What can fairly be called the definitive Jewish Experience? Some distinct and describable emotional, spiritual, psychological, even neurological comprehensive experience that is uniquely Jewish. A knee-jerk reaction tells us there must be one, but that it would certainly be narrow and limited in its scope because Jews are autonomous human beings with different paths, affiliations, and backgrounds. For every Jewish person that would call the Torah and halachah the Jewish Experience, ten others will view these texts and traditions as foreign and insignificant, even archaic and obsolete. If there is a common Jewish imperative, it can only be a sense of our history, and the vastly different, strange, and mystifying place in the world we hold in its continuing evolution. What we share, if anything, is the inherent knowledge that even with the success and achievement we believe is always within reach, whatever prominent, influential role we play in civilization, we are on the outside looking in. There is an overwhelming sensation of otherness, of not really being one of a whole, of perhaps an ugliness and an unsophistication. This is not to say of course that there is in actuality ugliness (though you can try a little harder Chasidim – kidding!), just that a Jew feels that we are viewed in that light. But that is only part of the Jewish Experience. It is not simply a feeling of rejection – it is the power, degree, and complexity of that outsider quality. Whether the Jew chooses to fanaticize himself within Judaism, assimilate, intermarry, maintain tradition, or any other reaction to his blood, skin, and soul, it is impossible to escape the knowledge and sensation of being very, very different.
It is the oldest lesson, proven since recorded history began: A Jew is a Jew is a Jew. And this lesson cuts both ways. Just as the adage has been used to embarrass, harass, torture, defame, exclude, imprison, and murder Jews, it has been used by our people for the benefit of our people to protect, redeem, assist, empower, and embolden. Though every culture and religion has at one time or another been surrounded by a majority unlike themselves and faced the shame, injustice, and personal agony of being cast out and persecuted, anti-Semitism remains special. In a way, anti-Semitism in all its forms, is counterintuitive.
Jews are an underdog race, spread and scattered throughout the globe, present and preeminent since the dawn of civilization. Everywhere they go, no matter the deplorable situation in which they arrive, they rise and flourish, enrich and create something substantial from very little. They contribute to society in an unprecedented fashion – the arts, politics, science – their influence in terms of their numbers is a marvel. They ride a rollercoaster through the ages, rising to the greatest heights only before plummeting to depths of despair and suffering – and then rise again. Why would a people like this be loathed instead of loved, or at the very least respected? Doesn't everyone love the underdog? Isn't Rocky Six coming out this December?
There is no answer for the Jewish see-saw effect through history as this just seems to be G-d's will – another part of the Jewish Experience, though it is not complete just yet. We still need to account for the resentment we face.
We commonly hear three answers for this. The first is the one we tell ourselves – jealousy. It seems reasonable, but it is purely defensive and too simple to be accurate (considering that Jews are looked down upon whether they are princes or in poverty). Our rabbis tell us the answer is that we endanger ourselves and draw animosity either when we “sin” or when we “try to be like the goyim.” Certainly this is self-serving, pedagogical, and inaccurate as well (because Jews are detested whether religious or secular) however it does set us in the right direction.
We have never been hated for a longing to be accepted by the world around us or for “trying to be like the goyim”. What we are hated for is the fact that we wouldn't have the first clue how to be like the world around. A Jew – secular, religious, subconsciously, or consciously – likes being a Jew. They like being a bit sharper and smarter, with the little Jewish networks and loyalties, and stubborn immortality. A Jew never longs to be like everyone else – the only wish is to be given opportunities by our environment, to be given a chance to develop. Leave us alone, we say, let us do our thing and you, nation that houses us in security, will benefit. You will obtain doctors, and judges, and innovative thoughts on paper. We can't become you – we can only pretend in a most offensive, patronizing way that we want to become you. This pretentiousness, this perceived exploitation of our surroundings, is what infuriates our neighbors. The insincerity of our “trying to be like the goyim” is the ultimate problem. We argue that we are rejected when it is really us subtly rejecting. Isn't it interesting that we rage over being placed in ghettos, though when given the freedom to live where we please, we create ghettos. This conscious and obvious removal of ourselves while being constantly shocked and dismayed (and stupidly surprised) by our otherness is the Jewish Experience.
