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Judaism, Actually

‘Love, Actually’ is not just great, but it may also be the most Jewish Christmas movie ever made

Liel Leibovitz
December 14, 2018

It’s December again, which means it’s time to put away childish things and once again heed our era’s highest moral calling and resume our arguments about Love, Actually.

For some, the star-studded comedy is a comforting Yuletide tradition, up there with sipping on eggnog or buying things you can’t really afford for people who don’t really need them anyway. For others, it’s a catalog of iniquities, a monument to sexism, a towering inferno of a film burning bright with hot white privilege. I’m firmly in the first camp—I’m a simple man who doesn’t need much more than five or six scenes starring Bill Nighy to enjoy a movie—and I want nothing more than to throw on my Snuggie, grab the popcorn, and cheer for Colin as he goes looking for love, truth, and beauty, in the one place where all three can be found in abundance: Wisconsin. But at the risk of prolonging an already tedious scuffle, one more point, I think, must be made: Love, Actually is, maybe, the most Jewish Christmas movie ever made.

Think, for a moment, of all the rest. It’s a Wonderful Life, say, or Miracle on 34th Street, or Meet Me in St. Louis—all are as bleak as the winter solstice, the longest night of the year and a pagan holiday that inspired elements of our modern Christmas celebration. To watch a tearful Margaret O’Brien listen to Judy Garland belt out “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and then rush outside in her nightgown and smash the snowmen her family had so lovingly built, or to watch George Bailey fade from existence, is to plumb the depths of human misery. Sure, these movies all have happy endings, but they are not in the least happy movies. They are, instead, elegiac explorations of the Christian idea of grace, reminders to the faithful that God loves them not because they deserve it but because he is infinitely merciful and kind. Joy, in Christian theology and in Christmas movies alike, only comes from above, a precious gift to be discovered one morning—Christianity, after all, is a religion predicated on an epiphany—and cherished forever. And if you need to explore this idea at greater length, just ask little Zuzu Bailey about angels and their wings.

Not that I’m complaining. The Victorians, never too kind, wrestled with the same idea by spending their Christmases telling ghost stories, which is how we get A Christmas Carol. That we’ve gone from poltergeists to pudgy Macy’s employees who may or may not be Santa Claus strikes me as the very idea of progress. And yet, there’s not much comfort, for this simple Jew at least, to be had from politely watching the gentiles affirm their faith.

Which is precisely why Love, Actually is such a blessing. The film offers no celestial revelations, no magical transformations, no boundless bliss. Instead, its vision of peace on Earth is an unmistakably Jewish one. We’ve no redeemers, fat and jolly or otherwise, and we’re specifically informed by the rabbis of the Talmud that not much will change once the Messiah comes, with the sole exception that we will all be free. Which, of course, makes the Messiah a bit redundant. Michael Walzer elegantly captured this idea when he wrote that God won’t “send the Messiah until the people are ready to receive him. But when they are ready, it might be said, they won’t need a messiah.”

What they do need—what we need, all of us—is each other. It’s each other we must ask for forgiveness on the Day of Atonement, and each other we seek out thrice daily whenever we wish to pray. It’s quite a metaphor, that: Prayer, God informs us, can never be a private conversation between Man and Maker. To have meaning, it must be recited in public, a reminder that human life is forever a group project.

If you were searching for a good way to visualize this profound idea, you might start with, say, the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport, where Love, Actually both begins and ends. Judaism is vague on the subject of heaven—ours isn’t the celestial oasis that the righteous inherit for their good behavior—but an airport arrivals hall is as good a metaphor as any. It’s the place where we go when we want to cast aside the complications of everyday relationships and just tell our dear ones, usually with a big hug, that we love them very much. Or, as the film puts it, “if you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.”

It is, in each and every one of the movie’s storylines. Sure, we never get to see real relationships develop, and gallop instead, as one critic noticed with a huff, from the meet-cute to the happily-ever-after. And yeah, some of the film’s relationships are downright preposterous. But if you’re spending your days wondering just what kind of life a middle aged British crime novelist and a Portuguese domestic worker might have together, you’re doing it all wrong, because Love, Actually—like Judaism, actually—knows that, in the arithmetic of life, a pair is nice, but a full deck is priceless. Or, to quote another song from a very good movie about love, “Two can be as bad as one / It’s the loneliest number since the number one.”

And so, the lovers of Love, Actually congregate, orbiting each other until they come together for the film’s charming climax, complete with a spirited rendition of “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” A minor fall, a major lift, and our heroes redeem each other. Not all of them: It’s hard to tell, for example, if Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson are going to make it after all, and poor Laura Linney never makes it work with Rodrigo Santoro. But, really, it hardly matters, because they are never alone, and even if life hands them something short of a Hollywood ending, they have each other for comfort and warmth. Their love, the movie wisely states, isn’t particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it doesn’t have to be any of that; it just has to be. When it is, it creates a community, a gift more precious and divine than anything any Hollywood angel or saint can bestow.


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Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.