don't want to give my work expiration dates. If a political statement is made, it is mired thick in the heart of a story. Rivette would have inspired and exhilarated me enough that way had he just done this alone. Would you rather see Godard's brain-bleedingly pretentious, laughed-off-the-screen-in-1987 King Lear rather than something like Rivette's L'amour par terre (1984) or Truffaut's The Green Room (1978) which, even though they are recognized as respective failures, are ten times more fascinating than any of Godard's 80's drivel?

Making inaccessible films is on the shoulders of its maker. Rivette gets accusations of inaccessibility and that is something I have never understood when you compare him to the likes of JLG. So if Godard wants to suck on his stogy or a cig and "call Morocco at two a.m." (when most people are asleep and not able to pick up the call) because it fullfils him in some way, count me out of being open to picking up that call even if I'm awake. That's senseless! But that's what happens, man. How perfectly G-ddamned delightful it all is to be sure.