We ran a review today of [i]A Serious Man[/i], and I wanted to also be sure to give you a chance to see the review I wrote for the a feature story about another film in the festival, [i]Killing Kastner[/i]. The Boston Jewish Film Festival is still going on.
In general I think of Jewish film festivals as a great way for people in interfaith families to engage with Jewish culture. I’m not so sure whether these three movies are necessarily the ones I would recommend to interfaith families specifically, especially since the one they asked me to review was about conversion. Anyway, here’s my mini-review:
As the editor of InterfaithFamily.com, I read a lot of memoirs from Jews by choice. They often make me cry. I understand why people choose Judaism on an intellectual level – our religion has a lot to offer – but it touches me on a visceral level that they choose to become part of our people. Watching Leap of Faith reminded me again of what is so intense about the stories of Jews by choice. I can’t speak for everyone who was raised Jewish, but Jewishness is so close to my identity that every story about someone choosing Judaism feels like someone is choosing to join my family–even if the Judaism in their community doesn’t look exactly like the Judaism in mine.
The documentary follows several people who want to become Jews and are seeking conversion to Orthodox Judaism. Most of them come from devout Christian backgrounds and have come to believe that Judaism is a stronger expression of their beliefs, not only about God and monotheism, but about family, community and the good life. They have disrupted their previous lives to move into the heart of an observant Jewish community, because it’s nearly impossible to live a full Jewish life alone. The Orthodox conversion process requires living in the community for at least a year before one can come in front of the rabbinical court.
Any time someone wants to join a Jewish community, they must conform to that community’s norms. Jewish communities, whether they are Orthodox or more liberal, value close families. Not all Jewish families fit that cultural expectation, but we still build our culture and religion around it.
For the people in this documentary, families are a paradox. Without having the support of at least their nuclear families, they won’t succeed in making the transformation they seek. But when devout Christian families want what’s best for their family members, they want them to believe in Jesus, because only in that belief can they find salvation. How does one perform the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents while leaving their religion?
At the end of the film, one of the rabbinical authorities on conversion is asked whether he would want one of his children to marry a convert. The rabbi cannot answer the question. He’s stuck. He knows what he should say, but he can’t say it. It’s a very important moment in the film – will these people who have worked so hard to be Jewish ever really belong? Perhaps this rabbi’s paralysis is an extreme case; most Jews aren’t in communities that hold such contradictory views on Jews by choice. Still, it says something about our fear of difference as a community that we still find converts exotic, that we can’t forget they converted – perhaps because we can’t believe that they picked us.