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'Jakob the Liar' 

Rabbi Naomi Levy pans 'Jakob the Liar'

Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This column is not a film review; rather, it's a freewheeling, tangential discussion of life, alternative ideas, and popular culture.

"HAVE YOU ever heard of the Chelm stories?" asks Rabbi Naomi Levy, in a gentle, lilting voice so soft and quiet I have to press the telephone against my ear to hear it.

"Um, Helm stories?" I ask.

"Chelm," Levy repeats. "They're very famous, very humorous stories in the Jewish folkloric tradition. Chelm is a little European town made up entirely of simpletons, and the stories tell about the funny, foolish things the townspeople do."

"Chelm," I repeat. It's a warm word, like a mouthful of fresh dough. I jot a quick note to myself, in the paperback margin of Levy's best-selling, wonderfully autobiographical "guidebook" To Begin Again: The Journey toward Comfort, Strength, and Faith in Difficult Times (Ballantine; $12.95).

"Check out Chelm," I write, anticipating the rich post-conversation Internet-search that will follow our post-film conversation.

Rabbi Levy is the former rabbi of Temple Mishkon Tephilo, in Venice, Calif. She was the first female Conservative rabbi to lead a congregation on the West Coast, stepping down from the pulpit only last year to raise her two children.

We've reached out and touched each other this afternoon, long distance, to discuss the new Robin Williams film Jakob the Liar, a manic-depressive Holocaust comedy-drama (uh huh, a Holocaust comedy, like Life Is Beautiful, only with Robin Williams).

Critically vilified--and not a great performer at the box office, either--Jakob is about the starving, suicidal denizens of an unnamed Nazi-enforced Jewish ghetto, somewhere in Poland in the last days of World War II, who miraculously regain a glimmer of hope and dignity after Jakob, a widowed pancake-maker played by Williams, begins to spread little white lies about an imminent arrival of Allied troops. It is assumed that Jakob must have a secret illegal radio from which he receives his "news." As the lies build to absurd levels--Jakob claims he can hear the approach of Allied tanks on his fictional radio, insisting that they must be American tanks because Benny Goodman's orchestra is also heard, sent along to play as the forces engage the German Army--the ghetto's suicide rate sees a sudden dramatic drop.

Levy didn't like it.

"It was part Life Is Beautiful and part Good Morning Vietnam," she says, "and by the end it had turned into Braveheart."

A strange mix indeed.

"I agree with the idea," she continues, "that it's important to retain hope, and that even in the darkest circumstances, even when your hope is based on a lie, it can literally save lives.

"But I thought it was executed in a way that made the people seem simple-minded."

It is here that Levy invokes the name of Chelm, with its beloved population of simpletons. This, I have since learned (I did do my research), is a group of people so fundamentally unwise that once, after dragging a thousand fresh-cut logs from the top of a nearby mountain--and after hearing that they might have done better by rolling the logs down instead of dragging them--the people of Chelm all banded together to drag the logs back up top of the mountain so that they could properly roll them back down again.

Then there's the one about the addled fellow who, accidentally turned around on a trip to Warsaw, mistakenly ends up back home in Chelm--and assumes that Warsaw is an exact copy of his hometown, right down to the mysterious strangers who look just like his wife and children.

"To me, Jakob the Liar was almost as absurd as that," says Levy, "only it was the victims of the Nazi ghettos that were being portrayed, not the people of Chelm. The people who ended up believing Jakob's lies ended up looking silly and foolish.

"It turned the victims into fools," she softly murmurs, "and turned the nightmare of the Holocaust into a fairy tale."

IN LEVY'S BOOK, mingled with inspiring stories of people she's known, the author describes her own nightmare. At the age of 15, she lost her father when he was shot by a thief on the streets of New York. It was a loss she reacted to by distancing herself from her father's faith in God.

"On the day my father died," she writes, "God died too."

Rabbi Levy's journey back to God is the story of harsh despair turned eventually back into hope.

"To live in this world, to carry on, we all need a degree of hope," Levy acknowledges. "Hope that people are basically good, hope that things are going to be OK, hope that there is something worth striving for, hope that there's a reason to get out of bed in the morning."

"The irony of Jakob," I remark, "is that the all-important, life-sustaining hope turns out to be a lie."

"I think hope is often a lie," Levy replies. "It didn't bother me that hope was a lie. What bothered me was that hope was such a blatant lie."

"Wait," I interject. "Hope is often a lie?"

This hardly sounds, well, scriptural.

"We deny our mortality all the time, in order to go on living," Levy explains. "A certain sense of denial is required to live in this world. If we were looking at the statistics realistically, we'd never drive another car, or cross a street, or get married, or do anything.

"In a way, all hope is a denial of reality, so that we can maintain our faith in something, faith in the beauty of this existence, faith in love, faith in God," she adds. "I do think that life is cruel. I also think it's our job to enjoy life anyway."

"And how do we do that?" I ask.

"We do it the way the heroic people in the real ghettos and camps did it," she answers.

"We hold on to hope, any hope, even the simple hope that somehow tomorrow will be better than today."

From the October 7-13, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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