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San Diego Jewish Film Festival Preview: ‘The Wave’

February 16, 2010 2 comments

By Jack Forman

LA JOLLA, California–The Wave, a feature-length film made in Germany in 2008 and scheduled to be screened at 8 p.m. tonight (Wednesday)  the San Diego Jewish Film Festival, dramatizes the events of a real Palo Alto high school teaching experiment conducted in 1969.  The events were first featured in a 1981 American young adult novel of the same title by Morton Rhue (a pseudonym for prolific YA author Todd Strasser).

The film, to be shown at the AMC La Jolla, takes great liberties in changing the setting, characters and messages of the 1981 novel. Rhue’s original novel depicts an American teacher named Ben Ross struggling to find a way to teach his students what it was like to live in Nazi Germany. He decides to replicate the social environment of the Third Reich by creating a rule-dominated class sub-culture he calls “The Wave” marked by extreme formality (the teacher had to be addressed in a certain way), a class salute, slogans (e.g., “strength through discipline”), a dress code, prohibitions on individual expression and total obedience to the dictates of the teacher. The students in the class find they are attracted to this new society that eliminates individuals’ differences, and most develop a feeling of importance they never felt before the experiment began, even as they lose their individual freedoms. However, a couple of students protest. When a boy friend of a girl who protests becomes so upset with her that he slams her to the ground in anger, he is so appalled at what he has done that he gets the teacher to re-examine the wisdom of the experiment. In an assembly open only to members of ‘The Wave”, the teacher one by one knocks down the pillars of the authoritarian society he so carefully created showing the students how they have started to act like Nazis. The story ends with the teacher consoling one student who had bought totally into the ethic of this new order and who feels personally devastated by the dismantling of “The Wave”.

Set in contemporary Germany and imaginatively directed by Dennis Gansel, the film constructs a riveting story that incorporates the instructive events from the original novel into a new story whose climax results not in simple lessons learned but in unrelenting and shocking tragedy.

The German high school teacher, Rainer Wenger, can’t use Nazism to teach the dangers of autocracy because contemporary Germany has been saturated with collective responsibility for the Holocaust to the point where his students are bored with the subject. So, he creates a new class order, detached from Nazism although similar in some respects to the one created in the novel.

But in the film, everything is much more calculating on the teacher’s part. He seats poor students next to good ones, so they’ll be able to cheat and thus become socially equal, making all students feel more important as part of the whole and destroying individual incentive to be better academically than others. He insists on all students giving short, abrupt answers to questions he asks instead of encouraging class discussion of issues and asking students to make subtle distinctions. He orchestrates his students to bully the class below by stomping their feet. He creates a strict, simple dress code to eliminate social class differences. He stresses the importance of excluding others in the school from social contact with students in his class.

As in the novel, his students fall into line quickly. One student named Tim, alienated from his family and shunned by his fellow students, even burns his old clothes, so he can be re-born in this new order, and he shows up uninvited at Wenger’s house one evening purportedly to be his bodyguard.

But there are also a couple of holdouts from this rush to be accepted in ‘The Wave”. Similar to what happens in the novel, when one of the dissenters approaches her boyfriend for help, he slaps her and pushes her to the ground in anger. Then, ashamed of what he did, he meets with his teacher to get him to call off the experiment.

The teacher, now frightened by the hostile reactions of his wife and his colleagues to the experiment, the weird behavior of Tim, and vigilante graffiti attacks conducted by his students at night against public buildings, decides to put an end to his experiment. But he wants do it in a dramatic way by calling attention to what “The Wave” has become – a fascist society. He calls his students to an assembly, locks the doors, and sets up a public confrontation with a dissenting student to demonstrate the consequences of the autocratic society they have all so easily accepted. Unfortunately, Tim who has brought a loaded gun to the meeting, inserts himself in this confrontation – and the result is tragedy. With film viewers in a state of numbing shock, the film ends with Herr Wenger arrested by police and led away in handcuffs.

The Wave is a very well-made film, with superb acting, creative cinematography and professional direction. But the messages of the film are 180 degrees different from the messages of the book. The book’s message is related to what the students learn from the experiment – the seductive appeal of a world order that makes everyone the same, taking away individual responsibility and differences and accentuating the power of a member of a mass movement. Even though the experiment was cut short, the students who leave Mr. Ross’s class have learned its intended lessons about the dangers of autocracy and dictatorship. And so do the teenage readers of this novel. But Mr. Wenger’s students – and many film viewers, I fear – will take away with them not lessons related to the dangers of autocracy, but “lessons” related to the dangers of a misguided, overambitious teacher who initiated a class experiment that was a mistake. The unintended lesson of the film is that the experiment should not have been done.

