Carl Sagan with Viking. (photo by Jet Propulsion Laboratory)
Carl Sagan fans old and new have been gazing at their televisions in awe as host Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson’s resurrection of the science epic Cosmos takes them on a journey from the Big Bang, to microscopic one-celled organisms, to the ascent of man, to beyond the stars and planets. The return of Cosmos – which launched in March and runs for 13 episodes on the Fox network, ending June 2 – provides an opportune time to remember Sagan, the show’s Jewish creator.
An American astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist and author, Sagan was born to into a family of Reform Jews. According to science writer William Poundstone, author of Carl Sagan: A Life in the Cosmos, Sagan’s family celebrated the High Holidays and his parents made sure that he knew Jewish traditions.
“Both of his parents instilled in him this drive to get ahead in America, and that is something he kept all his life,” said Poundstone in an interview. “It may have been one factor in this idea that he not only wanted to be a successful astronomer, but [also] to write books, to become a celebrity and an entrepreneur. His mother particularly instilled that in him.”
Russel Crowe is Noah in Darren Aronofsky’s latest film. (photo from Paramount Pictures)
An earnest amalgam of free-association Bible story, dire disaster movie and family melodrama, Noah is a more thoughtful and provocative movie than one has any right to expect. Sure, it’s ludicrous and ponderous at times and embellished with gratuitous special effects, but it also succeeds in prodding the viewer to reflect on his or her behavior toward others and relationship to God.
Darren Aronofsky, a Brooklyn Jew by birth and upbringing, has concocted a sporadically inspired film with enough fodder for a month of sermons. It’s a compelling saga up until the great flood, when key plot elements collide with enough force and absurdity to sink an ark. Metaphorically speaking, that is. After all, the species (plural) must go on.
In terms of contemporary resonance and relevance, the film’s depiction of religious absolutism pushed to the point of tyrannical self-righteousness – in the name of God, of course – neatly undercuts the inclination by zealots of any faith to claim Noah as gospel.
I remember Noah as a mild-mannered super-carpenter and reluctant zoologist in my Hebrew school classes of yore, but you don’t cast Russell Crowe to play a guy grappling with internal and existential dilemmas. His Noah is a decisive survivalist who doesn’t hesitate to kill to protect his family or to fulfil God’s plan.
Aronofsky’s Noah can only infer and deduce that plan from the occasional wondrous sign or disturbing dream, aided by his sage, Merlin-esque grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins). Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel resist the temptation – and the arrogance – of having God speak directly to Noah.
We have no doubt, though, that Noah is the last true believer in the Creator, as the Lord is referred to throughout the picture. Indeed, he has a real talent for channeling God’s merciless fury. In this regard, Noah is reminiscent of Moses, who was up to the task of meting out vengeance – or justice, in the vernacular of the film – when the time came.
That association aside, Aronofsky’s most Jewish picture remains his mystical black-and-white debut, Pi, in which Handel has a cameo as a kabbalah scholar. It is much more difficult to discern a Jewish sensibility in Noah than it was (to summon another biblical adaptation) to detect Mel Gibson’s deep-seated antisemitism in The Passion of the Christ.
The most jarring element in Noah from a Jewish perspective is the presence of angels, called “Watchers” and manifested as angry, hulking, walking, talking rock piles. Punished by God for trying to intervene on behalf of Adam and Eve, the Watchers decide to help Noah – and, by extension, serve their Creator – build the ark and then repel the hordes who desperately attempt to board when the hard rain starts a-fallin’.
At a crucial moment, the Watchers are redeemed for their sacrifice and return to the heavens like Roman candles. Polls report that a majority of Americans believe in angels, so for some viewers this sequence will mark the emotional high point of the movie.
Amid the concessions to visual effects-driven miracles, Noah manages to convey the nasty, brutish world of the Bible. At the same time, it demolishes Noah’s cloak of absolute good to demonstrate that no person is devoid of flaws and fallibility.
The film does not, alas, evoke the strength and power of the Bible’s matriarchs, for its female characters – Noah’s wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and a young girl (Emma Watson) saved and raised by the family who grows up to be Shem’s love interest – are given little to do in the second half except cry, shriek and sob.
The biggest obstacle to a visual rendering of Noah’s mythic saga, though, is that we know how the reboot of civilization turned out. We’re living it. So the optimistic rainbow at the end of Noah has all the credibility and gravitas of a Hallmark commercial.
Whether we see the modern world as the inevitable manifestation of human nature in all its glories and depravities or as a technologically supercharged Sodom, Noah makes us ponder the fate of the world as a function of our interdependence as well as our individual morality. Should we fear God’s anger and another flood, or (as the movie hints) is a self-inflicted die-off from environmental destruction just as likely? Either way, Noah represents a powerful admonition to humankind.
What’s intriguing about a repeat apocalypse is that it would be a communication from a God who’s been silent for centuries. The power of Noah, one could say, is to remind us that every cloud has a silver lining.
Michael Fox is a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.
When one is a Bedouin living in southern Israel, ironies seem to multiply with regularity. Two relatively recent Israeli-made films bring this incongruous life into sharp focus.
