In October 1965, the New York Times received a tip that a young man arrested at a recent Ku Klux Klan demonstration in the Bronx was, in fact, a Jew. His name was Daniel Burros, he was twenty-eight, and lived in Ozone Park, Queens. Until a few months earlier he had been a high-ranking member of the American Nazi Party, but he had left the Nazis in a dispute with their leader, George Lincoln Rockwell, then joined the Klan, where, due to his considerable talents and industry, he quickly rose to become King Kleagle of the organization’s New York chapter.
McCandlish Phillips, the reporter that the Times sent to interview Burros, was an interesting figure in his own right. An evangelical Christian, a lay minister who neither drank nor swore, Phillips was widely considered the best writer on the paper’s city desk. Yet a few years later, and in part because of the Burros case, he would give up journalism altogether and devote himself entirely to the ministry.
The two met at a luncheonette located under the elevated train tracks in Queens. Burros laid out an articulate and surprisingly intellectual anti-Semitic argument. Phillips, after listening for a time, finally asked him how he could believe all this when he was a Jew himself. Burros at first denied it, but, when confronted with evidence (Phillips had proof that Burros’s parents had been married in a Jewish ceremony), he told the reporter, “You print that in the New York Times, I’ll kill you, and I’ll kill myself.”
The story ran on the front page that Sunday; Burros bought a copy out in Reading, Pennsylvania, where he was visiting Nazi friends. He came back to the house distraught, told them, “The New York Times says I’m a Jew.” They wanted to talk it over, but Burros was inconsolable. He raced up to his room, put the overture to Tristan and Iseult on the stereo and shot himself. Twice. Once in the chest and, when that didn’t work, a second time in the head.
Following his death, Jewish groups, readers and even some of the Times’s own staff criticized the decision to run the story. As a “Jewish newspaper,” they felt, the editors should have understood that Burros was disturbed, possibly unstable, and that his threat was real. In response, the paper dispatched two of its rising stars, Abe Rosenthal and Arthur Gelb, to investigate further. They produced a book, One More Victim, that portrayed Burros’s suicide as a product of Jewish self-hatred in the wake of Nazi genocide (the word “holocaust” was not yet in common usage). Burros, they argued, was a victim of Hitler, not of the New York Times.
The book traces Burros’s progress from pious Hebrew-school student to rabid neo-Nazi, and the story is unsurprising: as a boy he was fair-skinned with a pug nose and took pride in not “looking Jewish.” He went out for the high school football team, lacked talent, but revered the coach, who made casual anti-Semitic cracks, at which Burros dutifully laughed. He wanted to go to West Point, but no one took this seriously, and he was unable to get the congressional appointment needed to attend. After graduation he worked at menial jobs, read military history, decided Hitler was a brilliant strategist and began making pro-German anti-Semitic remarks to his mainly Jewish friends, chiefly to get a rise out of them. It worked: there were arguments, fights and ruptures. Soon his ideas had become even more extreme, but it had ceased to be a game.
Mark Jacobson, who grew up in Queens not far from Burros’s home in Ozone Park, told me this story a decade later, proposing that we make it into a movie. We were living in Berkeley at the time, in that queasy interval between the end of school and the beginning of adult life, and we expended a good deal of energy imagining the films we would make without imagining very hard that we would actually make them. For this purpose, with its craziness, self-destructive fury and endless ironies, The Danny Burros Story was perfect. It seemed inconceivable that anyone would ever finance such a venture, but that not only didn’t discourage us; we took it as evidence that we were on to something.
From the start we thought of the film as a comedy. A “Jewish Nazi” was seemingly absurd, and the Rosenthal/Gelb book, though largely predictable, contained one memorable detail: as a member of the American Nazi Party, and desperately concealing his origins, Burros would, nevertheless, bring knishes back to the Nazi barracks and date women who, according to his friends, were “obviously Jewish.” The notion of Danny hiding his terrible secret and, at the same time, compulsively revealing it was fascinating and darkly hilarious.
Of course, to us, everything Jewish was funny. Jackie Mason used to get laughs simply by saying the word Jew. At times his entire act seemed to consist of little more than opening his mouth and pronouncing that one syllable, over and over, until the gentiles in the audience were looking at each other in confusion, while the Jews rolled around on the floor, gagging hysterically.
The hysteria came from the fact that Mason was proclaiming aloud, and with pride, a matter commonly viewed as an embarrassment. And even if he was overcompensating, that was part of the joke, for this mixture of vanity and shame was central to the business of being a Jew in America at the time.
After seeing an early cut of The Believer, the novelist Paul Hond said that it wasn’t so much about a Jewish Nazi as simply about being Jewish. Which was, really, how Mark and I always thought of it. Danny Burros was our own Jewish ambivalence and hybrid Americanness exaggerated into comic proportions.
