Nathan Abrams is feeling a little, well, alienated. The London-born film scholar teaches at Bangor University in Wales and has fallen into a secondary specialty, almost by accident, of tracing the history of the Jews of Wales.
“When I’m in London I’m a curiosity because I’m studying the Jews of Wales, but in Wales I’m a curiosity because I’m a Jew,” he says, laughing.
It’s a confluence that is bringing him to New York in March as part of the Museum of Jewish Heritage’s “Jewish Tales From Wales,” a three-film series at which he will be one of several guest speakers.
Jewish films from Wales? The notion inevitably raises some eyebrows. Who knew there were even three such films in existence?
“You could expand it a bit more, if you want to explore the Welsh-Jewish connection beyond films set there,” Abrams says. “You could add Sasha Baron Cohen and David Baddiel, who scripted ‘The Infidel.’”
(Both Cohen and Baddiel have Welsh fathers. Apparently Welshness, unlike Orthodox Jewishness, can be passed patrilineally.)
Joking aside, the three films in the series, “Solomon and Gaenor,” “Very Annie Mary” and “Sleep Furiously” are united by “a strong theme about Wales and Jewishness explicitly,” Abrams says.
They are also linked by their settings in small rural towns. Abrams finds that significant.
“So much of British Jewish life focuses on London, we tend to forget there’s a life outside,” he says. “It’s heartening to see films that say, ‘There is small-town Jewish life and we like it.’ More than that, it plays against the anti-Semitic stereotype of the ‘unnatural’ Jew, that Jews don’t belong in nature, in the wild.”
In that respect, Abrams finds these three films very much in keeping with a trend he identifies in his book “The New Jew in Cinema,” which will be published this spring.
“You can barely watch a film now that doesn’t have a Jewish character, however minor,” he says. “These characters are often superfluous; their Jewishness has nothing to do with the film per se.”
Inspired by the foolish predictions of the “end of Jewish film” that he began hearing in the ‘90s, Abrams has been working on the book for almost a decade. He argues that there has been a quantitative and qualitative shift, “something different going on.”
The sea change, he says, lies not only in the fact we are seeing an increasing number of secondary Jewish characters popping up on-screen. Equally important is the emergence of a new kind of Jewish film.
“What I’m interested in is the appearance of Jewish sensibility, that you can read a movie as possessing a Jewish sensibility without having explicitly Jewish characters or concerns,” Abrams says. “If you take the corpus of stereotypes and see how they play into that, then you begin to see films like ‘The Usual Suspects,’ ‘The Illusionist’ and a lot of Stanley Kubrick, particularly ‘Eyes Wide Shut,’ as Jewish films.”
You can even find Jewish films set in Wales.
“Jewish Tales from Wales,” a series of three films about Jewish-Welsh communities, will be presented at the Museum of Jewish Heritage (36 Battery Place) on March 11 and 14. In addition to Abrams, directors Gideon Koppel (“Sleep Furiously”) and Sara Sugarman (“Very Annie Mary”) will be present at screenings. “The New Jew in Cinema” by Nathan Abrams is published by I.B. Tauris.
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