I took my rabbi to see 'Uncut Gems'

ByEthan Gordon

The Safdie Brothers’ Uncut Gems is the sort of grimy, chaotic film we only get the privilege of seeing every few years. From the Robert Altman-esque 35 mm cinematography courtesy of Darius Khondji, to the emotionally chaotic score from Oneohtrix Point Never, Gems is a film designed to make the viewer feel like they’re in the middle of an anxiety attack. At the heart of the movie is a pitch perfect performance by Adam Sandler as the constantly calculating Howard Ratner. Ratner is a Jewish diamond dealer in New York’s historic Diamond District with a gambling problem, and the film offers a distinctly authentic portrayal of the nuances of Jewish life. Within the film, there are plenty of offhand references to Howard’s religion, but there aren’t any that really throw it in your face, aside from a side comment from Lakeith Stanfield’s character calling him a “crazy ass Jew.” Howard attends a Passover Seder, but the holiday ritual of finding the Afikomen isn’t explained aside from a passing remark. It’s a perfect example of the culture of Judaism being present without it being the topic of the film. Howard lives a nominal Jewish existence, but doesn’t believe in any of the values he professes to observe. As I sat with the film, I found myself wondering how a spiritual man would feel about it.

When I was growing up, there was no one who embodied Judaism more to me than Rabbi Jamie Gibson from Pittsburgh’s Temple Sinai. Gibson, a Reform Jew, seemed like the perfect example of what I wanted to get out of the synagogue. In April of last year, Gibson announced his retirement from our congregation, and I felt that there was no better time than now to ask for a favor. I sat down with him recently, and got dangerously close to ruining our relationship by sitting through Uncut Gems with him. I wanted to see how he felt about Howard as an example of unflattering Jewish cliches. Or how he felt about Judaism as a cultural identity, as opposed to a spiritual practice. At one point, a little less than halfway through the film, I stepped out of the theater. I had known that a relatively explicit scene where Howard texts his mistress was about to come up. I never thought I’d be able to face Rabbi Gibson ever again if I sat with him through that. I returned to the theater, and he leaned to me and muttered, “this is so sad.”

After a long two and a half hours, I sat down with Rabbi Gibson over chocolate milkshakes, and we discussed Howard as a Jewish anti-hero, the film, A Serious Man, cultural Judaism in contrast to spiritual Judaism, and plenty of other topics.

[The following interview contains spoilers]

So, on a fundamental level, you are not feeling the gems?

Correct. I think the film tries to be a gritty portrayal of life in New York where everybody is trying to hustle, everybody’s trying to push people away, to justify or to authenticate themselves. Or simply to lie to people to give themselves more time, usually to do the minimum of what they promised.

This is an interesting film coming from Adam Sandler. He’s a guy who has become an icon of Judaism in his other films, and when you compare Uncut Gems to those other films…

You have Zohan, which is exclusively about Israeli-Jewish identity, but that was playing the fool who wins. That’s one of the most consistent things he does. It’s a role he always goes back to.

Adam Sandler has that character perfected, and in a way, Howard is an expansion of that, just applied to a different background.

Well, in some sense, with [Uncut Gems], he’s the fool who almost wins. I think the only person who sees through everything is his wife. She realizes everything he says is BS, all the softness, all the, “oh, you’re so beautiful,” it’s just BS to deal with that moment. And most of all, it’s not at all self-reflective, that’s the least Jewish aspect of this character. That’s because Jews tend to look at themselves in different settings to evaluate meaning and intent. He’s doing none of that. He’s simply like a pinball, going bop bop bop, rolling around. He goes from experience to experience without learning anything other than what he needs to know in order to get ahead of the next person.

It’s interesting how Howard as a character falls in line with a series of Jewish stereotypes.

And those are just that, stereotypes. There may be people like this, but they are individuals. The fact of their Judaism is incidental. You notice that in the Diamond District, the people standing around are Hasids. Hasids run the Diamond District. Every deal that is made on a street corner is made by a handshake, no written contract. All you have to do is not fulfill your word one time, and it doesn’t matter, you aren’t going to get sued, you’ll just never will have a deal again. Word will spread through the community that you can’t be trusted, that’s the Jewish value: trust. There’s a couple different values going on here though. The first is a fundamental dichotomy between the way that most people think the world works, and the way we Jews and other religious people think the world works. There’s a Greek historian named Thucydides, and he wrote a book called History of the Peloponnesian War. In the book, the Athenians conquer Melians, and the Melians say, “we need to have our own life, one that isn’t directly controlled by you,” but the Athenians go, “we conquered you,” and there’s this very famous line: “the strong do what they will, the weak suffer what they must.” And going directly against that, right in Genesis, right in B’reshit, is the notion that humans are made in the divine image. It’s that every single human being has infinite worth, and to use someone for your own ends is to deny their divinity. It deteriorates their ultimate value, and Howard more than anyone abuses that value.

