Madeleine Davies

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A schlimazel single father observed: Review of ‘Menashe’

In Uncategorized on May 27, 2018 at 4:42 pm


LONE fathers are not absent from film. I immediately think of Sam Baldwin, played by Tom Hanks, in Sleepless in Seattle, describing to his son how his mother could peel an apple in one go. Single Dads can be anxious (Finding Nemo), heroic (To Kill a Mockingbird), or neglectful (My Girl). They might be in crisis (Signs) or, perhaps improbably, ready to date Claudia Schiffer (Love Actually).

None of them would have been familiar to Menashe Lustig when his wife died, suddenly, in 2008. A Hasidic Jew, the first time he set foot in a cinema was to see himself ambling into view on the streets of Borough Park, his home in New York, at last year’s Sundance Festival. Menashe is his story (he estimates that 95% of the plot draws on his own experiences) – that of a young widower whose only child is taken to be raised by another family.

It is a beautiful film shot with a kind eye. Praised for its respectful exploration of a world alien to its audience, it offers glimpses of a life deliberately set apart from modern, secular culture. But it also exists as a bridge to the universal, capturing tenderly the way a home feels both empty and prone to chaos, after the loss of a mother. Menashe’s resistance to “meddlers” will be familiar to others who have sought to ward off those who, well-meaning or otherwise, seek to bring order.

It’s also an important meditation on wisdom and tradition. These meddlers are not sanctioned by the State, but members of Menashe’s religious community, drawing on sacred texts. It is the “Rav” (Rabbi) who rules that his son, Rieven, should be raised in a two-parent home, with his Uncle. The Talmud says that three things bring a man peace, he reminds Menashe: “a nice wife, a nice house, and nice dishes”. Menashe lives in a small, spare apartment, with sparsely populated shelves and a mattress on the floor for his son to sleep on. For breakfast he offers coke and some left-over cake that must be scoffed down in seconds in order to make the school run. There is no sign, not a single photograph, of the woman who must once have lived there.

The Rav’s decision initially seems cruel, but as we watch Menashe go about his daily routine, over-sleeping, ambushed by a landlord seeking arrears, drinking too much, we might hear echoes of debates that more commonly take place between social workers and families: is this a fit parent? The camera becomes a witness – for or against we’re not sure – documenting Menashe’s efforts to prove himself. It could be regarded as another prying eye – another meddler – particularly given that the film was essentially filmed in secret. There are certain shots – Menashe gobbling a sandwich alone in a convenience store after a disastrous date, his listless face in a van window after another gaffe at work – that feel intensely private.

But there is a kindness to the film that reminded me of certain Bible verses about God’s eye on us – the God who knows every hair on our head. “You keep track of all my sorrows,” reads Psalm 56. “You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.” Despite the close-knit nature of the community, Menashe cuts a lonely figure. He’s often caught in the reflection of windows, or pictured in doorways, peering into the contented, organised lives of others. He’s not even the first “Menashe” that comes to the mind of his cousin, on receiving his phone call. It is only the camera that is intimately present, there to capture moments of triumph among failure and ineptitude.

The most beautiful scene shows father and son on a hill overlooking the water at dusk. Rieven’s kippah has been gently caught and returned to its proper place after it flies off while he swings on a tree branch. The duo are set apart from the other families, but together.  It carries a sad echo, later, when it is pages of kitchen paper that Menashe is pressing to the back of his son’s head, after a fall in the kitchen. But the love that this Dad has for his son is never in doubt, and there is something precious about the playful innocence of their time together.

Menashe is a prankster and, in some ways, still a child himself. He’s heavy-footed, stolid, careworn, but has the unlined face and rosy cheeks of a boy. At the synagogue, he steers Rieven away from learning about the correct behaviour in a cemetery to passages about the animal qualities they are advised to emulate, encouraging him, despite the hushed atmosphere, to perfect impressions of a leopard, eagle, and lion. It’s not that he doesn’t take his faith seriously – in an early scene he worries that unwashed lettuce goes against the Rav’s instructions – but he is passing it on to his son as something alive, tangible. It is while washing a baby chick that he teaches him why a Jew must be clean outside. The discovery of the same chick, dead in its box, is another mark against his capacities.

