I grew up in a secular, interfaith, non-religious household in which I celebrated Hanukkah, Christmas, Passover, Easter, Purim, Halloween, Rosh Hashanah, and New Years’ – my dad is Jewish and my mom is Catholic. Although I “grew up” going to synagogue, we stopped when it came time for me to start Hebrew school (when it was expected we would pay Hebrew school tuition). The reason for why we stopped going has never, and will never, be clear but from then on, I referred to myself as “half-Jewish,” or a “fake Jew,” or simply not Jewish at all. A year ago, I knew very little about antisemitism, or Judaism for that matter, outside of the limited Jewish experience I had when I was little. Then, we read The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Mein Kampf in my FSEM – Forbidden Texts with Professor Al-Tikriti. In the spring, I took Arab-Israeli Conflict, again with Professor Al-Tikriti. I also watched Fiddler on the Roof in its entirety for the first time (another fantastic movie and Broadway musical about the Jewish immigrant experience if any of you are interested). In March, after we got sent home, I discovered a podcast by Rabbi Emily Cohen called “Jew Too? The Mixed Multitude” and I realized that I was not “half-Jewish” or a “fake Jew” at all, but just … Jewish. It validated me, and I also learned a lot about other interfaith families and patrilineal Jews and their position in Judaism. Now, I’m still learning, but much prouder of my Jewishness, and much more open about it too.
All of this is to say, I thought A Gentleman’s Agreement was groundbreaking for its time, and generally just a really good movie. Because of where I am on my journey to become more educated on antisemitism and Judaism, there were parts I related to, and there were parts I didn’t relate to. The most poignant scene of the movie for me was the scene with Professor Liebermann. He described the situation of Jews perfectly: not simply a religion, not a race, but a group of people with a long shared history of persecution and exile. He said the world still makes it an advantage *not* to be a Jew, and that “for many of us, it becomes a matter of pride to go on calling ourselves Jews.” This describes my feelings perfectly, and when I’ve been questioned by friends or family about why all of a sudden I’m identifying as Jewish, I haven’t been able to answer the way I’ve wanted to, but this was exactly what I needed. Another more minor part of the movie I related to was when Mr. Green’s secretary mentions “hearing” that he was Jewish because it “kind of just got around.” In elementary and middle school, I told people I was close to that I was Jewish, but obviously not everyone. But when I turned 13, the number of questions I got from people I didn’t know very well about when I was going to have my Bat Mitzvah was astounding. Ms. Wales also describes changing her name in order to get a job, which made me think of my great great-grandparents – who changed their last name from Faktorowicz to Factor (still very Jewish, but less foreign). It made me wonder what would happen if Mr. Green’s experiment took place today.
As I mentioned earlier, there were also parts of the movie I didn’t relate to at all, such as the slurs used in the movie to refer to Jews such as kike, yid, and sheeny. There are a couple reasons for this. The first is that antisemitism has changed in the way it presents itself in this country; it’s no longer discrimination in housing, employment, and leisure activities like hotels and camps, instead it’s Unite the Right rallies and Patriot Front stickers on college campuses. It’s both vitriolic and subdued. I had never heard the word “kike” before watching A Gentleman’s Agreement, which simply indicates the age of the term.
Aside from being personally relatable, I thought the movie was *extremely* relevant to today’s society and the cultural shift we’re seeing in regards to the Black Lives Matter movement and the removal of problematic historical figures from a celebratory position in society, such as Christopher Columbus. One of the largest reckonings happening right now is that staying silent is just as problematic and racist as saying a slur or openly discriminating against someone for their ethnic or racial background. Another especially interesting point made in the movie was the concept of internalized antisemitism, especially on the part of Ms. Wales. This happens in every minority group, from internalized homophobia to internalized racism to internalized misogyny. It’s hard to avoid when society, being as powerful as it is, is constantly telling you something about you is disgusting, backwards, or just bad.
Finally, I did have some questions about the movie itself. The first is the setting and time period: the movie was released in 1947 but it’s not completely clear when the movie is supposed to be taking place; whether it’s supposed to take place before, during, or after WWII. There was no mention at all of the Holocaust which makes me think it’s supposed to take place before or during WWII, especially when Dave’s character enters the scene, but Holocaust education in this country is notoriously bad and needs to be fixed, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it was supposed to be set after the war. Another question I have, which could be easily answered with some research, is how the movie was received when it was released. I’m not entirely sure that the reception was positive, although it is nowadays.
All in all, I’m really glad the movie was assigned because it probably would’ve taken me a while to discover it on my own. It’s nice to see that there’s another movie out there about antisemitism without being about the Holocaust (Schindler’s List, The Pianist, The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas, JoJo Rabbit, etc) since most movies are.