On Wednesday, famed actor Angela Lansbury passed away. I was reading the various stories about all the various roles she played. Although Murder She Wrote may have been her most famous role during my lifetime, there was one movie that introduced her to me when I was a child.
Following the success of Mary Poppins, Disney released Bedknobs and Broomsticks in 1971 starring Angela Lansbury. Lansbury played Ms. Eglantine Price, an “apprentice witch” who is studying magic during the Battle of Britain hoping to aid the war effort, while also caring for three young orphans fleeing the Blitz (the German bombing campaign against the United Kingdom in 1940 and 1941 during which London was systematically bombed for 57 straight days starting in September 1940). Like Charlie, Carrie, and Paul (the children in the movie), Angela Lansbury in real life was evacuated from London as a young teen during the Blitz.
What makes this movie so interesting is the fact Disney refused to shy away from the sociopolitical realities of the film’s setting – World War II and the Nazis. You may recall that the Nazis are the villains in the movie. In fact, it is Ms. Price, who, at one point, fights the Nazis while on her broomstick alongside an army of magical suits of armor.
The movie acknowledged the horrors of war and its impact on people, including children. Roger Ebert when he reviewed the movie wrote, "Children like evil old queens and tyrannical kings and pirates and alligators. They KNOW these types are up to no good…5-year-olds don’t automatically know Nazis are bad guys (and a Disney movie is the wrong place for them to learn, anyway).” As is typical in Disney movies, perhaps we learn that children have a greater grasp on "real-life happenings" (including evil) than we imagine?
You may also recall in the movie that Ms. Price realizes that her magical manuscript is torn in half and she searches for the missing fragment. While doing so she encounters an unscrupulous Bookman (a clearly “Jewish” figure).
The Bookman, who possesses the other half of the manuscript, offers Ms. Price a trade. One commentator noted, “Bedknobs and Broomsticks is thematizing the medieval Jewish/Christian tension -- tensions rooted in one book, the Bible, seemingly ruptured into two halves, Old and New. And momentarily, the trade affects a détente between Jews and Christians.” Not sure I ever thought about that while watching the film.
(An interesting side note, the term "gaslighting" -- loosely defined as manipulating someone so as to make them question their own reality -- comes from a 1938 play, Gas Light, which was turned into a more widely known film in 1944, Gaslight. That movie was Angela Lansbury's film debut.)
We are in the middle of the Sukkot holiday. I wanted to share some poignant comments from Stephen Flatow (whose daughter was murdered in a suicide bus bombing attack in Israel in 1995) from the Jerusalem Post about the holiday:
The Talmud is clear that we are required to leave our permanent dwelling and live in a temporary one throughout the festival. However, the temporary nature of the sukkah poses a problem in many climes. Sometimes the temperature is very cold, and sometimes the wind is very strong and causes the schach to fall on our heads while we are in the midst of our meal. Other times, we awake in the morning to see mats on the ground. Heartbroken, we look to find ways to repair the sukkah.
I would like to suggest my own reason for a sukkah. To me, the sukkah represents life. And like living in the sukkah, life can be uncomfortable. It can shake as if blown by the wind, and sometimes the schach collapses around you. The sukkah is not a solid structure, and neither is life.
I found his words quite meaningful as I honor my mom’s yahrzeit, who passed away 15 years ago, and reflect this holiday season.
Continue to enjoy the Sukkot holiday. Please note the Jewish Federation will be closed on Monday and Tuesday for Shemini Atzeret (when we pray for rain in Israel) followed by Simchat Torah (Jews complete the annual reading of the weekly Torah portion and subsequently start back with Genesis 1).