Even if we did not deny our origins and join anti-Semitic movements, even if we officially, perhaps even truthfully, liked something about being Jewish (though who could have said what) in the ’50s and early ’60s it separated us from an America that seemed otherwise uniformly calm, Christian and normal. We got into fights with kids from parochial schools, weren’t invited to WASP cotillions, and had to have “our own” dancing classes and holiday parties. When we went to pick up a gentile girl for a date, we were sure that her parents were giving us an especially beady and mistrustful eye?ven when, perhaps, they weren’t. In junior high school, a friend told me that his mother had known immediately upon meeting me that I was Jewish, despite my innocuous name. He said this as if calling my attention to a mark on my face I might not have noticed, thereby wising me to the fact that I could never pass for a regular person. A thought that hadn’t occurred to me because I could see that mark even better than his mother could. And had I missed it, my father would have been there to point out that Adolf Hitler, the ultimate authority in these matters, would have put me in a gas chamber regardless of what I might claim about myself. Clearly, being a Jew was not a matter of faith or testimony, as in a normal religion; it was inscribed into your flesh like numbers on your wrist. What a pointless redundancy those fucking yellow stars had been.
I want to stress that this youthful angst?hough full of brooding, romantic longings, class-consciousness and the like?as hardly serious. It was nothing like being a Jew in a Russian shtetl, the Warsaw ghetto or an English public school. This was America in the age of television. Jewishness was just another identity crisis, a plot device, tougher than acne, simpler than homosexuality; Chuck Berry could have written a song about it. We just wished it would go away; or at least become invisible, shut up and leave us alone.
It didn’t. It got bigger. I found it easier to imagine myself a woman than a gentile, I couldn’t stop talking about “who was Jewish” and what was Jewish (butter, goyishe; mayonnaise, all Jewish), yet I could hardly have said what my Jewishness was, other than this sense of separateness, a “history of persecution” though, in fact, I had never been persecuted. It was an identity without palpable content.
In this it seemed a kind of hyperexistentialism; existence didn’t precede essence, it was essence. To be Jewish, as far as I could tell, was to think of oneself as Jewish. Beyond that, I had no idea what it entailed. There was a religion out there somewhere, but, despite the usual bar mitzvah, I knew next to nothing about it. And though I enjoyed the paradox of this form without substance?ike a mirror reflecting another mirror?t was frustrating. Above all, it accused me.
Of what? Of not knowing. Not knowing the religion, the history, the language, even, in much detail, the secular culture. I didn’t want to know it, I wanted not to know it, not to be sucked down into that stifling ghetto of the mind. I looked at those people in their ugly black suits and white shirts, their covered heads and long skirts, their greasy hair, forgotten bodies, bad breath and worse politics. They were hideous, sexless, narrow-minded. But they knew. They knew and they knew, and in that knowing they didn’t wonder what it meant to be a Jew. Therefore they belonged, not just to each other (which we, in our resolute individualism, never quite did) but to history, and, perhaps beyond it, to G-d.
Why would someone who seems to feel nothing for G-d, who neither believes nor doesn’t, but for whom the whole subject is simply not an issue, why would such a person feel troubled by religion? Two possible answers: First, that he is lying to himself about his indifference, that all of life is that foxhole with no atheists (or even agnostics), that, as Simone Weil says, “We all have a hunger, even when we feed it by fasting.” Second, that regardless of questions of belief, this particular religion links him to the traditions of his ancestors, which gives it an indispensable, even religious value. Maybe it was simply that, ignorant and disconnected as I was, I still felt the weight of history, conveyed through the great chain of Seders. If, as we said every Pesach, “it is as if I myself came out of Egypt,” then presumably I myself had lived all of Jewish history; for thousands of years I had been saying the prayers, following the hallakah (the religious law), keeping this thing alive. And, if nothing else, I didn’t feel qualified to break the chain. Yet the tradition held me without holding me. I stayed without knowing. And I broke the chain every day.
For years Mark and I did nothing about our movie. Back in that first flush of excitement, I had written a six- or seven-page treatment, laying out what has become, in fact, the opening scene, and following through to Danny’s suicide. It was a Samuel Fulleresque tale, gritty, noirish and rather somber for what was supposed to a comedy. Mark knew someone who worked for Dustin Hoffman’s company; we submitted it to them and never heard back. So we dropped it and went off about our lives, Mark to New York and I to Los Angeles.
In L.A., I met and then married Leora Barish, whose father was a Conservative rabbi and a career Army chaplain. Growing up on military bases and attending yeshivas, Leora had a Jewish experience shared by almost no one in the United States except her brother. She knew Hebrew, understood how the religion worked and couldn’t help responding to the beauty of the biblical language. At the same time, she had had Judaism shoved down her throat, far more than she could swallow, and by then it nauseated her.
That combination of disgust and knowledge (plus a fetching indifference) made her the perfect teacher for me. She was, really, more a resource than a teacher; she had no interest in imparting what she knew and even less in convincing me of its truth or efficacy, since she had no use for it herself. You can imagine the seductiveness.
