Jacob’s Dreams Part

Jacob’s Encounters with God

by

Howard Adelman

Last shabat in our Torah study group, a visiting rabbi compared a passage from last week’s Torah portion, Vayetze, (Genesis 28:10 – 32:3) to a passage from this week’s portion, Vayishlach, (Genesis 32:4 – 33:17). [The selections are included after my commentary.] His was a comparison of two different encounters with God. The visiting rabbi offered a psychological interpretation of the two events, regarding the second, like the first, as a dream. The first that took place twenty years earlier was the dream of a confident and ambitious young man who had neither experienced the hardships of life nor acquired wives, concubines, children and a great deal of wealth. In the rabbi’s interpretation, in the second episode Jacob is much less inflated, more humble, and even somewhat broken as characterized by the displacement of his hip. He reinforced this interpretation with two poems, one by Naomi Shihab Nye from her volume of selected poems, The Words Under the Words, called “Kindness,” and a second by Mary Oliver called “Mindful,” both also included at the end of this blog.
The context of the first dream is that Jacob, fearing the wrath of his brother for tricking their father into giving him the blessing that belonged to Esau, left Beer-sheba en route to Haram to the home of his uncle, Laban. The sun has set. He lies down and uses a stone for his pillow. He has the famous dream of the ladder or stairway in which angels are going up and down. God appears beside him, introduces Himself, and promises to give to Jacob and his descendants the land on which he is resting. Further, not only does God promise that he, Jacob, would have many progeny, but God makes two other promises: 1) “in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed;” and 2) “behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee whithersoever thou goest, and will bring thee back into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of.”

Jacob reacts, surprised that the Lord was present in such an arid place. He views the spot as “the abode of God” and as “the gateway to heaven.” Jacob then vows (Genesis 28: 20-22): “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then shall the Lord be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house, and of all Thou shalt give me, I will surely give the tenth unto Thee.”

In the second encounter in contrast to the first, he is returning. He has been away 20 years, and is again in a state of fear, this time not in flight but in anticipation of a meeting, after all these years of separation. Jacob does not know whether the wrath and its extent are still in Esau’s heart. Things do not look good when he is told that his brother is riding towards him with 400 men. He put in motion his plan to divide his entourage in two. “If Esau comes to one camp and attacks it, the other camp may yet escape.” (Genesis 32:9) Further, the one half would be sent forward in waves, each wave with presents for his brother. “If I propitiate him with presents in advance, and then face him, perhaps he will show me favour.” (Genesis 32:21) It is clearly not a plan devised by a brave warrior.

Jacob had the ladder dream the first time when he fled just after he had cheated Esau out of his blessing twenty years earlier. This time, Jacob had an experience which the visiting rabbi interpreted as another dream. Jacob was alone and “a man wrestled with him until daybreak, but the man could not get him down so he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket.” (Genesis 32:26) Jacob, suffering from a wrenched hip, still held onto the man who insisted that Jacob let him go because dawn was breaking. Jacob replied that he would not let go unless the man blessed him. The latter did so and said from now on he would not be known as Esau’s heel – Jacob – but as Israel, blessed of God. Jacob reacted and said after the unknown stranger left, “I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” (Genesis 32:31)

The visiting rabbi interpreted the text to be about the two different experiences of a man at two different stages of his life, one that of a brash, ambitious and confidant youngster and the second of a much more humble and modest man, injured by life’s struggles and much more grateful at the kindness of others, including that of the Other. After all, in an earlier verse of that chapter, Jacob prayed to God and said, “I am unworthy of all your kindness that you have so steadfastly shown.” (verse 11)

The rabbi then shifted to the two poems. That of Nye’s began:

“Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.”

The poem continues, describing “how desolate the landscape can be between the regions of kindness.” And we learn that this was a poem written about an actual experience when Nye was travelling in a bus in Colombia and the bus was attacked by robbers who stole everything the passengers had and left one Indian dead. He is the one for whom the future dissolved in a moment. To know kindness, you must know sorrow. But you cannot wake up to kindness if you are dead. The sorrow then belongs to others. And they can only know kindness as making sense of all the madness which can then travel with you everywhere like a shadow or a friend.

If this was an analogy for the Jacob story, presumably the message was that Jacob first is deeply sorrowful when he departs in fright at the loss of his family and when his future belonged to the realm of the unknown. Only with that deep sense of loss can the understanding arise that kindness is what counts. The citation puzzled me as a complement to the second portion. First, as the rabbi said, this was the experience of a girl in her mid-twenties. Secondly, she was encountering a horrible and cruel event. Out of the terrible sorrow with which she was left, and coterminous with it – not twenty years later – came also the sense that kindness made it all worthwhile and was the only thing that made it all worthwhile. That kindness was to be her friend for the rest of her life.

Perhaps I misunderstood. Perhaps the citation was intended to illustrate the first biblical passage, specifically where God promises Jacob that he will be with him from now on and will protect him. But Nye’s poem is about kindness, not about protection. It is about something in which one can have faith, not about protection as a condition for that faith. Jacob’s experience was not of the God of mercy but more of the God of power. The busload of people in Colombia could have come through the experience, not by drawing out a thread of faith in kindness, but by recognizing that you need police or even military to protect a bus traveling through an area controlled by land pirates.

The second poem called “Mindful” by Mary Oliver was even more puzzling. Though both poems are about the light that comes through the cracks in the glass, one of kindness during a moment of intense sorrow that then stays with one as a companion for the rest of your life, and one of delight coming periodically when you truly listen, when you truly see, when in an ordinary, not exceptional, experience of a dreadful event, you come to recognize that in the untrimmable light of the world, the oceans shine and the prayers are made out of simple things like really seeing all of life in a single blade of glass. There is no continuity in the experience; it is sporadic. And it is delight, not in an awesome God, but in the tiniest of things of nature if you but attend to them.

Both are beautiful poems. Neither seemed to be about or throw any light on either or both of Jacob’s encounters. Nor was the rabbi’s psychological interpretation that the two “dreams” or encounters were about how one experiences life as a young man versus how one experiences it as an old one. First, depending on how one dates Jacob’s age, he either was already old when he left for Haran, or if he left when he was the equivalent of a twenty-plus-year-old, when he returns, he is a mature adult, not an old man wizened by experience. More to the point, the plain meaning of the text does not seem to be about individual psychology and our personal development.

Quite aside from the interpretation, I have a problem with methodology and have trouble simply with using text as homiletics, as an illustration of a lesson you want to teach. For the Torah is a “sacred” text – as I believe all great literature is. It is not there to be used as illustrative material for one’s personal propensities. This means, at the first level, paying close attention to the plain meaning of the text though there is a certain psychological component to be sure. In the first encounter, Jacob is fleeing the only home he ever knew and is off to seek safety in the house of a relative far away after he cheated his brother of a blessing from their father. In the second encounter, Jacob is about to see his brother once again after twenty years, not knowing whether or not Esau still begrudges what he had done. There is little indication that the text is about maturation.

In addition to objecting to interpreting text in which the meaning given seems implausible, in addition to my discomfort at conjoining that text to two beautiful poems, and very insightful ones, but neither of which really helps us in understanding the text, in addition to my unhappiness at using biblical text simply to illustrate an idea – I do not believe that Torah exist to reinforce subjective sensibilities or even our collective experiences – I find a spiritual disquiet when Torah is not used to provide a guide for understanding both. So I try to abide by the first three of the ancient inherited norms of levels of interpretation summarized by the term PaRDeS:
• Peshat (פְּשָׁט‎) – the literal, surface, plain and direct reading in context
• Remez (רֶמֶז‎) – “hints” at the deep allegoric, hidden or symbolic meaning
• Derash (דְּרַשׁ‎) – “to inquire” based on comparative analysis
• Sod (סוֹד‎) – the “secret,” mysterious or esoteric and mystical meaning.

Tomorrow: My attempt at interpretation

The first relevant verses from Genesis 28 are as follows:

