Barbara Borts discusses an unlikely Jewish Film Star.
How does one signal to the public that the characters in a film are Jewish? Well, let me introduce you to the unlit Chanukkiah, which made at least three different appearances in three different films during the 2022 UK Jewish Film Festival.
In no particular order, this lovely creation appeared in Carol of the Bells by Ukrainian director Olesya Morgunets-Isaenko, at 10:15 minutes. In The Man in the Basement by French director Philippe Le Guay, at 45:00 minutes. And then, she also made her appearance in Farewell, Mr Haffmann, by French director Fred Cavayé. I missed her exact placement because I had not at that time realised what a star Chanukkiah was. As I think about it, she also made an appearance in Call Me By Your Name, a 2017 Italian film directed by Luca Guadagnino.
What a small yet crucial part this character plays in these films! I would argue that she is the single most important indicator of Jewishness, or at least, a kind of Jew-ishness that the non-Jewish, and perhaps thinly Jewish, audience would appreciate. She doesn’t need to be there in films like Menashe, because Menashe’s Judaism is clearly signalled. But she does need to be there in other Jewish contexts, giving a nod and a hint of the Jewish background of the protagonists.
In Carol of the Bells, we do see the Jewish man donning a yarmulke, which he even wears at a Ukrainian Christmas dinner, eating, I imagine, non-kosher turkey and drinking non-kosher wine. But still, there she was, sitting atop of what I have come to realise is the prop placement teams’ direction to place it on a bookshelf. In The Man in the Basement, we get very little information on Jewishness until we learn that Helene, the wife of the main Jewish protagonist, Simon, is Catholic and then the issue of Simon’s family’s Jewishness is discussed. Despite Simon’s secularist tendencies, he has a Chanukkiah on, you guessed it, a bookshelf. And lastly, in Farewell, Mr Haffmann, we know of the Jewishness of the Haffmann family because of the advent of the Nazis, and a brief mention of Torah, but we nonetheless have an obligatory glimpse of a Chanukkiah.
I may have seen this Jewish star in other films as well.
Why a Chanukkiah ? I have a couple of theories. One is that Chanukkah is promoted by both Jews and non-Jews as the Jewish Christmas and therefore, the symbol of Chanukkiah is familiar as a Jewish symbol. Lubavitch has ensured that giant Chanukkiyot are lit in outdoor urban places and often by prominent often non-Jewish public figures. It has possibly become so well-known that it is regarded as the single most important indicator of Jewish life.
Another reason could be its affinity to the seven-branched candelabrum known as the menorah in the Temple. In fact, many of us raised to light a Chanukkiah mistakenly called it (and still do) a menorah. The menorah appears on the official seal of the State of Israel but also can be purchased on such e-sites as Etsy and Alibaba. It is also available as a clipart. And the Christian world will be familiar with it from their own connection to the Second Temple and biblical Judaism.
The Chanukkiah is such a potent Jewish symbol that in Jakub Hauser and Eva Janáčová’s Visual Antisemitism in Central Europe: Imagery of Hatred, they write of how images of Orthodox Jews and nuclear explosions are superimposed upon a photo of a Chanukkiah in an antisemitic tract from the Czech Republic, about a plan for subversion of Iran.
What is striking about all of these films is that they were, as far as my research indicates, all directed by non-Jews and featured non-Jewish actors, which means that there was likely no one who could offer an insider’s perspective on the Jewish life of the characters. Perhaps the Jews who were consulted were themselves fairly non-observant or assimilated and may remember with fondness and nostalgia a Chanukkiah from their childhood home, which they perhaps even lit from time to time when they were still young.
According to Jewish law, the Chanukkiah is meant to be placed at a window, visible to passersby, a bold statement that a Jewish family lives there and is proudly lighting candles to celebrate that fact. We also have other lights to kindle in Judaism, more intimate ones: the shabbos candles, the havdalah candles, and the yartzeit candles. But as they take a step further into Jewish observance, they could perhaps be alienating to non-Jewish audiences.
I expect we will see more of this star, the Chanukkiah, unlit, on a bookshelf in a home, a decorative emblem offering a weak hint that a Jewish family lives there.
There is a disturbing trend in these films that the Chanukkiah is in danger of becoming a form of decoration more than an actively used ritual object.
It is a sad commentary on the perceptions of contemporary Jewish life that this powerful symbol of celebration of difference has been relegated to an unlit background signifier of onscreen Jewishness.
What does this tell us?