Yet when our son, Max, was born, Leora, who had previously eaten Chinese food on Yom Kippur, began almost without comment to attend a synagogue in Venice, California, where we were living. Sometimes I went along. Later I took a class on “Jewish meditation” and began reading a little on my own: Aryeh Kaplan, Rav Kook, the Tanya…. At night, in bed, I would read a chumash (the five books of Moses with commentary), going back and forth between the Hebrew and the English trying to puzzle out the original. Leora, lying beside me studying homeopathic repertories, would answer my questions about vocabulary and grammar and explain the shoreshes, the linguistic roots from which groups of words are derived, without looking up from her book. Gradually, I began to appreciate the primitive power of ancient Hebrew, which I’d first felt when her father made the priestly blessing over us at our wedding.
Reading the Torah that slowly, a few verses a night, with digressions into the commentaries (little essays, often a thousand words or more on a single verse or idea), was like looking at an ordinary object through a microscope or on LSD. The complexity of the structures, associations and nuances overwhelmed me.
I realized that though I’d never read Talmud, nor had the first scrap of a real Jewish education, the thinking was familiar. I had been raised by a lawyer to be a lawyer, had spent years of dinner table conversations learning to climb around the jungle gym of legal reasoning. I had the typical American mistrust of “legalisms,” yet those detailed, endlessly expansive, interconnecting discussions contained not only truth and beauty, but an emotional force that kept catching me by surprise.
Still, reading and thinking came much more easily than prayer and observance. I would emerge from temple each Yom Kippur glowing, serenely devastated, and promise myself a deeper practice in the coming year. And, a week later, watching Orthodox families walk to synagogue for Sukkoth, would feel only revulsion. I was nothing like these people. I didn’t believe anything. How I could possibly practice their religion?
It was much later, after we’d moved to New York, that I decided it didn’t matter if I “believed,” whatever that meant. One could go to shul, light Sabbath candles and so on, not out of a conviction that -G-d existed, much less that “He” actually commanded such actions, but for the actions themselves, the way they organized the day, the week, the year, for the pleasures of ritual, and to connect to and keep alive the traditions of one’s forebears.
Later still, I read essays by the Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz, which made me doubt the very idea of a religion based on “human benefits.” Leibowitz writes about actions done Lishmah (for their own sake) and not-Lishmah (for their effects). Though both have their place in religious practice, the former is clearly superior for it expects nothing in return. Leibowitz can barely conceal his disdain for a religion of efficacy focused on human needs, like my “pleasures of ritual” or the organizing of one’s week. The purpose of religion, he argues, at least of Judaism, is man’s service to G-d, not the reverse.
In Leibowitz I found for the first time a working explanation of Judaism that made sense. “The central aspect of ?udaism’…” he writes, “has been the struggle over the Torah and its Mitzvoth…” That is the struggle to keep the commandments laid out by G-d in the Torah. These include not simply the original ten, but a vast system of laws and customs that, by rabbinic count, number 613. They cover not only typically religious matters, but also criminal and commercial law, torts, family relations, sexual conduct, treatment of disease and so on…
Leibowitz is bracingly contemptuous the impulse to adapt this system to humanistic ends. Speaking of a secular writer who wants Judaism to be about “?he satisfaction of a profound psychic need'” or the urge “…to be happier, more perfect, or moral,” Leibowitz observes that all religions try to provide these things. What is specific to Judaism is the acceptance of “the yoke of Torah,” and the observance of the mitzvoth. If doing this fulfills “psychic needs,” or makes one happier or “more moral,” that is largely incidental:
Throughout his life [the religious Jew] rises early every morning to observe the Mitzvah of prayer with the congregation even when he feels no need to “pour out his heart before G-d,” and perhaps has never felt such a need in his life. He may do so even though he knows that there is no need to inform the Omniscient of his needs and despite his understanding that as a frail human he cannot effectively praise and glorify the Almighty; he prays, it may be, contrary to his perception that there is no relation between his prayer and the events which befall him or occur in the history of Israel. If one day he or one of his children falls ill, he consults the physician and resorts to the science of medicine as would any atheist, without diminishing the sincerity with which he recites the benediction “who cures the sick of his People of Israel.”
What Leibowitz is describing, and implicitly advocating?nd from which I have borrowed heavily to inform Burros’s thinking in The Believer?s obedience to the hallakah (the law), not because it “makes sense” or improves life, but because the Torah commands it. And he is careful to distinguish obedience from belief. One might believe in G-d, one might have seen miracles that attest incontestably to His existence and power, yet refuse to worship Him. (The Israelites who left Egypt saw the Red Sea parted, yet still made the Golden Calf.) Conversely, one might choose to worship Him without any evidence whatsoever of His existence. Leibowitz does not take the next step, but to me it seems inescapable: that one is fully capable of worshipping G-d (i.e. observing the mitzvoth) even when convinced that He does not exist.
