Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan



Every once in a while a movie comes along that I am entirely incapable of evaluating, simply because I can’t set aside my prejudice. I try my best, but I just can’t. In this case it is not anti-Semitism, it is my revulsion for religious fanaticism in any form, practiced by any people. In this case, it’s Jews. And my feeling is that these people—ultra-orthodox Hasidics in Jerusalem—are seriously fucked up. If that makes me intolerant, so be it.

I’m working on a theorem tentatively called Varley’s Funny Hat Rule. It still needs some ironing out, but it goes something like this: When a group of people start identifying themselves by wearing funny hats, it’s time for a change. The various sects of orthodox Jews have so many kinds of funny hats you can’t tell the players without a scorecard. (The funny hats in this movie look like fuzzy wagon wheels.) Well, they’ve had 4000 (5000?) years to develop their traditions, no one should be surprised. I remember an excellent Korean historical film in which there were dozens of types of very funny hats. The Pope wears a funny hat, and so do cardinals. Tibetan Buddhists wear funny hats, and select a child to be Dalai Lama when the old one dies. Bullshit. Shinto priests wear funny hats. Shriners wear funny hats, and everybody knows what assholes they are. Mormons are new on the religion scene, they wear funny underwear, but one day it’ll evolve into funny hats. (Scientologists don’t wear funny hats—I told you the Rule needs work—and they are as fucked up as any religion in the world … but give them time. In a century, if they’re still around, they’ll be wearing space helmets that protect them from the Emperor Xenu.) I still can’t figure out why Rapturist Baptists and Evangelicals don’t wear funny hats. Maybe they make up for it by speaking in tongues.

I’m reminded of two excellent works. In Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, Lord Sepulchrave, the seventy-seventh Earl of Groan, leads a life so circumscribed by centuries of tradition that he literally doesn’t have a free minute, every day of the year is ritualized for something or other, much of it long forgotten. I look at the Middle East and I see the same thing. Is there a city in Iraq or Iran that isn’t “holy?” How many times have you heard it? “Bombs went off today in the Holy City of Cameldung near the shrine of the martyr Ali Babbler during the annual pilgrimage where the devout coat themselves in camel dung during the holy month of Ramalamadingdong …” Too much history. Too many holy days, holy sites, holy pilgrimages, holy rituals.

Ah, I hear you say, but what about Fiddler on the Roof? In the opening number the villagers of Anatevka joyously bellow out their love of “Tradition!” while Tevye explains it all. (“Why do we wear these prayer shawls and funny hats?” Shrug. “I dunno. But it’s a tradition!”) (My point, exactly. He doesn’t know, he just does it.) But if you examine the plot, it is a succession of stories of how Tevye learns to break with tradition, first by allowing a daughter to marry a man Tevye didn’t choose, then letting the second daughter become political and then … only hinted at, he resists, and resists strongly … the third daughter becoming involved with a—gasp!—goyim!

Because, in the end, that’s what the funny hats are for, isn’t it? To set us apart. We Do Not Mix. Jew doesn’t marry gentile, white does not marry black, Greek does not marry Turk. The Jews believe they are God’s Chosen People, and that is one of the most poisonous ideas ever to haunt us from our tribal past. At base, get down to the nitty-gritty, most religions make this distinction between Them, the unwashed, unbaptized, unfaithful, and Us, the elect, the saved, the chosen. The Jews just say it right out front, and it’s caused them unbelievable amounts of trouble (that, and Christian bigotry because they “killed Christ”).

But tradition, ritual … those can be comforts, can’t they? I don’t deny it, as long as it’s kept to a reasonable level. It’s the people whose lives are totally dominated by their religion that I despise. Yes, it goes beyond feeling sorry for them. I used to, but as I’ve aged I’ve grown less and less tolerant of their bigoted, insular behavior. The Catholics crawling twenty miles on their bloody knees to some pissant shrine or another. Suffering is good for you! God likes it? (Why? Dunno.) The guys in black coats at the Wailing Wall, davening endlessly as they hold their books. Christians who can’t wipe their asses without offering a prayer.

Gee, quite a rant for a small little movie that most people liked, huh? So what did I think about the movie? As I said, I couldn’t see the movie beyond all the bullshit. I learned later that the director and star, Shuli Rand, is an actor who suddenly got religion—a virulent case of it—and got out of the business for 7 years until his rabbi said it was okay to write, direct, and act. What he has produced is a story about a couple during the Holy Days of Succotash (or something like that), where observant Jews live in plywood boxes for a week. What fun! (Why? Well, they said something about why, but I didn’t get it.) The woman has been barren. No son! Oy vey! The man, Moshe, was a bad man before he … you guessed it, found a rabbi to follow. Visitors arrive, complications ensue, Moshe is tested, by God, one assumes, Moshe prays, his wife prays … and the wife gets pregnant through the power of prayer. See what I mean? What’s the Hebrew word for bullshit?