Have you seen the brand new Collector’s Edition “Wizard of Oz” DVD? Even though I already have two other versions, this three-disc set is clearly a must-have. Besides a brilliant new transfer of the 1939 film, the set includes several silent versions of the Oz stories from 1910, 1914, and 1925 plus hours and hours of documentaries, featurettes, deleted scenes, and newsreels about the film. The new DVD happened to be released on October 25th which was Simchat Torah, a Jewish holiday that marks the completion of the weekly Torah readings and is considered the last of the High Holy Days. I mention that because it seemed to make a lot of sense to me.
For as long as I can remember, I thought that “The Wizard of Oz” was an important Jewish tale on par with Noah’s Ark or the Exodus from Egypt. The annual television broadcast of the MGM film was one of the Big Events of my childhood. My non-observant parents delivered us to my orthodox grandparents’ home on Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive for all Jewish rituals. We had dinner at my grandparents’ every Friday night to welcome the Sabbath, we celebrated all the Jewish holidays there from Yom Kippur to Hanukkah, and we appeared on their doorstep each year for the viewing of “The Wizard of Oz.”
The once-a-year broadcast had all the earmarks of a Jewish celebration. The weeks before the event were filled with anticipation. What night would it fall on? What would we wear? What would we eat for dinner? My grandfather lorded over the evening as befitting the patriarchal leader of the clan. After dinner he took his position of honor in the overstuffed leather chair in the den which was lined with blond wooden bookshelves crammed with Jewish-themed texts. The family gathered around my grandfather in clusters as he warmed up the huge RCA console. My grandparents were the only people we knew who owned a color television set. Instead of thinking that this was the reason for our presence in their home on this night, I thought they owned the set so that we could properly observe the ritual broadcast.
Both of my grandparents provided commentary throughout the evening. Following Jewish custom, certain stories were repeated year after year. My grandmother talked about taking my five-year-old mother to the Oriental Theatre in downtown Chicago during the first few weeks of the film’s theatrical run. My grandfather then pointed out that on that very date, September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland and his remaining family members in the Polish town of Staszow began their rapid descent that culminated in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. It soon became impossible for me to disassociate the opening of “The Wizard of Oz” with the destruction of European Jewry. The film became a cinematic metaphor for the terror inflicted upon my people.
As we waited for the movie to begin, I inched closer to the set, as excited about watching the familiar tale as I was every Passover anticipating the annual reading about the Hebrew slaves overcoming bondage in ancient Egypt. During this pre-VCR, pre-DVD age, the airing of “The Wizard of Oz” was such a big deal that the evening was hosted by a celebrity who would appear before and after each commercial break to talk about the film. To me these stoic men—ranging from Richard Boone of “Have Gun Will Travel” to Dick Van Dyke to Danny Kaye—had a rabbinic presence. Their commentary flowed easily with my grandfather’s and evoked images of learned men discussing the weekly Torah portion in the synagogue.
As the opening credits neared, my anticipation reached a fever pitch. Lights were dimmed, dessert plates cleared, and all eyes focused on the set. From the first sight of the MGM lion I was transfixed, swept away in religious reverie. The early scenes of the film on Dorothy Gale’s Kansas shtetl were filmed in black-and-white, a bleak foreshadowing of the encroaching doom that would forever obliterate the Jewish way of life throughout Europe. The danger to the Jews first took the form of nasty Miss Gulch, a classic anti-Semite who wanted to take Dorothy’s precious dog to the authorities and “make sure he’s destroyed.”
Aunt Em and Uncle Henry, though outraged like many Jews who had to endure such indignities during the early years of Nazi influence, feel powerless to stop Miss Gulch and they hand the poor mutt over to certain death. Miraculously, the dog escapes and finds his way back to Dorothy’s loving arms. Dorothy realizes that evil still lurks around the corner and she tries to run away. By this time Miss Gulch’s rabid anti-Semitism has grown into a tornado of hate, sending Dorothy and her entire house up into the gale winds of the unknown. Her town and former life disappear as she lands in the mysterious land of Oz.