י וַיֵּצֵא יַעֲקֹב, מִבְּאֵר שָׁבַע; וַיֵּלֶךְ, חָרָנָה. 10 And Jacob went out from Beer-sheba, and went toward Haran.
יא וַיִּפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם וַיָּלֶן שָׁם, כִּי-בָא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ, וַיִּקַּח מֵאַבְנֵי הַמָּקוֹם, וַיָּשֶׂם מְרַאֲשֹׁתָיו; וַיִּשְׁכַּב, בַּמָּקוֹם הַהוּא. 11 And he lighted upon the place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took one of the stones of the place, and put it under his head, and lay down in that place to sleep.
יב וַיַּחֲלֹם, וְהִנֵּה סֻלָּם מֻצָּב אַרְצָה, וְרֹאשׁוֹ, מַגִּיעַ הַשָּׁמָיְמָה; וְהִנֵּה מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים, עֹלִים וְיֹרְדִים בּוֹ. 12 And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.
יג וְהִנֵּה יְהוָה נִצָּב עָלָיו, וַיֹּאמַר, אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם אָבִיךָ, וֵאלֹהֵי יִצְחָק; הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה שֹׁכֵב עָלֶיהָ–לְךָ אֶתְּנֶנָּה, וּלְזַרְעֶךָ. 13 And, behold, the LORD stood beside him, and said: ‘I am the LORD, the God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac. The land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed.
יד וְהָיָה זַרְעֲךָ כַּעֲפַר הָאָרֶץ, וּפָרַצְתָּ יָמָּה וָקֵדְמָה וְצָפֹנָה וָנֶגְבָּה; וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ כָּל-מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה, וּבְזַרְעֶךָ. 14 And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south. And in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed.
טו וְהִנֵּה אָנֹכִי עִמָּךְ, וּשְׁמַרְתִּיךָ בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר-תֵּלֵךְ, וַהֲשִׁבֹתִיךָ, אֶל-הָאֲדָמָה הַזֹּאת: כִּי, לֹא אֶעֱזָבְךָ, עַד אֲשֶׁר אִם-עָשִׂיתִי, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-דִּבַּרְתִּי לָךְ. 15 And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee whithersoever thou goest, and will bring thee back into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of.’
טז וַיִּיקַץ יַעֲקֹב, מִשְּׁנָתוֹ, וַיֹּאמֶר, אָכֵן יֵשׁ יְהוָה בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה; וְאָנֹכִי, לֹא יָדָעְתִּי. 16 And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said: ‘Surely the LORD is in this place; and I knew it not.’
יז וַיִּירָא, וַיֹּאמַר, מַה-נּוֹרָא, הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה: אֵין זֶה, כִּי אִם-בֵּית אֱלֹהִים, וְזֶה, שַׁעַר הַשָּׁמָיִם. 17 And he was afraid, and said: ‘How full of awe is this place! this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’
יח וַיַּשְׁכֵּם יַעֲקֹב בַּבֹּקֶר, וַיִּקַּח אֶת-הָאֶבֶן אֲשֶׁר-שָׂם מְרַאֲשֹׁתָיו, וַיָּשֶׂם אֹתָהּ, מַצֵּבָה; וַיִּצֹק שֶׁמֶן, עַל-רֹאשָׁהּ. 18 And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it.
יט וַיִּקְרָא אֶת-שֵׁם-הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא, בֵּית-אֵל; וְאוּלָם לוּז שֵׁם-הָעִיר, לָרִאשֹׁנָה. 19 And he called the name of that place Beth-el, but the name of the city was Luz at the first.
כ וַיִּדַּר יַעֲקֹב, נֶדֶר לֵאמֹר: אִם-יִהְיֶה אֱלֹהִים עִמָּדִי, וּשְׁמָרַנִי בַּדֶּרֶךְ הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ, וְנָתַן-לִי לֶחֶם לֶאֱכֹל, וּבֶגֶד לִלְבֹּשׁ. 20 And Jacob vowed a vow, saying: ‘If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on,
כא וְשַׁבְתִּי בְשָׁלוֹם, אֶל-בֵּית אָבִי; וְהָיָה יְהוָה לִי, לֵאלֹהִים. 21 so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then shall the LORD be my God,
כב וְהָאֶבֶן הַזֹּאת, אֲשֶׁר-שַׂמְתִּי מַצֵּבָה–יִהְיֶה, בֵּית אֱלֹהִים; וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר תִּתֶּן-לִי, עַשֵּׂר אֲעַשְּׂרֶנּוּ לָךְ. 22 and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that Thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto Thee.’

The second relevant verses are from Genesis 32 as follows:

כה וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב, לְבַדּוֹ; וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ, עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר. 25 And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.
כו וַיַּרְא, כִּי לֹא יָכֹל לוֹ, וַיִּגַּע, בְּכַף-יְרֵכוֹ; וַתֵּקַע כַּף-יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹב, בְּהֵאָבְקוֹ עִמּוֹ. 26 And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was strained, as he wrestled with him.
כז וַיֹּאמֶר שַׁלְּחֵנִי, כִּי עָלָה הַשָּׁחַר; וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אֲשַׁלֵּחֲךָ, כִּי אִם-בֵּרַכְתָּנִי. 27 And he said: ‘Let me go, for the day breaketh.’ And he said: ‘I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.’
כח וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, מַה-שְּׁמֶךָ; וַיֹּאמֶר, יַעֲקֹב. 28 And he said unto him: ‘What is thy name?’ And he said: ‘Jacob.’
כט וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ–כִּי, אִם-יִשְׂרָאֵל: כִּי-שָׂרִיתָ עִם-אֱלֹהִים וְעִם-אֲנָשִׁים, וַתּוּכָל. 29 And he said: ‘Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed.’
ל וַיִּשְׁאַל יַעֲקֹב, וַיֹּאמֶר הַגִּידָה-נָּא שְׁמֶךָ, וַיֹּאמֶר, לָמָּה זֶּה תִּשְׁאַל לִשְׁמִי; וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתוֹ, שָׁם. 30 And Jacob asked him, and said: ‘Tell me, I pray thee, thy name.’ And he said: ‘Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name?’ And he blessed him there.
לא וַיִּקְרָא יַעֲקֹב שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם, פְּנִיאֵל: כִּי-רָאִיתִי אֱלֹהִים פָּנִים אֶל-פָּנִים, וַתִּנָּצֵל נַפְשִׁי. 31 And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: ‘for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.’
לב וַיִּזְרַח-לוֹ הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ, כַּאֲשֶׁר עָבַר אֶת-פְּנוּאֵל; וְהוּא צֹלֵעַ, עַל-יְרֵכוֹ. 32 And the sun rose upon him as he passed over Peniel, and he limped upon his thigh.
לג עַל-כֵּן לֹא-יֹאכְלוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-גִּיד הַנָּשֶׁה, אֲשֶׁר עַל-כַּף הַיָּרֵךְ, עַד, הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה: כִּי נָגַע בְּכַף-יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹב, בְּגִיד הַנָּשֶׁה. 33 Therefore the children of Israel eat not the sinew of the thigh-vein which is upon the hollow of the thigh, unto this day; because he touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh, even in the sinew of the thigh-vein.

Kindness

by

Naomi Shibab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.

Mindful
by Mary Oliver

Every day
I see or hear
something
that more or less
kills me
with delight,
that leaves me
like a needle
in the haystack
of light.
It was what I was born for –
to look, to listen,
to lose myself
inside this soft world –
to instruct myself
over and over
in joy,
and acclamation.
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,
the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant –
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,
the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help
but grow wise
with such teachings
as these –
the untrimmable light
of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?

Female Siblings – Leah and Rachel

Female Siblings – Leah and Rachel in Vayeitzei: Genesis 28:10 – 32:3

by

Howard Adelman

This is the seventh Torah reading of the Jewish calendar year. On the seventh day we rest. What about the seventh week? However, “no rest for the wicked,” as the saying goes. And I have not been resting the last two days. The blogs are piling up. Somehow, I have been blocked from sending out any bulk mailing, even though I do so in small batches. Hence, the tedious method used of one at a time until I get to the source of the problem.

This morning, I will also cheat and borrow a great deal from my daughter who happens also to be called Rachel. Rachel Adelman is an Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible in the rabbinical program at Hebrew College in Boston. Her most recent book was, The Female Ruse — Women’s Deception and Divine Sanction in the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2015). She is also a poet. With her permission, I begin my commentary this week with her poem on Leah and Rachel. This is the signal that I will not be dealing with the usual topics in this portion of the Torah, such as Jacob’s dream, his wrestling with the angel and his encounter with God, his relations with Laban, the birth of his sons nor, finally, his departure from Haran and return to the land in which Abraham and Isaac had settled.

Sisters Entwined

She is the crimson cord, I the blue.
Leah-of-the-weak-eyes stole my bed that night,
wrapped round his sinewy thighs like a wick.
No candle light but the faceless flame of love-making.

I am the blue thread, she the red.
After a night in my tent, I trip down to the River to bathe
away the life-seed. Monthly, the death-void
washes away in the stream, crimson diluted in blue.

She is the red cord, I the blue.
Leah, despised—roots throttled in desire, stunted as a bonsai.
I, barren—a leafless tree exposed against the sky.
Leah fruitful but bent, I beautiful and shapely, ever slim, ever empty.

I am the blue of water and sky, she, red of the earth.
At dusk, I cross the River Jabbok, wending through Gilead.
A clay-woman, a dibbuk, assails me, thrusts me to the ground.
We wrestle in the dust until daybreak.

She is the red thread, I the blue.
Intertwined, she torques my elbow behind my back.
How to break the torturous embrace? The dying embryos? The flaccid breast?
Will maidservant-stand-ins or mandrakes do?

Both caught in the stranglehold of desire—
sisters and mothers, rivals and lovers—for the same
man-hire: Jacob. Our hearts tripped up
by the heel-wrestler, Ya‘aqov: she for love, I for child.

I pray: O God, untangle me from her.
Or let the entwined wicks ignite the light of flame as in Havdalah
that I might discern between the crimson
her and the blue-hue of me and You.

Then God remembered Rachel, and God heard her and opened her womb. (Gen. 30:22)

When I read this poem, I personally cannot help but think of the United States where recently red and blue states seem to have developed into an eternal wrestling match for power. The north-south divide has been displaced. The conflict between the coastal states on both the eastern and western seaboards of the United States and the interior heartland is usually cast in terms of a masculine metaphor about power to make sense of the controversial results of the last election. The struggle is usually represented in terms of rivalry and male metaphors.

