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Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me an offer I can't refuse.

The Matchmaker, a fill written and directed by Avi Neshar based on Amir Guttfreund's novel When Heroes Fly, adds a new type of busybody to the pantheon of the Jewish shadchan--the matchmaker as gangster. Our soft-hearted thug, Yankele Bride (Adir Miller), waxes lyrical on the joys of intimate connections and on the necessity of marriage for both the individual and the community.

Yankele survived the Shoah and now lives in Haifa's Low-Rent District. Men and women from all over seek out this smuggler/matchmaker's services. This Holocaust haunted movie presents a world that crosses Damon Runyon's demimonde with Rod Steiger's pawnbroker.

Matchmakers loom large in Jewish literature as they did (and still do in the Haredi community) in Jewish life. Part of the reason for this is that the matchmaker is the ultimate luftmentsh. No capital, no office, no staff is necessary to start a business. In "The Magic Barrel" by Bernard Malamud, perhaps the greatest Jewish story to feature a matchmaker, the matchmaker's wife says to one of his clients, "His office is in his socks." Leo Finkle, the rabbinical student who is searching for a wife, learns that the only professional accoutrement that the Shadchan (matchmaker) named Saltzman owns is a barrel full of pictures.

The matchmaker in "The Magic Barrel" is a fantastical being, compared to the fertility God Pan and to Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream, a mischievous imp who leads lovers astray in order to ultimately bring them together by showing them how much they need each other. In the process of finding Leo Finkle a wife, Pinye Saltzman brings Leo to maturity. He teaches him that the ability to love another human being is more important for a rabbi than the ability to parse the Talmud.

Another famous matchmaker in Jewish literature is Yente, based on the characters in Sholem Aleichem. Molly Picon immortalized her in the 1971 movie version of Fiddler on the Roof, as a wheedling noodge, a poor widow more interested in the commission she may make than in the happiness of the couple. But we can sympathize with her because she is an old lady trying to survive. Other matchmakers in Sholem Aleichem do any 'fixer' type work (See Malamud's novel, The Fixer). The story of the matchmaker is the story of the Jew in Europe, forced to live by his wits against all the powerful forces aligned against him. Yente doesn't have Saltzman's deviousness, but she, too, uses nothing but her yenta powers to make a living.

In The Matchmaker, Yankele Bride does not wheedle. One reason Neshar's movie escapes the morass of treacle that infects the part of the movie that attempts a portrait-of-an-artist as-a-young-man is because Yankele Bride reminds one more of Marlon Brando in The Godfather than of Molly Picon in "Fiddler." It's interesting that Yankele Bride is played by the well-known Israeli stand-up comedian Adir Miller. It is a testament to Miller's acting skills that one can't imagine him as a funny man. He talks so softly yet with such menace that one expects an explosion, a series of punches rather than punch-lines. His face is scarred and he walks with a cane, but no one messes with Yankele Bride.

In the one scene where violence actually breaks out, a cafe table full of soldiers crack crude jokes about Yankele's friend, a dwarf that the Nazi Mengele tortured. Yankele walks up to the table and sweeps glasses and plates onto the floor with a wave of his cane. Then he politely asks to borrow the salt. And using the same singsong intonation that hardly conceals his rage, Yankele demands the soldiers apologize to the insulted woman. The four soldiers quiver with fear. This scene encapsulates Yankele's character, soft-hearted but dangerous.

In a pivotal moment in the film, Yankele tells the story of a group of Jews hiding from the Nazis in a basement. The Nazis come looking for the group, and a baby starts crying. The mother can't stop it, and this man--Yankele describes him as a bully--suffocates the baby. The group is saved. The 'bully' then leads the group to the forest where he protects it, including the grieving mother. This woman soon starts a love affair with the man who killed her baby. She recognizes both his essential goodness and the needs of communal survival. Meanwhile, the viewer is left with the impression that this bully is Yankele himself; the mother of the suffocated baby is Clara--an emotionally fragile survivor with whom Yankele is currently in love. Clara (Maya Dagan), unsurprisingly, cannot commit to marriage. Yankele thinks that marriage will save them both.

