Your movie comes out at a strange time in the Jewish world--when it seems Jews once again are confronting anti-Semitism on a large scale. Occurrences in the movie, such as neo-Nazis trying to destroy synagogues, have actually been happening now in Europe and elsewhere. Did you have mixed feelings about releasing the movie at this time?
In the immediate aftermath of September 11, I had a spasm of "Oh my god, I did a terrible thing." That faded. I feel that the film is not only not anti-Semitic--it's embarrassingly philo-Semitic. It's an attack on prejudice itself. Some people have asked me, 'Are you worried that some people will misuse the film?' And of course I can't be sure that they won't. There are passages in there that you could take out of context, and say, 'Here's a great argument against the Jews, and even the Jews themselves know it's true.'
No matter what you do, conceivably someone can misuse it, especially if you're dealing with something volatile. I am not without a certain queasiness and anxiety, but I'm very glad I made the film.
I'm sure you've had critics say that during this time, we should only showcase the positive aspects of Judaism. How do you respond?
I think I show a lot that is positive about Judaism. The film is made as if there were nothing for the Jew to fear. The time when we weren't allowed to say all kinds of things in public is over. We're free.
That isn't completely true, and of course events since I finished the film have made it even less true. But I think there's a benefit to acting as if it's true, to saying, you know what, I'm not embarrassed to say anything about my religion. I think that when you say to the anti-Semitic world, "Hey, I'm not ashamed," you take away a lot of the power of anti-Semitism. Jews in their reactions have been so fearful and so, in a sense, apologetic. That is part of what has led to what we call Jewish self-hatred. When I was growing up, Jews I knew were horribly embarrassed about the Jews they saw who exemplified anti-Semitic cliché.
I've never been an anti-Semite; I've never denied I was Jewish. I never was tempted by right-wing stuff. But there is a tremendous amount. Those explosive feelings that go in contradictory directions--that is what I identify with. When this story finally took shape for me in the form it's in, I felt I had found a way to express something I had been looking for all my life. That impulse to be a thing and its opposite--a Jew and a Nazi, a living contradiction. It's very autobiographical in that way.
The positive feelings for Judaism and the particular version of Judaism that I have Danny espouse is my own version. I can't claim it for anyone else, but it's mine.
Do most Jews today have some of that contradictory nature within them?
Well, you know the expression 'two Jews, three opinions.' I think we believe that is true of us. And I guess human beings generally have that impulse.
When you hear a story about some kind of injustice, it's almost a natural human reaction to identify with the oppressed, identify with the oppressor, imagine oneself as the person who will redeem the oppressed -- you project yourself into multiple roles. Only multiple roles are really enough to satisfy you.
Danny's character is based on a real person who died in 1965. Your film is contemporary. Do you think a character like Danny could actually exist now, or has American society changed enough so that he couldn't?
One of the things I did when I made the film to try to solve that problem was to have him come from the Orthodox world. The real guy [Burros] was more from the conservative world, and I don't think he'd gone to yeshivas. The first things I wrote [for the film] were some of the anti-Semitic screeds. I showed them to Orthodox kids who I was working with out at Queens College. They looked at these passages--which said things like the Jews are essentially female, etc.--and they all said, "Yeah, this is what I used to think." It was so automatic, it was not even a scandal to them.
Once I made the film, I thought maybe this is no longer pertinent, and yet, when people watch it, it seems as pertinent as ever. I worried that the 1967 war, that by transforming the image of Israel and thereby of the Jew, would alter all of this, and I don't think it altered it very much at all.