Tuesday, December 24, 2002

Middle Earth, Middle East

For months now, Amir and I have been stuck on Lord of the Rings, anxiously anticipating the premiere of the latest installment – “The Two Towers” – which opened in Israel on Thursday.

Mind you, there are worse things to be stuck on. Director Peter Jackson has transformed J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy and adventure classic of the third age of Middle Earth into what, in my opinion, stands as the greatest movie epic of the new century, with stunning graphics and sweeping battle scenes.

Underneath it all, though, are the core values that make this three-part trilogy so enduring: belief in one’s abilities against staggering odds; the ultimate triumph of good vs. evil; and the power of loyalty and fellowship.

In short, it was a perfect father-son outing.

Still, I had tried to keep Amir’s expectations low. Not about the movie, but when we could actually find time to go. I had to find a way to duck out early from work, drive back from Tel Aviv and still make it to a 5:00 PM show, so I told Amir I just couldn’t guarantee which day it would be.

Amir was relentless.

“We’re going tonight, Abba, right? Right?”

“I don’t want to promise, Amir.”

But how could I disappoint him. So on Sunday afternoon, three days after the film opened, I set out for the Ayalon Freeway, bracing myself for that most hideous of fates: mid-afternoon Tel Aviv traffic. As soon as I got in the car, the cellphone rang.

“Are you in the car, Abba?” He could hear that I wasn’t at my desk.

“You are, you are!”

“Yes, Amir, I am.”

Yesh!” cried Amir. I could feel the phone itself reverberate with giddy delight.

I picked Amir up at home, and we got to the theater literally five minutes before five. The theater was already crawling with fans.

“Which rows are still available?” I asked the cashier. In Israel, for some reason, movie theaters assign seats.

“Back two rows, in the middle,” came the reply. The show was nearly sold-out.

For some reason, Israelis love to sit in the back. The theater can be completely empty and the cashier will still bunch everyone up on top of each other in the second to last row and no one will think of moving seats.

“I also have Row 2 in the middle, or Row 5 at the very end,” she offered.

I imagined my eyes from Row 2, in short order exploding from the pounding action on screen. I reluctantly opted for Row 5: it was indeed on the very far end, next to the wall with no aisle.

We grabbed our seats and, folded our hands, looked at each other and, with great anticipation…sat through 20 minutes of commercials.

The audience was restless. I swear if they saw that Pepsi commercial where the spike-haired young Turk business-punk wins over his Japanese clients while seducing a woman with a cola bottle one more time, I was sure they would rise up like a mob of enraged dwarves and begin hurling axes and arrows at the screen…and one another.

But once the movie was underway, all of this was forgotten. Amir and I were on the edges of our respective seats (and sometimes on each other), hearts pounding, rocketing from one resounding clash to another.

And then, a rare quiet moment. But what’s this? Two of the characters are speaking in “Elvish,” and the subtitles are in Hebrew only! Panic-stricken, I turned to Amir. What did they say? Every word in a film like this is of crucial importance.

Once, I had been on a business trip to Tokyo at the height of David Lynch's "Twin Peaks" fever. The movie version, “Fire Walk with Me,” had just opened in Japan, a full two weeks before it would in the U.S. I couldn’t wait to see it. And then, in the most crucial expository scene with the little man in the Black Lodge who speaks backwards, the subtitles were in Japanese only!

Amir translated for his poor immigrant father.

During the intermission (Jerusalem theaters still maintain the quaint custom of forcing a break, usually right in the middle of a romantic scene or critical point of dialogue), I began to ask Amir questions. I am a fan, but Amir is the super-fan. He’s read the first two books; I’m still only a third of the way through the first.

“Why are some of the orcs smarter than others?” I said.

“Abba, no orcs are smart.”

“OK, well, why are some of them less dumb. And what happens to Sarumon in the end?”

“Do you really want to know?” Amir the expert was beaming. “Go on, I like it when you ask questions.”

And suddenly I realized something had happened, something that goes beyond our shared passion for great science fiction and fantasy. Amir now knows more about certain things in this world than I do. And so the child begins to teach the parent. It could be a line straight out of Tolkien.

Never before in my brief role as a parent have I not had all the answers. Sure, I’d sometimes play dumb for effect, but here Amir really was the more knowledgeable of the two of us. And it’s not just with this movie.

Both Amir and Merav already, at ages 11 and 9, know more about Jewish texts than I do at 42. Amir can read gemara with Rashi script. Merav has her parshiot and halachot down cold. Jody and I have caught ourselves bringing some obtuse government form in Hebrew over to one or the other and asking them to translate. Merav regularly rolls her eyes at my accent. Even Aviv has surpassed me with basic makolet Hebrew.

I know I still have lots more to teach them. That the tables haven’t turned entirely. It’s too soon to put me out to pasture entirely. But it is a humbling experience all the same. Their adulthood is drawing ever closer. Have I had enough time to shape them into gracious and thoughtful human beings? Or was that just my own hubris, to think that such molding was even a possibility?

The lights go down. The movie is starting up again. The battle for Rohan is still ahead of us. It appears the time of the Elves may not be over after all.

I just hope there’s no more Elvish to translate.

For a more political perspective on Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, read my good friend Alan Abbey’s commentary in the Jerusalem Post or this one from Karen Durbin in the New York Times.

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