Here, at last, was a Judaism I could believe in, because it didn’t require belief. It was beyond theology, beyond psychology, beyond reason. It offered nothing except itself, and therefore could never disappoint. Its very lack of argument was what persuaded me: that precisely by dispensing with all calculations of cost, benefit and truth, it offered something truly beyond this world, a praxis, things to be done entirely for their own sake. One might ask, then, why these particular things instead of others? And, unless you accept the divine origin of the Torah, there is no answer except that this system links you to a tradition and, thus, to your ancestors.
But in finding a Judaism I could believe, I realized something else: that I could never practice it. I could not accept the yoke of Torah, I could not rise early every morning to observe the mitzvah of prayer with the congregation. Maybe once a week, at best, and I doubted I could ever lay tefillin (put on phylacteries for morning prayer) or thank G-d for not making me a gentile or a woman?hough, perhaps, I was grateful for both. I could not keep kosher or observe the Sabbath. I was too addicted to “the sweet joys of this life…” too busy, too self-absorbed, too greedy, too secular, too impatient, too fallen. I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to do it, not enough?nd this even though (abandoning Leibowitz’s antiefficacy position for a moment) I was convinced it would be “good for me,” for my family, perhaps even for the world.
It is interesting to discover that one cannot do what is in one’s interest. The Underground Man says, “Sometimes a man does not want to do what it is in his interest. Sometimes he wants to do precisely what is not in his interest.” But that was a protest against the crushing rationalism of modern life. I was refusing the very- -spirituality Dostoyevsky offered in its place. And, still, I couldn’t do it.
** One spring evening in the early ’90s, Mark and I were driving around the New Jersey Pine Barrens doing research on a thriller we had been hired to write for Universal. Fifteen years had passed. Mark was now a well-known magazine writer and cult novelist; I had become a “working” screenwriter. And neither of us had written another word on the movie we still thought of as The Jewish Nazi. Yet when he blithely announced that he was certain we would one day make the thing, I concurred, though in my heart I didn’t believe it.
I had spent the previous decade in Los Angeles, writing and failing to get made a handful of scripts that I loved and earning a living on others that I loved less. By now I dreaded every great idea that came my way; I had had so many and had completed so few, that each new one seemed simply a fresh torment sent to mock me with my inability to bring it off.
Yet here, driving through the April twilight, I couldn’t resist a new scene for a film I hadn’t even written: Danny Burros, the Jewish Nazi, takes a bunch of skinheads into a synagogue, intending to paint swastikas and plant a bomb. But, to his horror and disgust, he finds himself unaccountably moved, first by the sanctuary itself, the memories it evokes, and then, even more, by the ark, the Torahs, the mysterious calligraphy of the letters. The long-repressed Jew wells up in him. Suddenly appalled that he has brought Nazis into this sacred place, he tries to get them out of there, but before he can, one knocks a Torah to the floor. The holiest object in Judaism has been desecrated. Danny’s heart is pierced.
Mark appreciated the lurid craziness of this scene, but he was uncomfortable with what seemed to him an excess of Jewish content. Yet that was why I liked it; I saw that in our earlier conceptions, we had made Danny Jewish without making him a Jew. But now imagining him as one gave the film new life. For weeks I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
But then I went on to other things.
Mark and I have a mutual friend, Jonathan Buchsbaum, who teaches film at Queens College in New York. A couple of years after the conversation in the Pine Barrens, Jonny asked if either of us had an old, unproduced script from which his students could shoot a few scenes. Mark suggested we write some scenes from The Jewish Nazi and let them shoot that.
I began to write the interview between Danny and the New York Times reporter. Mark was tied up with work and family, so, in the end, I wrote all six scenes alone. The students had fewer skills and less drive than advertised, and we hired a professional cameraman, a novice production designer, picked up some amateur actors and I directed. The result (a year and a half later) was a thirteen-minute short called Thousand, after a Moby track we used over the opening scene.
In the course of this, almost without a conscious decision, it had become my film and not Mark’s. This was due partly to his busy schedule, partly to my own greater involvement in film and Judaism, and, no doubt, to the infinite vagaries of personality. Jonny asking us for a script, offering equipment, crew and, above all, his own participation, seemed to me the opening of a door which, if we didn’t walk through it, would close forever, and we would never make the film. I don’t like to think that I stole Mark’s idea, the idea he had first offered to share with me, but in some sense this is what happened, though less deliberately than that sounds. As Mark and I say in another screenplay?ne we did write together?reat deeds are often founded on a crime. And after nearly twenty years, doing anything at all with The Jewish Nazi seemed like a great deed.
Thousand was awkward and crude, but it had a power, and the central character was compelling. Encouraged by this and by the performance of a nonactor, Judah Lazarus, in the lead role, I quickly wrote a feature-length script.
