Indiana Jones, Nazis, and the Persistence of Antisemitism
The polar vortex that hit Minnesota last week led my children to a home marathon of 1980s film classics. I’ve been anxiously waiting for them to become “old enough” to see some of these movies, and Raiders of the Lost Ark has been at the top of that list.
Some may recall the climactic scene towards the end of the film: Indy’s rival Belloq recites some liturgy from the Torah service and opens the Ark of the Covenant. Initially finding the opened Ark full of sand, God’s presence emanates forth and melts the flesh and explodes the heads of the surrounding onlookers, while Indy and Marion survive by keeping their eyes closed.
I thought this scene would terrify my children, but they had become terrified long before that — though not in the way I expected.
Earlier in the film, the mention of Nazis and the sight of a swastika caused them to scream in fear.
I, of course, recalled the “bad guys” in the movie being Nazis but in many of the stories I read and movies I saw growing up, they had always been the bad guys — Captain America comic books, The Rocketeer, Swing Kids. And, of course, World War II had ended long ago.
But to my children, that war never ended. They have been forced to learn from a young age about the Holocaust, about Hitler, about Nazis, and about antisemitism becoming ever more prevalent. They even asked me if the movie was a true story.
Then, having noticed the caption in the opening scenes that the movie is initially set in 1936 (perhaps having never fathomed how long ago World War II really was) my children asked me how could we have let antisemitism survive for so long?
None of my answers seemed good enough — for them or for me. They all rang hollow in my ear: “we continue to have to stand up against evil and hate”; “we have to speak out against all bullies”; “it’s impossible to get rid of all hate but we keep trying”; “the Jewish people have been persecuted long before the Nazis.” Everything came out clumsy. And yet, I still have hope that there will be a better tomorrow.
Interestingly enough, this week’s Torah portion is about the building of the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant. This portion describes the cherubs, the golden keruvim sitting atop the Ark. Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki (Rashi) taught d’mut partzuk tinok lahem — that these cherubs had the resemblance of the face of a child. Rashi saw the word keruvim as derived from k’ravya — ravya being the Aramaic word for “child.” Implicit in Rashi’s teaching is the notion that the Ark of the Covenant was shielded by children.
My children are no longer ignorant of the hate in the world around them — and I wish that the scariest scene in the movie for them was that scene at the end. But it wasn’t.
But then there was yet another surprise for me: the moment when they started smiling again and the tension left their brows.
Later in the film, the Reichsadler emblem begins to burn and the swastika and the Nazi eagle are charred and blackened out.
One of my children cried out in fear, “What’s happening? What’s happening?” There was a pause, and the other responded, “God doesn’t like the Nazis. Don’t worry, the good guys will win.”
Maybe their childhood naivete wasn’t entirely taken from them after all. Or maybe they finally realized that when you’re on the side of good, you’re on the side of God. Or at least we hope and we pray that this is the case.
All I had wanted was to keep them busy during the inclement weather, and to relive some of my childhood. Instead, they fast-forwarded through their own childhood and reminded me that we still have quite the battle to fight.
Rabbi Avi Olitzky is a senior rabbi of Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.