The Making of "Lights"
It has been almost thirty years since I headed the educational team that worked on the animated 23-minute film, Lights, with its creator, Dr. Yehuda Wurtzel, at Gesher’s Jerusalem Productions. The film is a midrash on the Hanukkah story focusing on the double themes of anti-semitism and assimilation. More specifically, it is about the problematics of maintaining a particular, minority culture within a host majority or universal culture.
For the film’s viewers—which includes scores of Jewish schools and organizations as well as the diverse audiences to whom I screen the film—it seems that the messages have remained relevant and evocative. The film has likewise aired on TV in most U.S. cities with significant Jewish populations, on Russian TV, and on Israeli TV. For all of these groups, watching the film and using it as a springboard for discussion has become an annual rite.
I find that the most poignant and telling moment for gauging audience reaction and for stimulating post-viewing contemplation is the sequence wherein the Hebrew letters that symbolize Jewish culture and the Greek letters that symbolize Hellenistic culture dance together—as the Jewish musical theme and the Greek musical theme harmonize. Invariably, in group discussion, some viewers perceive this sequence with apprehension and discomfort as they sense the impending imposition of Greek culture on Jewish particularism. Others see this moment as a glorious, productive synthesis of two mutually fructifying cultures. Still others experience the tension of ambivalence, as they perceive the potential dilution of the Jewish “lights,” but appreciate the synthesis and harmony. It seems that a seemingly child-oriented animated moment has the potential to evoke complex emotions and sophisticated thinking about questions such as: “where does cultural synthesis end and acculturation or assimilation begin?”
One of my favorite film-showing anecdotes occurred when showing the film in the Maccabean home-town of Modi’in to an audience of parents and kids from a pluralistic middle school. There was a technological glitch, as the projector had not been maintenanced properly throughout recent use. An annoying message kept cropping up on-screen that said “clean the filter!” In conducting the post screening discussion, I suddenly realized that this was no mere unintended annoyance; it was fortuitously the author’s message! Particularly for Jewishly committed communities and individuals who aspire to cultural synthesis but rarely filter out the prevailing universal culture, the demanding question as to how to clean the filter—or to what degree our pluralism dilutes or enriches our Judaism—is indeed the central persistent challenge.
Taking you behind the scenes to what I consider to be a crucial moment in the film’s development, I recall an early stage of the script and storyboard. Wurtzel had already created the ingenious representation of Hebrew letter-lights to represent Jewish culture and Greek letter-lights to represent Hellenistic culture. We already had scenes that represented the attachment of the animated Jewish characters to their lights and the sinister motivations of the Greek characters (voices were eventually that of the late Leonard Nimoy and of fellow TV star Paul Michael Glaser) who wanted to get rid of “those lights that make people different.” We were all there together in the Gesher offices in downtown Jerusalem: the haredi-leaning baal teshuva creator/director (with a PhD in anthropology), the Israeli hiloni head animator, the composer—a non-observant American oleh who had already composed the Jewish and Greek themes, and me, the YU-educated Modern Orthodox American-Israeli.
I raised a concern: In portraying a cherished but endangered particularist Judaism trying to survive the harsh oppositional dominance of Hellenistic culture, I feared that we had sacrificed both ideological and historical nuance. Was there not in those times, as in ours, (ba-yamim ha-hem, ba-zman ha-zeh) a more complex story with stages and aspects of mutual cultural cross-fertilization and enriching of both cultures? What about the positive impact of the Greek academy on Jewish learning and Talmudic discourse? What about the later monumental intellectual effort of Maimonides to synthesize Aristotelian philosophy with Torah? What about our own efforts in Gesher’s Jersualem Productions to harness the technology and art of the “Hellenistic” Disney and MGM, to convey a new midrash on the Hanukkah story? Was there room in a 23-minute animation for the complexity of cultural synthesis before proceeding to the themes of assimilation and anti-semitism? I had a sense of what was needed but no idea whether or how it might be conveyed through the given art form and various external constraints.
Almost immediately, the composer suggested that he could make the Jewish and Greek themes harmonize. Within seconds, the animator, who himself resembled the lively and playful characters he had created, began to leap about the room and excitedly declared that he could have the “letter-lights” dance together. Thus, the scene described above was born. Only later did I realize that with a bit of seyata di-Shmaya (a little help from Above), we had jointly experienced and effected a cultural cross-fertilization that portrayed the very concept of cross-cultural fertilization! Only much later, after showing the film many times with varying audience reactions, did I realize just how complex that sequence was in the eyes and hearts of viewers. I had intended to show the beauty and sophistication of the potential for positive synthesis; audiences differentially experienced the exquisite tension between synthesis, acculturation, assimilation, and the challenge to clean the filter.
 By the way, the co-head of Jerusalem Productions, an Israeli secular producer who went on to become the powerful head of Israeli TV’s Channel Two, almost entirely divorced himself from the project as he thought Wurtzel and I were the virtual “grinch” that stole Hanukkah, as we had totally de-emphasized the military struggle and “gevurah” (heroism) of the Maccabees, which is the focus of the secular Israeli version of Hanukkah. We had imposed a galuti (exilic, diasporic) configuration upon his Israeli holiday in putting the cultural struggle front and center. In terms of Jewish sources, we had preferred the version in the Talmud Tractate Shabbat (Mai Hanukkah) and the miracle of the flask of oil as a symbol of the burning bush that miraculously is not consumed as a metaphor for a culture that stubbornly persists when the laws of nature (or historical extinction) should have ended our cultural autonomy and vitality. We had preferred this to the version of “al ha-nisim” and the nationalistic version of the first Book of Maccabees.