When I began writing, I knew the story through the desecration scene, where Danny, against his will, begins to respond to the Torah. From there, it had to change, but it was not immediately clear how. As a youth, Danny had hated being a Jew, so he’d become the opposite, a Nazi; the Nazis turned out to be boring and stupid, yet being one had brought him to a synagogue where his old self woke up and now urged him back toward the sweetness and piety he’d spent his life trying to escape, and which he still loathed, even as he loved it. I saw that Danny had to become a Jew again, but at the same time he had too much invested ever to give up being a Nazi.
Laying it out like that, the solution became obvious: he would lead a double life, resume Torah studies while, inexplicably, continuing his efforts to plant bombs and kill Jews. He would be a rabbi and a Nazi, a thing and its opposite, a living contradiction. He would not reconcile or synthesize the two; he didn’t want them reconciled; he liked being pulled in opposite directions. This was irrational, yet felt exactly right. And it excited me like nothing I had ever written. It was the way I felt, not only about Judaism, but about so much else: America, my parents and myself. It seemed I had been looking for this story all my life.
“‘I hate and I love’,” Catullus writes in poem 85, “?nd who can tell me why?'” I hate because I love, because I need the beloved and am therefore vulnerable to it. It can refuse me or betray me, and I hate it for this power it has over me. I hate it for the sweetness I feel toward it, the wish to merge with it, and the panic that it triggers (I will lose myself!) makes me push it away. I hate it because hate is the perfect complement to love, like peanuts and dairy, or boys and girls; they are incomplete without each other, and tastier and more beneficial together. Love without hate, with the hate repressed, was a dimmed and diminished thing.
To be honest, Danny’s long bursts of anti-Semitic invective were the core of the script and the easiest parts to write. Most movies about ethnic or racial hatred are so embarrassed by their subject that do not invest the time and detail necessary to convey why the characters would feel such things. Similarly, depicting anti-Semites as rage-driven monsters or pathetic fools fails to explain or even wonder how it is that intellectually sophisticated and often brilliant minds have hated Jews and Judaism. But if we ask ourselves why, and if it is really a question and not a lament, perhaps we can come up with some tentative answers.
Here is one: Nazism was, among other things, a reaction against the dislocations of modern life. A number of major twentieth-century literary figures (Pound, Eliot and Wyndham Lewis among them) not only felt a similar anguish at these conditions, but were also attracted, at different times and to different degrees, to various forms of fascist anti-Semitism. (There are left-wing versions, as well.) Sifting through their distress at the breakup of traditional, homogenous societies, the ensuing “rootlessness” of modern life, the “degeneration of values,” the coming of pop culture, and especially the rapacious spread of that greatest of all equalizers, money, or, better still, “finance”?t is not impossible to see how they could frame “the Jews” for the job. For Jews seemed to embody modernity in their very being. If, as Jean Baudrillard has said, America was a post-modernist nation from its founding, the Jews have, in a sense, been post-modernists since Babylonian captivity. Long before Jacques Derrida, there was the Talmud, a de-centered, indeterminate text if there ever was one. After you have puzzled through those complex, infinitely allusive, hair-splitting arguments that somehow never definitively resolve anything, after you have followed the reasoning of why an injury inflicted by a man climbing a ladder requires a different remedy from the same injury inflicted by a man descending a ladder, after you have studied even a single page of Talmud with texts crowding in on and disputing with each other in radical nonlinearity, quantum physics, indeterminacy theory and floating currencies become, perhaps, less mysterious.
In this vein, I wanted Danny’s anti-Semitism to be as sophisticated as possible, yet with an ironic edge so that each diatribe against the Jews would invert from a simplistic hatred to a mockery or dread of that hatred, even at times to an inadvertent celebration of the thing he hates. When he tells the gathering in Mrs. Moebius’s living room that the public “will be glad” once they realize that Jews are being killed, is he saying that this is wonderful news for all of them as Nazis, or that it is the nightmare of his life as a Jew? He’s saying both, and the horror and delight can never be disentangled. He tells the reporter that Jews believe in “nothingness without end,” and sometime later a rabbi on television translates (actually mistranslates) ein sof, the most ineffable incarnation of G-d in Jewish mysticism, as “nothingness without end,” as if no matter how hard Danny runs away, Judaism keeps catching up and pulling him back.
The very exuberance of Danny’s invective tells us that something complicated is going on. As Carla says to him late in the film, “Oh, is that why you became a Nazi? So you could talk about Jews incessantly?” She’s right; the speeches are his very life. He cannot stop talking about Jews. Hating them or loving them is finally beside the point.
But beyond this, I have to admit that I believed in those rants, not in their literal truth (if there could be such a thing), but in the sheer visceral pleasure of hatred. I got off on anti-Semitism, on the adolescent, Lenny Brucean pleasure of saying forbidden things. A Jewish Nazi who didn’t enjoy his anti-Semitism, who was merely tormented by it, would make no sense; worse, he would be boring, and there would be no point in making a film about him.