This combination of playfulness and irresponsibility has been explored in other films about single fathers, most recently Captain Fantastic. They test our sympathies, occasionally pushing us to side with those demanding greater maturity of the Dad whose antics come with a risk. Menashe is a “schlimazel” (a consistently unlucky or accident-prone person), urged to “become a mensch” by his brother-in-law. It’s interesting that one of the departures from Lustig’s life is Menashe’s decision to fight for his son. “It was very hard for my family,” Lustig told IndieWire. “They were good people. They thought I was full of emotions and didn’t want me to destroy my son.”

In Menashe the camera often lands gently on face of the Rieven, frequently an onlooker over-looked by the adults around him. It watches him observe his father, capturing embarrassment, disappointment. It is perhaps here that the film’s sympathies lie. Occasionally, the camera is placed at his eye-line, as at the BaOmer bonfire, so that the black-hatted men dancing ecstatically around leaping flames are seen looming above.

Although the film celebrates the place of Jewish ritual in grief, it is in a storeroom with Hispanic colleagues, sharing bottles of drink, that Menashe finally articulates his feelings, and we learn how complex they are. And it’s notable that what’s offered in return is not secular wisdom, but the words of Jesu Cristo: “If you forgive, he’ll forgive you. So your son is going to be alright. When he gets older he will understand.” It’s a nice reminder that perhaps the most authentic inter-faith encounters are not being carried out in seminar rooms, but on the streets. Menashe asks questions about the strictures imposed by religion, but also respects the comfort, the “fold” it offers, even if the threat of expulsion hangs in the air.

At the end of the film, the missing person, Rievat’s mother comes into view. “Her soul is in heaven,” the Rav pronounces. “She prays before the creator that you may raise Rieven well. All should say of your son ‘praised be his father’.” And to Rieven: “You had a very dear mother. She’ll always protect you.” There is discipline in this community, but there is also assurance. As the film ends, we see Menashe descend into the waters of the mikvah, faintly obscured by a hazy green light. It is another private, sacred moment, respectfully documented. As when gently bathing the chick with his son, he is demonstrating care – towards himself, finally – and making an outward sign of inward purification, preparing for a return to responsibility. We leave him walking the streets of Borough Park, wearing the coat and hat loved by both his wife and his son.

“All beginning are hard,” observes the Rav. “It will never be the same, yet life must go on.”

Menashe, directed by Joshua Z Weinstein was distributed by A24



The radical history of Protestantism

In Uncategorized on February 7, 2018 at 1:35 pm

Five hundred years ago this week, a professor put a notice on a board proposing a debate. It sparked a revolution in political history.

It is no exaggeration to say that the Reformation made the Europe we have today. The anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 theses – said to have been nailed to the door of a Wittenberg church – has inspired numerous political op-eds. The claims about its impact included the somewhat questionable notion that he gave us both Brexit and Donald Trump. Others tried to discuss the theological origins of the Reformation.

The commemoration allows us to bring all these disparate religious and political threads together, to remind ourselves that religion was once inseparable from politics, culture, the whole of life, really – and that, whether or not we claim a religious identity today, we are the inheritors of this faith-infused world.

As professor Larry Siedentop wrote, in Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism: “We no longer have a persuasive story to tell ourselves about our origins and development. For better or worse, things have just happened to us.” The Reformation is a fundamental part of that story.

To briefly summarise what took place in Wittenberg, Martin Luther – a monk and professor at the university – was concerned about the use of indulgences. These were certificates promising remittance for some of the punishment for sin after death in exchange for good works or money. He was horrified by the abuse of ordinary people, including the “false understanding” of sin and forgiveness to which the practice gave rise.

His exploration of the Bible led him to the revelation that, as the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, put it in his commemorative sermon at Westminster Abbey this week:

“We are saved entirely, confidently and unfailingly by grace alone, through faith, and not by our own works.”

Convinced of the truth of this insight, Luther refused to back down when challenged by the Church. His explanation – “Here I stand, I can do no other” – sits happily in modern discourse. It speaks to the autonomy of the individual, the assertion of freedom of conscience, and expression. In 1520, Luther burned the papal bull announcing his excommunication. He became the most famous man in Europe.

