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February 24, 2012

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HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, FEBRUARY 24, 2012 A sneak peek at "Footnote," Israel's Oscar nominee By Maxine Dovere/JointMe dia News Service NEW YORK--In his latest film. Israeli writer-director Joseph Cedar has created a drama of personal contro- versy. He explores spirit. resilience and responsibility. "Footnote" tells the story of a father, embittered by his life and angered by the success of his son. That son. though publicly applauded. is m turn challenged by the not-fully-formed third gen- eratior.his son. The story of "Footnote" is universal, told here within the confines of a single family. Eliezer and Uriel Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar Aba and Lior Ashkenazi), father and son. are both profes- sors in the Talmudic studies department at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, a place Cedar says is replete with "mythological rivalries between scholars, stubborn- ness on an epic scale. (and) eccentric professors who live with an academic mission that is bigger than life itself." After 20 years of applica- tion and repeated rejection. Eliezer Shkoinik is notified of his nomination for the prestigious Israel Prize. Until this moment, his academic narrative had been defined by a footnote. The notifica- By Eric Herschthal New York Jewish Week No one can seem to get over the fact that Ben Marcus, the scion of avant-garde literature and its most impassioned defender, recently published a fairly traditional novel. "The Flame Alphabet." It has all the trappings of normative fiction--a plot, emotionally developed characters, even some good old-fashioned drama. But all that convention belies what is still uniquely Marcusonian: the surreal setting, this one taking place in a post-apocalyptic New York; the obsessive focus on language and its ability to do tremendous harm; and, above all. the cultish sect the book follows, in this case an enig- matic sect of "Forest Jews." "I'm taking liberties here," said Marcus, 44, sitting in a caf near the New York Pub- lic Library. "It's meant to be playful, but also subversive, immensely subversive." Marcus. who is Jewish, has never written about Jews before. But in "The Flame Alphabet," he saw an oppor- tunity to take his writing in a new direction not unlike the new path he's taken by employing traditional narra- tive techniques. "I'm afraid of complacen- cy," he said. "Taking a brand- new technical approach," he thought, "migllt help me uncover new material." Indeed it has. The world Marcus has imagined in "The Flame Alphabet" only loosely resembles the world we know. The Judaism practiced by the novel's protagonist, Sam. surpasses the strangeness of even the most esoteric Jewish sects of yore--be they the Pharisees or the followers of Sabattai Zevi. Sam and his wife, Claire. tion, incorrectly made. sets forward a series of emotion- ally charged events, sacrifice. and temptation. In a room too small for their chais to fit around a table, a group of aging men and women come together to change the life of one who would be their peer. A mistake made has changed a life, effectively rebirthing a soul near death. Can they who have "'given life" simply recall it? What is the value of absolute truth weighed against humanity? Should one who can change life with the stroke of a pen actually do so? Can the son praise the father, and create the illu- sion he has chosen? Life. Uriel realizes, is a series of parries some carried out in costume, some hidden behind the mask'swire mesh. In agreeing to compromise with the devil of deceit and academic vanity it is the son who creates his father. Obligated to compose the committee's statement, he writes the lines and the meaning between them. the truth made clear enough for a learned reader to understand. Even as the son gives his future to save his past. he faces a father so deeply angry he would destroys the very son who would not destroy him. Further, the possibil- ity of such destruction is generational: "What does it mean," asks Uriel of his own son. "when a father gives up on his son?" Is this father willing to destroy his next generation? Seeking his father, Uriel follows staircase after stair- case, each descending, until his reaches his father. In the depths, surrounded by his colleagues, the old scholar celebrates. His son who stood for his father, rather than for the convenience of correct- ness. who in finality will bear the weight of this decision, is uninvited. As he searched for his father in the bowels of the library, descending level by level. Uriel is accom- panied by his thoughts and by music. Throughout the film. the music is an almost independent narrator, albeit one of private conversation rarely