For the rest of the film, Dorothy makes her way through countless trials and tribulations on her determined quest to find her true home. During this perilous journey, the Wicked Witch of the West embodies the worst of Nazi tyranny—Hitler’s personal messenger sent to torment the innocent Jewess trapped in a strange land whose dangers she could not comprehend.
As I watched the film each year, I analyzed the religious affiliation and moral fiber of each character. With her long brown braids and simple gingham dress, Dorothy bore a striking resemblance to old pre-war photographs of my Aunt Gittel Chana in Poland. Dorothy was obviously a Jewish character with her longing for a better world “over the rainbow,” her reverence for animals and nature, and her eagerness to expose false idols such as the Wizard himself. The rest of the characters in the story eventually found their way into my “Who’s a Jew?” encyclopedia.
Glinda the Good Witch: Not a Jew. No Jewish woman with power would ever be so soft-spoken or be caught dead in that pink cinched-waist gown. Glinda represents the kind, benevolent aspects of European leadership that failed to take seriously the threat of darker forces lurking ahead. “You have no power here,” she says with a laugh to the Wicked Witch. Alas, Glinda underestimates the power of a charismatic figure who has the ability to incite old hatreds into mob violence.
The Munchkins: Jews. Short, odd-looking, clannish people who live apart from the Oz mainstream. The Munchkins cling to their own ways and depend on the good will of various Gentile authority figures for their survival.
Scarecrow: Jew. A wise old soul who values education above all else and tortures himself about not being smart enough. He probably got this neurosis from his never-satisfied parents. Always able to think on his feet, he nevertheless suffers from low self-esteem. A born mediator and an honest, loyal friend.
Tin Man: Not a Jew. With his kind and loving nature, the Tin Man is one of the Righteous Gentiles who would put his life on the line to protect his Jewish friend, but his unassuming nature and vulnerabilities often leave him frozen in fear as he faces his enemies. A generous nurturer whose sensitive side belies his physical strength.
Cowardly Lion: Jew. Though full of bravado and a loud bark when he feels backed into a corner, he is really a pussycat at heart, unable to harm a fly. A classic narcissist with unresolved sexual issues. A disappointment to his loved ones who wanted him to go into the family business but admired by his friends for his willingness to buck tradition and face his worst fears.
The Witch’s Guards: Not Jews. An elite army of evil who later claim they were “just following orders.” Gestapo henchmen who show no loyalty to their leader but switch allegiances whenever it suits their needs.
Emerald City is clearly the capital of Gentile Oz. As opposed to the strange little Munchkins or the odd-looking Scarecrow and Lion, the residents of Emerald City are perfect specimens of a Master Race. Though beautiful, graceful, and strong, they lack individuality and are easy prey to a charlatan who has delusions of grandeur and hopes that no one would pay attention to the man behind the curtain.
Certain scenes of “The Wizard of Oz” were so terrifying to me that I used to have Technicolor nightmares in which the Yellow Brick Road led straight to the gates of Auschwitz. There was one line in the movie that always troubled me. After Dorothy fails to hitch a ride back to Kansas in the Wizard’s hot-air balloon, Glinda reappears and casually announces that the girl has always had the power to return home. “But why didn’t you tell her?” demands an incredulous Scarecrow. “Because she wouldn’t have believed me,” replies the Good Witch. “She had to learn it for herself.”
This exchange used to send me into a rage of indignation. How could Glinda in good conscience let someone she cared about risk her life over and over again if she knew the secret that would send her to safety?
I now see this as the film’s most Jewish message of all. For thousands of years Jews have struggled as a people against forces that tried to destroy them or make them assimilate into the larger culture. Instead of succumbing to the waves of persecution or taking the easy way out, the tiny Jewish population thrived against all odds. It wasn’t powerful weapons or armies that allowed Jews to survive, it was their own quiet knowledge of their worth as a people.
Before returning to Kansas, Glinda asks Dorothy to recount what she’s learned during her adventures in Oz. “I learned that if I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard, because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it in the first place.” That’s it, Dorothy. Mazel tov!