I don’t know what to think after seeing the Oscar-nominated Israeli movie, “Footnote.” On one hand, it was exhilarating to see the inside world of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University and to have a glimpse of the intricate inner workings of Talmud study. On the other hand, it was quite disturbing to see such complicated multi-generational tortured father-son relationships at the heart of the film and the petty infighting by scholars! I am disappointed that those who study Torah would behave like this. Is this acceptable behavior?
One good turn deserves another and one good “Footnote” surely deserves many a footnote!1 Glad you saw the movie — there’s nothing like hearing Hebrew and seeing the Holy City on the big screen! That said, I somewhat share your disequilibrium. Though the film has a decided humorous lilt to it, the painful stilted nature of the rapport between fathers and sons2 is disquieting, as is the highly charged rancorous academic milieu in a department we would hope would embody a loftier pedagogic atmosphere.3
The title, “Footnote,” refers to the lone single footnoted reference4 of Professor Eliezer Shkolnik, the father character. It also offers a subtle dig that suggests Eliezer’s deep existential dread of being a mere “footnote.”5 This while his scholarly yet charismatic son6, Professor Uriel Shkolnik, whom he holds in pronounced disdain7 for embracing a more popularizing academic approach, surpasses him in admiration and widespread fame, owing in part, to Professor Senior’s own, shall we say, more quirky, reclusive and socially challenged persona.
The movie’s dramatic twist hinges on a phone call taken by elder Shkolnik as he walks8 from his home to the Hebrew University’s Givat Ram campus. The call is the device that propels the ultimate fidelity of the son9.Ultimately, we are left unsure of the father’s final choice, allowing the filmgoer the license to figure it out for himself. That may make this disquieting film yet worthwhile. Pass the popcorn!
1. A note with added information that is placed below the text on a printed page.
2. Father-son relationships in the Torah seem to be fraught with conflict and quite difficult to navigate. Consider Abraham and Yishmael, Isaac and his twin sons, Jacob and Esau. Then there is Jacob and his 12 contentious sons, King David and his rebellious son, Absalom. We may be hard-pressed to come up with a model for a healthy father-son relationship in the Torah. The core archetypical truth of Oedipus Rex is fairly ubiquitous. Should we expect less from a film so rooted in Jewish culture that seeks to entertain while providing a healthy context for audience identification?
3. Lofty, to be sure. The atmosphere of the traditional Beit Midrash, the house of study, is not often one you would find very touchy-feely, to say the least. Let’s not even begin to discuss the prickly nature of academia. Characterized in the Talmudic ideal of “kinat soferim tarbeh chachamah” the competitive nature of scholars results in greater wisdom and is more often than not the dominant culture of Jewish scholarship. Interestingly, scholars are referred to as “gladiators” in the Talmud — instruments that sharpen one another. This ideal at times results in the ousting, deposing, and excommunicating of colleagues, reported on colorfully in the Talmud. So folks, there are no surprises here when we witness the very same flavor of hardcore intellectual competitiveness and highly charged situations. If we were to visit, say, most typical present-day yeshivot, we would likely witness lively discussions, even heated arguments in line with the missive, “milchamta shel Torah,” the battle of Torah!
4. Professor Shkolnik, Sr., seems to have spent his years in the excruciatingly exacting field of scrutinizing and comparing manuscripts to ascertain the most critical and perfect of texts. But which texts? Shkolnik has labored all these years on the Jerusalem Talmud, which is much less studied and significantly smaller than the far more popular Babylonian Talmud, which is esoteric enough. This philological study, never to be sold short — it certainly is the rock bed of the field — is still the minutiae of minutiae, of this smallest of departments at the Hebrew University.
5. Who of us, frankly, would want to be relegated to a mere footnote in history? My mother, of blessed memory, would often evoke her keen observation that few of us do not wear upon our chests a sign that reads “Make me feel important.” It is, notably, an opinion that psychiatrist Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski, author of many a book, often eschews; self-esteem is at the heart of everything. Can we blame Professor Eliezer Shkolnik for his deep need to be recognized, admired, and honored?
6. The Talmud, in the famous passage detailing origin of schools and their teachers, presents the conflicting techniques of the teacher whose practice is precise and pedantic versus the teacher who covers ground and is less demanding. The debate rages on; the scholar whose work is so high level and obscure that though it is critical in nature, it is unascertainable, while the teacher who succeeds in making his learning accessible and thus more in demand is inevitably more popular.
7. This is in itself odd. The Talmud asserts a person might be jealous of everyone, but never of a son or a student. Thus, Professor Shkolnik’s implied resentment of his son’s popularity is surprising. That he goes so far as to decry his son’s mode of scholarship in a newspaper interview is disheartening at best.
8. Inside scoop; knowing filmgoers will notice as Professor Shkolnik, who so desperately seeks recognition, walks mechanically by the stone marking the spot where, in 1989, Professor Menachem Stern was murdered by a terrorist on his daily Jerusalem walk from his home to the Hebrew University. Stern was an Israel Prize honoree — the very coveted prize our protagonist so desires.
9. In an ironic twist, we might ask ourselves if this is not an echo of the son being sacrificed on the altar built by the father, reflecting the opaque Midrashic notion that Isaac was actually sacrificed.