From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Media Watch: Synagogue’s search resounds with many faith communities

by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register

(From the Nov. 14, 2002 edition of the Inland Register)

Book Review

Years ago I was so impressed by the novel The Chosen by Chaim Potok that I wrote a letter to the author. I wanted Potok to know how much I had learned and grew to appreciate Judaism from his book. Potok was kind enough to send me a hand-written “thank you.”

Stephen Fried’s new book, The New Rabbi (Bantam Books, New York, 2002; hardcover, $25.95) is a non-fiction labor of love about the large and wealthy Har Zion Temple on Philadelphia’s Main Line. It is the story of the search for a new pastor over a three year period. Chaim Potok, even though he was close to death, was interviewed by Fried to share his part in the story of Har Zion Temple.

No book about Judaism since The Chosen has so deeply affected me. Fried first of all tells a fascinating true story, using the real names of one of Conservative Judaism’s most important congregation, as they attempt to find the right rabbi – the right rabbi for a congregation which has had only three rabbis in 75 years.

At the same time, he gives powerful insights into Rabbi Gerald Wolpe’s retirement and the relationship of fathers and sons. To this Fried adds his own journey of returning to the practice of his Jewish faith and what it means to him. And all the time for the non-Jew he carefully explains Jewish traditions and terms.

Stephen Fried spent three years at Har Zion Temple interviewing all the principals as a lay search committee looked across this country for the right person to be the new rabbi. You might think that doesn’t sound like a very interesting story. Well, it is a page-turner that won’t stop.

Early on we see Rabbi Wolpe leading a Bat Mitzvah in which a mother of a divorced family is publicly humiliated by the actions of her daughter. For Wolpe, who has presided at thousands of bar and bat mitzvahs, it is the worst one of his life.

As a Catholic I was struck by the fact that Har Zion Temple might have 75 bar and bat mizvahs a year. However, they still had a confirmation program for older students, where the numbers dropped to around 28. Coming of age has overtones of dropping out of active practice. We Catholics are not alone in not having a fool-proof or automatic way of passing on the faith tradition to our youth.

A highlight of The New Rabbi is the author’s own coming to some kind of meaning over his own father’s death during this three year period of research. A beautiful give-and-take between father and son on the father’s deathbed is a discussion on life after death. Dad didn’t want to talk much. He said, “I lived my whole life based on the idea that there was nothing after death. It’s way too late to start thinking about it now.” But the son writes after that colloquy, “But, of course, I’ve been thinking about it ever since.”

Har Zion Temple eventually does get a new rabbi. It is quite an adventure how they finally get to a place of some finality. There are lots of very interesting stories on the way.

The beauty of the full story is you get to know so many key members of this congregation, with warts and all. These are real human beings seeking ways to build community at a Temple with a long tradition of great rabbis.

I came away with a new appreciation of the Jewish tradition. I learned of its variety and diversity. I came away understanding that a rabbi is to keep asking more questions as he or she attempts to answer questions based on the Holy Texts. There is a lot in The New Rabbi that resonates with any reader who is attempting to follow any faith tradition filled with very fallible creatures of God.


Movie Review

There is a great power in movies to show us another culture and enable us for a couple of hours to experience something many of us never get to experience in the real world.

Mira Nair has directed the Indian film Monsoon Wedding, which is now available in DVD and videocassette. It is a movie filled with color and monsoon rains that almost take your breath away. At the same time it is the story of a wealthy Indian family who invites their relatives from Australia and America to be part of the celebration of the arranged wedding of their daughter. Going through the movie on a minor key is the growing love between the male wedding planner and one of the beautiful servants of the house.

Monsoon Wedding is a fast-moving film in that it goes back in forth from very clear English to (subtitled) Hindi.

Aditi (Vasundhara Das), even though in love with a married man, in four days is scheduled to meet her husband-to-be and then marry him. Her husband-to-be, Hemanty Rai (Parvin Dabas) has flown in from Houston to Delhi to begin the festivities. He does not realize at first what is going on with his betrothed.

Aditi’s dad, Lalit Verma (Naseruddin Shaw) is overwhelmed with all the elaborate wedding tents being put up in their large backyard. It is obvious that although he can treat his children with tough love, he loves them very much.

There is a dark undertow as the movie progresses as we realize that one of the male relatives has had a history of sexual abuse with children. This very dark side of Monsoon Wedding propels it through the bride’s unfaithfulness to the anguish of Aditi’s father as he is caught between the safety of his younger relatives and his concern in the midst of this elaborate wedding not to lose face.

Monsoon Wedding is filled with prize-winning images of India. You can almost smell the smells. Our wealthy family is able to return to their beautiful gardens and smell the vast numbers of marigolds used in decoration.

We see various rituals such as where the bride’s hands are painted by the woman. The painted hands give her away to the police where her stopped car is investigated and she is in a compromising position with a married man.

Her journey to reconciliation with her betrothed is a powerful part of the story of Monsoon Wedding.

There are beautiful dances and lots of music that almost transport you to India. The subplot of the male wedding planner and his servant beloved is tender, sad, and beautiful.

Monsoon Wedding is an absolutely beautiful film about joy and sorrow within the vast Indian subcontinent. It is a struggle between the traditional and the modern. It attempts in music, color and ritual to tell the story of the meaning of family love and community. It is not just a beautiful romantic vision of Indian reality. It delves deep into a particular family that helps us to understand our families better.

Do not worry about getting every word of the dialogue. The story is clear and the subtitles are fairly few. Turn the phone off and travel to India. Your eyes will be opened.

Monsoon Wedding is R-rated because of theme, some sexuality and language. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office for Film and Broadcasting has rated Monsoon Wedding A-III – adults.

(Father Caswell is Ecumenical Relations Officer for the Diocese of Spokane and pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish, Cheney. His reviews also appear in the Cheney Free Press.)

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