The winners of this year’s Jewish Undergraduate Research Awards include papers about cinema and the Holocaust, the philosophical fiction of Isaac Bashevis Singer, and the distinctive contribution of the filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen to the Jewish comic tradition.
Elizabeth Ho, “Film and the Holocaust: The Mystery of Goodness”: Using Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List and Richard Trank’s Spielbergian Holocaust documentary Unlikely Heroes as its touchstones, this paper not only explains the appeal of Holocaust films about savior-figures, it also offers a powerful and persuasive rejoinder to the great French director Claude Lanzmann’s critique of these films. Although they are often unfairly disparaged as “feel-good movies about the Holocaust,” these films not only retrieve and celebrate previously obscure acts of heroism, they also enlarge the viewer’s moral imagination.
Jessie Jannsen, “Seven Portraits of Death in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Shosha“: I. B. Singer’s novel Shosha is well known for its portrait of the Jewish theater milieu in Warsaw on the eve of the Holocaust. This paper demonstrates that the novel is much more: a thanatopsis, a meditation on death, with each of the major characters espousing different beliefs about the meaning of life (or lack thereof) in the face of its inevitable end. A second paper by the same author, “Existentialism and Jewish Comedy in A Serious Man,” examined the Coen brothers’ satirical film about Jewish life in 1960s Minneapolis as a Job-comedy, a narrative in which traditional Judaism and modern angst confront each other to generate questions about the meaning of life in the face of its apparent absurdity and futility.
Bailey Mezan: “‘We are running away and Mount Sinai runs after us’: How old world and new world converge in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Shosha“: The paradox of modernity for Singer, this paper argues, is that it multiplies the possibilities and options in our lives while dooming us to perpetual anxiety in the pursuit of them. Shosha’s arrested development, her simple faith and loyalty, make her the antidote to the malaise of modernity, which the author finds embodied, in different ways, in the other female characters in the novel.
Andrea Pulido: “The Jew Abides”: Long before the Job-comedy A Serious Man, the Coen brothers made the cult film classic The Big Lebowski. This paper argues that the brothers’ earlier masterpiece fused a parody of film noir with a Kafkaesque exploration of the absurdities and incongruities of the human condition. Like A Serious Man, this film too is a Job-comedy, except that here the Job-figure is an anti-hero, a slacker-schlemiel, whose misadventures expose the bankruptcy of every modern ideological position, including ironically even nihilism, the ideology that insists on that bankruptcy.