I sketched that male rivalry in relationship to birth order in reflecting on the relationship of Esau and Jacob. I contrasted a character who was adventurous, more impetuous and “instinct” driven, even when his academic achievements were higher, and, ironically given his propensity for risk-taking, more conscientious, more dutiful and more respectful of paternal authority, versus a more cautious, more cerebral and more conniving younger sibling who had better developed communication and social skills. Admittedly, the analogy is a stretch, but insightful nevertheless.

The Torah offers three different tales of male sibling rivalry – Cain versus Abel, Ishmael versus Isaac and Esau versus Jacob before introducing female siblings. In the latter, the emphasis is on circumstances rather than inherent character differences even though Leah and Rachel are radically different in their personalities. In comparing sororal rather than fraternal relations, the latter is characterized primarily by rivalry in which the connection between the two brothers in each set was suborned to the implications for a permanent and eons-long divide. In contrast, the Leah-Rachel relationship emphasizes how the two are intertwined rather than separated, how their rivalry is suborned in a larger unity. I contrast feminine sibling “rivalry” with masculine ones and end by exploring the insights into current American politics through a feminist rather than masculine male metaphor.

However, whereas there is a bounty of scientific research on fraternal sibling rivalry, research on sororal relationships is hard to find. Further, in scientific discussions of sisters, however sparse, there is far greater emphasis on sororal or sister solidarity rather than rivalry. Even in this case, where the sisters are married to the same man and where one usually finds an expression of conjugal authority by the older over the younger, this is not the emphasis of this story. In such cases of competition for the favour of a male, cooperation and solidarity still usually trump competition. In other cases at an extreme, when you compare families where all children are female with families where all children are males, female-children families achieve higher incomes on a gross family level – 25-40% higher – than all male children households. This may have implications on theories of competition and capitalism, but that is not the subject today. I begin today, not with science, but with poetry and with that which is indicated by the text and its account of the tension between Leah and Rachel.

If female birth order effects were similar to male birth order personality characteristics, we might expect Leah to be both more conscientious and dutiful while also more adventurous than Rachel and Rachel more agreeable and possessing more social skills while, at the same time, being much more of a non-conformist. We shall not find this to be the case. Further, older sisters are more likely to praise and teach their younger female siblings than is the case in males. Whereas one can expect aggression and dominance from the older male and conniving and a greater sense of initiative and independence from the younger brother, the issue of solidarity emerges as primary in the case of sisters. This is generally true even in polygamous marriages where a man is married to two sisters. Inclusiveness and family cohesion become the dominant norms rather than rivalry. This results in a greater clustering of feeling and affection, even among the step children. However, the discussion of the relationships between all of Jacob’s children of his two wives and two concubines belongs to a separate though related analysis.

In the poem above, Rachel is portrayed as engaged in a wrestling match with her sister, with Rachel deprecating Leah-of-the-weak-eyes who “stole” Rachel’s bed on the first wedding night. The poem appears to be about rivalry. But this is not an ordinary wrestling, but one which is much more akin to Jacob wrestling with God than his rivalry with Esau. So the thread, cord or wick (petl in Hebrew becomes a central metaphor in divine wrestling – elohim niphtalti). In my daughter’s poem, there are two cords like two DNA strands, one blue and one red, that intertwine and tie together though they also divide the two matriarchs. For Rachel is jealous that her sister’s thread and superiority in delivering progeny ties Jacob and her sister together more than the love that unites Rachel and Jacob. In the former, there may be “no candle light but the faceless flame of love-making.” The roots may be “throttled in desire,” but the result is “stunted like a bonsai.” Rachel’s sister’s thread is red, signifying the ability to give birth, whereas Rachel for years remained barren, her life-seed washed down the stream at each menstrual period.

In contrast, the fire of Jacob’s passion is almost totally directed towards Rachel. Yet it is Rachel who burns with jealousy, not simply at her sister’s sexual involvement with Jacob, but mostly at her sister’s ability to give birth even though Rachel is by far the more comely. “Leah fruitful but bent, I beautiful and shapely, ever slim, ever empty.” But the rivalry exists within a context stressing cohesion rather than competition. The latter exhibits itself in both sexual rivalry and deep concern about progeny. However, though Rachel may pray to be disentangled from her sister, her prayer is not answered. The two remain eternally intertwined.

Both caught in the stranglehold of desire—
sisters and mothers, rivals and lovers—for the same
man-hire: Jacob. Our hearts tripped up
by the heel-wrestler, Ya‘aqov: she for love, I for child.

So the portrait focuses on Leah’s jealousy over sex and Rachel’s jealousy about having children. But the dominant desire is not the expression of the rivalry, but the desire to set it aside, to untangle Rachel and Leah and to have sister solidarity trump sister rivalry. For Leah and Rachel initially seem complicit in the initial tricking of Jacob. Rachel recognizes the right of her older sister to marry and have children. And Leah prays that her younger sister will have children. How different is this from the relationship of the brothers thus far depicted! Further, Leah and Rachel bring very different characteristics to the marriage and their dialectical connection says a great deal about the desire for cohesion trumping rivalry.

As Rashi says when he connects the meaning of Leah’s name with the tiredness the Egyptians experience in the famine, Leah of the tired or weak eyes is exhausted. Egyptians worked with little to feed them. Leah cannot feed off Jacob’s love, for that love seems directed entirely to Rachel. But Leah is conscientious, wakes up even before dawn to work at her spinning wheel and make the thread to bind Jacob to her in contrast with Rachel’s natural endowments. Leah is a hard worker, giving and not demanding and dedicated to the well-being of her progeny. She is the mother of Jews as a stiff-necked people, as a people which stands up for its rights even in the face of rejection. She refuses dejection. She is serious and hard working and her rewards will come in her fruitfulness, in what comes out of her rather than in what she takes in. For she gives her virginity to Jacob, not as a sacrifice to love, for hers was a faceless flame of love-making, but as a sacrifice to ensuring the continuity of life. That is what it means to be stiff-necked.

Leah is the salt of the earth or, as my daughter described it avoiding clichés, “red of the earth.” Rachel, in contrast, is the water and the sky. Leah names her first three children, Reuben, Shmuel and Levi, for all three send a message that Leah not only has a right to be married, a right to have children, but even a right to be loved by Jacob for who she is rather than her natural physical endowments. Reuben means, “behold a son,” a triumphal declaration, but the name also comes from ra’ah, my affliction. Reuben was cursed by his father for sleeping with his concubine, Bilah.

In the case of the second-born son, non-Jews rarely name their children Shmu’el or Simeon and usually use its translation as Samuel. For Samuel is the second-born and means either the name of God or “God has heard,” שם האלוהים, shem Elohim. But Shmuel also means that the “Lord heard (shama) that I was unloved.” (Genesis 29:33) Her third son was named Levi. She hoped that finally “my husband will become attached (yillaweh) to me. (Genesis 29:34) Only with the birth of her fourth son, Judah, does Leah come into her own and leave behind her fantasy-driven desire with respect to Jacob. She ignores Jacob and names her son Judah because “this time I will praise (odeh) the Lord.” (Genesis 29:35)

But what about Rachel? Does she exhibit the conniving and the supposedly feminine traits of trickery to achieve mastery and control over the domestic holdings? Not at all. Rachel is giving, suspends having the fruits of her love for her sister. She is the epitome of chesed, of a giving nature. Rachel means sheep because Rachel obeys and follows the larger collective ethos rather than pursuing exclusively her own rights and position. While Leah makes the wool and thread to weave into garments, it is Rachel who sheds her wool to empower her older sister. She gives up the immediate satisfaction of her rights so that Leah can express hers.

The relationship of Leah and Rachel is so opposite to that of Esau and Jacob. Further, whereas Jews are the children of Jacob and not of Esau, and that gives a basic character to the Jewish people, Jews are also the children of both Leah and Rachel and embody determination and commitment combined with chesed, self-sacrifice and service. At the same time, the two strands of personality DNA remain in tension. We inherit that tension in actual power terms. Moses is a descendent of Leah who leads the Israelites from slavery into freedom and to the borders of the Promised Land. Joshua, his military commander and descendent of Rachel, is the calculating strategist who leads the conquest. King Saul descends from Rachel, but David ascends the throne to displace the heirs of Rachel for David’s predecessors trace their lineage to Leah.

We have different leaders for different times, the embodiment of care and responsibility and service to the other and the embodiment of self-interest and survival with weak eyes towards any visionary goal. But it is the children of those weak, tired and tender eyes focussed on determination and self-will, on self-survival and self-interest, that lead the people to the Promised Land. However, one only crosses into that land with concern for the other, with differentiating between strangers with whom one can live and enemies whom one must destroy. In contrast, it is the descendants of Leah who view all outsiders as enemies. After all, Esau, who, according to the Midrash, was to be Leah’s husband, married two Hittite women. In contrast, Jacob was committed to marrying his own and preserving the blood line, but not by rejecting the other, but by including the other, the children of his concubines, within the fold.