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Forman is a freelance writer based in San Diego

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Ongoing American Jewish commitment seen as key to Israel’s long-term prospects

November 16, 2009 Leave a comment

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By Jack Forman

LA JOLLA, California — Peace will come only when Arabs love their children more than they hate our children” –Golda Meir

In a November 9 talk at the San Diego Jewish Book Fair based on his most recent book Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End, Rabbi Daniel Gordis (http://danielgordis.org/bookshelf/shalem-center/ ) , who now lives in Israel and is senior vice-president of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem (a well-known research and educational institute founded in 1994), summed up the political and territorial conflict between Israel and the Palestinians with Golda Meir’s terse and troubling observation.

For American Jews, he said, the real issues to resolve about Israel are not related to the disagreements between Israelis and the Palestinians. The central questions are twofold: “What is Israel about?” and “Why does it matter?” 

The events of the past two months, Gordis argued, have highlighted the importance of  Jews confronting these two questions. He called the Goldstone report on the Gaza War which was commissioned by the UN “one-sided” – a report that condemned Israel’s behavior in the war as “war crimes”. He said it disproportionately focused its critical attention on the actions taken by the IDF while simply mentioning that the Hamas government also was guilty of war crimes by sanctioning the many missile attacks on Israeli citizens, and he noted that it did not put Israeli military action into the context of how Hamas fought the war purposely in areas densely populated by civilians.

Worse, yet, he said, was the easy acceptance of the Goldstone Report by the UN General Assembly with hardly any discussion. Gordis called this action equivalent to re-instituting the anti-Semitic canard the UN had equating Zionism with racism between 1975 and 1991 when it was rescinded. He claimed that if the UN General Assembly would vote today to undo its 1947 vote creating the state of Israel, it would win in a landslide!

What can one do about this?

Gordis proposed that the primary thing to do is to make Jews understand the centrality of Israel in Jewish life. He stated that surveys taken recently show that half of American Jews under 40 do not believe Israel is “personally important” to them. (80% of Jews over 55 think Israel’s existence is “personally important”.) The reason, he said, is many younger American Jews do not know that the reason why Jews are safe and have such opportunity in America today (and to a lesser degree in Western Europe) is the existence of Israel as a Jewish homeland.

Gordis reviewed how Israel injected hope and meaning into a Jewish life after the Holocaust that was all but dead (“from shmatas to hatikvah”); he recalled how the resistance of Soviet Jews to persecution was inspired by the Israeli victory in the 1967 war; and he discussed the renewal of Hebrew as a spoken language recalling the days long ago when Jews were the masters of their own destiny and how important it was to have a culture with a rich, unique language that one uses both to communicate with each other and for spiritual connection and inspiration.

Above all, Gordis emphasized, Israel means “freedom” and “life”. (“Israel is about people refusing to die”). That message, the Rabbi noted, has gotten out to more than just Jews around the world. Jews from Ethiopia and Muslim refugees from Sudan alike have walked across their war-torn homelands to escape persecution and found a home in Israel (though not without a big political debate in Israel regarding what the limits of Jewish responsibility are to help the persecuted).

If there is an answer to how to help Israel win a war that may not end, Gordis puts his hope in education. Jews need to be educated from birth about Israel’s importance to the past, present and future of Jewish life. They need to visit Israel at least once in their lifetime to get a visceral feeling of Israel’s reality; Gordis believes that the Birthright program which has enabled many young American Jews to visit Israel should be available to American Jews of all ages. Jews, after all, are a people as well as adherents of a practicing religion. You can’t easily have a people continue to exist and flourish without a homeland. Gordis believes that convincing Jews of this truth will go a long way towards maintaining Israel’s strength in the face of adversity and “winning a war that may never end.”

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Forman is a freelance writer and a librarian of San Diego Mesa College

 

Telushkin: Love your neighbor and yourself

November 15, 2009 1 comment

By Jack Forman

LA JOLLA, California–Rabbi Joseph Telushkin spoke engagingly with humor and insight on Sunday, November 8, to an almost-filled auditorium of San Diego Jewish Book Fair attendees at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center about some of the issues he examines in his most recent book, A Code of Jewish Ethics, volume 2 – which is subtitled “Love Your Neighbor as Yourself”.

