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Just an Ordinary Jew?

By Suzanne Koven

We Americans can be a bit provincial, seeing every experience as a metaphor for The American Experience. How refreshing and illuminating it is, then, for American interfaith couples to see a film in which common concerns of intermarriage, such as how to handle ritual observance, are entirely removed from an American context. Just an Ordinary Jew ("Ein Ganz Gewoehnlicher Jude"), a film by director Oliver Hirschbiegel, offers American audiences a provocative look at a post-war German Jew whose problems seem to us both like our own and different, at once unique and universal.

Emmanuel Goldfarb (Ben Becker), the protagonist of Just an Ordinary Jew , is not a happy man. An innocent and well-meaning request by a grammar school social studies teacher asking Goldfarb, a writer on cultural issues, to speak to his class about Judaism sends Goldfarb into the angry tirade which comprises most of the film. He paces around his apartment chain-smoking, and spews into a digital recorder a monologue at turns rageful and self-loathing, meant, at least at first, to be a letter in reply to the teacher's request. The "letter" gets out of hand, though, and grows into a screed, dozens of pages long, in which Goldfarb, responding to the invitation to represent "just an ordinary Jew," airs his own conflicted, edgy and sometimes comical relationship with Judaism.

Ben Becker plays Goldfarb, a conflicted, angry German Jew who wants neither identity to interfere with the other, in Just an Ordinary Jew ("Ein Ganz Gewoehnlicher Jude").

Goldfarb's problem is that he wants two mutually exclusive things: to be both an ordinary Jew and an ordinary German. He wants his fellow Germans to recognize his unique position as a Jew--especially in regard to the persecution his family experienced during the Holocaust--without assuming that he is only a Jew. He is particularly offended that Germans ask him his opinions about Israel as if, since he is Jewish, Israel would be of more concern to him than to any other German (which, of course, it is!).

Predictably, in no arena is Goldfarb's conflict about his Jewish identity more troublesome than in his personal life. During his monologue he describes his failed marriage. His relationship with "Hanna"--Goldfarb notes the irony of his non-Jewish wife's very Jewish name--begins well. They meet and fall in love as students, and since neither of them is a believer or religiously observant, it doesn't seem that their different religious backgrounds will be a wedge between them. They have a baby boy whom they call "Michael," a name which can be either Jewish or not. The marriage begins to fall apart when Goldfarb, to his own surprise, finds he feels strongly that the baby should be ritually circumcised. Hanna, a mechanical engineer who, Goldfarb says, tends to see things in orderly and black and white terms, feels that such a ritual would be hypocritical, a betrayal of the atheism which she thought she and her husband had agreed upon.

After his son has no circumcision, Goldfarb begins to practice Judaism with ferocity; praying every day with tefillin, the phylacteries worn by the most traditionally observant men. He feels that his parents' survival of the Holocaust has been nullified by his son's uncircumcised state and he must do all he can to restore the broken covenant, including destroying his marriage.

The Goldfarb we meet in Just an Ordinary Jew , however, is clearly secular. Sometime after the departure of his wife and son he dropped his new observance. The tefillin sit in a cupboard and the clean-shaven Goldfarb appears to color his hair a distinctly German blond. He can no more assume the role of traditional Jew than he could assume the role of a-religious husband and father.

This dilemma, this endless sense of displacement, is familiar, of course, to many modern Jews. In Just an Ordinary Jew Goldfarb calls history "the Jewish disease." It may be that no matter what country we happen to be citizens of, the innate and sometimes unconscious tug we feel toward our Jewish identity may create conflict. American viewers who have grown accustomed to thinking of intermarriage in the American paradigm--that is, of intermarriage as a symbol of the American Jew's attempt to assimilate into broader American society, like Woody Allen at the Easter table in Annie Hall , will see through Emmanuel Goldfarb that they have, perhaps, an even bigger obstacle to a happy intermarriage than the dominant non-Jewish culture: themselves.

Just an Ordinary Jew was shown at the Boston Jewish Film Festival and other Jewish film festivals. Look for it at a Jewish film festival near you.

Hebrew term derived from the word "to pray," and translated into English as the unhelpful word "phylacteries." A set of small black leather boxes containing scrolls on which the Torah verses are written, one goes on the upper arm (with the black leather straps wrapping down the arm and around the hand and fingers) and the other goes around the head (with the straps dropping down the back of the head).
Suzanne Koven

Suzanne Koven practices medicine and lives with her Italian-American Jewish family in the Boston area. Her website is suzannekovenmd.com.

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