More important, without an exuberant hatred I could never express my delight in being Jewish. The film is, finally, my love poem to my religion, my people. Jewish culture honors not only paradox and contradiction, but the spirit of self-criticism. This is commonly called self-hatred, but it is more than that. The comedy of a rabbi-manque who can praise G-d only by reviling him, love his people by despising and even trying to kill them, sounds like something out of a Hasidic tale or one of Kafka’s paradoxes.
Yet I was afraid. I was afraid of offending gentiles and Jews, of being misunderstood, of being taken for an anti-Semite, or, should I say, only an anti-Semite. Above all, I was afraid of getting it wrong. My knowledge of Judaism is sketchy and self-taught. I read, studied, asked questions, had the script vetted by those who did know. But still I lived in dread of some dead-eyed yeshiva bocher with his twisted, sardonic mouth, someone who knew it backward and forward, casually pointing out the crucial thing I had missed, upon which the whole thing would fall to pieces at my feet.
It is odd to think of a movie being wrong. Maybe I was simply afraid that this love poem I was sending would be misread (A problem I’d had before). That like an Ionesco character, or someone with an eccentric version of Tourette’s, I was trying to say “I love you” but what kept coming out of my mouth was “Fuck you.”
In the initial showings in the United States, that had not happened; people seemed to get the movie and to like it. But as I set off for film festivals in Europe, where anti-Semitism wasn’t just a conceit but a dark and terrible history, I worried that my “celebration” of hatred would look puerile and trivial.
I was going to festivals in three cities with special relationships to the film’s subject matter: Moscow, the capital of a nation with a long tradition of anti-Semitism; Munich, where Hitler first came to power; and Jerusalem, which exists in its present form in considerable part because of what happened in the other two.
At the press conference in Moscow, the first question, asked in a dry Russian-inflected drawl, was: “So, are you saying that Hitler and Goering actually loved the Jews?”
I laughed. I had never thought of it that way, but, following the argument, I could see how someone might come to that conclusion. It was, really, the kind of thing I would have wanted to say?lame everybody, forgive everybody?f I’d had the guts.
Yet just before I’d started shooting The Believer, a friend had showed me a Nazi propaganda film, The Eternal Jew. Made in the ’30s, it is a loathsome work, intercutting images of Jews with those of swarming rats, and reeking with hatred, yet at times the film seems about to turn into something else. The word “Jew” occurs so often and the fascination, indeed, obsession with Jews is so unrelenting that one is tempted to say?s Carla does of Danny in The Believer?he only people I’ve ever met who were this interested in Jews were Jews themselves. At one point, a narrator tells us: “Only 2% of the population of Germany is Jewish, yet Jews comprise 38% of the lawyers, 46% of the physicians, 51% of the college professors.” And one wonders, is this good or bad? Is the film complaining that Jews are taking more than their fair share of the top professions, or that they are, well, a master race? It is so difficult not to hear the second meaning like an echo behind the first that one wonders how well the filmmakers knew their own minds.
So if I didn’t quite have the nerve to say that Hitler and Goering loved the Jews, surely there was a passion there, an obsession, that, if not love, was closer to it than would make us comfortable. Maybe we could imagine it as love unrequited.
Everywhere in Russia people made shrewd and intelligent observations about The Believer, and seemed to understand it perfectly. Yet there was an odd detachment, as if the subject had very little to do with them. The history of Russian anti-Semitism was acknowledged but never discussed. And, unlike everywhere else I’ve shown the film, very few people came up and identified themselves as Jews.
Part of that may be due to the odd nature of Jews and Jewishness in contemporary Russia. Someone told me that during the Soviet era being Jewish, even when not openly stigmatized (since Communists were supposed to believe in universal brotherhood), was invariably a professional disadvantage; therefore, many Jews married gentiles to dilute their problem, and perhaps to indicate a desire to be “real Russians.”
As a result, though at first glance I saw very few Jews in Russia, on closer inspection, it seemed that almost everyone was Jewish. Or partly, or related to Jews or thought they were. It was as if one curious consequence of the deep-seated anti-Semitism was that the whole country had become hopelessly entangled with Jewishness (another Hebraic plot?), the ancient Cossack enmity now swirling around these aberrant Semitic corpuscles like the ingredients in an icebox cake.
As if, in short, it were an entire nation of Danny Balints. Which, since it was that old anti-Semite Dostoyevsky to whom I looked when writing, should hardly have been surprising. Danny’s “inexplicable contradictoriness” wasn’t shocking to the Russians, it was their national heritage.
The Believer showed twice at the Munich Film Festival, and after each screening, a vocal minority (Germans and Americans) argued that the film should not be exhibited to German audiences. It would encourage the neo-Nazis, perhaps give them new ideas and, worst of all, might allow them to claim that even the Jews know these things about themselves and are finally admitting it.