In the United States, the rivalry between the red states and the blue, is one between the heartland left behind and the coastland facing outward across the seas on either side of the continent, between those who wallow in nostalgia and long for a leader who comes from the coast but faces inward and backwards in history, versus a leader who, though born on an outer island, comes from the heartland, but faces outward. Red and blue express the value differences between those who embody the vision of a unitary nation versus those who express and respect the values of difference and diversity. The former focus on physical survival and are still of the earth while the latter are of the air and the water, combining innovation with a love of change and focused on what can be versus what has been. Obama marched into the future with eyes aglow, not the tired and weary eyes of Donald Trump, who enters office fantasizing about “being great again.” In this historical dialectical dance, the givers, who are generous in their love and look outward, will also have to look inward and listen to the pain of their sister’s children who constitute the heartland of America.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Vietnamerica: Part II Propaganda

Vietnamerica: Part II Propaganda – A Distinct Form of Documentary Film

by

Howard Adelman

In part I, I insisted that a good documentary should not be a propaganda film which brackets critical thought in favour of a single message pushing an ideological agenda on the public. When critical thinking is suspended, the documentary becomes a propaganda film. Today I will try to show how 10% of the Vietnamerica documentary that was ideological undermined the narrative of the suffering of the refugees who fled Vietnam.

Yesterday, I focused largely on the central core of the film and to some extend on one bookend, the success stories. Both happened to be military successes, one about the son of a refugee family who became the first Vietnamese-American general, and the other about the Vietnamese-American scientist who led the team that created the bunker buster bomb. This emphasis on militarism and a revisionist version of the Vietnam War opened the film. The film was transformed in good part from a view and record of the horrific experiences the Vietnamese had under the communists and in their efforts to escape, into an explicit propaganda film in defence of the theory that America betrayed its ally, South Vietnam. For it argues that the war had been effectively won when Kissinger was responsible for the stab-in-the-back, not only in abandoning Vietnam, but in refusing to re-equip the South Vietnamese army when China and the USSR were re-equipping the North Vietnamese. This thesis is dubious to say the least.

The film does not try to defend its extreme revisionist view, but simply to propagate the tale as a given. Quite aside from the questionable historical account, the effort to combine a historical propaganda film with a film of the experiences of the Vietnamese boat people allows the former to both undermine and detract from the latter.

There are the obvious readily challenged factual claims. A narrator says that half who fled Vietnam died in trying. If the numbers who fled were about two million, that would mean one million died in the effort to find freedom. But the film itself provides the generally accepted figure of 200,000 to 400,000 deaths. My studies indicate that the number was close to the higher estimate and North Vietnamese repression can be held responsible for at least half of those deaths. But not one million. Further, in the movie, there is no effort to resolve the contradiction in the figures cited. Similarly, assertions that 7 million died in the war are dubious. There is scant evidence to support such claims and virtually all authoritative sources cite a total of about 4 million dead and wounded on both sides, including 40,000 troops and civilians in The Convoy of Tears as civilians and military personnel fled the aggression of North Vietnamese armies as they moved against Saigon during March and April of 1975.

As far as atrocities and summary executions go, these were committed by both sides. The most famous was that of Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, Chief of the National Police, whose shooting of a handcuffed prisoner in the head with his 38 Smith & Wesson revolver became an iconic picture for the anti-war movement. The victim was Nguyễn Văn Lém, a member of the Việt Cộng captured in the Tet Offensive. Given the status of the photo, few knew that Lém was responsible for cutting the throat, not only of South Vietnamese Lieutenant Colonel Tuan, but his wife, six children and 80-year old mother. I do not know which side was guilty of the greater number of atrocities, but I suspect it was the Hanoi regime. Lém was captured beside a mass grave that held 34 civilian bodies.

It is easy to hold the Hanoi regime responsible for large numbers of deaths. After their victory over the French in the north and their breaking up the large estates and targeting large landowners, the Hanoi communist regime introduced land “reform.” that is, transferring all ownership of property to the state. Pacification followed. It is estimated that the Hanoi regime over four years killed almost 300,000 North Vietnamese citizens. In the period preceding the attack on Saigon, as suggested above, “Of the 200,000 refugees that fled the Highlands offensive by the North in March 1975, only 45,000 made it to Tuy-Hoa. Many of the 155,000 missing were killed by North Vietnamese troops; others were captured. Rebel highlanders also fired on the refugees, some were mistakenly bombed by government planes, and still others may have been run over by fleeing government vehicles. Some died by drowning and sheer exhaustion.” Of the death toll from one military advance over two months, Hanoi was probably responsible for almost half those deaths.

Thus, an estimate of those killed after the fall of Saigon of 100,000 does not seem so outlandish, especially if one includes in the total not only those executed, but those who were worked or starved to death in the so-called “re-education” camps. Some estimates go even higher. For a breakdown of civilians indiscriminately killed as a result of or consistent with orders from higher command, that is, democide, I use Bob Rummel’s publications in chapter 6 of Statistics of Democide focused on democide in Vietnam over 35 years.

The central issue of the propaganda element in the film is, however, not about numbers, but about the stab-in-the-back explanation of why Hanoi conquered South Vietnam. The propagandistic aspect of the film begins with two so-called authorities featured near the beginning of the film. One is Robert Turner, a Vietnam veteran and Associate Director of National Security Law at the University of Virginia, the university from which he earned his academic and professional degrees. Turner has been a national security adviser to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and testified before numerous congressional committees. Studying his works offers some hint of the weaknesses of his academic input into foreign policy in the United States. His CV is very skimpy to say the least, largely consisting of op-eds, power-point presentations and submissions to government committees.

Turner is most famous for his defense of presidential prerogatives in military matters without the checks of Congress. In contrast to the vast majority of scholars, Turner has argued against the doctrine that “unchecked” presidential power is incompatible with democratic governance. He defends “unfettered” presidential power to be at the heart of the constitution, namely, that the power of the democratically elected “monarch” is unboundaried. This thesis is not accepted as a very serious perspective by the vast majority of established constitutional experts. Here is how he expressed his view. “Congress exceeded its proper authority in several instances related to war powers and intelligence.” Turner especially stressed the issue of intelligence and often cited John Locke’s doctrine (Two Treatises of Government) that success in war, described by him as a state of enmity and destruction, required unity of plan, speed, dispatch and secrecy

Turner is fond of quoting Chief Justice John Marshall on this issue. “By the Constitution of the United States, the President is invested with certain important political powers, in the exercise of which he is to use his own discretion, and is accountable only to his country in his political character, and to his own conscience…whatever opinion may be entertained of the manner in which executive discretion may be used, still there exists, and can exist, no power to control that discretion. The subjects are political. They respect the nation, not individual rights, and being entrusted to the executive, the decision of the executive is conclusive.”

The problem is that secrecy in John Locke applied to implementation not to strategy and direction. The latter required a shared long term and even permanent conviction and shared by the executive, the legislature and the people of a realm. This required articulation and consent, not deceit and surreptitious behaviour. Strategy applies to long term existential threats. Tactics apply to the management and execution of opposing that threat. A State of peace among citizens requires consent. Conduct of a war against an enemy requires secrecy. The issue is always how you combine secrecy with consent and not have secrecy supplant consent. Interpreting the power of the purse and the approval of appointments very narrowly just does not cut how the dialectical dance works.

However, Turner’s interpretation of the last years of the Vietnam War, while influenced by that non-conventional doctrine, is, if that is possible, even more questionable and, I believe, outlandish. Those interpretations can be read in many of his presentations that presumably informed Nancy when she began making the film: “Reflections on the Vietnam War,” given to the Air Force Military Academy in 2010; “The Consequences of U.S. Abandonment of Indochina” given at the Fall of Saigon conference in April of 2010. For more recent references, see Turner’s power point presentations on the net entitled, “Remarks on the 50th Anniversary of Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Indochina (the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution)” given to the National Press Club in August 2014; “The Vietnam War and Constitutional War Powers” (October 2014), “Myths of the Vietnam War,” (2015) and “Views on Vietnam: The Irony of the LBJ Library Vietnam War Summit” (April 2016).

All are part of a revisionist history narrative that is akin to the one Hitler offered to Germans explaining why Germany lost WWI. “I continue to believe,” said Turner, “that a misguided and horribly misinformed Congress snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in Indochina, leading directly to the slaughter of millions of innocent lives and the consignment to Communist tyranny of tens of millions more.” Why would you include the testimony of such a questionable authority in a film about the horrible experiences of Vietnamese refugees even if it was somewhat credible? The thesis on the fall of Saigon is a crucial debate and a conflicted issue requiring one form of documentary treatment. The portrayal of the suffering of those who fled is based on a very wide consensus. The cost to credibility of including a thesis about the reasons for the loss of a war in a film about human suffering is enormous.

This is also true of the narrative offered by Lewis Sorley, author of A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and the Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam. His thesis is bought hook, line and sinker by Nancy Bui and, in the film, is offered in an abbreviated account. She expanded upon this thesis in my discussions with her after watching the film. The Americans and South Vietnam had defeated the Viet Cong, had allowed the South Vietnamese government to once again exercise its authority in the towns and villages, and the South Vietnamese army had by then been so well trained that it could carry the war forward without the use of American troops on the ground. However, Nixon and Kissinger sold out South Vietnam in the Paris Peace Accord of January 1973 and then double crossed the South Vietnamese by not resupplying them with arms and ammunition. This position has some justification, particularly the first of these two propositions. But the argument that in 1972, the Americans had won the war when General Abrams replaced General Westmoreland and shifted the strategy from the pursuit of the Viet Cong and body counts to a war to secure villages is highly questionable. Essentially, the thesis argues that the war had been virtually won by the American and South Vietnamese military and then the victory was squandered by the politicians and diplomats engaged in the Paris Peace Accords and its aftermath.

