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Judah’s Avatar

Watching James Cameron’s CGI epic and reconsidering the Hanukkah story

Andrew Marantz
December 23, 2009
20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox

Opening night for Avatar was also the last night of Hanukkah, but when I was offered a free ticket to the blockbuster action flick, I put on my 3-D glasses and didn’t give the Festival of Lights a second thought. Then, while the big blue subalterns scampered across the screen, the damnedest thing happened: I started thinking about the Hanukkah story for the first time in years. Who knew James Cameron, of all people, could make me reconsider what it means to be a Jew?

The real story of Hanukkah is not about oil; it’s about factionalism and human suffering. When I first read that grisly story, the one in the apocrypha, my feelings about my ancestral religion slid a notch away from disinterest and toward dyspepsia.

In the book of 1 Maccabees, the gentiles have desecrated the Jews’ Holy of Holies, the Temple at Mount Zion. A family of badass Rambo Jews—the Maccabees—retake the Temple by force. They re-sanctify the altar by lighting a menorah, and the oil lasts eight crazy nights. That’s the part they teach you in Hebrew school.

But then, having made their omelette, the Maccabees go on breaking eggs. The tale of the magic fuel starts and ends in chapter 4 of 1 Maccabees, but for the rest of that book (chapters 5 through 16) and for the entirety of 2 Maccabees (15 more chapters), the Rambo Jews go on kicking ass. They slaughter gentiles and lapsed Jews alike. “They forcibly circumcised all the uncircumcised boys they found within the boundaries of Israel,” says the book. They burned their enemies alive and “divided a very large amount of plunder.” They decapitated the enemy king and impaled his head on a pike, “a clear and conspicuous sign to everyone of the help of the Lord.”

At best, the Maccabees were fundamentalist freedom fighters. At worst, they were terrorists—the Bible clearly reports that they targeted civilians. When the Maccabees were triumphant, they made sacrifices unto God; when times were tough, they went on praying and retreated to the mountains, sleeping in caves and growing scraggly terrorist beards. These are the heroes of the Hanukkah tale: the Taliban without dialysis.

This is where I normally put down religious texts and start reading Thoreau. What good is a Holy Book if it lavishes praise on guerrillas? What good is monotheism if it countenances murder?

This is also where most big-budget action movies lose me. The screenwriters are so eager to start the carnage that they don’t spend much time justifying the conflict. And, of course, they don’t have to. This is the compact audiences make by entering the multiplex: we’ll be on Will Smith’s side from the moment he steps on screen, and the badder you make the bad guys, the louder we’ll cheer when they blow up. All of which leaves tree-huggers like me alone with our incongruous gripes: wouldn’t this be easier if nobody started shooting in the first place? I am especially impatient with popcorn flicks that hinge on vague, quasi-religious morals. Onscreen, the most irrational solution is always tried first, everything is possible if you just have faith, and righteousness prevails against all odds. It’s infuriating.

Avatar does not shy away from that Hollywood formula. The jungle people are a variation on the “noble savage” stereotype, the villains are relentlessly, one-dimensionally villainous, and the heroes utter groan-worthy battle cries (“You’re not the only one with guns, bitch!”). But you don’t groan. At least, I didn’t, because by that point I was literally on the edge of my seat, fists clenched, praying for the evil humans to die.

“The last time I came out of a movie feeling that way it was the first time I saw Star Wars,” Steven Spielberg has said. I wasn’t alive in 1977, so I’ll just say that Avatar is the first blockbuster that ever made me reach catharsis. Cameron’s pacing is flawless, and the visuals are as stunning as everyone hoped they’d be. Moreover, Cameron takes the time to set up his conflict. He doesn’t take for granted that you’ll side with the hulking azure aliens against the greedy humans. Rather, he shows you the world through the aliens’ eyes.

Their world is a lush DayGlo jungle, a decadent mushroom trip of a place. So when the capitalist war criminals start eying the precious metals under the forest floor, you feel it like a punch in the gut. “But you haven’t been there,” you want to yell at Giovanni Ribisi. “It’s so pretty!”

I won’t spoil too much, because I’m expecting everyone to see this movie. Let’s just say that Avatar lets you walk a mile in the broad prehensile feet of a proud race whose connection to their ancestral land is in danger of being brutally severed. Cameron draws on several real-world scenarios, sometimes ham-handedly, sometimes movingly, sometimes both at once. Politically minded viewers will recognize parallels to Afghanistan, Iraq, Native Americans, colonial Africa, and present-day Gaza. But I think what allowed me to empathize so easily with the blue guys was that they reminded me of yet another people—my own. What is it like to belong to a tribe whose central shrine has been ravaged, who live in fear of persecution, who zealously—perhaps overzealously—guard their fragile slice of holy land? I don’t have to guess. I already know.

And, through the blue guys, for the first time in my life I found myself empathizing with the Maccabees. They were right about some things, at least: Antiochus was a tyrant, and he did not seem open to diplomacy. The Maccabees saw only one way to stand up to power and they did so bravely. If it weren’t for the Rambo Jews, who knows? Perhaps the rabbis would have been killed off, the Hellenized Jews would have named their uncircumcised sons Alexander, and Judaism would have become nothing more than a memory.

I don’t think the Temple at Mount Zion was worth killing and dying for 2,000 years ago, and I don’t think its memory is worth killing and dying for now. I’m a lover, not a fighter. But as much as I want to, I cannot categorically dismiss the possibility that there some things in the universe worth fighting for. Even Thoreau believed that.

These are wild-eyed and fuzzy sentiments—the kind one might have after, say, a three-hour romp through a supernatural CGI forest. I know things are more complicated than they appear in the movies. Avatar will clean up at the Oscars, but I don’t expect it to solve any geopolitical conflicts. What it can do, though, is expand our collective narrative vocabulary. Humans understand the world as much through stories as through reason. The real story of the Middle East is not about oil; it’s about factionalism and human suffering. Perhaps Cameron’s story can help us empathize with the creation myths of national identity, both others’ and our own.

Andrew Marantz is a freelance writer who lives in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in New York, Slate, the New York Times, and other publications.

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