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Prize Fighters
Joseph Cedars Footnote pits a Talmudic scholar against his academic son in
a tale equal parts midrash, riddle, and Israeli political tragedy
By J. Hoberman | March 5, 2012 7:00 AM

Footnote , the absurdist tragedy by New York-born, Israeli-raised Joseph Cedar, is a movie
of such cosmic inconsequence that hyperbole is inevitable. So here goes: If immersing
oneself in the history of the Jews is the essence of the Jewish condition, Footnote is the
most Jewish movie since The Jazz Singer, or at least in the 50-odd years since Jerry Lewis
staged The Jazz Singer on TV. Whats more, its an even funnier comedy of Jewish
intellectuals than Bye Bye Braverman, Sidney Lumets adaptation of Wallace Markfields
novel To an Early Grave.
At age 43, Cedar must be considered among Israels leading filmmakers. His three previous
moviesTime of Favor (2000), Campfire (2004), and Beaufort (2007)have all been
characterized by a markedly skeptical, if resigned, Zionism. The first two are set in West
Bank settlements rife with fanaticism and hypocrisy; the last, which won the Silver Bear at
the Berlin Film Festival and was an enormous success in Israel, is a compassionate, quietly
despairing, bleakly humorous account of Israeli soldiers charged with defending (and then

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destroying) a 12th-century Crusader castle in southern Lebanon.


This is not a filmmaker to duck a metaphor; Footnotes is found in its title. Cedars
Talmudic tale of two competitive Talmud scholars, Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar Aba) and
his son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi), and the Israel Prize (an award, it hardly seems coincidental,
that was bestowed upon the filmmakers own father, the biologist Howard Cedar) has a
particular form of provincial universality. It could have been played out in medieval Toledo
or 18th-century Vilna, imagined by Franz Kafka or Cynthia Ozick, transposed to 1930s
Hollywood or boiled down into a 20-minute episode of Seinfeld.
Ironies proliferate at every level: The performances (with stand-up comedian Bar Aba and
macho heartthrob Ashkenazi both cast against type) are as subtle as the musical cues are
blatant. (Seinfeld really is a model.) The issues at stake are a groyser gornisht, at once
profound and ridiculous. The characters self-importance is exceeded only by their
marginality. Its hardly coincidental that the movies key scene and most impassioned moral
debate would be waged in a room the size of a broom closet.
Footnote is set entirely in present-day Jerusalem, but theres a sense in which, living as he
does in the world of ancient texts, Shkolnik senior doesnt know (or care) where he is. The
opening sequence, given the title The Most Difficult Day in the Life of Professor Shkolnik,
is a deadpan farce in which, compelled to attend his sons induction into the Israel
Academy, Eliezer (last to stand and first to sit during the ceremony, seemingly cultivating a
gastric ulcer) wanders out of the Israel Museum but then, driven back by a noisy cell-phone
conversation, is stopped for a routine security check. Are you a member of the Academy?
the young soldier asks. Eliezer makes no answer because, of course, he is not, and theres
the rub.
Adding insult to injury, the incident is witnessed by the senior Shkolniks great adversary
Yehuda Grossman (Micah Lewesohn). Refusing to allow the hated Grossman to vouch for
him, let alone explain his filial connection to the ceremony inside (no my son, the doctor!
here), glowering Shkolnik insists that the now bored and indifferent soldier finish the
procedure in strict accordance to the rules.
A scholar who had devoted his entire working life to tracking down tiny errors of
transcription in handwritten Talmud scrolls, the elder Shkolnik is a great character.
(Stubborn, unyielding and proudly marginal, hes an insult comic inside his head.) His
greatest accomplishment is the footnote wherein he is uniquely acknowledged by the
legendary Talmud researcher who was his mentor; his greatest disaster came when
Grossman stumbled across a mistake in a medieval Italian Talmud that validated Shkolniks
30 years of painstaking research and went on to upstage Shkolnik by publishing first.
Its a story Uriel must have heard a thousand times over dinner. He is, however, a good son.
Emulating his father, Uriel is also a Talmud scholar, also at the Hebrew Universitybut of a
very different sort. Whereas the elder Shkolnik is a musty creature of the archives, shown
lecturing to a virtually empty classroom, the son is a glib popularizer, author of many books,
veteran of numerous symposia, a celebrity scholar who basks in the limelight, such as it is.