A larger but quieter group disagreed; they thought most Germans would find the film interesting, perhaps moving: a new way of looking at “all that.” As for “the lunatics,” they would never come to see it; in any case, they were beyond redemption, so it hardly mattered what they saw.
Behind this tactical disagreement seemed to lie a deeper issue: to the majority, the lunatics were a fringe element, repulsive but irrelevant; to the minority, they were the lurking, dreaded thing, always ready to return. Naturally, none of us worried about ourselves, our complicity in silence, our own fascist longings. We only worried about the others.
In truth, fascists were an audience I dreamed of and longed for. In making the film, I had had, among other grandiose notions, the idea that I was designing a cure for bigotry. Here, unlike in all the pious, liberal warnings against prejudice, was a celebration of hatred. Want to hear the words “fucking kike” declaimed joyously? Want to hear why they are fucking kikes? And yet as you watch (I told myself), it slowly changes. First, you realize that the one who hates Jews most and best is a Jew himself. Then you see that he is able to hate them only because he has studied them long and hard. The film argues that to hate a thing, you have to love it, too; to be a competent anti-Semite, you have to be a rabbi. What would the Nazis, the Klan, the Aryan Brotherhood, British neo-fascists and Hamas do with that? Would they confess that they loved the Jews? Or that the roots of their hatred lay in their own self-loathing? They would be turned against themselves. Even if they managed to hold onto their hatred?nd, surely, it was too precious to let go of so easily?heir grip would never be as sure. Or so I told myself.
In Munich, in all of Europe, the complexities of the past press in on you. The city in early summer was lush, beautiful and prosperous. The citizens seemed far more civilized, better educated and less susceptible to demagoguery than, say, their counterparts in the United States. As a German journalist assured me, if their election had ended as our last one did, the people would have taken to the streets in protest.
Still, it is hard to drop old prejudices. I had breakfast one morning with two men from the German film industry, then walked with them along the Isar River. With their almost unaccented English, their intelligence and easy wit, their relaxed, very un-Prussian manners, they were the furthest thing from one’s clich?d notions of a German. Yet when it came time to ask them how to get to Dachau, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I didn’t want them thinking: oh, the minute he gets here all he wants to see is a concentration camp (the Jew); no matter what we do, that’s how they think of us.
I am sure that had I brought it up they would have answered exactly the way the manager of the film festival did when I asked her: she cheerfully whipped out a map, showed me which subway line to take and where to catch the bus, then, just to be nice, arranged to have someone drive me out there.
He was the same young Serb who had ferried me in from the airport when I arrived. He’d moved to Germany with his parents as a child and had grown up in Munich from the age of eleven. He alluded to a shadowy resentment toward the Germans, the sense of being an outsider, and, perhaps, an affinity with Jews since, historically, the Nazis hated us both. In this regard he mentioned that over on Shellingstrasse, an easy walk from the festival, was the beer hall of the beer hall putsch. Then he dropped me at the gate of Dachau.
Dachau was my second concentration camp. Twenty-five years earlier, a girlfriend and I had hiked up into Alsace to a minor installation used chiefly for prisoners from the French Resistance. Standing in the modest gas chamber, trying to feel something, we were surprised by a sudden burst of laughter. A busload of blond twelve-year-olds came screaming in and ran around like American kids at Gettysburg.
The experience disappointed me. I had wanted tears and horror, and had gotten happy schoolchildren. But Dachau was the real thing, it was supposed to be different. And for about a minute it was. Approaching along the side of the main building, watching my feet, the shadow of the wall falling across the raked gravel, I had to stop for a moment and thought: I can’t do this, I can’t go in there.
Then I turned the corner, saw the entrance to the museum, the crowds of visitors, and it was nothing, another tourist site. The historical exhibits, the rows of barracks, the cells for special prisoners, the ovens, the shrines of the various religions, it was all so much what you’d expect that it seemed like the Philip K. Dick concentration camp, a virtual construction providing perfect veracity and no feeling. “The horror” eluded me again, and though I have no idea what was going through the hearts and minds of the other visitors that day, I bet it eluded them, too. I didn’t see anyone standing off alone, weeping or stupefied. And I had the unnerving thought that even if this had been 1943, it would have eluded us still.
Leora met me in Jerusalem. She had spent a summer on kibbutz as a thirteen-year old and hated all the Zionist propaganda she’d been force-fed, just like with the Judaism. I had never been and knew nothing, but of course I had opinions. I was an American; I believed in the separation of church and state. I couldn’t accept that Jews, who for centuries had suffered under laws favoring one religion over another, would establish a nation the core of which, the Law of Return, did exactly that. I felt, also, some of the old Orthodox antipathy to Zionism as an idolatry of the land, a substitution of nationalism for religion.
