Charlie Sheen, the Arm Wrestling Rabbi and Stalag 17

There is an incredible moment in “The King’s Speech” when the King’s family is gathered together in an empty Palace room to watch a replay of his coronation. At the end of the newsreel there is a vintage graphic montage of Hitler speaking to the German masses. The German people line the streets with hypnotic reverie, their right arms outstretched to the sky.  At this point in the movie Hitler’s angry oratory is commanding compared to the tongue-tied travails of the newly minted King. Hitler’s confidence and maniacal personality is evident. It’s not an actor but the actual footage. Next to me, Jake sits watching the film, fascinated by the oddly shaped mustached man. He squeezes my hand repeatedly and Jake does not let go until we get to the parking lot.

Now in my truck, Jake is shaken. ‘Dad, that’s the first time I’ve really seen what Hitler looks like live on film. The way he moves scares me. How could so many people follow him?’ I fumble for a sufficient response. I turn the conversation towards the odds on the film winning Best Picture.

On a rainy Saturday morning Jake sits with me in bed watching Billy Wilder’s film “Stalag 17” for free on my laptop via YouTube. The film has been on my mind. One of my producer friends has made several references to the film lately. The pre-Hogan’s Heroes story of a German POW prison still stands up. Wilder’s direction is brilliant. The crisp performance of Peter Graves as the Nazi spy whom William Holden discovers is an informer in Barrack 17 can still grab you. While watching the film I see that Jake is engaged with the humorous parts of the film and noticeably repelled by Otto Preminger’s portrayal of the commandant. ‘Dad, were the concentration camps like this?’ I quickly tell Jake that the art direction is authentic but the reality of the conditions were not that plush. I clarify further – Jake, soldiers were treated differently. People in concentration camps did not have individual bunks. ‘Dad, was it just Jews in these camps?’ No, from 1933 to 1945 there were mostly Jews but also Gypsies, Slavs, Poles, Russians, homosexuals, musicians, composers and artists. Many died in 1500 camps placed throughout Europe.

Several days go by. Jake is sitting in the kitchen drawing characters for the next issue of his zine, “Worldopolis”. On the radio an erudite NPR reporter tries to explain the insane anti-Semitic ramblings of Charlie Sheen. Jake looks up and blasts me with ‘Dad, why do people hate the Jews so much?’  I’m caught off guard. The parental protective bubble is exposed. I wonder for a half second if I should give him the unvarnished truth or do a temperate with a soft platitude — Jake, it’s easy for individuals to hate cultures and traditions of people they don’t understand or that they are afraid of. The harder challenge is to stop and try to learn about groups that are not like you. There is a pregnant pause and Jake returns to drawing.

It’s Jake’s first meeting for his Bar Mitzvah with our Rabbi. In the middle of the meeting, the Rabbi rolls up his sleeves and challenges Jake to an arm wrestling match. He pushes the Torah and prayer books out of the way. This challenge is no easy task. The Rabbi leans in. At first Jake is surprised. The Rabbi’s grip is serious and he is not going lightly. Jake laughs, I can see he is squeezing hard and starts to put up a fight. The Rabbi says to him “Do you know what your name means, Jacob? Jacob means God Wrestler. As we prepare for your Torah reading, let your mind wrestle with the text.” At this point the Rabbi has Jake’s arm in the Leaning Tower position. His face is red. They are both laughing. Jake caves. The Rabbi wins. Whew. It is powerful thing to witness your son wrestling with his Rabbi.

The Rabbi rolls back his sleeves. “The Jewish tradition believes that by engaging with the text, God talks to us. The act is holy. What thoughts or ideas do you wrestle with right now?” Jake tells him how he is haunted by the image of Hitler. Jake then artfully talks about his confusion as he peers down the dark well of history, at the human soul, looking for answers. For the next thirty minutes the Rabbi and Jake have a conversation that journeys from the past to the present and it lands on a discussion about the history and existence of Israeli state. ‘Jake do you know that Jacob’s name is changed later to Israel?’ Before they can proceed time runs out.

My twelve year old, my God Wrestler turns to me later ‘Dad, I’m so excited for my Bar Mitzvah.’ I am too Jake. I am too.


2 thoughts on “Charlie Sheen, the Arm Wrestling Rabbi and Stalag 17

  1. I’m a new reader and I need to say thank you for this entry – the emotions are so vivid, both yours and your son’s. Your rabbi’s approach to Jake is brilliant and bodes well for a very good experience as Jake becomes a bar mitzvah.

    Read “Constantine’s Sword” for a good understanding of the history that brought us Hitler, and a more complete understanding of “why do people hate the Jews so much.”

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