Colloquially put, the U. S. bugged out. Having gotten the North back to the bargaining table, Nixon and Kissinger cut a deal – the 27 January 1973 Paris Peace Accord – which allowed the North to keep its forces in South Vietnam. 80,000 North Vietnamese troops were permitted to remain in South Vietnam and this number was surreptitiously expanded to over 100,000 troops as Hanoi prepared for its 1975 offensive. The breach in the Accords was never really challenged by the U.S. or the world. At the time, of the 160,000 American troops once in Vietnam, down to 27,000 when the Accords were signed, under pressure from the anti-Vietnam War movement and a cowardly Congress, America cut and ran.

Further, Nixon refused to resume bombing to enforce the Accords. This enabled the North to use the cover of a cease fire to move more men and materiel into the South. Meanwhile, Congress, with bills like the Fulbright-Aiken Amendment, and extensive cuts to the military budget, pulled the logistical rug out from under the South. At the very time that the North was stockpiling arms, supplied by China and Russia, the South was having its supply of arms seriously curtailed. It was South Vietnam’s bad luck, at its hour of greatest peril, to be saddled with a feckless ally. Imagine having to depend on the U.S. for the logistical support which is your life’s blood at a time when it was being run by Nixon and Kissinger at the executive level and by folks like Ted Kennedy in the congressional realm. Sorley, and Nancy Bui in turn, lays much of the blame at the doorstep of the American political leadership.
Who else were the real villains responsible, in this revisionist version, for the fall of Saigon? The media focused on the protesters and the casualties (57,000 Americans died in the Vietnam War). A fickle public led by students and liberals opposed the war. There is no discussion in the film about the bombing of Hanoi, the efforts to destroy the supply lines, the refusal of the Saigon government to recognize the reality of the Viet Cong and the civil war (the Viet Cong are, to the best of my memory) never mentioned in the film.) and the widespread destruction in Laos, the failure to sustain a representative government instead of corrupt dictators or even a disciplined core of army officers – failures that would be repeated again and again for decades after the Korean conflict when America entered a foreign theatre to fight a war.

South Vietnam surrendered on 30 April 1975. America rescued 10,000 Vietnamese linked to the military effort and subsequently took in tens of thousands of others in the next three years, many or most of whom were linked with the American war effort. But in 1978, the Vietnamese government began a much wider and more oppressive regime that first targeted the ethnic Chinese in Vietnam and then spread to all other middle class Vietnamese. The suppression was horrendous and it was in this period that Canada entered into scene to help resettle refugees fleeing communist repression and not just those who lost the war.

Did a film about oppression and flight of refugees have to be combined with an alt-right interpretation of failure in the war? Obviously not. Interpreting the reasons for the fall of Saigon deserves a separate film in its own right. The effort to marry the two related but separate topics gives the impression that the plight of the refugees is merely being used to advance an ideological viewpoint. An excellent and emotionally powerful film about the Vietnamese refugee exodus is, ironically, almost drowned in a propaganda film about the reasons the South Vietnam government fell. I personally was torn between the tears I shed at the horrors suffered by the refugees and the tears I metaphorically shed at this lost opportunity to create an award-winning feature-length documentary. Though a lost artistic opportunity to make a great documentary of the exodus of the Vietnamese boat people does not compare with the real tears I have shed over the years at the suffering of the Vietnamese refugees fleeing a communist regime, nevertheless I was torn between my sadness at the lost opportunity and the revival of my compassion for the suffering and the dead. The film is valuable for attending to the latter. But it is flawed and distorted by advancing a far out historical thesis. And that is a pity.

An Afterword

One final and minor but relevant academic point arose, not in the film, but in my subsequent discussions with Nancy Bui. Nancy contended that the Paris Peace Accord obligated the U.S. to resupply South Vietnam with military weapons. I argued that the Peace Accords only permitted the U.S. to make up for depletions. As I recalled, the Accords stipulated that the U.S. would stay out of Vietnam after the U.S. army withdrew in terms of supplying military troops or equipment, except to replace losses on a one-to-one basis. Nancy insisted that there was no provision forbidding America from resupplying the South Vietnamese Army. I was not sure if my memory was correct and I promised to re-read the Accords to check whether Nancy’s interpretation was more accurate. The point is obviously relevant to a thesis that faults the U.S. for the fall of Saigon in general and for the refusal to re-supply South Vietnam with military arms.

There is some truth in this. Nixon did evidently secretly promise President Thiệu both that America would be able to maintain its logistical advantage and that if North Vietnam breached the agreement, the U.S. would resume bombing the North. However, chapter V, article 15(d) of the Paris Peace Accords provided that North and South Viet-Nam shall not join any military alliance or military bloc and shall not allow foreign powers to maintain military bases, troops; military advisers, and military personnel on their respective territories, as stipulated in the 1954 Geneva Agreements on Viet-Nam. Article 2 of Chapter II specifically stated that, “the United States will stop all its military activities against the territory of the Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam by ground, air and naval forces.” This was interpreted as excluding the Americans from acting militarily in any way on behalf of South Vietnam.

Further, the Case-Church Amendment approved by the U.S. Congress in June of 1973 endorsed this interpretation and explicitly prohibited further U.S. military activity in Indochina and at a time preparations were underway to impeach Richard Nixon over the Watergate scandal. When North Vietnam resumed the war and launched the 1975 offensive, the U.S. refused to offer further military assistance and certainly refused to bomb the North. The North Vietnamese succeeded in defeating the South Vietnamese army, not primarily because North Vietnam was being supplied by Russia and China but America was not re-supplying South Vietnam, but because morale in the South Vietnam army had disintegrated, because corruption had eaten away at its soul and because most officers fled the field and abandoned their troops as the North Vietnamese advanced. The North Vietnamese did not have to fight very much to win the war. Replacing equipment was irrelevant when the South Vietnamese army was collapsing and the North Vietnamese were seizing more and more American arms and equipment.

Whether South Vietnam lost the war or the war was lost because the American people and the Congress betrayed and let down their partners is at best a matter of controversy. Dogmatic assertion on one side produced a propaganda film that undermines the documentary on the suffering of those who fled the new totalitarian order.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Vietnamerica Part I

Vietnamerica Part I – a film review

by

Howard Adelman

When I was in high school at Harbord Collegiate, I lived around the corner from my three secular synagogues. I had stopped following the Friday evening and Saturday practices of my Jewish Orthodox upbringing. Going to films, sometimes on both Friday evenings and Saturdays, became my new secular religion. And there were three film synagogues to practice that religion, the Bloor Theatre on the south side of Bloor east of Bathurst (now Lee’s Palace), the Alhambra on the north side of Bloor just west of Bathurst and immediately around the corner from my home, and the Midtown on the north side east of Bathurst, always my movie theatre of choice.

The Midtown was originally built way back in 1913 when my mother was born. It was then called the Madison. During WWII, when I was still a very young boy, it was rebuilt as the Midtown. In the late sixties during the period of the Vietnam War and the start of my academic career, the Midtown began its parallel descent with that war, first renamed the Capri and then the Eden, a showcase for “adult films.” The theatre was rescued by Carm Bordanaro and his family just at the beginning of 1980 when the Boatpeople campaign to resettle Indochinese refugees in Canada came into full swing. Canada, under the Clark government in July of the previous year, had set a target of an intake of 50,000 Indochinese refugees, 21,000 to be sponsored by the private sector matched by the same number by the government plus the 8,000 to which the government had previously been committed. By the end of 1979, the private sponsorship movement had already exceeded its target.

So it was entirely appropriate and historically compelling for the life of that theatre that a new documentary, Vietnamerica, had two screenings at the Hot Docs yesterday. I attended the second in the Ted Rogers Cinema. The Rogers family had donated $5 million enabling the Hot Docs Festival to purchase the building. It is now one of the most comfortable theaters in Toronto and allows Torontonians to see a wide array of documentaries. The movie, Vietamerica, should not be confused with G.B. (Jimmy) Tran’s graphic memoir about his and his family’s fifty-year journey and its experiences in coming to and settling in America called Vietnamerica: A Family’s Journey.

Vietnamerica is a feature-length documentary (1.5 hours) on the Vietnamese refugees who were resettled in the United States, focusing mainly on the ordeal they went through, but bookended by the reasons for their flight at one end and, at the other end, their success in the United States. The problem comes in the bookends, though the core of the film could be helped to a degree by cutting some irrelevant segments and providing more clarity on the different phases of the exodus and the very different causes and consequences of each phase.

Instead, there is a compression of the Vietnamese allied with the South Vietnam government who first fled, then the Vietnamese who were ethnic Chinese fleeing ethnic cleansing, then the Vietnamese refugees of property owners and the middle class who fled in an overlapping wave of repression, then the “lingerers” who fled between 1982 to 1988, then those who fled but were repatriated unless they could establish that they were targeted for persecution, then the rescue of the prisoners from Vietnamese jails. All are lumped together. The compressing of different conditions in leaving, in camps, in readiness to resettle, in the availability of relatives to help in sponsorship and, generally, to changes over time in both push and pull factors, led to a somewhat confusing portrait of the exodus.