shared, yet telling and directive. Interviewed prior to the awards ceremony, Eliezer panics and (literally) runs from the studio. Still in the camera-friendly red shirt, he returns to his texts. Bit by bit. linguistic clue by linguistic clue, the realization of what his son had done is clarified. He understands. The old scholar lies si- lently, alone in the dark. In pain, Uriel had revealed the secret to his mother. In the dark. alone in her bed. she wakes. Carrying the burden of knowledge, she comes to her husband after what can be assumed to be a long time apart. The simplicity of his action, as he places a pillow for her head. speaks volumes. The woman his wife, his life mate, the mother of his son--understands. They both do. Their recognition remains silent. Silhouetted against gold- en Jerusalem. the couple ascends. To reach the prize ceremony, they descend through a strangely lit tunnel surrounded by the sounds of a beating heart. Eliezer knows the truth is known to the two closest to him. and now. to himself as well. There is no longer joy or celebration in receiving the prize. That has been removed from who gave, and who received. Footnote is Cedar's fourth feature, following "Beaufort" (2007), "Campfire" (2004), and "Time of Favor" (2001). It premiered at the2011 Canng Film Festival on May 14, winning the Best Screenplay Award. It was released in Israel on June 2 and will be distributed in North America by Sony Pictures Classics. Shlomo Bar Aba, return- ing to "film after a twen- ty year hiatus, is Eliezer Shkolnik; Lior Ashkenazi, encompasses the role of Uriel Shkolnik, his son. PAGE 11A EPA/GUILLAUME HORCAJUELO. (L-R) Israeli actor Lior Ashkenazi, Israeli director Joseph Cedar, Israeli actor Micah Lewensohn and Israeli actress Yuval Scharf arrive for the screening of"Footnote  during the 64th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France, on May 14, 2011. Cedar's film is up for an Academy Award and debuts in the U.S. on March 9. Credit: Both prepared exteoly, integrating themseie] nto the Uniitg comu, studying almud; ohe evn grew a beard. Marcus ponders dark side of language is not putting forth his own views of Jewish thought-- the ones just quoted are. quite clearly, the malicious thoughts of the novel's de- spicable villain. But he found in the richness of Jewish thought a trove of narrative possibilities. "I didn't want to create this from scratch," he said of his fictive Jewish cult. "To me, Judaism was in some way the most adaptive" religion. Marcus said he approached Judaism in the book the same way he approaches all religions, as "beautiful. complicated fictions." Mar- cus studied philosophy as an undergraduate student at NYU, and, though raised a secular Jew, he was born to a nominally religious father. a Jewish mathematician. His mother, a lapsed Catholic, is a literary critic. He married a Jew. the well-known author Heidi Julavits. Marcus is suspicious of Ju- daism's supernatural claims, but he is not out to pick a theological fight. Instead, he wants to use Jewish concepts to goad his imagination. What if, for instance, Judaism is correct and there are things that our minds are incapable of grasping, like the nature of God? And if God is incom- prehensible, what happens if we break that rule and try to understand him? Perhaps, Marcus' novel implies, our en- tire language might become infected with a power so great it will destroy us. Of course Judaism was not all that inspired "The Flame Alphabet." And Marcus. now firmly rooted in New York's literary establishment--with steady bylines in The New Yorker. Harper's and The Paris Review. as well as a professorship at Columbia University's creative writing MFA program--seems most poised to attract a secular literary audience. What has surprised most Marcus devotees to date is not the Jewish content, but the traditional narrative form. "I was expecting, based on his two prior books, that it was going to be structured by less obvious modes of fiction." said Michael Chabon. the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and a close friend of Marcus. "It was a shock to me" how traditional the novel is. "A very pleasant surprise. But it's still identifi- ably Ben Marcus." Marcus' editor at Knopf, Jordan Pavlin, said much the same thing: "It's an intellec- tual horror story," she said, "and it does feature a more traditional narrative. But what I find so fascinating about 'The Flame Alphabet' is the idea at the heart of it: that we will perish bywhat we love: language. That the very thing that sustains us will be our undoing." Marcus distanceshimself from the oft-repeated "experi- mental" moniker. It may be true that"TheAge of Wire and String," his 1995 postmodern first novel that put him on the map, was highly obtuse. It featured 41 mini-novels, al- most poem-like, that together created a surreal