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“Norman” -- Why Trash the Jewish Community?

Elliot Gertel
April 24, 2017

by Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel

ALTHOUGH WELL-ACTED and creatively shot, Joseph Cedar’s Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, is a cynical and nihilistic assault on Jewish community.

The title character, Norman Oppenheimer (Richard Gere), is a lonely New York Jewish man of limited means who seeks the attention of the makhers, the movers and shakers, in the Jewish community. His hobnobbing brings him to Zionist events.

Why he pursues Jewish leadership is not clear. He does seem to have some grounding in a synagogue community, for he always seems to wend his way to a challenged urban congregation where he finds comfort -- or, as he puts it, relaxation -- in hearing choir rehearsals and eating refreshments left over from adult education classes.

Norman puppy-dogs an Israeli official, Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi), and buys him $1,000-plus shoes (which Norman cannot afford) with the hope of reaping name-dropping and maybe financial rewards from the “friendship.” He flatters Eshel, who has self-esteem problems of his own, telling him, “You’re one of the few Israeli politicians that radiates optimism.” Both are lonely in their worlds and are seeking recognition.

Then, out of the blue, Eshel emerges as the prime minister of Israel and poster boy for Middle East peace. Norman rhapsodizes, “For once I bet on the right horse.” Prime Minister Eshel embraces Norman when the latter crashes a social event, and dubs him an advisor of sorts. Norman seeks ways to capitalize on his new-found status.

BOTH NORMAN AND ESHEL are lost souls who can’t control themselves from blathering and revealing themselves as fools and blowhards. Shortly after assuming office, Eshel boasts to his own shocked staff and, even worse, to an American liaison (who reminds him that he’s been saying different things to different groups): “God put me in this job. Instead of feeling the burden of this great responsibility, I’m feeling fate. If God put me here, there must be a reason.” While he has to pay lip service to some organizations, he says, he is basically at the U.S. president’s beck and call because he agrees with “the president’s peace program.” Eshel says that he plans to end the conflict by saying yes to everyone, and goes so far as to assert that if tragic war develops due to his compromises, it will be God’s fault for putting him into office.

As for Norman, he blabs fatally on the return from his first function with the prime minister. Sitting next to Alex Green (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a commerce and justice investigator at the Israel consulate, he brags about buying expensive shoes for Eshel and literally draws her a map of all his plans to capitalize on the relationship.

By fluke, chance, and bad luck disguised as good luck, Norman succeeds -- somewhat. He even gets his nephew to forage a place for Eshel’s son in the Harvard business school, in exchange for which he will get the rabbi to perform a wedding against the rabbi’s principles. Everyone willingly gets dragged down by the delusional but persistent Norman, all winning some kind of success based on self-delusion.

IF THERE is a “moral” to this film, it is that people cannot recognize delusions when they see them, and that the most profitable delusions are those that somehow come true because of the superficiality of the public. But there is no “moral” to this movie, only a bad aftertaste of “Jewish community.”

Consider the Jews in this film. Early on, Norman is ejected from the lavish home of an uptown Jew when he tries to take the place of another guest. The homeowner not-so-gently tells him that the invitation is non-transferable, and the lady of the house offers no sympathy or grace and shoos him to the door. Another Jewish business mogul nastily tells Norman that he already knows all the Oppenheimers worth knowing.

Yet once Norman gets some name recognition, he is courted by a montage of talking heads mouthing the alphabet soup of their particular Jewish organizations. (Messianic Jews and Evangelical Zionists are also among the supplicants.)

The synagogue board members, who have been trying to procure outside funds to save their shul and their “community,” treat Norman with respect only when they think he can be their “savior” (yes, that word is used). He does get them to do their share to contribute by promising them the seemingly impossible, except that Norman finds a way to make it possible. Ironically, Norman does his clearest thinking when he tries to undo his own mess. But his repentance, or at least realization of folly, is not constructive; it is self-destructive. He is desperately allergic (literally) to a Jewish community that is devoted to mutual exploitation and victimization, and that is the only kind of Jewish community depicted in this film.