From his protest flowed intense upheaval and division. Peasants revolted, and popular acts of iconoclasm were undertaken. Images of saints were desecrated; art was ripped from church walls. Huge swathes of populations abandoned the Roman Catholic Church and wars of religion erupted within and between nations, as political leaders made calculations about where their religious loyalties should lie. It was “the first great era of ideological politics“.

As religious divisions hardened, authorities were able to exert control by demanding the confession of the ‘right’ religious doctrines. This week, half a millennia later, the Catholic Herald urged readers not to forget the “bloody horrors” of the period.

Despite the growing imposition of political authority, post-Reformation Europe provided countless examples of acts of defiance. Many paid the ultimate price for echoing Luther’s “here I stand”.

But the violence wasn’t just inflicted on people. It went both ways. Authorities faced rebellions from within, as doctrinal justifications for the deposing of ungodly rulers took hold. This was not limited to Protestants. Marshall argues that tyrannicide became “something of a Catholic speciality”.

Edicts, inquisitions, laws, and wars failed to extinguish people’s religious convictions, or insistence on articulating and sharing them. Luther did not die for his beliefs but thousands did in the two centuries after his proclamation.

Last week, commemorating William Tyndale, who was burned at the stake after translating the New Testament into English, the theologian Dr Jane Williams suggested that there are still “some things so constitutive of what we are and what we long for the world to be that if we foreswear them we forswear all that makes life worth living”.

Unable to unite people behind a single religious system, leaders had to accept plurality of belief and practice. “Modern Europe’s pluralistic and broadly tolerant society does not represent an inevitable triumph of progress, but the specific historical outcome of a contested religious past,” Marshall said.

While Luther might have agreed with Dr Williams’ defence of fervour, a persuasive case has been made that he would have been horrified by what transpired in the wake of his protest. Certainly, he opposed the popular revolts that took place against secular authorities. He advised princes, in a pamphlet published in 1525, to kill “robbing and murdering hordes of peasants”. He sought to reform the Church, not establish rivals. Nor was he advocating a “free for all”.

He had an authority: the Bible. “Unless I am convinced by sacred Scripture, or by evident reason, I cannot recant,” he told the church authorities in 1521, “for my conscience is held captive by the word of God, and to act against conscience is neither right nor safe.”

What could not be pinned down though, given that all human mediators were held to be fallible, was the correct interpretation of it. As Dr Williams argued last week, the gift of scripture put into everyone’s hands was a glorious but dangerous gift. “It enables each person to interact and to begin to form their own faith.” Interpretations may be as numerous as individuals.

Brad Gregory, a biographer of Luther, argues that Luther inadvertently sparked a more pluralist society. If the only source of authority was the Bible and people could engage with it without mediators, multiple interpretations and rival views were possible.

The legacy of the Reformation, and how Luther would have felt about it, will remain contested. Perhaps he might have been most disappointed by the way his original revelation – “the generous love of a gracious God” – was somewhat lost along the way. Many popular representations of Christianity misread it as a life of endless striving to be “good enough” for God and earn a place in heaven.

But Luther’s discovery was different. It was that God’s grace was a gift, one that delivered him from acute anxiety. It was a doctrine he expected to bring freedom, if a different sort of freedom to the one which emerged. Like the experience of John Wesley, whose heart was “strangely warmed” by grace on Aldersgate (a plaque pleasingly marks the “probable” spot), it transformed one man, before his movement transformed the world.

This piece first appeared on on 3 November, 2017


Those who applaud the decline of the church will miss it once it’s gone

In Uncategorized on March 24, 2017 at 1:06 pm

Whenever studies on the decline of the Church are reported in the press, certain responses are guaranteed to materialise. There will be questions about the methodology, a hunt for the silver lining, and cheers from those who consider all religion to be antiquated, dangerous, or plain evil. There is also likely to be a fair amount of shrugging. No antipathy as such, just a fleeting acknowledgment and perhaps a half-hearted attempt at analysis.

This week, in the Guardian, Barbara Ellen suggested that claims that Christianity encourages a sense of community “seem a tad overplayed in modern times”, before arguing that “even the most isolated individual is likely to have access to the “community” of television, phone and internet – far from ideal, but, if you’re not religious, neither is sitting in a draughty hall with a Bible group and a digestive biscuit.”

