Sedarim in films

RAISED in a nominally observant family that respected kashrut, Woody Allen often makes use of Jewish customs and tradition in his films.

This is certainly the case with Pesach and its centrepiece, the seder.

There is a childhood memory of a seder in Sleeper (1973) reenacted while Miles (Allen) is in a hypnotic state.

Another briefly glimpsed seder is seen in his Hollywood Ending (2002).

But Allen's most iconic seder must surely be that in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989).

Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) is an outwardly successful ophthalmologist.

We meet him being feted at the beginning of the film at a gala dinner in his honour.

We learn that he has conducted a secret extramarital affair, but has had his lover (Anjelica Huston) murdered when she threatens to reveal the relationship to his wife and family.

Having arranged the perfect murder and gotten away with it too, Judah is torn with guilt by what he has done.

Significantly, the word 'treif' derives from the Hebrew for 'torn'.

Judah returns to his boyhood home in Brooklyn. He wanders around the old house and he peers through the dining-room door.

In the style of renowned Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, Judah looks back into his childhood, where a fondly remembered seder with the extended family is in full flow.

A heated debate is ensuing between his father and his aunt over faith, morality, power, and the "eyes of God" (a repeated refrain throughout the film, both audibly and visually).

The seder scene is important because the family is gathered around the dinner table, united in its observation of the traditional meal and its rituals.

Even though they are arguing over complex moral issues and cannot reconcile their views, disputation, building on the Talmud, is presented as a staple of the Jewish diet.

It is also significant that Allen uses this fondly remember seder as the scene for the external dramatisation of an interior psychic debate over conscience.

Here the seder provides a safe space for Allen to explore the internal psychological condition of his protagonist.

Judah, who has sanctioned a murder on his behalf (his brother is the actual killer), engages his dead - but vividly remembered - father in a discussion about crime, punishment, and guilt.

This contrasts to the classic gentile meal in Allen's Annie Hall (1977), which revolves around superficial trifles such as swapmeets and boating, and where Allen deliberately removes his character, Alvy Singer, by having him directly address the camera.

In Crimes and Misdemeanors, in comparison, Judah does not address the audience, but interpolates himself directly into a childhood memory, and it is the characters in his memory that respond to his ethical/moral dilemmas to provide one of the most memorable movie sedarim.

© 2013 Jewish Telegraph