But there were less logical reasons, vaguer, probably deeper. Like the “other” Phillip Roth of Operation Shylock, I was a diasporist; I liked exile, otherness, belonging in America, yet not completely; I liked multiple identities, but no definitive one, in short, the ambivalent, self-doubting, self-hating modern condition. So perhaps it was no surprise that my love poem to Judaism should have “fucking kike” as its refrain. Nor would it be a total shock if a nation of Jews not in exile and, presumably, not ambivalent, found this offering loathsome or irrelevant.
But they didn’t. They were, I suspect, the best audiences the film will ever have. Even the ones who didn’t like it liked talking about it. The question-and-answer sessions that at other festivals barely lasted thirty minutes went on here for an hour and a half and could have gone all night. They got every joke and reference; young men in kippot came up afterward explaining textual connections and allusions I not only hadn’t intended, but that I couldn’t really follow.
Best of all, they took Jewish anti-Semitism for granted. Everywhere else I’d gone, the inevitable question was “How did Danny come to be a Jewish Nazi?” In Jerusalem no one had to ask. Instead, they wanted to know had I made the movie about Israel? About the conflict between secular Jews and the ultra-Orthodox, which to many of them seemed more intractable and infuriating than relations with the Arabs. More than one person said that if the Palestinian problem were ever resolved, the Jews would then be at each other’s throats the next day, and it would tear the country apart.
I had not been thinking of that when I made the film?’d barely known about it?ut, for a filmamaker, that it made them think of it seemed somehow to complete the whole project. They had taken my private obsession and made it their own, given it meanings, given it a life beyond what I knew or had experienced or, even, could understand.
The Believer was shot during June and July of 2000. Two weeks after we wrapped, the Democrats nominated Joseph I. Lieberman as Al Gore’s vice-presidential candidate. It was the first time a Jew had run for national office on a major party ticket, and it seemed the perfect conclusion to an administration that had by its end a Secretary of State (sort of), Secretary of Defense (halfway) and Secretary of the Treasury (unequivocally) who were all Jews?r at least could be claimed as such.
This was partly a tribute to the Clintons, partly the result of broader developments. People who had gone to Ivy League schools in the 1960s had encountered large numbers of Jews who were not only bright and ambitious, but at ease in American society. And the ’60s themselves broke down many of the remaining social barriers, so that by the time that generation reached positions of power, they had sat up all night bullshitting with Jews, gotten stoned and had sex with them, gone into business with them and by now were not -infrequently married to them. In short, being Jewish wasn’t a big deal anymore.
Was that good or bad?
While making The Believer, in which it sometimes seemed that the word “Jew” appeared more times than in any film in history?xcept, perhaps, the Nazi’s The Eternal Jew? often winced at subjecting a cast and crew of gentiles to my obsession, or perhaps at exposing the obsession to so many strangers. (Even now I wasn’t up to being Jackie Mason.) Yet I never heard or even sniffed the faintest hint of complaint, discomfort or boredom at this monomania. As far as I could tell, no one cared.
When I say “the gentiles,” I was not, in fact, always sure who was what. Years ago I’d met a couple who claimed that they had been together for months before either one realized that the other was Jewish. (“Are you really? So am I!”) They weren’t hiding it; it just hadn’t come up. This had seemed inconceivable to me. How could you spend an hour in someone’s company?uch less have ongoing sex with them?ithout ascertaining that particular fact? Yet now I found myself wondering vaguely whether the gaffer or the camera assistant were Jewish, yet, strangely, not asking. Them or anyone else. I’d gossip about who might be gay or sleeping with whom, but not “that.” Which can mean only that, strange to say, I didn’t -really care.
Somewhere in those weeks of finally making this Jew-obsessed work, of unraveling the idea that had defined me and which I was now trying to define, the subject itself seemed to be vanishing before my eyes.
We were free.
But what did it mean to be a Jew if it wasn’t a problem? Without suffering (even the vicarious kind), what became of one’s “Jewish identity”? If the Jews were free, if the oppression and the vast culture that grew up around it disappeared, if all the world ate bagels and no one at all ate kugel, then it seemed we had two choices: we could let it go at last and lose ourselves in the great sea of the nations, or we could perform the mitzvoth.
And then September 11th.
Then the Chinese jeweler told my friend Shirley (whom she didn’t know was Jewish) that 4,000 Jews had failed to come to work at the World Trade Center that day (because they knew!) and that the FBI was treating the attacks as a Mossad plot. Then Peruvian cabdrivers and commentators on network television and guests at sophisticated dinner parties and patients with Jewish analysts were saying that it was because of Israel, because of AIPAC-funded distortions of American foreign policy, that at bottom it was again, as ever, the Jews’ fault.
So maybe we weren’t free after all. Was that bad or good? Because if the new, darker world scared and infuriated me, I could not deny that in some private room of the mind, it was also a relief. This was a world I knew how to live in.
This essay appears in a book called The Believer: Confronting Jewish Self-Hatred,