When my family has a rare moment to watch a movie together, it can be tricky finding something to engage a 16-year-old girl (romance, history), a 13-year-old boy (action), and two boomer parents (acting and directing skills a plus). I have a list posted on our kitchen wall of films I would like my kids to see before they leave home–classics I’m afraid they may miss somehow when they go out into the brave new 21st-century world.
So with the gift of a snow day this week, I subjected my family to the three and a half hours of Exodus, the 1960 film by Otto Preminger, based on a blockbuster novel by Leon Uris depicting the birth of Israel. The script is a bit clunky, the acting a bit stiff, the production values rough, the Zionist perspective a bit naive, and the length extreme. At a Hollywood preview of the film, at the three hour mark, comedian Mort Sahl supposedly jumped up and shouted, “Otto, let my people go!”
So we spread our viewing out into two sittings. And I have to say that Exodus both entertained (romance, history, action) and educated. And who can resist the film score (the only orchestral score ever to win an Oscar), and the Technicolor panoramas (filmed on location in Cyprus and Israel)?
I admit that part of my original motivation in adding Exodus to our film queue was to convince my children that Paul Newman was more than an old guy who made salad dressing. I also felt it was time to allow them to be exposed to the allure of Zionism: the blooming desert, the utopian kibbutz, the fesity fighting Jews rising up after the horror of the Holocaust.
My own feelings about Israel are deeply ambivalent, especially as a “patrilineal half-Jew” who cannot be married or buried by rabbis there. In part because of this reality, our interfaith community does not tend to stress allegiance to Israel the way many Jewish communities do. And growing up in an ultra-progressive town, my children hear more about the plight of the Palestinians than they do about the creation of Israel. A Hollywood movie, with all of its necessary warping of events and perspectives, may seem like a dicey form of education. But at least I had the full attention of my kids. Below are some snippets of our family dialogue.
Me: “That’s Paul Newman right there. He was an interfaith child!”
Groans. “We KNOW that, Mom.”
Kids: “But this is after the war. Why are they in camps in Cyprus? Why are the British not letting the Jews into Palestine? Weren’t the British on our side during World War II?”
Me: “No one wanted the Jews, so they were still in camps. That’s why they needed a homeland. But did the British have the right to displace Arabs from their lands? They at least wanted the UN to vote on it. Shhh. Keep watching…”
Me, as Ari Ben-Canaan (Paul Newman) kisses American nurse Kitty Fremont (Eva Marie Saint): “Look! Interfaith romance!”
Kids: “Mom, why are you so obsessed?!”
Me, in the closing moments, as Ari leads his people off to fight the Arabs: “And they’ve been fighting for 60 years now, ever since.”
Kids: Quiet. Contemplating.