358 – Nittel Nacht

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Ahh, Christmas Eve. While all of the gentiles sip their eggnog and wait for Santa Claus to shimmy down their chimney, the Jewish people have a different tradition. We call tonight “Nittel Nacht,” though most people have probably never heard of such a thing (in all honesty, I just learned about it myself). In the Middle Ages, when times weren’t so good for our people (the more things change…), many towns and provinces forbade Jews from appearing in public on Christmas Eve. Good thing too, as the alternative could lead to violence against the “Christ-killers.” Thus the day became a sort of holiday-of-necessity for the chosen people. The Rabbis declared studying Torah and having sex illegal on that day, but encouraged secular reading and game-playing instead. We are lucky to live in an age where widespread persecution of Jews is no longer so popular, but it would be a shame to forget the weight that such a day used to carry.

I’m far from devout – I haven’t been to the synagogue in years, not even for the high holy days – but I consider my cultural Judaism to be an integral aspect of my identity. So how did I – a young Jewish man – remember the sad reality of Nittel Nacht? By taking my goyish primary movie-going companion to see It’s a Wonderful Life.

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Now before you get too bent out of shape, think about when the last time was that you actually watched the film. Sure, we forever associate it with Christmas (in no small part because the memorable third act takes place on Christmas Eve), but Frank Capra’s film would work just as well detached from the holiday.

Everyone remembers George Bailey’s (James “Jimmy” Stewart) snow-set flirt with suicide that ends in him getting a glimpse of what life in his hometown of Bedford Falls would be like had he never been born, but that is actually only the final 15 minutes or so of the film. What precedes it is almost two hours of a Citizen Kane-esque (Kane had been released five years earlier by the same studio, RKO) glimpse at the life of a man who sacrifices everything for his family and friends. George’s only real wish is to leave the town in which he grew up, and perhaps his very hubris in thinking himself above Bedford Falls is why he never actually gets out, but the connections he forms within are far more important than any world travel.

Jimmy Stewart is excellent in the film; he displays several different sides of his talent, from the charming and wide-eyed optimist to the resigned ideal of responsibility to the bitter and unfulfilled victim of life. Through all of this, the audience invests in George’s life the same way that the people of Bedford Falls do, and so when they band together to save him in the film’s conclusion (spoilers, sorry) all of the emotion feels completely earned. This isn’t Still Alice-style manipulation – it’s just good filmmaking, and I’ll own the fact that I rolled a tear when George’s brother Harry (Todd Karns) declares George “the richest man in town.” Because he really is, Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) be damned.

So that was my bright idea for the evening, but it turns out my PMGC’s Nittel Nacht game is stronger than mine. We followed It’s a Wonderful Life up with her choice: Fiddler on the Roof – a sing-along courtesy of Los Angeles-based independent cinema chain Laemmle Theatres.

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It’s a strange world when a Jew takes a gentile to see It’s a Wonderful Life, and she in turn takes him to see the Jewiest of musicals – Fiddler‘s protagonist Tevye (Topol) would probably flip.

It’s the dawn of the 20th century and Tevye works as a dairy farmer in the small Russian village of Anatevka, providing what little he can for his wife Golde (Norma Crane) and five (five!) daughters, including Tzeitel (Rosalind Harris), Hodel (Michele Marsh), and Chava (Neva Small). Tevye (like the rest of Anatevka) is big on tradition – he even sings about it! – but as revolution builds in Russia, the way of things also begins to change in Tevye’s community, with his family unit serving as patient zero. Tevye must come to terms with the lives and loves his three eldest daughters choose for themselves, while also dealing with the changing views on Jews in the region.

While Fiddler isn’t quite as baldly evocative as It’s a Wonderful Life, it is just as emotional a film, mostly in its depiction of precisely the kinds of treatment Jews might receive on a night like tonight. Act One is full of fun and laughter – wherein the biggest problem is the breaking of tradition, but as Act One ends and Act Two begins, the problems become greater than Tevye and his family. Disagreements and undermined authority pale in comparison to the forced relocation of an entire community. Director Norman Jewison effectively blends the energy of a stage musical and visual style of a movie in a way that puts something like the recent Annie incarnation to shame. Jewison lets the first act feel big and exciting, while using cinematic editing and effects to increase the kineticism. And then, when things get bleak, the director recalls the distance and sadness of Ingmar Bergman’s work, using the Swedish director’s blocking and set-ups as a short-hand for inevitability.

The sing-along attracted a full house of elderly Jews with nothing else to do. We celebrated Nittel Nacht together, and in all of the impatience and lack of reason surrounding me, I got a glimpse of my future. If I ever reach the point where I respond to someone speaking in front of a crowd of a couple hundred as if he and I are having a personal conversation, it may be too late to die with dignity. Still there is something to be said for spending the night before Christmas with a group of like-minded people who have been forced by society to recognize a day in which they hold absolutely no stock. The holiday season is everywhere, and I don’t begrudge it to anyone, but that omni-presence is why Nittel Nacht hasn’t disappeared along with institutionalized antisemitism. And until I can go to a movie theater without being assaulted by improperly disposed of chewing gum, I will continue to celebrate Nittel Nacht as well. Now where can I throw away a gummy t-shirt on Christmas?

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