There were also omissions, but the film was already long enough and I am sure a great deal had been cut. I would have substituted the bookend material with more expansion on the lives of those portrayed so that one could more fully identify with them, on the corrupt role of the Vietnamese military and government officials in accepting gold to facilitate escape, and in the perils to those caught who did not have government protection and their subsequent suffering. But it was not my film.

Scott Edwards is the director with a very minimal filmography. Robert Andrew Bennett and Megan Williams are given credit for the script. These two screenwriters also have a very thin filmography. For the clear and acknowledged force behind the creation of the film has been Nancy Bui, Executive Producer and founder of the Vietnamese American Heritage Foundation (VAHF). Nancy is responsible for a collection of more than 700 oral histories of Vietnamese who were resettled in America. Some of that collection and 200,000 pages of documents and pictures are housed at the Vietnam Center at Texas Tech University.

Her driving force brought the film to its realization. I had the pleasure of spending much of the evening after watching the film talking to Nancy and her assistant, discussing the film and, more specifically, my claim that propaganda films are documentaries, but a good documentary should not be a propaganda film which brackets critical thought in favour of a single message. That is, I believe that documentaries should not be a means to push an ideological agenda on the public. When critical thinking is suspended, then the documentary becomes a propaganda film. Many renowned documentalists would disagree. So there are two different questions. To what extend was this film a propaganda film? And to the degree it was, does that make the film faulty?

Nancy, a journalist, fled Vietnam with her two children in 1979. In 1988, she wrote a novel about her experience called Bot Bien, sea foam. But the real impetus for making the film came from an experience with her daughter who came home from school crying because she had received an F on an essay. Nancy had helped her daughter write the history paper on the experience of her own family as Vietnamese refugees coming to America. When Nancy went to remonstrate the teacher, the teacher explained that her daughter received an F because it contained no references. If Vietnamerica is any indication, the essay not only lacked references, but ran contrary to widely accepted interpretations about the war, quite aside from the personal experiences of Nancy and her family. More specifically, the film was made to reflect her viewpoint and to counter the views of many other films, such as, if I recall correctly, one at the extreme other end, Vietnam: American Holocaust, that portrays the Vietnam War as a sustained mass slaughter planned and perpetrated by presidents Johnson and Nixon.

Nancy became determined to provide the documentary background of her record of her and others’ experiences in coming to America and the reasons they came. The oral history project was one result. An award-winning short film, that is at the core of Vietnamerica, was produced, Master Nguyen Tien Hoa. The latter told the story of a Vietnamese martial arts master, Nguyen Tien Hoa, who returns to Southeast Asia in quest of the graves of his wife and children. That film, won a number of commendations, including the Dallas International Film Festival, the Worldfest-Houston International Film Festival and the Asian Film Festival as the best short documentary film in 2015. I am sure it deserved those prizes. But in stretching the film to a feature length and marrying it to a propagandist film on revisionist history with respect to the Vietnam War, the moving story of Hoa becomes diluted and sometimes lost.

The Hoa story forms the heart of the feature-length film and contains its most moving scenes. Hoa describes being tied up when the boat on which he and 75 members of his family and friends who escaped with him was captured by Thai pirates. He sat helpless as the pirates wrenched away his young daughter from her mother’s arms and threw the baby into the sea. Subsequently, helplessly, he was forced to watch the rape of his wife in front of his eyes. That portion of the film is simply excruciating to watch. A climactic moment in the film takes place when Hoa finds the grave of his cousin with whom he spent 18 hours in the sea after he managed to capture a second Thai pirate boat to be used by his family and friends. However, he was swept out to sea along with his cousin when he tried to transfer his cousin with his broken leg to the captured pirate boat. Hoa never saw his family or friends again; they presumably died, numbered among the 200,000 to 400,000 who lost their lives in the exodus.

The showing began with a number of introductory speeches, but one could anticipate the perspective that would predominate in the film when the American anthem alongside the old South Vietnamese national anthem were played and the American flag and the old South Vietnamese flag were much in evidence. There was also a moving one minute of silence in memory of those 200,000-400,000 Vietnamese who perished in their effort to reach safety and freedom from communist rule even though the film at one point claimed that half of those who tried to escape died in the effort – which would mean that a million and a half died instead of 200,000 to 400,000. Other very questionable numbers are cited – 100,000 executed by the Hanoi government, 7 million who died in the war. The movie is “ambitious” in a much more general way. Made at a cost of $350,000, it not only covers the horrendous experiences of selected refugees who came to America, but the selection of those portrayed is interesting in itself.

Hoa is a martial arts instructor who, according to his own testimony, was mentally ill for eight years following his trauma until he reconnected with his martial arts background. According to Hoa, it provided the therapy to get over his trauma. That is a metaphor for the whole film. Hoa now provides instruction in martial arts to young and old as both physical and psychological therapy to help people cope with the struggles in life. The need to resort to martial methods in also the overriding theme of the movie.

For example, the bookend of success stories includes two out of a myriad that could have been selected. One is Nguyet Anh Duong who led the scientific effort to develop the so-called bunker buster bomb that enables the bomb to penetrate deeply into structures before it explodes. Developed for America’s war in Afghanistan, Duong won the Dr. Arthur E. Bisson Prize for Achievement in Naval Technology and the National Security Medal for a significant contribution to America’s national security. Duong is currently the Director for the Borders and Maritime Security Division within the United States Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate.

The other significant achiever represented in the film is General Viet Luong, the first Vietnamese-American general in U.S. history and a child of Vietnamese refugees. Vietnamese have been successful in a myriad of fields, science, the arts, business, medicine and academia. But the film ended up keeping the two samples of military success stories. There are several other stories briefly and even more sketchily told. One was of Thanh Tu Tran, a Captain in the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces and son of a former Prime Minister of South Vietnam who spent fifteen years in a communist prison. Another was a writer who escaped North Vietnam.

In the film, there is a chance encounter between Tran and Vietnamese exchange students at the memorial in Washington to those who died at the hands of the communists. But instead of getting into an interesting discussion of different perspectives and understandings, the encounter dissolves before it ever gets started. That is also true of the historical as distinct from humanitarian aspects of the film.

Last evening, I had a discussion with a resettled North Vietnamese young lady who also saw the film. She came to Canada in 2006, attended York University and now works as a real estate agent. She told me that when she came, she had to learn how distorted her education had been since she had never been exposed to anything but the communist version of what was called the American War. On the other hand, in contrast to my response – I had wanted the intimate moments of individual lives to have been more developed to facilitate greater identification – she was bothered by the intimate individualistic details and thought the film should have attended more to the larger political and military questions. Only half smiling, I suggested that her early collectivist indoctrination was still part of her mental framework.

I attended the film with three other Canadians, all eminent Canadians. We all had the same reaction to one scene in the film in which a Hungarian anti-communist verbally assaults protesters against the Vietnam War who bear his rant in stoical silence as he yells and screams that they all should be hung. We all were repelled by the scene, thought it had nothing to do with the story of the experience of Vietnamese refugees resettling in the West. However, in the interviews afterwards, Nancy told me that among Vietnamese, this was one of their favourite moments in the film. Two interviews I conducted with other Vietnamese who had watched the film confirmed that. Both felt elated when they watched the Hungarian berate the peaceniks. When I pointed out that the Hungarian’s calling for the protesters to be hung was appalling and contrary to principles of freedom, and, in any case, detracted from the film enormously, one Vietnamese viewer conceded my point, but not the thrill he and other Vietnamese had about the scene.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Esau and Jacob

Tol’dot: Jacob and Esau Genesis 25:19 – 28:9

by

Howard Adelman

Yesterday, I distributed a movie review of Hell or High Water. Two central figures in the movie were brothers, Toby and Tanner. Toby was the younger one, very reserved, very repressed, with an enormous sense of responsibility for the future and, yet, a loser. Tanner was the older brother, a wild one, an excellent marksman and a high risk instigator of trouble. Jacob and Esau are not identical to Toby and Tanner, but there are enough similarities in character that analyzing both the bond and the tension between Jacob and Esau against the backdrop of Toby and Tanner can be revealing.

Quite aside from the particular character and connections of the two sets of brothers, there are some constants that characterize the character of older brothers and their younger siblings. In The Right Stuff (Thomas Wolfe) and in the movie of the same name, fighter pilots are characterized as confident, assertive, competitive, brash and flamboyant. And two-thirds of those who fly fighter planes are firstborns (during the second world war virtually all fighter pilots were firstborns or only children), greatly disproportionate to the number of firstborns in the population. Further, most pilots (a minority of the total), who are neither firstborns nor only children, are far less driven and competitive than the firstborn or only child pilots. Some of those non-firstborns are decidedly cautious and far less enamoured with the romance of flying.

More loose generalizations can be found. In general, firstborns are not the ones you find buried in books in a library though the two classes of males are equal in general cognitive ability. Though firstborns may have to study, most really must be active. And they are always striving to surpass themselves. They are restless. They are ill content with who they happen to be at any time. They are assertive. But they also have difficulty in emotionally connecting. What they want and seek is excitement rather than introverted self-critical analysis. They have a great sense of space, but a weak ability to formulate what they see as pictures or to grasp an overall picture. They identify areas through map coordinates rather than by way of images. Generally, they are brilliant at immediate spatial data coordination.