I read this after getting back from the evening service at my church, where the trainee priest had shown a film about work with elderly people in the parish. For the past two years, the church has been running a project that enables some of the most isolated people in the community to meet up for company, conversation, and, most recently, access to Asda (hugely popular, apparently). For many, it is the only time during the week that they leave the house. These are women and men who have lost spouses, whose children live far away, and who might otherwise be among the one million older people who haven’t spoken to a friend, neighbour or family member for at least a month.

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Songs of agony and ecstasy: a review of “Music on the Mind”

In Uncategorized on January 13, 2016 at 11:19 pm

Harvey Brough conducts Vox Holloway at the Premiere of Music on the Mind, 29 November 2015

It was the loss to suicide of four friends within two years that inspired Justin Butcher and Harvey Brough to create “Music on the Mind”. A new choral work, drawing on texts by “unquiet minds”, including those of Sylvia Plath and John Clare, it was performed for the first time at St Luke’s, Holloway, in November. I was in the pews and deeply moved.

I think it was the sight of members of the Maudsley Hospital’s Mind and Soul Choir shouting “KICK IT DOWN! KICK IT DOWN!” that thrilled me most. Comprised of staff and service users, their friends, family and carers, the choir was the beating heart of the performance. As they delivered with gusto this refrain (part of a choral adaptation of “An Unquiet Mind”, Kay Redfield Jamison’s memoir of manic-depression) they were both deliberate – eyes firmly fixed on their conductor – and free, exhilarated.

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Bible therapy? CBT and Scripture

In Uncategorized on January 5, 2016 at 10:53 am

There is a famous passage in the Bible where Paul tells the early church to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ”. Deploying the language of war, he lays claim to a divine power that can be mobilised to destroy arguments and “every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God”. Just how difficult it can be to take control over thoughts is articulated by John Donne in the Holy Sonnet that begins “Batter my heart”, in which he urges God to take his heart by force. “Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend, / But is captive, and proves weak or untrue.”

The idea of an internal war, of the fight to lay hold of our thoughts because of the sway they enjoy over our feelings, is central to the principle of cognitive therapy. In fact, Dr Pablo Martinez, a Spanish psychiatrist, believes that we can find in Paul’s instruction “the embryo of cognitive therapy”.  Read the rest of this entry »

In praise of poetry

In Uncategorized on December 17, 2015 at 2:44 pm

WHEN World Poetry Day was established, in 1999, UNESCO declared that poetry could meet the world’s “unfulfilled aesthetic needs”. It was the means by which young people could “return to their roots” and “look into themselves at a time when the outside world is irresistibly luring them away from themselves”. UNESCO saw signs of a “shift in society towards the recognition of ancestral values” and “a return to the oral tradition”. Finally, it hoped that the day would “offer endangered languages the opportunity to be heard within their communities”.

Fifteen years on, the 21st March passed with little fanfare. One newspaper published a collection of the funniest tweets about the day. Others ignored it altogether. In Britain, sales of poetry appear to be in terminal decline. Last year, Jeremy Paxman, a judge for the Forward prize for poetry, accused poetry of having “connived at its own irrelevance” and suggested that poets, guilty of only “talking to other poets”, should be hauled before an “inquisition” to explain themselves.

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The Lady in the Van: review

In Uncategorized on November 17, 2015 at 10:40 pm

There is a scene in The Lady in the Van when two evangelists turn up on Alan Bennett’s doorstep and ask “Does Jesus Christ dwell in this house?” He gives them short shrift (“No. Try the van.”). But by this point it is abundantly clear that, when it comes to putting into practice the Gospel imperative, it is the doleful playwright at number 23 Gloucester Crescent who best rises to the challenge.

During the 15 years that Miss Shepherd stays in her van outside his house (and eventually in his drive)  he refuses to define their relationship. A social worker who describes him as her carer is furiously taken to task.

“I am not the carer. I hate caring. I hate the thought. I hate the word. I do not care and I do not care for. I am here; she is there. There is no caring.”

He will not accept responsibility for this cantankerous old woman, or accept congratulations for his apparent solicitude. It is not out of altruism that he has let her stay, he explains, but timidity and laziness.

One cynical neighbour is inclined to agree (“Kind? This London! No-one’s kind”).

Nevertheless, Bennett finds himself meeting the demands of his irascible neighbour, making her coffee, chasing off her tormenters, liaising with social services, and exerting himself behind her van, and eventually, her wheelchair.

