‘Scenes from a marriage’ and the liberalization of American Jews

Written and directed by Hagai Levi, Scenes from a marriage examines the relationship between Jonathan (Oscar Isaac), a philosophy professor who was once a practicing Orthodox Jew, and his beautiful and successful wife, Mira (Jessica Chastain), suburban Bostonians who share a daughter Ava and exude satisfaction conjugal.

However, fissures soon appear when Mira’s confession of an affair with Poli, an Israeli CEO of a startup (with Michael Aloni), creates the catalyst for the disintegration of her marriage. The result is the development of an intense story centered on infidelity, marriage and monogamy.

Adapted from the original 1973 drama by Swedish director Ingrid Bergman, Levi’s deft directing, bolstered by excellent acting, also elevates Scenes from a marriage from a drama that chronicles a marriage falling apart to a series that draws heavily on themes surrounding Jews in modern America and the changing generational representations of American Jews in popular culture.

Years ago, the production of well-known films set in the immediate aftermath of World War II made Jews defenders of their faith. In Exodus, Paul Newman plays Ari Ben-Canaan, the handsome Israeli who captures the heart of Kitty Fremont. Years later, The Chosen’s Reuven Malter, with Barry Miller, is the young intellect struggling with the convergence of Judaism and secularism. Although still anchored in his Jewish identity, Reuven smuggles boxes of weapons overseas to help defend Israel.

Recently, the strongest Jewess to appear on screen is Sarah Nordmann, an attractive converted woman who stars in the Australian series A Place To Call Home. Sarah brandishes a pistol at a crazed anti-Semite and confronts her wealthy husband insisting that their son be raised a Jew.

The common thread that ties these dramas together is that they all occurred in the shadow of the Holocaust, when the world’s Jews were at their weakest and global sympathies were with the founding of a Jewish country. As Jews became integrated into the midst of American society, their representation moved away from representations of resilience. Today, American Jews on the air are often characterized as bankrupt intellectuals lacking religious convictions. Famous Jewish actors Woody Allen and Larry David are self-proclaimed atheists who, far from being heroic, are apprehensive of spiders and are willing to abandon their spouse following the fake news of an impending terrorist attack.

The spread of this stereotype is revealed in Scenes from a marriage, when Jonathan is faced with the news of Mira’s affair. Instead of reacting angrily, he begs her to stay. The parody of his insecurity is in his suffocation of Mira, both figuratively and literally. Jonathan insists on packing Mira’s suitcase before she leaves with her lover, and refuses to release her steady embrace as she begs him to let her go.

OSCAR ISAAC and Jessica Chastain in ‘Scenes from a marriage’. (credit: Jojo Whilden / HBO)

Acting as the professor’s contrast, Levi’s choice of an Israeli as Mira’s lover also highlights Jonathan’s crisis of faith. Promoting a narrative rooted in weakness, Levi pits Jonathan against the younger, sexier Israeli of whom Mira jokes that he is “not an intellectual.” In fact, intellectual pursuits are central to constructions of American Jewish identity. Serving as the epicenter of the academic elite, the backdrop of the Boston suburbs along with Jonathan’s profession underscores this phenomenon in Scenes from a marriage.

In his memoirs, Free as a Jew: a personal memory of national self-liberation, Professor Ruth Wisse writes, “Whether biological or political, Jews could not match the militant idea of ​​masculinity and instead elevated intellect and learning.” Wisse asserts that “Israel had too many real enemies to give up male protectors, but not so much American liberalism or the Jews in its orbit.”

As for her in Scene I, Jonathan and Mira meet a graduate student researching gender norms and ask him, “What is one attribute you couldn’t imagine without?” Jonathan reflexively responds “Jewish” as his second characteristic, while placing his career as “academic” toward the bottom of his list. Embarrassed at subordinating his academic status, Jonathan quickly self-corrects himself and states, “I should have said that (an academic) first.”

In the final episode, the changing discourse and social acceptance regarding intermarriage is captured when Jonathan’s Orthodox mother, leaving his father’s memorial, warns him about his divorce, but never raises the issue that Mira is not. bean. Rather, she chides him for not doing enough to create “Shalom Bayis (a peaceful home).

This exchange points to a recognition that even within orthodoxy, the endorsement of a “mixed marriage” is entirely plausible given that today, this topic rarely evokes the disappointment or generates the debate for which it was previously known. Years ago, movies like Crossing Delancey idealized the union of American Jews. As intermarriage rates increased, American movies evolved to reflect the trend. In one example, Keeping The Faith (2000) tells the story of the handsome modern New York Rabbi Jake Schram (Ben Stiller), who falls in love with Anna Riley (Jenna Elfman). Although not Jewish, Riley considers conversion at the end of the film.

For his part, Levi’s emphasis on Jonathan leaving orthodoxy does not detract from his reverence for Jewish tradition. Quite the opposite. The episode where Jonathan seems safest is in Scene III, when Mira appears on his doorstep and witnesses the remains of the Shabbat dinner on the table. Proudly proclaiming that he hasn’t had an asthma attack in months and perhaps channeling his inner Israeli, Jonathan lights a cigarette. Specifically, the blend of Judaism and spiritual renewal are found in this scene, producing a strong and confident Jonathan.

While conceived as a show detailing the destabilization of a marriage, through the creativity of Levi’s, Scenes From a Marriage uncovers the layers of reality faced by American Jews. The final product is a deeply revealing and distinctly Jewish drama.

The writer is a defender of Israel. His work has been published in The Jerusalem Post, JNS, The Algemeiner, and Israel Hayom.


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