and plotless portrait. His second book. "Notable American Women," from 2002, was more traditional in terms of plot and character de- velopment. But even then the world it created was entirely new. and strange: it followed a fictive feminist cult. dubbed the Silentists. somewhere out in Ohio. Like "The Flame Alphabet," it involves a plot to rid speech from the earth. But Marcus' most endur- ing legacy to date may be the essay he wrote for Harper's magazine m 2005. titled "Why experimental fiction the New York Public Library's Dorot Jewish division. "The book really did teach me a lot, in that sense." he said, referring to Jewish thought. There are moments when that self-cultivated erudition shines through, like the oc- casional reference to Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi, the real- life spiritualist and Jewish Renewal guru, or in the nod to Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstruc- tionist movement. But in a much more significant way, Jewish ideas permeate the entire book. There is. for instance, the kabbalistic idea that language can nver grasp the essence of the divine, and that God, moreover, is the ultimate unknowable. Even the central metaphor of the bookthat language can become toxic-- is in part inspired by the idea that all of the Hebrew Bible expresses God's will. That idea, when twisted by the novel's antagonist, an anti-Semite named Murphy, leads him to believe that Jews are the ultimate source of the toxic language outbreak. "The flame alphabet was the word of God. written in fire, obliterating to behold. The so-called Torah," Murphy muses at one point. "We could not say God's true name. nor could we, if we were devoted. speak of God at all. This was basic stuff. But it was the midrashic spin on the flame alphabet that was more ex- clusive," he goes on. "Since the entire alphabet comprises God's name. Burke"--the Forest Jews' chief rabbi-- "asserted. since it is written in every arrangement of let- ters, then all words reference God. do they not? That's what words are. They are variations of his name. No matter the language." Marcus makes clear that he gather weekly inside a hut built in their backyard, where they tune in to sermons piped through an extensive underground network. The speeches they hear incho- ate sermons they can't even understand, but which they must obey--make several non-Jews suspicious. After all, the central plot is driven by the outbreak of a deadly disease caused by a mysteri- ous malfunction of speech. Everyone who hears it, except for young children, begins to suffer a ghastly, horrific death. Some of these things are obvious allusions to real- world phenomenon, like anti- Semitism and the potency of language. But if you go look- ing for conclusive arguments about what Marcus means. you'd be searching in vain. He says he simply wants to explore the imaginative capa- bilities of ideas found in the real world, rather than make any grand polemical points. "The idea there's a calcula- tion being made is a little bit of a fallacy," he said. Still. it is not as if his work lacks intent or focus. On the contrary, he underwent an extensive research program that had him reading reams of Jewish philosophy, including the works of Gershom Scho- lem. and spending hours in threatens to destroy publish- ing, Jonathan Franzen and life as we know it." In it. Marcus skewered his fellow novelist, the best-selling author Jona- than Franzen, who had re- cently attacked experimental fiction. Marcus felt compelled to defend it. Given the turn Marcus' own fiction has recently taken, per- haps it is not surprising that Marcus is in a less pugnacious mood. "It wasn't about Fran- zen's fiction, which [ much admire," Marcus says about the essay now. "But several positions he had taken I had deeply disagreed with. ;' Anyway, he never did call his own fiction experimental, he said. and has distanced himself from that label be- fore. "I don't sit down and say, OK. let's aim for this point on the realism-experimental continuum. I don't think there's any writer who works like that. In my fiction, I just try to write what's interesting to me." Marcus tactfully avoided taking positions on some Jewish ideas, as well. When asked what he felt about the Jewish idea that some things, like the nature of God, human language cannot express, he said he in no way drew a conclusion in his novel. But when pressed Did he, Ben Marcus, haveaposition? he relented. "I'mawriter, so I'm fated to believe that language, if used with poetic precision, will con- tinue to undercover new layers of human experience." he said. "It's the foolish courage of a writer to deny it"--that there are some things language cannot express "and still try anyway." Eric Herschthal is staff writer for The New York Jewish Week, from which this article was reprinted by permission.