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The High Holy Days in Jewish cinema

When cinema was still in its youth, Hollywood built a story around the High Holy Days. Its tale was a measure of Jewry’s ties to tradition, but also a gentle sign of its loss.

In The Jazz Singer (1927), America’s first feature-length sound film, Jakie Rabinowitz is a cantor’s son whose father expects him to follow tradition and stand by his side in the synagogue to chant Kol Nidre, the prayer that opens the Yom Kippur service. But as the eve of the holiday approaches, the father is told that 12-year-old Jakie is singing in a saloon. The cantor angrily fetches him home and gives him a thrashing. Jakie vows to leave home for good. As the father chants Kol Nidre at shul, the son takes to the streets and embarks on a life singing jazz.

Years later, his career on the rise, his name now changed to Jack Robin (played here by Al Jolson, whose life had inspired the story), he visits his parents on his papa’s 60th birthday, announces he’ll soon be starring on Broadway, and hopes to make peace with his folks. Jack’s mama welcomes him back eagerly, but the father orders him to leave. Soon after, the cantor grows ill and hovers between life and death. Jack’s mother appears at the Broadway rehearsals and begs him to sing Kol Nidre in place of his father. But Yom Kippur is also the show’s opening night. The film constructs a virtual morality play around this dilemma.

I won’t tell you the outcome, except to say that the film would be incomplete without a Jolson version of Kol Nidre. Or at least it sounds like Kol Nidre — but in Jolson’s handling, the Aramaic-language lines are radically abridged and repeated, over and over, in a reverie of improvisation. In effect, Kol Nidre as jazz. The film here subtly portrays the passing of tradition into a creatively eroded form, symbolic of what New World Jews have done with the old.

Another movie, Barry Levinson’s Liberty Heights (1999), is a nostalgic comedy about growing up Jewish in 1950s Baltimore. It both opens and closes on Rosh Hashana, when the Kurtzman family customarily attend synagogue. Nate Kurtzman (Joe Mantegna) has his own New Year custom of exiting early from shul to stroll to the nearby Cadillac showroom, where the coming year’s models are on display. Each year, Nate trades in his Caddy for a spiffy new one, which he can afford — not from fading profits of the burlesque house he owns but because of his thriving illegal numbers racket. Nate is otherwise a solid citizen, a devoted husband and father, who has raised himself up from humble origins, and had often, in his youth, proven himself a scrappy street fighter against neighborhood anti-Semites. Most of the film deals with the adventures of Nate’s sons, Van and Ben (Adrien Brody and Ben Foster) and their relations with gentile girls — Van’s pursuit of a beautiful, old-money debutante named Dubbie, whom he met at a party; and Ben’s friendship with Sylvia, a black classmate.

Levinson’s framing the story inside the Jewish New Year and Nate’s Cadillac ritual is important. The Kurtzmans are nominally observant Jews — perhaps even Orthodox, but in a laid-back, assimilated way. Though Nate’s wife shows remnants of clannishness, the Kurtzmans are open to the winds of change. While both the New Year and the “new car year” are equally important to Nate, their overlap seems a portrait of the tradition’s loosening grip since the days of The Jazz Singer.

What unites these films is not just their deep awareness of the secular world, but also their willingness to invoke tradition as a yardstick. The High Holy Days might be a site of fading cultural memory, but the theme still strikes a responsive chord among filmgoers, Jewish and gentile alike.

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