Professor screens Saturday, 15 May at the Siskel Center in Chicago, as part of a Work Series retrospective.
Almost immediately, you notice the title. It’s not “teacher” or “educator”. This is not going to be the simple story of a dedicated member of the nation’s struggling instructional arts. No, director Daniel Kraus has done it again, locating a subject for his documentary series Work that lives up to his label while also transcending the traditional definition of same. As he did with Musician, and before that Sheriff, he takes the story of Rabbi Jay Holstein, one of the University of Iowa’s most popular Professors, and transforms him into a figure of admiration and frustration, part philosopher and part well-practiced mixer. For nearly four decades, he has demanded the best of his students while giving them a classroom experience that often bordered on stand-up. At 69, he shows no signs of slowly down.
Indeed, the title Professor is appropriate because it opens up the interpretation of what Holstein actually does. Sure, there are lectures which hope to impart knowledge and information, as well as lengthy discussions with assistants about the tone and tenure of his curriculum. As a practicing Jew, Holstein is afraid that the younger generation is losing their perspective on his religion. He is even convinced that his kind, like the tiger and the giant panda, are on the verge of literal extinction. But Holstein is not some Torah-thumping fundamentalist who wants to cram his beliefs down the throats of impressionable youth. Instead, he uses his faith, as well as the historical context of same, to show today’s insular individual that there is something greater than themselves in this vast, unknowable universe.
We follow Holstein as he prepares for another semester. His opening remarks to a class of incoming freshman are indicative of his approach - no-nonsense, confrontational, and yet more than willing to work together and collaborate. He hates large lecture halls, preferring a more personal level of student/instructor interaction and yet, for the most part, we never see a lot of back and forth. Kraus is rightfully impressed with Holstein’s near evangelical style, and it’s his words (and his alone) we hear booming across the auditorium. One does get the impression of a larger than life figure very well rehearsed and eager to hear his own voice. Even at home, talking about his problems with friends and loved ones, he’s a constant stream of ideas and invocations. Silence seems to be Holstein’s enemy, and he fights mightily to avoid the perceived lulls in the conversation.
This is particularly true when he sits down, one-on-one with a couple of students. The first is a thoughtful young man who’s thinking about becoming a priest. As the notoriously critical of Christianity Holstein bristles a bit, he gets the boy to admit some of the church’s failings while questioning how he can support a religion that excludes homosexuals and promotes celibacy. Later, an ex-football player reasserts his dedication to his studies, and then asks Holstein about some Rabbi rumors he heard. Correcting the obvious misinformation, he then challenges the athlete to redefine his own views, to give him an insight into how he thinks about things like team, commitment, and duty. All throughout, in a Socratic method that’s long since been relegated to law and graduate schools, Holstein makes his students think. They may not understand what he’s getting at, but it does compel their own contemplations.
As a subject, he’s amazingly approachable and imminently fascinating. Kraus doesn’t need fancy camerawork or implied narrative threads to keep us thoroughly engaged. It is easy to see why Holstein is so popular among his peers. As someone gifted with the ability to turn any concept into a complex and yet easily graspable proposition, he stirs one’s own desire to listen and learn. As he gives his views on the Holocaust (warning his class that he’s not out to make a difference or prevent it from happening again) he makes it very clear that the Final Solution was about more than the eradication of the Jew. As he breaks down the Nazi viewpoint, as he dissects the different elements of this horrific genocide, he brings a new enlightened view of the stakes involved. For Holstein, it’s the sum total of the Jewish issue eternally.
As he works out, running mile after lonely mile on his treadmill, as he talks to his son about firearms and shooting (we even get a chance to see the Rabbi taking target practice at a local range), we instantly see beyond Kraus often brilliant cinema vérité style. Holstein is a man who lives his ideas every day of his life. Whether counseling a couple who want to get married to discussing the upcoming semester with a concerned colleague (who he hopes can cut through the departmental politics and bullshit), he is his own man, a unique creation in a system which demands certain subjugations in order to earn the right to be left alone. Holstein brags that he doesn’t attend staff meetings or kowtow to many of the university’s requirement. The payment for such stubbornness? He must teach twice as much as anyone else on campus - and that’s just fine with him.
What more would you expect from a Professor, in all honesty. Through the very force of his will, his way with words and the overriding insight he brings to his area of expertise, Rabbi Jay Holstein emerges as a singular entity, someone who’s used his time in academia to forge a wholly unique and fully rounded view of the world. It’s fascinating to watch him, to see his fingers twirl in the air and he searches for that elusive connection to what he’s creating in his head. As documentaries go, this is another exceptional work by a filmmaker who finds masterpieces in the smallest of details. What Rabbi Holstein is teaching his students is something profound and very powerful. The same can be said for the Daniel Kraus’ depiction of the man behind the message. It is memorable, mesmerizing stuff.