December 6, 2019 The Titanic: Here vs. There
You can learn a lot about what a society values and prioritizes based on how it makes stories and entertainment out of historic events. Take the Titanic for example.
I will sometimes ask my tour participants this question: When you think of the story of the Titanic, what do you think of first? Invariably, I hear, “a love story.” Or people will call out “Kate Winslet” and “Leonardo DiCaprio.” Of course, neither Winslet nor DiCaprio had anything to do with the infamous wreckage of 1912, and they are mere Hollywood celebrities. The reason people associate the Titanic with these people is obvious: They starred in the classic movie based on the crash.
It’s very telling that the memory of this event is embedded in the secular mind as a tragic love story. It reflects a cultural emphasis on the individual, but more so, society’s focus on romantic love above all. Let’s remember that the concept of romantic intimacy is a fairly new one and was only made possible by technology and increases in wealth that allowed for marriages to evolve from arrangements between families for loyalty and convenience. But in our secular minds, romance is the central relationship in life, and we can’t imagine a world in which love stories aren’t the central stories.
On one of my tours, I explained that in the Hasidic community, the genre of romance doesn’t exist. Not in music, not in books, not in stories. A tourist from Siberia, who’d been wrapping himself around his girlfriend for the entire tour and was clearly so in love that there were constant stolen kisses, asked plainly: “What’s the entertainment without romance?”
I tried to explain that topics might include personal development, interpersonal relationships, faith, stories of miraculous recoveries, and surviving hardships, but I felt like the people on my tour thought my answer was a big “meh.” I feel like a little old babushke as I think to myself: “Now they are in luf, so they tink it’s everytink!”
I don’t know if my cynicism comes from not having been socialized from such a young age to believe that every happy ending involves a heterosexual couple kissing and laughing and being in luf. I think it’s partially my natural rebellion against dogmatic norms, and partially that I wasn’t trained in this hierarchy of importance. I didn’t watch the movie with DiCaprio until I was well into my twenties, maybe even later. But I did watch our own version of the Titanic, a Hasidic entertainment classic, a well known production by the same name. It was a dramatic slide show of old fashioned slides, with a separate cassette that had to be turned on for the sound. It was a story whose values were a far cry from the hedonistic romance arc. I remember watching the riveting film on the wall of our school’s large dining hall, the lights out, a projector in the middle of the aisle with all those little slides in the ring on the projector, going round and round.
The slide show was recently being shown again, so I took a picture of the “movie poster.” The Yiddish above says, “Live along with a historic event on the sea and be amazed like never before!” and also, “Dear mothers, give your daughters an opportunity to see, hear and appreciate what God wants of us of during these days, to overcome temptation along the way, to appreciate the privilege, to be drawn closer throughout the voyage.” Very different from, “The action-packed romance set against the ill-fated maiden voyage!”
Here was the story the Hasidic Titanic tells (cue the dramatic music): Scientists said they would build an unsinkable boat. They believed themselves now wiser and smarter than god. They reveled in their creation, boasted about its luxury. But alas, as we say in Yiddish, Di mensch tracht un di bashefer lacht—Man thinks and god laughs. The boat approached an iceberg, could not be diverted, and went down.
The lesson was simple: We cannot control the world or become masters of nature. We must accept that in the end, God’s directives trump all. In other words, the theme is faith, or humility toward higher powers. This is a distinctly Pre-Enlightenment way of thinking, because it denies that engineering can answer everything. It rejects science or reason and the power of humans to know it all. A Tower of Babel story.
Of course this view is now considered absurdly backward—and mostly it is. But if we consider the message, we can see how this type of moral tale has value and why the theme can be found in other old cultural legends. Some humility is not a bad thing. We do overestimate how much we know, how much we understand, and our human capacity to defy nature. We are exploiting the planet’s finite resources in order to overcome the discomfort, uncertainty, and tragedies of nature. We say that we can easily take on icebergs. We drill into them and drive big ships through them and melt them away. Ignoring these lessons isn’t going well.
There was a time when I thought the Hasidic and secular cultural stories would be opposites, that where the Hasidim tell stories of blind faith, the westerners tell stories of human reason. What’s been so shocking to me is that it’s usually not this way at all. Consider again the Titanic. The dominant story that we westerners associate with it is a romantic fictional tragedy about two people and some side characters. Sure, we made more than the one Hollywood movie—there are documentaries and riveting books and a long Wikipedia page on the Titanic. But what’s lodged in our collective minds as the story is one of feelings and luf. Not a very intellectual approach at all. That being said, the Hasidic version will never ever ever be as sexy as Kate Winslet, so I don’t think we’ll be throwing shade on the classic anytime soon.