Temperamentally, they are as different as night and day.
Itzhak Perlman, the violin virtuoso who faced almost insurmountable odds due to his disability from polio, is sunny and lively, a joke-teller and raconteur.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who faced almost insurmountable odds due to her disability of being born female, exemplifies the old saw “sober as a judge,” with laughter so infrequent her children used to track it as though it were an endangered animal.
But biographically, they share plenty: Both were prodigiously talented from a young age, spent most of their lives in New York and are from Jewish families. And both are now the subjects of feature-length documentary films playing in theaters.
Itzhak, directed by Alison Chernick, is a fly-on-the-wall documentary that takes no notice of its own process. There is no narration or voiceover, no talking heads or formal interviews. Rather, Chernick follows Perlman through a year of his life as wordless observer: while he plays the national anthem at a Mets game, maneuvers his scooter through snowy New York streets, rehearses with Billy Joel, teaches at Julliard.
Throughout, his violinist wife Toby is with him as his supporter and his sounding board; she even critiques his playing. The couple talks and talks, in the kitchen cooking together and sitting at a picnic table and reminiscing. The film is as much a portrait of a wondrous, long-lasting marriage as it is a portrait of the artist.
Chernick’s non-intrusive style makes us feel as though we’re just tagging along with Perlman, seeing how joy and music are threaded through every interaction. Judaism, too, permeates every moment of Perlman’s life, from Shabbat with the extended family to the names of the dogs, Boychik and Muttek.
Chernick may not have intended to make a Jewish film, but Perlman insists upon it — not in a pedantic way but in a way that suggests that being Jewish thrills him and fills him up. While in a car driving on Tel Aviv streets, he muses over the history of the street names and coins a verb for Googling Jewish topics: Jewgle. He is filmed invoking the legacy of Jewish musicians like Jascha Heifetz and talking to and working with Jewish musicians Evgeny Kissin and Mischa Maisky. He tells the same Jewish joke — about Pushkin’s Bar Mitzvah — twice, though he’s certainly told it many times before.
In addition, there are clips of him being honored by then-President Barack Obama — who notes Perlman’s favorite sound: onions sizzling in a pan — and of him meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has an adorable but bitey dog. In between, we get references to his upbringing in Israel as the child of two entirely unmusical parents who nonetheless did what they could to nurture their child’s talent.
The most moving moments come when Perlman visits with Ammon Weinstein, who has spent the last two decades finding and restoring violins that were played by Jewish musicians in concentration camps. Perlman gets emotional when Weinstein shows him a disassembled violin with a swastika drawn inside — something the Jewish musician didn’t know as he played the instrument all his life. Weinstein asks him to play the theme from Schindler’s List, and his rendition sounds like mourning.
“What he is doing is not music,” Weinstein says. “It is praying with the violin.”
Indeed, the many clips of Perlman playing are exquisitely emotional, in part because his musical rendering of color and feeling is inextricably linked to his Israeli-Jewish identity. “The violin is a replica of the soul,” Perlman says in Hebrew at one point.
RBG, directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, isn’t as painterly and emotional as Itzhak, but that’s because its subject and her work are rather more serious. The film is a much more conventional biography, with talking heads and the judge herself relating her story chronologically in interviews.
Ginsburg, who was born in New York to immigrant parents who never went to college, was staid from the time she was young; even childhood friends, who still call her Kiki, describe her as someone who does not allow herself to be “overcome by useless emotions.”
When she went to Cornell at 17, her parents rejoiced because she might find a husband at a school where girls were so outnumbered. And so she did, meeting her late husband, Marty — “the first boy I ever knew who cared I had a brain,” she says. The extroverted Marty was a good match for quiet Ruth — “I tend to be rather sober,” she says — and he supported her “unreservedly,” later encouraging her to go to law school at a time when women, especially women with infants, didn’t. She was one of nine women in a law school class of more than 500.
Ginsburg’s description of the early years as a student and lawyer include many uphill battles that women don’t need to contend with today. Part of the reason they don’t, as Gloria Steinem and others point out, is because of the pioneering, painstaking work Ginsburg did as a lawyer in the 1970s. It is, indeed, staggering to learn what she accomplished. Her gravitas and lack of ideological fire served her well, from private practice to her tenure on the Supreme Court.
The filmmakers endeavor to reveal Ginsburg more personally, which isn’t easy with an introvert. We see flashes of deep feeling in a scene at the opera — Ginsburg’s one non-work passion. “The sound of the human voice is like an electric current going through me,” she says.
Like Itzhak, this film paints the portrait of a wonderful marriage, one filled with humor and mutual delight and respect. And the scenes with Ginsburg’s granddaughter, in which the two share domestic tasks and talk about the law, provide a welcome glimpse of the judge as bubbe. Her surprising friendship with Antonin Scalia, too, affords some opportunity for comical reflection.
Though Ginsburg’s daughter says, “We kept a book called ‘Mommy Laughed’” and notes that it didn’t have many entries, the judge comes across in RBG as quietly funny and even a little giddy about the rock-star status she’s come to enjoy. Scenes of her watching herself portrayed on Saturday Night Live are particularly delightful, as she giggles along.
Though RBG is almost entirely void of Jewish references, it makes a suitable set piece with Itzhak, demonstrating the way that two remarkable Diaspora Jews of proximate generations triumphed in America.