Firstborns must win. They are quarterbacks and political leaders (most U.S. presidents). More CEOs are firstborns. They are perfectionists and driven. They prefer the dominant position. In terms of goals, firstborns generally prefer to set their own goals; later-borns are more prone to accept goals set by others. But perhaps the biggest difference is in romantic attachments. Firstborns have a much higher propensity to separate and divorce their romantic partners while second born males, particularly middle-borns, tend to have much more stable relationships. The differences extend into studies of homosexuality. Simplified, the later your birth order, the higher the propensity to homosexuality.

Now, I am not going to speculate here about the cause, whether these differences result because the firstborn paved the way through the birth canal. It may or may not be the case that, as a result, firstborns have the highest neonatal mortality rate, the smallest mean birth weight, inflict a longer period of labor on their mothers (hence, mothers possibly love later-born sons more than firstborns), experience greater head compression or more frequently suffer from permanent neural damage because of hypoxia during delivery. On the other hand, there are studies that show that the perceived rather than actual birth order (PBO) is the significant variable. The latter claim may or may not be true.

However, I am not concerned with the biological explanation, the nature versus nurture issue – though the Torah clearly seems to favour the explanation that the differences are rooted in nature. I am concerned with the social and psychological consequences of male birth order. I am more concerned with noting that, in spite of any possible extra trauma of a firstborn in birth, contrary to expectations, firstborns exhibit better perceptual motor skill in coordinating targets at a distance, with pulling a trigger of a rifle and downing a duck. Firstborns, in general, also make better surgeons or, at least, are more likely to become surgeons than internists. In the extreme, there is a correlation between increased rates of autism, attention deficit disorder and dyslexia in firstborns (hypothetically explained by some to result from maternal immune responses and the release of androgen).

In science, there is even a tool for measuring these differences. The Frostig Development Test of Visual Perception measures the differences between firstborns and later-borns. On that test, later-borns perform significantly better, but only on specific subsets of these measurement criteria – perceptual constancy and intelligence related to global perceptual performance. To put it more graphically, firstborns are better hunters of moving targets, whether these be tigers or enemy fighter planes, while later-borns can keep their “eyes” on a specific fixed target over time. Further, later-borns identify objects within a global reference field as distinct from a finite visual field. In sum, later-borns have a higher abstract intelligence quotient. On the other hand, it should come as no surprise that firstborns have brain neurons that make the strongest axon projections to remote physical targets.

There is one other bit of scientific data I want to put on the table – the distance in time between the birth of a first born male and a later-born male sibling. In studies of sibling dyads, the more widely spaced the birth, the greater and broader the later-born experiences his intellectual and social environment. In contrast, the firstborn is better attuned to what used to be called his “instincts.” The fact that Esau and Jacob were twins, but Jacob was born immediately after Esau (biting his heels as it were) might indicate that the two boys had similar experiences. Or it might suggest that order of birth is even more important than the birth experience itself. Alternatively, it could mean that each one copes with similar experiences in very different ways. The Torah text suggests the order of birth combined with the very close timing of birth leads to the most radical differences.

However, it seems the birth order is most important as indicated in the dramatic differences in the behaviour of Toby and Tanner in the movie Hell or High Water. It is clearly the case when comparing Esau with Jacob who are fraternal twins. However, I do not want to use these differences as scientific diagnostic tools to explain the radically antithetical characters of Esau and Jacob. I am not interested in going on a scientific expedition to test the validity of the claim, for example, that these differences result from the way daughter cells in the developing infant produce particular transmission factors at the time of birth to embody memories that maintain differences based on both the time of birth and the experience of that birth. Rather, I want to use these supposedly scientific differences as a series of metaphors to highlight the characters of Esau and Jacob to help understand and grasp the significance of their relationship.

Tol’dot is about the generations of Isaac. The parshat begins with Rebekah giving birth to fraternal twins, Esau and Jacob (Genesis 25: 19-26) after 20 years of being barren. It was clearly a painful pregnancy blamed on a struggle between the fraternal twins in the womb. Set aside for the moment the prophecy that the descendants of the younger son will become more preeminent than the children of the elder fraternal twin and “the elder will serve the younger.” (25:23) The two were dramatically different in both appearance and behaviour. Esau, who emerged first, was ruddy and covered with hair. Jacob is not really described except to say that he emerged with his hand holding Esau’s heel. Esau grew up as a hunter and man of the field. Jacob grew up as a quiet homebody but one with a cunning and determined personality. Esau will give rise to the Edomites. Jacob will give rise to the Israelites.

Further, the two parents had different favourites. Isaac preferred the more manly alpha male, Esau, while Rebekah favoured her quieter, more domestic and more self-reflective child, Jacob. (25:8) What is the nature of the first significant encounter when they have grown up? Jacob is cooking and Esau comes home from being out in the field and is starving. Jacob offers to feed Esau, but only if Esau trades his birthright. So Esau, in order to eat, agrees to sell his birthright. What does this text mean when it records that “Esau despised his birthright”? (25:34)

Is this assessment self-serving? Judaism as a religion seems to favour the traits associated with later-borns over those characteristic of firstborns and only male children. It is clear that the rabbinical commentators also favoured Jacob over Esau. Rashi described Rome, and its successor, the Holy Roman Empire of Christianity, as the children of the brutality of Esau. Esau was seen as hateful and wicked. But it is Jacob that tricked Esau out of his birthright for a mess of pottage. Esau is straightforward, driven by his appetites. Jacob is the trickster with his eye on the long game rather than immediate sensual satisfaction.

So the question I pose is why is there such a clear favouritism in Judaism? Why do the choices of the mothers matter far more than those of the father? Why in social and collective life are the traits of the second-born or middle male child favoured? Why are values given priority that stress negotiations over fighting it out, peacemaking and mediation skills over the traits characteristic of a heroic warrior? Why do Jews seem to esteem what is misleadingly said to be brains over brawn?

If we take the story of Esau and Jacob as paradigmatic of a value scale of social mores, the construct of the Jew as the archetypal sabra seems to run contrary to the historical value set. Further, in spite of strenuous efforts over several generations to remake Jews as a warrior nation, they are not. They are not conquerors. The territorial goals are very boundaried, even for the right. On the other side, the products of intellectual work and of scientific research seem to garner the greatest accolades. What does this say about the social dynamics within Jewish families and about the nation as a whole? Or is all of this just an exemplar of an abuse of science and a false and misleading extrapolation? But even if the natural basis for such claims may be problematic, this evaluation bias, if there proves to be one in the text, might indicate how the people of the book survived as a community of social practices.

It also suggests a predestined relationship to the two nations that emerge from Rebekah’s womb. Or does it, for oracles are always equivocal? The text reads:

וּלְאֹם מִלְאֹם יֶאֱמָץ
וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר: One people shall be mightier than the other,
And the older shall serve the younger.

But the text may also be translated as the younger will work for the elder. There are four logical possibilities. The older may be mightier. The nation derived from the younger may be mightier. Each of these two variations has two alternatives with respect to the relationship. The younger may serve the elder. Or the elder may serve the younger.

I suggest the text and the story means that the progeny of Esau will be mightier than that of Jacob. If so, which nation will emerge as having the dominant value system? If one takes the former rivalry between Ishmael as the elder half-brother and his younger brother, Isaac as a case in point, Sarah secures the inheritance for Isaac by sending Ishmael and his mother off into the wilderness. In this story, it is Jacob who hits the road and, even when he returns, avoids a full reconciliation with his brother and moves on.

The more telling point, however, is not the two different paths the different pairs of children take, but the role the mothers play in the determination. Further, in the Jacob-Esau story, Jacob not only engages in tough bargaining, but uses trickery to deceive his father that he is really the first born. And even Rashi will endorse this trickery by insisting that the Midrash that says that Jacob was really the first born is the correct one. Jacob was not really a trickster but was merely claiming what was his by right of being the real first born. He may have been born on the heels of his brother but was conceived first. Very clever, but also a totally unconvincing apologetic for Jacob’s trickery!

יעקב נוצר מטיפה ראשונה ועשו מן השניה, צא ולמד משפופרת שפיה קצרה, תן לה שתי אבנים זו תחת זו, הנכנסת ראשונה תצא אחרונה, והנכנסת אחרונה תצא ראשונה, נמצא עשו הנוצר באחרונה יצא ראשון, ויעקב שנוצר ראשונה יצא אחרון, ויעקב בא לעכבו שיהא ראשון ללידה כראשון ליצירה, ויפטור את רחמה, ויטול את הבכורה מן הדין:
Jacob was formed from the first drop [of semen] and Esau from the second. Take, for example, a tube with a small mouth. Place two stones inside it one after the other; whichever enters first will be come out last, and whichever enters last will come out first. We see from this that Esau was formed last but came out first, and Jacob who was formed first came out last. Thus Jacob wished to stop him, so that he could be the first born just as he was first conceived, and would be the one to open [his mother’s] womb and receive the birthright legally.