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The father is implacably contemptuous of his son; the son is naturally aggrieved by his
father and yet also fearful. Eliezer resents the world; Uriel resents him. In fact, as revealed
in his conversations with his eminently reasonable wife, Dikla (Alma Zak), he is obsessed.
Cedar is pleased to show this primal situation through the wrong end of a telescope,
signaling his comic intent through over-emphatic music and arch narrative titles. Eliezer
Shkolniks Most Difficult Day yields to his Happiest with the miraculous announcement
that he has been nominated for the Israel Prize. For the first time, Eliezer smiles. Uriel is
proud but also nonplussed. The things hes said about this prize, he muses, recalling
decades of sarcastic invective. Suddenly, the bitter old man is almost radiant. Uriel watches
in wonderment as his father basks in the congratulation of his fellow library drones.
Eliezers wife, Yehudit (Alisa Rosen), compares her husband to an anorexic girl who
suddenly begins to eat. But, as they say in Yiddish, some get bread and some get dead.
Uriel is summoned to the Ministry of Education for an emergency meeting in the
aforementioned broom closet.
Im the one who spoils his world, Uriel will at one point say of his father. Reader, I have
no desire to spoil yours. If you havent seen Footnote and wish to be surprised by its key plot
twist, youd best stop reading now. For I have come to the moment at which, the second
time I saw the movie (in my capacity as guest speaker at the Westchester Cinema Club), I
heard from the row behind me, a spontaneous Oy vey.
Footnote is a movie about Talmudic scholars that hands the spectator a Talmudic riddle.
Does the parent sacrifice for the child or the child for the parent? Is family more important
than truth?
Upon entering the little room, Uriel learns that Eliezer Shkolnick has fallen victim to
precisely the sort of transcription error that his life was devoted to correcting. The letter of
announcement went to the wrong Shkolnik. The prize was not intended for Eliezer.
According to the unanimous decision of a committee headed by none other than the dread
Yehuda Grossman, the prize was intended for Uriel. The committee is there, along with a
lawyer, and a representative from the ministry. Shock gives way to disputation. Uriel refuses
to strip his father of the award. Grossman threatens to resign: You have no right to pass
this on to your father!
Uriels beard is turning gray; Grossman has developed wrinkles on his wrinkles. Words
become ballistic, recalling the earlier scenes of Uriel working out his aggression playing
squash with a colleague. Morality turns personal (I think you hate my father!! What I can
reveal about your father, no son should know!!!) and ultimately physical. Its a great
sequenceas claustrophobic as the stateroom riff in the Marx Brothers A Night at the
Opera. (How did Cedar squeeze himself, his camera, and crew into that space?) Eventually,
however, Uriel and Grossman make a deal. Eliezer will get the prize but Uriel shall forever
exclude himself from future considerationwhats more, he must write the judges
statement.
Uriel is named for an angel, but no good deed goes unpunished. For now we witness The

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Revenge of Professor Shkolnik. Even as the son struggles with the correct wording for the
statement (coming to terms with reality of his fathers single project and few publications) a
pretty young journalist (Yuval Scharf) arrives to interview the award-winning professor. To
her surprise, recognition has not made him magnanimous. On the contrary. He feels
duty-bound to badmouth the work of previous Israel Prize winners as trivial and not
scientific and hopes that his award will mark a return to the old standards of excellence.
Then, his gall overflowing, he goes even further in attacking fashionable, phony Talmudic
pseudo-scholarship of the day.
The alert journalist realizes that Professor Shkolnik is criticizing his own son. Skillfully she
draws him out, eliciting the statement that will be prominently featured in her article: Uriel
excels at what he does but I wouldnt call it Talmudic research. Folding laundry in the next
room, his wife overhears and is aghast. How many times has she heard the old man rant?
But now! And, as for Uriel Suffice to say that sins of the father are visited on the son and
the grandson. After reading the article, furious Uriel lays a vicious trip on his own teenage
boy.
Its theater and in his single best joke, Cedar has the Shkolniks attending a performance of
that 20th-century Jewish classic, Fiddler on the Roof. Tevye drags his wagon on stage,
complaining that he is not just the driver but the horsethen comes out again to kvetch
about his daughters dowry. Uriel and Eliezer are seated at opposite ends of the family
group. Yehudit whispers to Uriel to give his father a chance to apologize. Uriel knows that
will never happen and so he takes his own revenge and burdens his mother with the truth
about the award: No one knows except you.
Eliezer may be happily humming Tradition on the way home in Uriels overcrowded car,
but Cedar is not yet through. Thanks to the scholars memory for word patterns and
formidable research skills, Eliezer will figure out that Uriel wrote the award statement and
deduce that he had been the awards intended recipient. Everything now in place,
Footnotes almost wordless last 15 minutes are exquisitely choreographed as, for the third
time, the Shkolniks attend a public ceremony en famille. This event, however, is a mirror
image of the first. Now everyone appears to be miserable, except perhaps Eliezer. The
ceremony begins, but, just before the playing of Hatikva, the movie ends. Behind me, an
anguished cry: Thats it? That cant be it!
Cedar has left it to us to discuss amongst ourselves. At least, thats how it was at the
Westchester Cinema Club. It was pointed out that Shkolnik fils ceded the moral high ground
when he whispered the truth mid-Fiddler to his mother, leaving her with an impossible
choice between husband and son; it was further observed that Shkolnik pre lost his
authority when, through the power of his intellect, he discovered the truth and said nothing.
Some noted that the women Dikla and Yehudit are clearly the movies most intelligent and
empathetic characters and pointed out that women were traditionally banned from studying
the Talmud.
One man angrily declared that Eliezer was an unbelievable character. A father would never
disdain such nakhes and proof of filial loyalty. He would take pride in it and not so

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sacrifice his son. (Ah ha, I heard someone joke.) Others, more conversant with scripture,
saw a similarity to the Talmudic tale of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa, wherein a servants clerical
error results in an unintended banquet invitationrather than friend Kamsa, enemy Bar
Kamsa shows up for the feast and, despite his three offers to pay an increasingly large
portion of the expenses, is physically ejected by the irate hostthus setting off a chain of
events resulting in the destruction of the Second Temple.
Might Cedar have been issuing a similar warning about the destructive battles between
religious right and secular left that even now divide Israel? some wondered. Perhaps his
movie is a commentary on this midrash, suggesting that, as Eliezer believes, the truth of
history is found in its footnotes. Or perhaps, Footnote has another moral lesson: The
mistake that, however honest, remains unacknowledged can bring the Temple itself
crashing down on our heads.
(Footnote received funding from the Avi Chai Foundationwhich, like Keren Keshet
Foundation, which created Nextbook Inc., Tablet Magazines publisher, was funded by the
estate of Zalman C. Bernstein.)
J. Hoberman, the former longtime Village Voice film critic, is a monthly film columnist for
Tablet Magazine. He is the author, co-author or editor of 12 books, including Bridge of
Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds and, with Jeffrey Shandler, Entertaining
America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting.
Find this story online: http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/92817/prize-fighters

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