Learning Hebrew. Fighting a disastrous war in Lebanon. Pogroms in Argentina. A singing mohel. Yes, it's time again for the annual New York Jewish Film Festival (January 9-24). In fact, this is the 17th year The Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center have pulled together the best of the best of current cinema that explores Judaism in all its complex variations.
One of the fest's more entertaining and informative efforts is Oded Lotan's debut effort, The Quest for the Missing Piece.
Lotan, an Israeli homosexual with a German gentile lover, is a secular Jew who can't understand why members of his tribe, even the ones who would never step inside a synagogue, still insist on giving their children's foreskins the old heave ho.
Recalling his own snipping, he notes: "The memory of that pain didn't linger long . . . but as years go by, the pain would return and be part of [my] life."
So like a slightly cynical Little Prince, Lotan embarks on his penile journey, searching for reasons, facts, and even the man who gave him the unkindest cut of all.
Some of the data he garners:
"In the U.S., 6 or 7 out of every 10 males are circumcised."
There are "650 million circumcised men in the world, one fifth of the entire male population."
"Circumcision is indisputably the most common surgical procedure in the world."
Furious at these statistics, at a meeting of "Parents of Intact Children," Galit, a young female lawyer, notes: "Cutting a perfectly healthy organ, [an operation] that is medically unnecessary and irreversible, constitutes assault."
A singing mohel, however, argues otherwise. And later Muslims are shown celebrating their own circumcision rituals with festive dancing at a huge ball.
So then, after coming across a painting depicting Christ's circumcision, why isn't it imperative that Christians get cut? Apparently, it all goes back to the Apostle Paul, who wanted pagans to convert to Christianity. God bless Paul.
Why? Well, according to Bud Berkeley's tome on the topic, Foreskin, a man can lose 20% of his sensitivity down there due to the operation. But on the other hand, current news articles insist that uncircumcised gents are more likely to contract AIDS. These are two subjects, though, that Lotan doesn't address.
You won't complain. With wit, relentless questioning, and a little whining, Lotan has fashioned an engaging documentary that will have you unzipping this issue and rethinking your stance, no matter where you stand.
Other films of note at the Festival include A Hebrew Lesson, an often joyful look at immigrants trying to survive in Israel; Jason Hutt's Orthodox Stance, an absorbing documentary on a young Orthodox Jewish boxer; and Joseph Cedar's superb, prize-winning anti-war drama Beaufort.
The only misstep I've viewed so far was Herman Szwarcbart's Buenos Aires' Pogrom, a well-meaning but un-cinematic treatment of a massacre of Jews and striking workers in Argentina back in 1919. Poorly structured and resorting to various souls reading from books, along with awkward dramatizations, the end result is convoluted and winds up poorly serving the memory of this horrific event. - Brandon Judell
Mr. Judell, who's currently teaching "Jewish Humor in Film" and "Queer Theater" at City College, has written about cinema for The Village Voice, indieWire, Detour, and dozens of other publications.