Nov ’08 Spotlight

The Chicago Humanities Festival, in partnership with Spertus Institute for Jewish Studies, has arranged a visit from Rebecca Goldstein on Sunday afternoon, November 9. Goldstein is best known as the author of Betraying Spinoza (published in Nextbook’s Jewish Encounter series), so I called her in Boston to learn more.

“Rene Descartes (Mr. ‘I think, therefore I am.’) had been working on a new methodology, a very explicit attempt to rethink the foundations of knowledge, but he was nervous about telling anybody what he was working on,” she said. “He was living in Catholic France, and to rethink knowledge was to attack religion. In 1628, he went to a lecture by a man named Sieur de Chandoux. During the question-and-answer period, everybody forgot about the poor lecturer and started questioning Descartes, and it’s the first inkling he gave that he had something up his sleeve.”

“In some sense, this all has to do with a Christian family argument (contradictions within Christian theology represented by the Trinity), so why is Spinoza such a pivotal figure? Spinoza came from a Marrano background, one that was consumed with questions of personal identity. Because of the terrible conditions they had lived under as ‘Secret Jews’ in Portugal, Marranos had cultivated the idea that what we really are is our inner point of view. Raised in this community, Spinoza makes the greatest claim for the life of reason that has ever been made. Because he argues so rigorously and so brilliantly, Spinoza radicalizes the argument. He has an enormous effect; everybody reads him, if only to condemn him.”

“Now we’re reliving the Age of the Enlightenment, and all of these questions are on the table again. I never expected my Spinoza book to do so well, and I think it has much to do with the political climate right now. Separating religion and politics? I thought we had actually settled that once and for all, but America has always been a very religious country.”

To purchase tickets for what is sure to be a fascinating lecture, call (312) 661-1028 or visit the CHF website:

ALSO ON NOVEMBER 9: Gershon David Hundert

Gershon David Hundert, editor-in-chief of the newly published YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, will headline Chicago YIVO’s Fall Lecture. The completed Encyclopedia contains over 1,800 alphabetical entries, with more than 1,000 illustrations and 55 maps. Hundert’s lecture will take us behind-the-scenes as an internationally recognized team of 450 distinguished scholars set itself the monumental task of compiling all of Ashkenazi Jewry’s notable aesthetic, intellectual, political and religious movements.

Hundert is professor of History and Jewish Studies at McGill University in Montreal, and the author of several important books in his own right, most notably Jews in Poland-Lithuania in the Eighteenth Century: A Genealogy of Modernity. For program details, visit For directions to the lecture location (Beth Hillel Congregation Bnai Emunah in Wilmette), call (847) 256-1213, or visit their website:

CURTAIN CALL: Dirty Dancing

Regular readers of this column already know that I am a huge fan of Dirty Dancing, Eleanor Bergstein’s semi-autobiographical Catskill’s coming-of-age film. (I wrote about it in glowing terms in my June ’07 Spotlight after seeing it again on the big screen at a 20th anniversary celebration at the AMC River East.) So I must admit I bought tickets to the new theatrical version now playing at the Cadillac Palace with some trepidation, but my anxiety was totally misplaced: the stage version is even better than the film!

The set design is spectacular using state of the art techniques to put the audience right in the middle of the action: Kellerman’s Hotel has a golf course and a lake, days of pouring rain followed by blazing summer sunsets. Costumes are gorgeous and period perfect with layers of crinolines and tiny waists, and I don’t have room here for all the superlatives I’d need to describe the singing and dancing. But for all that, the core of the story stays true and Bergstein has even added dialogue (especially for Baby’s mother “Marjorie”) that connects some of the dots implicit in the original.

Chicago is hosting the American premiere after successful runs in London, Sydney, and Toronto. When it leaves here in mid-December, it goes on to Boston and LA before making its Broadway debut. I urge you to get tickets (if they’re still available by the time this issue reaches you). For details, call the Cadillac Palace box office at (312)-902-1400 or visit the official website:


When Paul Newman died on September 26, the world lost a truly great man, but for all the tributes published in the last month, almost none mentioned the fact that this mensch actually came to international prominence when he starred as “Ari Ben Canaan,” the sabra-hero of Exodus. Newman’s father was Jewish, and he always described himself as Jewish whenever the topic surfaced, so this misplaced political correctness dishonors both the man and his extraordinary career.

I just watched Exodus again. It needs no apologies. Of course it was made in an era of huge epics like Ben-Hur and Lawrence of Arabia, so DVD watchers must plan their own intermission. I suggest you hit “stop” when the camera pans across the King David Hotel (minute 1:40), and resume with lunch on the balcony (chapter 12).

I passed out little questionnaires at a recent Hadassah meeting. Everyone who answered had seen Exodus, and they all remembered loving it, although most hadn’t seen it since its original release in 1960. It is almost impossible now to remember how important this film was in its time, but University of Michigan historian Deborah Dash Moore lays out the case in her excellent essay in the Hoberman/Shander collection Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting (2003), so I’ll give her the last word: “Exodus gave Jews a proud self-consciousness and a new way of imagining Jewishness. It encouraged those who performed Jewish identities in public to renegotiate what it meant to be Jewish by integrating Israel into the imagination of American Jews.” (page 219)

© Jan Lisa Huttner (November 1, 2008)

Tziviah bat Yisroel v’Hudah (Jan Lisa Huttner) is the managing editor of Films for Two: The Online Guide for Busy Couples. Visit her CFIC ’08 webpage for full reviews of all top picks as well as interviews with Aki Avni, Joseph Cedar, and Ayalet Menahemi:

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