In a time where there’s heightened anti-semitism, do you feel like Adam Sandler portraying all of these stereotypes could be an issue?

You know, there may be some warped people who see this film and go, “that’s the way Jews are,” but it doesn’t mean that it is an accurate representation of the world of Jews, the way Jews act, what they believe. Do I think it’s going to make anti-semitism worse? No. People who hate Jews have an idea of what Jews are. The problem with that is that every time they meet a Jewish person and get along with them, they go, “Oh, you’re not like that.” The other Jewish value is kavod, which is the rabbinic section of the Talmud on moral behavior. It says that “the greatest crown is not crown of wealth, not even the crown of knowledge, it’s the crown of a good name.” It’s having a good reputation, and once your good reputation is gone, you can’t buy it back. Saying what you mean, doing what you said you’d do, these are the things that people build a reputation upon.

In Uncut Gems, you see Howard’s only obligation to Judaism is through signifiers and touchstones. There’s this idea of Judaism as an identity, or a culture, opposed to a set of morals. As we walked out of the theater, you compared Uncut Gems to The Godfather, when the violence in one’s life can’t be mixed with the religious aspects, even when the two start to create tension with each other…

In the minds of these people fulfilling rituals, that’s pure and clean. They don’t associate the violence with the temple or likewise. They can’t see the hypocrisy or the relationship between the two, and that’s really sad. Howard is a fascinating character. While there have been times where I haven’t entirely lived up to my moral code, I’ve always had to make up for it. There’s always a debt you pay. There’s a line in Chernobyl that sticks out to me, where they’re talking about why it happens, and it wasn’t just mechanical error, nor arrogance. It was lies. Same thing when people fudge factory figures, or when Adam Sandler changes something around here. There’s a line that’s so beautifully written that goes, “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth, and at some point that debt has to be paid.”

Particularly applicable here…

The most consistent part of the Howard character is lying. He lies to everyone because he lies to himself. There was a wonderful Jewish scientist named Richard Feynman who said, “the most important thing in life is not to fool yourself, unfortunately, you’re the easiest one to fool.” So, I read all of the reviews, and I heard about how were rooting for him at the end… I’m not rooting for him, in particular, I’m rooting for him to pay off his debts and to go on a different kind of life. You start to realize halfway through that he’s never going to change! What you want, or hope for in bad situations, is that people hit such a low point and you want them to really change.

And you feel like that could happen for a second here, when he gets the money…

When he gets the money towards the end, I didn’t think he was going to change. The only time I think he’s amenable to change is when he’s broken down physically. I truly believe, and I’ve preached about this at Yom Kippur [the yearly Jewish day of atonement], that the only things that ever make us change are loss, trauma, or desire. Otherwise, we’ll make excuses a thousand times over to justify what we continue to do. The point about this character is that he simply wants to keep going, not to change. He doesn’t have a moral compass, he only wants to get ahead of the person in front of him. To get what he wants, not even what he needs.

But I feel like the Safdie Brothers’ direction and Adam Sandler give this film a real human aspect. I really think the movie is impeccably made, even if it is jarring and in your face.

The movie was worth seeing. I will never take my wife because she will say “Why do I care about these people?” It was the same thing with A Serious Man, “Why do I care?” Have you seen A Serious Man? I care about the professor in that film because he’s always trying to do right, and everything goes wrong. I care about Howard because he’s stumbling. It goes back to the whole notion of morality. There’s a whole second paragraph of the Sh’ma [the centerpiece of some Jewish services] that we don’t do in the Reform movement. It says if you do right, if you follow mitzvot, God will give you corn and grain and wine and everything will be hunky dory. We eliminated that because it isn’t our experience in the world. We eliminated that because we can’t pray as if we know that is what is going to happen. We want our prayers and our rituals to cohere with our sense of self in the world. People say to me all the time, “Rabbi Jamie, I don’t believe in ritual,” and I go, “of course you do!” Rituals are just repeated behavior meant to ground morals. Rituals contain the chaos of life. That's all it is.

Towards the end of the movie, it’s almost scary to see how you do hope for this character, you know, you’re roped in…

I only root for him to win at the end so he can have different choices. That’s why I said he’s like a pinball, he moves from one problem to the other. I don’t even see him as an anti-hero. I feel pity for him. Again, the only moral center of the movie is his wife who is holding his family together. You see how his daughter ignores him when he does to try and relate to her because she knows that that is a scam. There’s not going to be any enduring benefit to her engaging with his questions about how she’s doing. Howard doesn’t live like you or me, or what we try to do, which is to try and sketch out a path to the life we want to live. Have you ever heard of the Oscar Wilde short book The Picture of Dorian Grey? The person who is the protagonist has this beautiful painting and every awful thing he does, he survives it, but the painting gets uglier, and uglier, and uglier. It’s the same as Howard.