I recently increased my odds of renting a quality flick at my local Blockbuster by skipping over the new releases section and checking out a classic: the 1990 Barry Levinson film "Avalon."
An epic story of a Russian Jewish family in Baltimore that abandons its past to assimilate into mainstream American life, "Avalon" traces three generations of the Krichinskys from its immigrant beginnings to the third generation of their American existence.
The film starts with four immigrant brothers, their wives and children, and their children's wives and children, celebrating Thanksgiving together in an urban home. Conversation between the generations joyfully dominates the scene as they eat an elaborate turkey dinner.
The film ends a number of years later with another elaborate Thanksgiving dinner. This time with a mother, father and son gather together from the previous extended family, eating their meal in silence while their eyes are glued to a TV screen.
The advent of television, the move from the confining urban neighborhood to the sprawling suburbs, and the financial rifts that develop in the extended family (where certain fathers experienced more success "making it" financially than others) cause deep divisions. Certain relatives refuse to talk with one another.
The Krichinsky family is obsessed with "making it" in the United States. Family members abandon any remnant of the past that can impede their goal of pursuing the American dream, which leads the relatives to tragically lose their connection to one another.
Two sons from the second generation do not feel the slightest compunction when they change their last name from Krichinsky to "Kaye" and "Kirk." The two sons do not hesitate to act on the spur of the moment and elope with their prospective wives without feeling the need to celebrate their most significant life event with their families.
Thanksgiving and Fourth of July celebrations bring tremendous meaning to Kruchinsky family members. The themes of thanksgiving and freedom are cherished values that they appreciate, hold sacred and live out in their everyday American lives.
Unfortunately, Krichinsky family members unconsciously assume that annual turkey dinners and barbecue picnics and firework displays can replace weekly Shabbat gatherings and other Jewish holiday observances. They make the mistake of unconsciously thinking that these two holidays have the routine and ritual potency to keep family members connected to one another while rooting them to a past that can help them define their present and envision their future.
The message of the film is clear: it is hard work in America trying to keep family members together. It is perhaps an even more challenging endeavor keeping family members rooted in a tradition that can bring meaning and a sense of purpose to their lives.
The film ends with one of the original immigrant brothers in an old age home pathetically trying to share the significance of his past with his grandson and great grandson.
On Friday, the Fourth of July, I will take a day off from work, join my family and celebrate our independence. I will enjoy the barbecue picnics and firework displays. The holiday will be meaningful because it will help my family remember and appreciate freedom and all of the other blessings and qualities of life we possess living in America today.
Four days later, I will take off my weekly day from work, join my family and celebrate Shabbat. The experience will not only help me to remember the blessings that characterize my life today, but it will also help me stay connected to my family and help us feel ritually rooted in a tradition that has the potential to bring meaning and significance to our present and future lives.
Unlike the elder Krichinsky character in "Avalon," the consistent weekly Shabbat family experience will increase the odds that my values and legacy will be passed on to the next generation.
Elliot Fein teaches Jewish studies at the Tarbut V'Torah School in Irvine.