The release of "Keeping the Faith" marks a notable if obscure event in the history of Hollywood. It is the first film in a decade to feature a rabbi as a significant character.
Hollywood, from its beginnings dominated by Jews, has not exactly made Jewish life a dominant subject of its films, but in the past twenty years or so Jewish characters and subjects have been turning up regularly. In 1999 alone such films as "Analyze This," "Jacob the Liar," "Liberty Heights," "Man on the Moon" (the biography of Andy Kaufman), and – God help us – "South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut," feature Jews and Jewish life, even if they are not all portrayals that would gladden the heart of the Anti-Defamation League.
Since 1995 at least thirty mainstream Hollywood films have had significant Jewish characters, but no rabbis. You have to go back to 1990 for the last Hollywood film that featured a rabbi: "Enemies, a Love Story," the film adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer's novel.
In "Enemies" Rabbi Lampert (Alan King) is anything but sympathetic. He is a hustler, a schemer who uses any method – fair or foul – to enrich himself and enhance his reputation. Spirituality? Not if it gets in the way of his social climbing. Interestingly, King played another rabbi like Lampert in the 1968 film "Bye, Bye Braverman." It was a small role where the rabbi, delivering a eulogy, proves to be more of an entertainer than a spiritual comforter.
In contrast, Ben Stiller's Jake Schram in the recent "Keeping the Faith" is a decidedly sympathetic character, a hip, young rabbi, devoted to his faith, determined to increase temple attendance by enlivening services. His best friend is a priest and he falls in love with a non-Jewish woman, evidence that he is comfortable in the wider world while also observant, a new model for a rabbi. The contrast in the images of rabbis in these films is characteristic of the way Hollywood depicted rabbis. No dominant theme emerges – except that very few films present what might be considered a conventionally reverential view of a rabbi.
Ironically, Woody Allen, in two different films, has made films with both negative and positive views of rabbis. Early in his filmmaking career, Allen made "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex" (1972). The film consists of a series of satiric sketches on sexual subjects. One sketch presents a game show called "What's Your Perversion?" The contestant, old Rabbi Baumel, is allowed to act out his fantasy. He is tied to a chair with a silk stocking and whipped by a beautiful blonde, all the while watching his wife eat pork. Even though it was clearly a parody, Jews nationwide took offense.
Yet in Allen's "Crimes and Misdemeanors" (1989) Sam Waterson's Rabbi Ben is a compassionate, wise man, an island of faith and morality in a sea of cynicism and corruption. He is sensitive and intelligent as a spiritual adviser, a loving husband and father, surely the most admirable character in the film, and one of the most positive rabbinical figures in American films.
Two other strongly positive representations of rabbis appear in very different films. The 1979 comedy "The Frisco Kid" has Avram Belinsky (Gene Wilder), a newly ordained Polish rabbi in the 1860's recruited to be the first rabbi in San Francisco. The comic possibilities of a naive bumbler like Belinksy traveling across America to the Wild West are abundant. Wilder's sweetness and innocent charm – as well as his moral certainty and fearlessness in response to threats – make him a highly appealing character. His attempts to conform to Jewish doctrine in roughneck country are both funny and admirable. He wins the hearts of most of the people he encounters, including the beautiful young woman he wishes to marry. He is indeed a positive role model for a rabbi, combining unwavering faith, a strong sense of morality, and a good heart.
In "The Chosen" (1982) we have a complex portrait of the commanding, yet all too human Reb Saunders (Rod Steiger), the charismatic Hassidic rebbe of Brooklyn. Although Reb Saunders is Moses-like in his dignity, wisdom, and the authority of his presence, he has chosen to distance himself emotionally from his son and heir, Danny (Robby Benson), in order to build Danny's character, to make him independent and strong. We have great respect for the rebbe's integrity and the power of his leadership, but we know that alienating his son is a mistake. Reb Saunders may be wise but he is not perfect.
Finally, we turn to the earliest portrayal of a rabbi in American films, Rabbi Isaac in "A Jew's Christmas," (1913). Even though the intermarriage rate among Jews was less than two percent in those days, in many of the films about Jews, assimilation and intermarriage was the central conflict. Rabbi Isaac's daughter marries a gentile, and he disowns her – evidence of a hard heart and a rigid application of Jewish law. A complicated series of plot twists lead to the film's climax: Rabbi Isaac sells his prayer book so that the now impoverished family of his daughter can buy a Christmas tree. This act is supposed to show the humanity that lies buried in Rabbi Isaac's hard heart, and the fundamental correctness of an assimilationist point of view which was so often echoed as a message to immigrants in silent films.
Are there any conclusions to draw about Hollywood's portrayal of rabbis? One thing is certain. Hollywood, as Jewish as it is, hasn't been very interested in rabbis. In nearly a thousand films in the twentieth century that have Jewish characters, fewer than twenty include rabbis, and most of those films portray rabbis as alienated from the secular world around them. Maybe the Jews who dominate Hollywood have negative childhood memories of rabbis. Maybe, in an increasingly secular world, many never encountered rabbis.
In any case, Rabbi Jake Schram in "Keeping the Faith" is a refreshing departure from earlier portrayals of rabbis. He is young, vital, and clearly at home in both religious and secular worlds. Has "Keeping the Faith" begun a new way of depicting rabbis? Possibly. Let's hope we don't have to wait a decade to find out.