Despite being in the middle of the Passover Holiday, a special preview screening of Joseph Cedar’s latest film, Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer at JCC Manhattan brought out a packed house. Cedar was at the screening to introduce the film along with one of the stars, Lior Ashkenazi. As the crowd gathered, audience members complained about the usual topics: It’s too hot, it’s too cold, which seats are available? etc. Cedar watched the crowd with amazement and then introduced the film by saying that this is exactly the audience he made the film for.
The film is actually relatable to a broad audience and there are many layers to peel away in Norman. This thought provoking gem touches on many topics pertinent to modern life and human nature. On the surface, the film tells the story of Norman (played by Richard Gere), a professional networker always looking to make a deal and a connection. He’s a New York fixer. He meets an up and coming Israeli politician, Eshel, (played by Lior Ashkenazi), who ultimately rises to power. Norman’s network status grows through this relationship as he attempts to maintain a connection to this politician. Ultimately, Norman’s relationships become more complicated and of greater scale, raising the stakes of the game beyond Norman’s reach.
One can see this film as a story of political relationships and corruption, a topic very timely in Israeli politics specifically, as a former Prime-Minister sits in jail for corruption charges. The film can also be a interpreted as a reflection of the American Jewish community and the games of power and money that often come into play. The talent behind this film has argued that Norman is a universal character and is relatable in all societies. But there is something distinctly Jewish about a Norman. Beyond the New York accent, Norman’s currency is his network. This is derived very specifically from the strong sense of community that exists within Jewish life. Judaism, at its core requires social interaction. The holidays and traditions often focus on a communal factor. For example, a Jewish person needs to pray with a minyan, a group of at least 10 other Jews, enforcing the group setting for the most basic forms of worship. Synagogues, schools and community centers play an active role in Jewish life, and create a strong bond and network.
But what fascinates me most about the film is the portrayal of Israeli-American Jewish relations. Norman represents American Jewry, and has a complicated relationship with Eshel, who represents Israeli society. Cedar referred to their relationship as a “love story” though possibly a one sided or an imbalanced love story. This connection can be seen as a metaphor for the relations between these two communities on a larger scale.
Jewish American and Israeli relations have transitioned over the years. Traditionally, American Jewry took the position of “the rich uncle.” During the formation of the state and the decades to follow, the American zionist program made Israel a crucial part of Jewish life, especially by encouraging financial support. Most notable was Golda Meir, who came to America to raise funds for the budding state to help defend it in its infancy. Beyond the friendship this formed, it also enforced an imbalanced relationship between the two communities as American Jewish organizations put Israel on a pedestal, while Israel relied on America for support.
In the film, Norman sees Eshel as a young politician with great potential, who can do no wrong. He looks for ways to support him and his career and will do anything for him, even when Eshel is not returning his calls. But is any giving ever selfless? Definitely not in Norman’s case. He uses his connection to Eshel for his own social gain and rises thanks to his connection with Eshel.
Israelis from their perspective, were always somewhat enamored by Uncle Sam and coveted the American lifestyle, as Israel at its roots was an extremely poor and underdeveloped country. The contrast between American and Israeli Jewry is stark. Israelis work the land and fight for their country, while American Jews live comfortable, privileged lifestyles. In Israel, Americans are often seen as the sun-allergic tourists who are easy prey for an Israeli opportunist to receive support from. This can be seen throughout the development of Eshel and Norman’s interactions.
Norman and Eshel’s relationship starts with Norman buying him an expensive pair of shoes. This immediately puts Eshel on the receiving end of the relationship. Eshel lies in bed at night, drunk, hugging his new shoes and proclaiming his love to Norman. While Eshel might appreciate Norman for his generosity, his cynical advisors keep him away from Norman and find him of no importance. The imbalanced relations of the American business man and the Israeli politician can be seen as a direct parallel to the larger connection of these two societies.
Since Israel came into its own and is now officially a successfully developed market, the country’s reliance on American Jewish money has become less crucial. There are still those who seek out America’s support and worship the dollar more than the shekel. In truth, Israel’s economy is at times more stable than America’s. Still, Israel does not have a culture of giving, which plays a big part in the American Jewish lifestyle and therefore Israelis will still long for American support.
When Eshel rises to power, he no longer needs Norman, but still seeks out his advice and support from time to time. Norman, like American Jewry, continues to support and hopes to please his “partner” in Israel . Norman calls Eshel constantly, but Eshel rarely takes the calls.
One striking example of the imbalanced relationship between American Jewry and Israel can be seen in the most basic recognition of religious power in Israel. The majority of engaged Jews in America are part of the Reform and Conservative movements. In Israel, where there is no separation of religion and state, the government only officially recognizes Orthodox Judaism and gives them the final stamp of approval on all religious matters . Like Norman’s support for Eshel, this has not stopped the Reform and Conservative movements from being unshakable supporters of Israel.
When corruption allegations are made against Eshel, Norman stands by his side, not realizing, that this decision to remain loyal may bring him down too. The traditional American Jewish community displays unwavering support for Israel, even when Israel is not necessarily in the right. Will this lead to the tragic downfall of both communities?
We all know a fixer in some facet of our lives. What drives a fixer is something that might be inside all of us. Ultimately, Cedar tells a human story that makes us all reflect on ourselves and our motivations. Like Norman, we all want to belong . We seek respect, inclusion, and we might, with good intentions, shade the lines of truth or even lie to try to earn this recognition. Norman makes us take a hard look at ourselves and the price we want to pay for acceptance.