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How Bee Season lost its sting on the screen. Plus: An audio interview with author Myla Goldberg.

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The first thing one notices about Richard Gere in his otherwise sensitive performance as Saul Naumann, the domineering patriarch of a Jewish family in existential tailspin in Bee Season, is that he doesn’t seem very Jewish. Neither, for that matter, does Juliette Binoche, the magnificent French actress who plays Miriam, Saul’s silently suffering wife with a secret sideline in petty larceny.

Of course, there’s no reason Gere and Binoche couldn’t inhabit Jewish characters. Gene Kelly and Natalie Wood did it in Marjorie Morningstar half a century ago, when American-Jewish life was much more of a mystery to mainstream America. But in the screen adaptation of Bee Season, out tomorrow, the characters themselves are no longer very Jewish.

Myla Goldberg’s 2000 novel was mainly about families, their myths of harmony, and what happens when those fantasies unravel. In the book, Eliza, the family underachiever, wins her school spelling bee, revealing an aptitude for a heightened experience of language described by Jewish mystics as a path to God. Saul, a lifelong student of mysticism who never discovered such a capacity within himself, begins to train her, unwittingly neglecting his once-favored son Aaron. Meanwhile, Miriam, who steals trinkets from random homes in an abstract effort to restore a world shattered by her parents’ early deaths, begins to lose interest in concealing her habit. Saul is as oblivious to her deterioration as he is to his son’s resentment.

The context for this story of family dysfunction was explicitly Jewish. Saul was a slightly disheveled hippie-turned-cantor at a suburban synagogue, his congregation consisting of the Mr. and Mrs. Schwartzes who rush the oneg tables at such places. Saul, we learned, had had a convoluted journey to his calling, from early years as the son of a deracinated Jewish father to college experiments with acid to the rejection of drugs for the levitations of Jewish mysticism.

In the film, Saul becomes a polished religious-studies professor and Miriam a convert from Catholicism. Though screenwriter Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal and the directing team of Scott McGehee and David Siegel retain the book’s enchantment with Jewish mysticism, they have leached it almost entirely of its context. “We didn’t want the religious side of Judaism to overwhelm the spiritual side of the story,” the directors told me before the film’s release. In the film’s production notes, they explain, “We wanted to explore a more universal and accessible vision of what an internal spiritual quest of any kind might be like.”

For those who have read Bee Season, the resulting film may recall an earlier era when Jewish source materials made for distinctly non-Jewish films, when Jewish writers and producers shied away from overtly Jewish content either as a bid for assimilation or to avoid antagonizing isolationists in the World War II era. This is how both The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) proceeded without references to the protagonist’s Jewish identity or to the fate of European Jewry, respectively; how The Life of Emile Zola (1937), which focuses on Alfred Dreyfus’ trial for treason, managed to fail to mention the Frenchman’s religion.

The directors of Bee Season suggest that this kind of cinematic departure may mean something different today. “Thirty years ago, you couldn’t tell this story this way,” Siegel says. “You couldn’t call attention to Judaism without being focused on the Jewish identity of the characters.” For Siegel and McGehee, America’s acceptance of Jews has turned them into such an unexceptional ingredients in the melting pot that artistic works no longer carry the obligation to double as referenda on what it means to be Jewish in America.

Indeed, the Jewish relationship with America has never seemed as symbiotic as it has in recent years, and the only seeming challenge to Jewish films these days is how busy Steven Spielberg and Mel Brooks are. On the other hand, when was the last time Hollywood gave us a film that truly engaged with what it means to be an American Jew today, a “Jewish” film that is neither a Holocaust drama nor a coy, loving send-up of ethnic stereotype? When Peter Riegert, the respected actor who appeared in Crossing Delancey, adapted a short story from Gerald Shapiro’s collection Bad Jews into the 2004 film King of the Corner (featuring Isabellla Rossellini, Eli Wallach, and Eric Bogosian), the film garnered more attention for Riegert having to take it to theaters across the country himself rather than for its sensitive portrayal of a secular Jewish family.

Gyllenhaal, Siegel, and McGehee claim to have made changes for no reason other than to amplify the story, and many are imaginative. For instance, the novel comes to suggest that Saul never developed his daughter’s mystical gift because he perceives the world with his head instead of his heart. “Saul’s transformation into a professor—which was Naomi’s idea—made sense because he has this very intellectual relationship with religion,” Siegel says. For similar reasons, Miriam, who has restrained herself to allow Saul to feel like the leader of the family, has been made a convert. “It’s a nice shorthand for how she gave up something to be with Saul,” Siegel explains.

On the other hand, these alterations leave the Naumanns’ preoccupations without persuasive antecedents. When Aaron, who in the novel would “enter the synagogue at his father’s side feeling like a prince beholding the kingdom he stood to inherit,” rebels against his father, his defiance—a tour of other faiths that culminates in a fascination with Hare Krishna—makes sense only as a reaction to the communal Jewish life his cantor father had imposed. For viewers who haven’t read the book, Aaron’s spiritual sampling will seem like generic adolescent defiance.

Similarly, in the book, Saul’s stewardship of an ordinary congregation implicitly explained his obsession with mysticism; in the film, the avocation comes across as random and weird. These are certainly spiritual times in America, but it may be premature to assume that kabbalist aspirations require no more explanation than a gardening habit. A more specifically Jewish setting might have had a clarifying effect, making the material easier to relate to for non-Jews. Indeed, if Siegel and McGehee are right and Jews have become thoroughly integrated, non-Jews shouldn’t find that backstory too difficult to absorb.

The film does pose an intriguing, if inadvertent, question absent from Goldberg’s novel: Does anything indivisibly Jewish remain after the traditional markers of American “Jewishness”—the stock characters, the rituals of the shul—have been removed? Is there something uniquely Jewish about this story, or is the Jewish teaching it portrays so universally applicable because it’s so unspecific? As American culture performs on Jewish tradition the loving evisceration to which it subjects other cultures before they can join its mainstream, what remains?

A film hardly requires explicit Jewish content to become a compelling portrayal of the Jewish experience. The principals in King of the Corner are only nominally Jewish; their humorous but despairing preoccupations with family and death are not. Sometimes, there are no Jews in the film at all; arguably, one of the most “Jewish” films of recent years was Vadim Perelman’s House of Sand and Fog (based on the Andre Dubus III novel), about a family of Iranian immigrants destroyed by exile and family catastrophe.

This was the sense of what it meant to be Jewish that invisibly pollinated those early Hollywood films, films that Jewish studio heads assiduously kept free of explicit references to Jewishness. There is little of this diffuse, emotional sense in Bee Season. The argument has been made that early Hollywood birthed the very idea of the American dream by withholding ethnically specific context while imparting abstract Jewish values. Bee Season withholds both.

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Spelling Errors

How Bee Season lost its sting on the screen. Plus: An audio interview with author Myla Goldberg.

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