The first book in the series was subtitled “You Shall Be Holy” and it won the 2006 National Jewish Book Award. In it, Telushkin examined issues of character development such as judging other people fairly and deciding when forgiveness is obligatory and when not. He touched on these matters in this talk at the San Diego Jewish Book Fair, but he concentrated his focus on the newly published second volume in the series.

The current spiritual leader of the Synagogue of Performing Arts in Los Angeles, a senior associate with CLAL (The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership), and a member of the board of directors of the Jewish Book Council, Rabbi Telushkin is the author of many authoritative, thoughtful and lively-written books on Judaism and Jewish life, the most recent of which is a multi-volume compendium dealing with Jewish ethics (A Code of Jewish Ethics).

The rabbi noted that Leviticus 19:18 “You shall not take revenge or bear a grudge against a member of your people. Love your neighbor as yourself; I am God” states the Golden Rule in a positive statement. But it is part of a passage prefaced by an example of loving your neighbor prohibiting specific behavior about revenge and grudges. That is why, Telushkin explained, the Rabbinic commentaries on that Torah passage re-phrased the Golden Rule into a more negative format.

Rabbi Hillel’s teaching is the most famous of these transformed expressions of The Golden Rule: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor”, followed by the statement “This is the whole Torah! All the rest is commentary.” Hillel clearly believed that the Golden Rule summed up the essence of Judaism, but he also felt that it needed to be expressed in more specific terms related to oneself. And defining loving one’s neighbor as avoiding specific offensive behavior that others might inflict on you is more meaningful and instructive than simply saying “love your neighbor as yourself”.

In describing the toxic nature of holding grudges against people, Telushkin stated that “If you hold grudges or resentments, it is like allowing someone to live rent-free in your head.”

Telushkin emphasized while the central message of the Golden Rule is loving one’s neighbor, the sub-text — however it is formulated — is loving oneself. One can’t effectively be generous to others if one doesn’t have self-respect and self-understanding – an insight that is reflected in Rabbi Hillel’s often quoted passage from the Jewish Mishnaic classic, Pirke Avot (The Ethics of the Fathers): “If I am not for myself who will be for me? Yet, if I am for myself only, what am I? And if not now, when?”

Telushkin related a moving story that appeared in You Shall Be Holy (volume 1 of A Code of Jewish Ethics) about the famous Russian rabbi, Chaffetz Chayyim. On a train taking him to a nearby city where he was scheduled to speak, he met a man and asked him where he going. The man answered that he was going to the city to hear a speech by Chaffetz Chayyim, whom he called “the greatest sage and saint in the Jewish world today”. The Rabbi was embarrassed and told the man that he knows the scholar well, and he is not so great, and he’s certainly no saint. The man slapped the Rabbi in anger. That evening, the man attended the talk and with horror realized that the person he slapped was the great Rabbi. After the talk, he approached Chaffetz Chayyim and apologized profusely. The Rabbi smiled and responded: “You have no reason to request forgiveness. It was my honor you were defending. For years, I’ve told people not to speak disparagingly about others. Now I’ve learned it’s also wrong to speak disparagingly about oneself.”

As the rabbi of the Synagogue of Performing Arts in LA, Telushkin said he has met many congregants who have been badly hurt by the economic recession. He has given them help by having them examine how the Talmud defines and discusses states of being, emphasizing the spiritual components rather than those that are materialistic. Who is rich? — someone who is happy with his life. Who is strong? — someone who overcomes his or her bad inclinations. (Everyone has them in their mind.) Who is wise? — someone who learns from others.

Given all the stresses of contemporary life, Telushkin said it is important to reflect on the good things in one’s life rather than on the negative; he asked everyone to have a 24-hour complaint fast, during which nothing negative passes through your lips. He encouraged all to extend the parameters of prayer beyond one’s family and pray for people one doesn’t know well because that will help us keep in mind other people’s needs. Instead of complaining about a massive traffic jam one is caught in, one should pray for the people in the accident causing the backup. He said it will make a world of difference when you pass the accident because you will leave the scene hopeful and positive rather than angry and negative.

The first book Telushkin wrote was a book entitled Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism, a book he co-authored with Dennis Prager (who spoke at an earlier session of the Book Fair). It was – and still is today – a trailblazer because it presents for Jewish and non-Jewish readers alike nine questions about Judaism and Jewish life that are basic to the understanding of the oldest organized monotheistic religion in the world. His most recent two books, which Telushkin’s talk highlighted so entertainingly in his November 8 speech, are likely to do the same for Jewish ethics.
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Forman is a senior librarian at Mesa College in San Diego