Miss Shepherd is repeatedly described in the film as “a difficult woman”. She is rude, short-tempered and selfish. She never says thank you. Children in the street are scared of her. We probably all grew up knowing someone like her: an old woman pushing her life around in bags, possibly smelling bad, the subject of jokes and rumours. Probably she had a nickname crueller than that of the film’s title. Bennett makes it clear that those in need of our help are not always grateful, or even likeable. The business of looking after them is not romantic or, at least immediately, rewarding.

“Caring is about shit” he concludes, after clearing up the literal stuff Miss Shepherd has left in his drive.

“One seldom was able to do her a good turn without some thoughts of strangulation,” he quips.

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Should Bishops look to their own houses?

In Uncategorized on October 19, 2015 at 10:27 pm

I suspect that Church of England’s Bishops are used to their pronouncements being dismissed, ignored, or translated into headlines suggesting that they are on the brink of raiding the Lambeth Palace armoury (it must have one?) and declaring all-out war with Number 10. But I was a bit taken aback by the extent of the hostility to their latest suggestion. In a private letter to the Prime Minister sent last September, 84 bishops recommended that the UK increase the number of refugees it takes over the next five years from 20,000 to 50,000. When it failed to precipitate a “substantive reply” they went public.

The day the Observer splashed the letter on its front page, the Church’s Parliamentary Adviser, Richard Chapman expressed the hope that the Prime Minister was correct in his assertion that Britain and Twitter are “not the same thing”. I think his hope is well-founded. But I also think it is still worth subjecting some of the criticism to scrutiny.

Much of it focused on the fact that Bishops live in big houses and are, apparently, unwilling to open them up to some of the 50,000 they want to welcome to our shores. In fact, both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Chelmsford have done just that. “We can’t ask people to do something we’re not offering to do ourselves,” the latter told Premier.

But the reality is that councils don’t want spare rooms. Well-meaning offers of help have been gently rebuffed.

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A Syrian Love Story: review

In Uncategorized on September 20, 2015 at 7:48 pm


In a Q&A after the screening of A Syrian Love Story in Crouch End, the host proposed to director Sean McAllister that it was “not exactly Mills and Boon”.

She’s right; but the film, five years in the making, is unmistakeably a love story. Jealousy, nostalgia, and passion are all shown in unsparing close-up – the camera is generally inches from the subjects’ faces – in this account of a marriage in crisis, for which the tragic failure of the Syrian uprising is the extraordinary backdrop.

McAllister met Amer Daoud, a Palestinian freedom fighter, in Damascus in 2008. Unlike those journalists who responded to the Syrian government’s overtures by printing puff pieces, he asked awkward questions about the detention of political prisoners. Daoud suggested he tell the story of his wife, Raghda Hasan, an Alawite (like President Bashar al Assad) but also a dissident. She was in prison, at the time, and Daoud was raising their children, including three-year-old Bob, alone.

Bob.3. talks to his mother, in prison

Bob, 3, talks to his mother, in prison

Over the course of the subsequent years, McAllister filmed the family on a small camera purchased from a shop in Damascus, capturing Hasan’s release in 2011 during an amnesty prompted by the Syrian uprising, through to their exile to Lebanon, and, eventually, safety in Paris. He has also preserved evidence of a marriage under huge strain: a wife told she cannot be “both Che Guevara and a mother” and a father struggling to reconnect with the woman he fell in love with through a hole in a prison wall who has emerged, drawn, from a dungeon. The footage is intimate, occasionally uncomfortably so, filmed in the sparse apartments through which the family move in search of refuge. It’s a complete contrast to documentaries that seek to explain the Middle East through news archive footage and talking heads pontificating in the studio.

It’s extremely illuminating.

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Give Me Sex Jesus: thoughts from the UK

In Uncategorized on September 19, 2015 at 1:06 pm

As titles go, Give Me Sex Jesus, is pretty tasty clickbait.

The trailer promises “the naked truth…behind life’s touchiest subject” and cuts together shots of a couple devouring an apple together (FALL IMAGERY!), American preachers propounding “biblical norms” and talking heads revealing some very personal truths (“I don’t want to be 35 and a virgin; “I learned to masturbate in the forests of Ohio”).

I watched it on Friday, and really enjoyed it.

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