For Yankel shares another trait with matchmakers in Jewish literature. Like Yente in Fiddler, like Yona Toyber (the matchmaker in S.Y Agnon's A Simple Story which the movie invokes more than once), like Dolly in the deracinated Hello Dolly, and like Pinye Sahzman in "The Magic Barrel," the matchmaker knows what the client needs, which never coincides with what the client wants. In "The Magic Barrel," Leo Finkle desires someone who will help him attain a congregation, to be an asset to his career in the pulpit. It takes Sahzman's pushing all the wrong women to wake Leo Finkle up to the fact that he needs love more than he needs the perfect rebbetzin. In The Matchmaker, Yankele Bride knows that a man who enjoys frequenting prostitutes is the perfect candidate for marriage. In this movie, Yankele is right and the man marries the dwarf Sylvia, who longs so much for love.

"Yankele Bride compels the viewer's attention in the way the rest of the movie fails to do. The plot is a I straightforward buldings roman. The movie begins with a scene showing a middle-aged writer learning that he has inherited Yankele Bride's estate. This leads him to a reverie about the summer of 1968 that he spent working for Yankele. The boy's mother is wary of his working for this mysterious man in a 'bad' neighborhood. But the Low Rent District is inhabited by a collection of good-hearted rogues--including Yankele Bride, his friends the dwarfs, and a group of happy smugglers and friendly whores. While the district is called 'low-rent', there is no sense of menace in either the place or the characters other than Yankele.

Yankele also runs a gambling joint with his unrequited love Clara. The movie treats this joint as if it were a warehouse holding kilos of crack that Yankele planned to sell at the local grade school. But it is more like Nathan's floating crap game in Guys and Dolls. The gamblers are all middle-aged couples playing gin rummy in a room that resembles the community hall in a Catskill bungalow colony. When the police raid this joint as if it were Al Capone's hideout, it is frankly ludicrous.

Other plot points are equally creaky. A disaffected librarian, rejected in love and angry at Yankele, seems to be able to lead a police raid against Yankele. Arik, the writer as a young man, is a bit of a drip who spies on whoever Yankele tells him to do, easily overcoming very reasonable moral qualms. Only once does he thwart Yankele, who then fires his spy. Otherwise, Arik has not a single snarky response to Yankele's overly optimistic pronouncements on love and monogamy.

Though Arik's artistic nature is demonstrated in his devotion to detective stories, an artist, a young artist, needs some edge, must think somewhat critically of received wisdom, even if he may not be old enough to articulate his dissatisfaction. Arik never comes off as anything other than a nice boy with no special desire to dig beneath the cultural norms. Maybe some artists were happy, well-adjusted kids. But then they didn't bother with a coming of age story. Even Arik's outre job working for a smuggler amounts to nothing more than a summer gig where he sweeps the gambling room and follows poor schnooks who have decided to use Yankele's services.

The symbolism, too, is a bit heavy-handed. Does Yankele really need Bride as a last name? Does Arik really have to spend time checking detective stories out of the library before he becomes a spy? Does the sad-sack librarian really have to lead the raid on the gambling room? Symbolism reinforces a theme only when it is subtle, a nearly invisible string that secretly weaves a work of art together. Overly broad hints mean that you're being taught a lesson, not viewing something with layers of meaning.

That said, the movie is worth watching for Adir Miller's performance. No discussion of the matchmaker in Jewish literature can be complete without considering the strange case of Yankele Bride.

IRA GOLD is an associate professor of English at Touro College. Midstream has published three short stories (fiction) of his and two reviews, the first of a novel by David Grossman, the second of an Israeli film. The above is another review of a current Israeli film.
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Title Annotation:'The Matchmaker'
Author:Gold, Ira
Article Type:Movie review
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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