I think the real issue is not who was justified by nature in gaining the inheritance, but the role of the cunning of reason in the unfolding of history. We can see this device at work as the story continues.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Hell of High Water – a movie review

Hell or High Water: a movie review

by

Howard Adelman

There is a very revealing scene in the movie that we saw last evening, Hell or High Water, directed by David Mackenzie. Jeff Bridges, a crusty retiring Texas ranger, Marcus Hamilton, and his partner, the Comanche Texas ranger, Alberto, played with puritanical stoicism by Gil Birmingham, are riding in their police vehicle attempting to track down two men responsible for a series of bank robberies in western Texas. They are stopped on the highway by old-style cowboys herding their cattle across the blacktop in flight from a prairie grass fire. This is the new West – of oil rigs (and wind energy towers, the latter not seen in the movie because the film was shot in New Mexico). The cowboy tells Jeff Bridges that this is a hell of a way to make a living. “It’s the 21st century. No wonder my kid doesn’t wanna do this shit!”

The movie title harks back to a time when the expression was not “in”, “come” or even the more modern, “through” hell or high water, but just hell or high water. It was a period at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century when ranch hands drove their longhorns to rail heads through the high water of river crossings rather than travel long distances across a parched landscape to find shallows where they could ford the stream with ease. All obstacles, however high, are surmountable. Attacking them head on is a better choice than the hell of taking a circuitous route. This was the ethos of the cowboy. But it is also the grand metaphor of the film. For these Texan white males, there seems to be only two options – they are either struggling to surmount incredible obstacles or they live in a hell of their own and their society’s making.

Texas may still be gun country, but it is no longer cowboy country. Instead of the broad immense rich blue sky of Texas, black clouds from the grass fire blot out much of the sky. The atmosphere is one of gloom, despair and hopelessness. What we are watching is the death of a whole way of life with its deteriorating small towns and crotchety elders. The Texas of the old West is decaying in full view as we watch the strange beauty of this hard-crusted landscape and the human flotsam left over who spend their time shooting at each other in a state where even old men doing banking carry a gun and are ready to use it. “When I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I take along Samuel Colt.” (Dust of the Chase)

In another insightful vignette, the two rangers stop to eat at an old-fashioned restaurant called the T-Bone, evidently the only eatery in town. The crotchety old waitress (Margaret Bowman), who has been waiting tables for eons (the actress is 84 years old and deserves an Oscar for her brilliant brief performance), asks the two what they don’t want. The two rangers look first puzzled and then downright totally bewildered. She says that the only thing they serve is T-bone steak. It comes with green beans and a baked potato. Which of the two choices, if any, does each of the rangers want to leave out? As an aside, the old crone tells them that she once had a customer from New York who asked for trout.

I cannot recall her words disparaging the New Yorker, but I immediately thought of how rural America and the rust belt elected Donald Trump and thumbed their noses at the sophisticates of urban America.

Hell or High Water is a study in contemporary rural cultural geography and in character revealed as much through all the silences as the witty dialogue of Taylor Sheridan’s script. There is almost no plot. Of the two brothers who are the bank robbers, Toby (Chris Pine) is a divorced father with two sons with a sense of his own personal failure. As the movie unfolds, it becomes evident that he is driven by a determination that his own sons will not face the same bleak existence that he and his brother, Tanner, did. The latter (Ben Foster) is an ex-con who served ten years in prison. He “double crossed the State of Texas and they gave (him) a little time.” (Dust of the Chase) He is the wild card of the pair. A sociopath whose only moral compass seems to be loyalty to his younger brother, Tanner is the foil to the deeply pained and suffering persona of Toby, so steeped in guilt and a sense of failing to fulfill his responsibilities. The two rob a series of branches of the West Midland Bank. Two rangers chase them down. The end of Tanner is foreshadowed in the lyrics of Dust of the Chase.

“When the times at hand and I kill a man, I say a little prayer.
I come down from Oklahoma with a pistol in my boot
A pair of dice, a deck of cards and a bible in my suit
How small a part of time we share ’till we hear the sound of wings
I’m lost in the dust of the chase that my life brings.”

That’s it. That is the plot. However, all four characters are united by one theme – they are all lonesome would-be cowboys, except perhaps for the Comanche ranger, who evidently has an extensive and close family off screen, but has to spend his professional life being teased in a politically incorrect manner by Jeff Bridges about his half-breed nature as an Indian and a Mexican. This film pays ironic veneration to stubborn individualism writ large, individualism as atomic as it gets. In the lyrics of From My Cold Dead Hands:

“Do what I wanna do
Say what I wanna say
They wanna take it away
From my cold dead hands
The price of being free
And what it means to me
They wanna take it away.”

It is clear throughout the movie that the ranger, Marcus, really loves his partner, Alberto. That is verified near the end of the movie. But instead of intimacy between the two, there is only mutual razzing and the entertainment of dissing. The two brothers also love one another. In one scene, they even engage in some physical play and shoving. But that is the closest one views any caring between two humans. In another scene, Toby sits in the scrabbly backyard of his ex-wife’s home and talks to his son, from whom he is clearly estranged. Toby asks after his son’s brother (he’s at a friend’s house), but cannot express his deep love for his boys except through his efforts to rob banks to ensure his mother’s ranch, which has oil under its ground, is inherited by the boys, debt free. For it is the bank that is viewed as responsible for his troubles, for its efforts,

“to hold us,
Held by our necks.” (From My Cold Dead Hands)

There is no sense of love between a man and a woman in the whole movie. Near the beginning of the film, the lyrics to Mama’s Love portray the situation of a character who cannot sleep at night when the pain comes out, who has sex only to use a woman. The song begins:

“Something’s got my fear,
And then won’t get through my head,
But there’s something missing,
There’s something missing here.
Here I go again,
React without a plan, oh,
But there’s something missing,
There’s something missing here.”

And it is conveyed in the lyrics of You Asked Me To.

“Feel simple love is simple true
There’s no end to what I’d do
Just because you asked me.”

No male-female love, of either son to mother or between a man and his “gal.” Just chasing one’s tail and watching and waiting.

In another scene, the rangers view a tele-evangelist in their motel room. Jeff Bridges opines, “He wouldn’t know God if God crawled up his pant leg and bit his pecker.” In the land of evangelical rural America, there is really no depth of faith, only religion as entertainment. God has become a snake who does not entice men into sex, but bites off a man’s penis.

But there is deep love in the movie, even though it is repressed and deformed. The father, Toby, is devoted to his two boys even though he cannot connect with them. He is attached at the heel to his sociopathic brother. Toby and Tanner clearly love one another and are willing to sacrifice their lives for each other. The two rangers, Marcus and Alberto, even though they pretend to have only disdain for one another, also share a deep love as confirmed in the climatic last scene. When Marcus learns the reason for the robberies, in the post-climactic encounter between Marcus and Toby, Marcus seems to have learned to replace his desire for revenge with a respect and even concern for the bank robber who got away. Toby in turn invites Marcus to drop in to his place in town for a drink.

The devil, as in all the old Western movies, is still the bank, in this case, the Midland Western Bank and the four branches the two brothers rob to “earn” enough money to pay off the reverse mortgage and the back taxes owed by their recently deceased mother, the same Midland Western Bank that moved to foreclose on the mother’s ranch after oil was discovered on the property. The film seems both contemporary as well as lifted from the dirty thirties. The instinct for survival is the dominant motive for living, even when Tanner is engaged in futile self-defence. The brothers simply try to retrieve what they feel is owed them from the institutions that seem to have betrayed them so much. The politics of resentment is on full display.

I cannot recall a film where the movie with such sparse (and very witty) dialogue relied so fully on the soundtrack of songs (evidently available in a separate CD), most by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. The songs drive home the full meaning of the movie. The titles are an indication:

1. Comancheria (the original film title, the locale in Texas and New Mexico)
2. Dollar Bill Blues (Tones Van Zandt)
3. Mama’s Room (Aaron Bruno, Jamin Wilcox, Drew James Stewart)
4. Dust of the Chase (Billy Jo Shaver and Ray Waylon Hubbard)
5. Texas Midlands
6. Robbery
7. You Ask Me To (Waylon Jennings)
8. Mountain Lion Mean
9. Sleeping on the Blacktop (Colter Wall)
10. From My Cold Dead Hands
11. Lord of the Plains
12. Blood, Sweat and Murder (Scott H. Biram)
13. Casino
14. Comancheria II
15. Outlaw State of Mind
16. Hate Me (Christopher Fronzak, Sean Heenan, Christopher Link, Nader Salameh and Kalen Biehm)
17. Bakerman (John Guldberg, Tim Stahl and Arthur Stander)
18. Playing the Part (Jamey Johnson and Shane Minor)
19. You Just Can’t Beat Jesus Christ (Billy Jo Shaver)
20. I’m Not Afraid to Die (Gillian Welch)

The twenty titles alone provide the whole plot and the settings for the various scenes. In the song, Commancheria, a simple chord progression with pauses, carries with it a sense of longing and a lost world. As Alberto, the Comanche ranger, tells Marcus, my people once owned all this land. You dispossessed us and now you are being dispossessed by the oil companies and the financiers.

The lyrics of Dollar Bill Blues start with the chorus:
“If I had a dollar bill
Yes, I believe I surely will
Go to town and drink my fill
Early in the morning.”

The song then refers to a darling as a “red-haired thing” who makes my legs sing and a golden girl mother, whose throat he slit. There’s only going down and no saving of one’s soul.

Hell or High Water is a bleak and melancholic western presented with a sense of humour and irony. Released in August, it is now available on Netflix or I-Tube, I cannot recall which. Much better than a tele-evangelist!