Sunshine is the definitive Jewish Experience movie. Beautifully told with heartbreaking eloquence, it is mandatory viewing if one intends to understand what it means to be a Jew living in the world. It weighs equally the balance between the two – Jewish and living in the world. Today, in America it is very hard, perhaps, for this generation to understand sacrifice or appreciate true commitment and religious tensions as our difficult questions of the day revolve around whether or not to wear a yarmulke to work and the best time to cut out on Chanukah to get home in time to light menorah with the kids. As Sunshine well knows, these cultural dilemmas are an absolute joke in relation to the struggles of Jews in the past – and the mere fact that we are able to pilpul such trivialities daily speaks volumes as to how spoiled and unglued we have become. We are an age that is so free and unburdened that we have, in our boredom, created and fabricated more halachic “issues” than ever before.
While some of the lessons of the Jewish Experience as defined above are laid out in some splendid, some calamitous moments throughout the epically scoped film, Sunshine postulates and proves a separate theory. That though the Jewish Experience has the ability to reflect and express itself in the individual Jewish lifetime, it is only truly revealed and can only be fully appreciated when viewing multiple generations. The Jewish Experience is better witnessed as a cumulative event taking place through a single family line over time. And the theory makes sense: How can I honestly argue that I represent the complete historical Jewish Experience? But take my grandfather's escape from Nazis and travels from Europe to America, my father's growing up in a country with a new breed of Jewish identity and summers on the Kibbutz, the success of the family business, my freedom of expression and liberal environment and boundless opportunity, and my children facing a world of Islamic jihadists whose number one mission is to kill Jews. This chain creates the textured fabric of a Jewish Experience – the rollercoaster personified. Part of the Jewish Experience (or rather the reason for the Jewish Experience) is our sensing from within the past and future as if they live in the present – in the Jew.
Sunshine tells the story of the Sonnenschein (“Sunshine”) family beginning with Emmanuel who as a boy was sent from his village in the Austro-Hungarian mountains to Budapest. There, he found success brewing the secret Sonnenschein family recipe for the “Tonic of Life.”
As an established man with a prosperous career, he lay down roots and started a family, always remaining stolid and steadfast in his faith and devotion to the old ways and traditions. But time and progress and revolution and culture have a way of diluting and overpowering the old ways. Emmanuel still gathers his family (two sons and niece/adopted daughter) around the Shabbos table, under the watchful eye portrait of his rabbinic grandfather, and says the blessings. The very table where they sit will witness such change, such decay of Emmanuel's principals, such disappearance of belief and faith. The great love affair between Emmanuel's son, Ignatz (played by Ralph Fiennes who does superb work in three roles), and his niece Valerie (played hauntingly by daughter/mother actresses Jennifer Ehle/Rosemary Harris) blossoms and crumbles. Memebers of the family die. But the table, the chairs, the portrait of the old rabbi, bearded and skull-capped, they bear witness.
Director/writer Istvan Szabo, uses the same Budapest sets – a restaurant, the Sonnenschein factory – to show that we Jews are merely walking through a set in this lifetime and playing the role as our fathers did before us, trying to change something when really nothing will change. G-d's will is that nothing will change. It was Billy Corgan who said, “despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage” – and in many ways Sunshine says this is an apt description of the Jewish Experience.
By the day of Emmanuel's death (a day where he chillingly asks “What was it all for?”), his children have changed the family name to a more Hungarian and acceptable Sors. The next generation finds the Sors children converting to Catholicism. Why? Because they are talented and prominent and asked to by the powers that be – and with no real connection to Jewish practice, what does a classification on paper matter. The Jew knows this of course, that the classification on paper is as phony and meaningless as any other “attempt” to join the masses. A Jew is a Jew is a Jew. And as World War II well evidenced, the Sors family is treated as all other Jews and its members are systematically broken down and murdered (including a scene of a gruesome death that I would not have thought possible).
After the Russian communists liberated Hungary, the surviving Sors family gathers again and regroups, but the Jewish Experience calls out. Ivan, son of the murdered fencing champion Adam, grandson of the great judge Ignatz, great grandson of Emmanuel, is hired by the Communist regime to interrogate conspirators, and he is a loyal Hungarian as his father and grandfather were before him. Loyal to causes and a country that marked them as Jews and toyed with and battered them – causes and countries only willing to allow a Jew to get so far before saying enough Jew!
Adam begins to realize that he is not the man he had lead himself to believe he is, but is only a tool being manipulated as his father and grandfather were. Only Emmanuel, with his commitment to the faith, family, and business, was his own man (as was Valerie in a sense). Emmanuel taught that a Jew should not seek position, that a Jew should not be ambitious, or desire power. A lesson ignored by his progeny. When Adam is asked to convict and break his own Jewish commander (William Hurt) based on his involvement in a Zionist conspiracy, he can no longer live the lie. He has had enough of the “Jewish Experience” and desires just to be Jewish. He chooses to leave the Communist party and then changes his name….back to Sonnenschein.