There is simply no place here for a lonely Jew to find compassionate community. The Israelis are too busy going after each other and, in the end, after Norman. They all seem to have fish tanks and to live in a shark tank. The rabbi is most comfortable with a broken Norman, and never tries to understand or to help him. The best that the rabbi can do when he sees that Norman is felled by his pursuits is to tell him, more sarcastically than reassuringly, “Someone has to keep the world spinning.” Yet after realizing the foolishness of later ascribing world-spinning powers to Norman, the rabbi pushes Norman down into a garbage heap and swears at him. Indeed, this rabbi is always one solicitous nod away from cussing out the world.

Toward the end of the film, there is a somewhat tender scene in which Prime Minister Eshel calls Norman right after the rabbi has pushed him down. For a while, we rest in the impression given early on in the film, that the two nicest Jews here are the delusional ones -- Norman and Micha. The rest of the Jews here are inhospitable and treacherous, with the possible exception of Norman’s nephew. Eshel warns Norman that as prime minister he’s going to have to say bad things about Norman, but only for the sake of world peace; Norman is a “good friend,” Eshel assures him, then belies his fond declaration by throwing his cell phone into his fish tank and nodding to his prompter, who has been committed to steering Norman toward self-destruction.

Norman is left as the only “nice” Jew until he succeeds (?) at saving the synagogue and Eshel’s career, and makes peace for the State of Israel by enriching an unscrupulous Jewish businessman through insider peace trading. I offer the question mark in parentheses because it is not clear at the end which of Norman’s “achievements” are “real” and which are mirages.

During their first meeting on a train, in which Norman has been asking her personal questions because of his own loneliness and search for relationship, Alex Green, the Israeli “justice” person, inquires why he keeps dropping names and seeking to connect her with people. “Do I look lonely?” she asks. Like so many others in the film’s “Jewish community,” she has no compassion, not even a kind word for the lonely Norman, and will pounce on any and every word to ostracize, condemn and mock. At one point Norman gets her to confess, “I need the satisfaction of knowing that I’m doing good in the world.” But it becomes clear that her comment is as hypocritical as it is sincere, at least in her dealings with Norman, whose desire to do good is equally ambiguous.

SO WHAT’S WRONG with a “morality play” in which the Jewish community and Israeli society are taken to task for not giving the time of day to “the Normans” (an expression used in this movie by an Israeli official), and in which “the Normans” and their antagonists are also scrutinized?

My concern is with the film’s suggestion that the world keeps spinning precisely because of the greediness and inhospitableness of the Jewish community and, yes, of humanity in general. The message here is that the meek, like Norman, might not inherit the earth, but they can be useful parasites in an unwelcoming and dog-eat-dog Jewish (and general) world. As if to reinforce this message, Cedar raises up a Norman wannabe, Shaul Katz, replacing, as it were, a Conservative Norman with an Orthodox Norman.

Even more unnerving, Joseph Cedar has created a liturgy for his sinister portrait of Jewish community. The liturgical leitmotif of this film -- and its main musical moments, as in old Yiddish theater -- is an intricate and lovely cantorial/choral setting for the “Prayer for the Congregation,” which further highlights that the synagogue and the Jewish community (and classical Jewish liturgical culture) are emblematic in this film of a particular kind of community presented as a necessary evil. After all, in his delusions, Norman envisions Shaul playing the organ (incongruous for a Jew in Orthodox garb) for the cantorial composition in which liturgy, synagogue and even the organ console are complicit in glorifying -- and preserving -- “Jewish community” as depicted here.

Shouldn’t liturgy -- and film, for that matter -- provide incentive to “fix” community rather than to trash it?

Elliot B. Gertel is a retired pulpit rabbi who has been film and TV critic for the National Jewish Post and Opinion for thirty-five years. He is the author of Over the Top Judaism and What Jews Know About Salvation.