Movies with my Interfaith Teens: Exodus

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.

Half-Jewdar

paul-newman

I have Half-Jewdar—a radar detector for half-Jews. I exult with an “I knew it!” whenever I find out someone has mixed religious background, especially when it’s someone intriguing. Why do I do this? My family gets tired of my interjecting “interfaith child!” whenever someone mentions Marcel Proust, John Kerry, J.D. Salinger, Frida Kahlo, Arlo Guthrie, Fiorello LaGuardia, Harrison Ford…

I daydream about comparing notes with these celebrities to find out how they integrated their Jewish and Christian ancestry. Recently, I found myself mourning the loss of Paul Newman, not only as a great actor but as a fellow interfaith child. He has to be the ultimate argument for the controversial “mixed children are more beautiful” theory. Bill Maher talked about his interfaith background this year in his documentary “Religulous.” He’s a witty, bitter half-Jew who now disdains all organized religion. I have also been pondering the religious education of Michael Jackson’s interfaith children. According to what I’ve read, the Jackson family now includes Christians and Muslims. But because their biological mother is Jewish, Orthodox and Conservative Jews continue to insist on claiming the two older children as Jews. If they grow up without contact with Judaism, I wonder whether either of them will ever explore this “forbidden half.” Many interfaith children seem to feel strongly compelled to investigate their suppressed familial religion (see authors Robin Margolis and Susan Jacoby).

Why does it matter who shares my interfaith background? Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, when marriage between Christians and Jews was less common, I felt marginalized. Nowadays, interfaith children are the norm rather than unusual in many Jewish congregations. And my family belongs to a thriving independent community made up entirely of interfaith families. Nevertheless, I cannot stop myself from tallying interfaith children—I feel comfort in our growing numbers and prominence. When we are successful, or simply happy, we prove a point. We are here, in growing numbers. And our parents were not mistaken or misguided when they created us.

 

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, from Beacon Press. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach. Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

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