Is He Or Isn’t He?

If after watching this:

you don’t really know what Kike Like Me is about, don’t worry, because neither did I after having sat through the entire film. Ostensibly, the film’s maker, Canadian TV journalist Jamie Kastner was bothered that people kept asking him whether he was Jewish, so he set out a few years ago to find out if and/or how it mattered if he was (or not). The result of his quest is a disjointed film with no discernible, not to mention valuable, central revelation or message.

Promotional photos like this one leave me speechless.

Kastner does supply his viewers with the heretofore-unheard-of, earth-shattering and headline-grabbing news that: New York is a very Jewish place; Lubavitchers do a lot of religious outreach; strong anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist sentiments can be found in some quarters of British society; Israeli immigrant absorption centers do not offer the most luxurious of accommodations; writer A.B. Yehoshua thinks that one can only live a fully Jewish life in Israel; young Muslims in France can exhibit a strong dislike of Jews; Dutch Ajax soccer fans refer to themselves as “Yode” (Jew) without really identifying with or liking real Jews; Judeophilic culture is strong in Eastern and Central European countries almost devoid today of living Jews; and Auschwitz has been turned into a cleaned-up tourist destination. If I am coming across here as sarcastic and snide, I am only copying Kastner’s tone throughout his movie. I am also attempting to convey that I doubt that the filmmaker did his homework, given how he seems to be presenting these things as though they are astounding disclosures.

I found it sad that a young Jew like Kastner was searching for his Jewish identity, on this roadtrip through New York, Washington, London, Paris, Berlin, Cracow and Auschwitz, by trying to find out what non-Jews think of Jews, rather than by immersing himself in the vibrant Jewish renaissance being led right now by Jews of his age group. I would imagine it would be far more fulfilling to try to find out whether it is important to be Jewish (and to be open with people about it) by exploring its richness than by reminding yourself (as though we Jews really need to be reminded) that there are people out there who don’t like you. Yes, despite the many wonderful contributions to the world by Jews, and despite all the exciting things going on in the Jewish world today and the ever expanding ways in which Jews can access the Jewish community and express their Jewish identities, to some people out there, we are still just nothing but kikes.

Wrapping tefillin at 770 Eastern Parkway

Kastner tries to set his audience up (using the classic Gregory Peck film, Gentleman’s Agreement as a framing device) to think that he is possibly a non-Jew posing as a Jew in order to elicit certain reactions from interviewees. (Hence the film’s title, which is clearly referential to the 1960s’ Black Like Me). He refuses to divulge, both during the film and in post-production life, whether he is actually Jewish. I can’t say it with absolute certainty, but my hunch is that he is a Jew posing as a non-Jew posing as a Jew. Otherwise, it would have been highly inappropriate for him to have allowed the Lubavichers as 770 Eastern Parkway to bar mitzvah him by teaching him to wrap of tefillin. Also, he may have just given himself away in footage not shown in the final cut, but included in the deleted scenes section of the DVD. In one of these scenes, Kastner is seen shedding a few tears while watching and listening to an elderly former star of London’s Yiddish theater recite a Yiddish poem written by her father (also a famous Yiddish actor) about Jewish life in the East End a century ago. My guess is that unless you are a pushover for dramatic and heartfelt displays by old ladies, you have to be a Jew to get misty over a Yiddish poem about the Jewish past.

Rudolf Kastner, the first person politically assassinated in the State of Israel

I have a suggestion for a new, and likely more interesting, project for Kastner. If he is, indeed, so fascinated by his last name (which by the way, can be either German-Jewish of just German) and the reactions it provokes, as well as the game of “is he or isn’t he?,” then it might really be just the thing for him. Jamie Kastner could look into the story of another Kastner –  Rudolf Kastner, the first person to be politically assassinated in the State of Israel. Rudolf Kastner was accused, found guilty, and later exonerated (only once it was too late) of charges of collaboration with the Nazis associated with his paying off the S.S. to save 1,685 Hungarian Jews from deportation to the death camps. The question, “Is he or isn’t he?” (a Nazi collaborator) predominated public discourse in Israel for much of the 1950’s, and disagreements about his motives and methods – as well as the way the judiciary and government dealt with the affair – continue to this day.

That’s my advice. Kastner, the filmmaker, can take it or leave it. He should just know that that would be a film I would watch, and I can safely venture that many others would, too. The way I see it, such a film would satisfy his interest in the aftermath and lessons of the Holocaust, and mine in seeing him work on a Jewish-themed project in a much more focused manner. And unlike what he covered in Kike Like Me, the subject of this work would actually be news to many of those sitting in the audience.

It turns out that I may be too late with this suggestion. A film on Rudolf Kastner, a documentary by Gaylen Ross, called Killing Kastner: The Jew Who Dealt With Nazis was released about a year ago.

Oh well, at least I tried.

© 2010 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.


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4 Responses to “Is He Or Isn’t He?”

  1. Rose Barlow Says:

    I enjoyed all three of your most recent blogs – having been ‘offline’ for a few days and so behind in my reading. I think I like the Vogel’s best – Kastner might also do well to spend some time with them!

  2. Hyman Appelbaum Says:

    I think Jamie is a half-Jew. After seeing the film I suspect he has a Jewish father and a shiksa for a mother. So the Jewish community does not regard him as a real Jew yet the rest of the world by his looks and his name takes cues that he is Jewish. Undoubtedly someone in that position would take to the half-hearted exploration of Judaism that Jamie did.

  3. Gentile Says:

    His mother is not Jewish therefore he is not Jewish. It is my understanding that it is determined through the mother.
    My father is half Jewish (allegedly) but since his mother isn’t, neither is he.
    So there.

  4. Renee Ghert-Zand Says:

    Thanks for commenting. Actually, different streams of Judaism look at it differently. Reform Judaism accepts patrilineal descent. And in general, many liberal Jews today consider self-identification as Jewish and the choice to live a Jewish life the most important thing.

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