In the first, Voices from El Sayed: A Snail in the Desert (2009, documentary), director Oded Leshem examines a minority within a minority – a special needs Bedouin group. In the second, Sharqiya (2012, drama), director Ami Livne focuses on an Israeli Bedouin who, although he has spent his young adult life protecting other Israelis – first as a soldier and then as a security guard – faces eviction from his land because the Israeli authorities do not acknowledge it as his.
Leshem focuses on both the social and technological challenges facing the deaf members of the El Sayed Bedouin. In an understated but convincing manner, Leshem makes this point: for people who are deaf, this Bedouin tribe is both heaven and hell.
Leshem presents a lot of information in his 75-minute film. For starters, he unearths this nugget: the El Sayed have the highest concentration of deaf people of any community in the world. Estimates are that this desert community located northeast of the Negev city of Be’ersheva has 3,000 tribal members and, of this number, 125-150 are deaf. Intra-marriage is high – 65 percent of El Sayed’s couples are somehow related – so deafness is, therefore, more often transmitted from generation to generation. Almost every family has a deaf family member.
In this village, deafness is acknowledged as a fact of life. Not only is it considered normal, but everyone in the film – hearing and deaf – knows and uses sign language. At first glance, deaf community members appear totally accepted and functioning comfortably within the group. There is always someone with whom to converse – but in which language does one communicate?
According to Leshem’s film, language is one of the major social challenges facing Israel’s minorities. The film notes that the older deaf members of El Sayed converse in their own form of signing: El Sayed Bedouin Sign Language (EBSL). A number of the younger members, however, have studied in schools outside the community. These schools fall under the jurisdiction of the Israeli Ministry of Education, so these Bedouin study Israeli Sign Language (ISL). In addition, these same young students learn to read and write in Hebrew, rather than in Arabic, their mother tongue.
There is no school for the deaf on tribal land: children are bused to a school in Be’ersheva. But not every deaf child attends or has attended this facility. As the audience learns, some young adults studied in the centre of the country. However, on the positive side, the film explains that Be’ersheva has a special early childhood class for the hearing challenged, which is taught by traditional Bedouin teachers.
The deaf young adult tribal members who speak in the film want to marry deaf partners. But in this strongly paternalistic society, their parents still have a lot of say in marital matches. Some of the hearing parents want their marriage-age children to break what they see as a chain of deafness, so they are interested in having their deaf offspring pair off with hearing mates.
Not only are there parents who want to alter the course of future generations, but there are those trying to improve the life of their offspring in the present. The movie depicts one set of hearing parents who decide that one of their children will be the first El Sayed member to undergo a cochlear implant.
The good news is that the Israeli health-care system will cover the cost of the surgery and the implant itself. But, as viewers soon grasp, this family faces many other obstacles. The first several months following surgery entail regular and frequent trips back to Be’ersheva’s Soroka Hospital. During these hospital visits, the parents learn how to encourage their toddler to listen in everyday situations. Both the mother and father accompany the child to the hospital. There, they work with a Hebrew-speaking professional staff. The father speaks and reads Hebrew fluently, but the mother does not. No Arabic translator is provided. This point is critical as, at home, the mother has the huge task of ensuring that all the other children participate in the training.
No less significant is the hospital staff’s lack of awareness of the overall situation in El Sayed. While Leshem’s camera reveals that high-tension wires stand in close proximity to the village, the film’s narrative discloses that El Sayed is not hooked up to the national grid. There is no electricity, except for the generators that power the village. Just as the hospital staff comes to terms with the family’s difficulty in keeping all the implant parts properly charged, so the audience grasps just how challenging this procedure is for this family.
El Sayed lacks what most Westerners would consider basic utilities or services. For the dispersed Bedouins living in areas of southern Israel, which successive governments have classified as “unrecognized,” not having electricity or running water is a common situation. Nowhere is that brought home more clearly than in Livne’s drama Sharqiya.
The story of Sharqiya centres around two brothers and the wife of one trying to live on family land. The land appears fairly inhospitable. Family members live quite minimally in one-room tin huts, serviced by a temperamental generator. In the barren surroundings, one brother herds a small number of goats, while Kamel Najer, the other brother and main character, works as a security guard in Be’ersheva’s central bus station.
Westerner viewers might wonder why it is so important to keep this undeveloped plot of land, especially when Israeli authorities offer compensation for leaving it. Coming from a Western society, it is also hard to get one’s head around the notion of inheriting land without documentation. But this is exactly what the Najer brothers claim: their family has lived on the land for generations.
In the film, viewers watch the authorities stand by, waiting to destroy the Najers’ homestead, as Kamel packs up cherished memorabilia from his army service. We witness this young Israeli Bedouin – who has felt enough sense of belonging to hold on to his army pictures and banners – have his living space made not just unfit, but non-existent. Livne makes it clear that if Israeli society does not appreciate the irony of this situation, it will not understand that such treatment puts the fragile foundation of Israel’s democratic structure at risk of collapse.
When the human and humane element is missing – as depicted by the Israel Land Authority’s tractor leveling the family’s meagre housing and corral – the cracks in society’s foundation deepen. The frustration and the disappointment do not fade out: in the closing shot, they are inscribed on Kamel’s face.
Deborah Rubin Fields is an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology.
More on the Bedouin
The following links are to position papers or websites of some of those involved in Israeli Bedouin affairs.