Labor of the Mind: An Interview with Jay Holstein and Daniel Kraus

Rabbi Jay Holstein teaches the sacred in a profane way. Known for his high-energy, unorthodox religion courses at the University of Iowa, Holstein relates the method behind the madness: “You can jump up and down and say ‘fuck’ and ‘motherfucker’ and throw things around and act in all kinds of unconventional ways, but in the end, you need to believe in the substance of what you’re doing.”

On the other side of the spectrum sits Work Series filmmaker Daniel Kraus, who employs an unobtrusive style that allows him to capture “an ongoing document of the American worker”. Kraus opens Professor with the first lecture of the semester, set in a thinking man’s workplace, the university auditorium. “This is not exciting what we do here,” Holstein intones in a booming voice that simultaneously contradicts his opening statement. To take in a Holstein lecture on the Bible is to embrace the mystery of the text and of the teaching process in general. He often dances around a subject, pushing a strand of thought as far as it will go before pulling it back to reveal how it all fits together, a magician hiding his tricks with ease.

For all the humor and outlandish language, there is no mistaking the grand theme that for him is inescapable: death. He often alludes to feeling like “a dead man” and that “the angel of death” resides in the auditorium. Though some of it is done for effect, the main theme always filters through by the end of the discussion: this is serious business. In matters of learning and life, “everything is grist for the mill of the exam.”

By attending to detail in matters of grand scope, Holstein illuminates the dark corners of our understanding of the Bible, and Daniel Kraus documents it with a meditative, unassuming eye. PopMatters recently sat down with both Holstein and Kraus to discuss filmmaking methods, “the white moment,” and Holstein’s uncharitable views toward nursing homes.

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Out of all the professions and all the people, why Jay Holstein?

KRAUS: After I made Sheriff I discovered that the aesthetic could be applied to other jobs. Before embarking upon Musician and the rest of the series, there was a point where I wrote down jobs into different categories. I wanted to make sure I had a good spread of different types of jobs because you wouldn’t want to do a Musician and then do Actor because they’re both in the arts. I broke it down to about ten categories. One of those categories was education and that could go into all sorts of different directions – it could have been a kindergarten teacher. But I have to take the good ideas when they come and Holstein was just someone that I had a personal recollection of [from the University of Iowa] – someone I had always kept in my back pocket as an idea. My recollection of him was that he taught more classes than other professors did. He does have the one thing that I require from a subject in this series, which is a huge work ethic. That’s pretty much the only thing that I require and beyond that – as long as it’s not a job that I’ve already covered – everything is fair game. I also wanted to do a movie that was a labor of the mind, so this definitely filled that category for me.

What was it like showing Holstein the finished film for the first time?

KRAUS: I think he was ready to see himself. He had never watched even a clip of video [of himself] through these entire decades. He prepared to encounter himself and look at himself to see what others saw. It was scary for him but he was ready for it.

HOLSTEIN: From time to time the University has used me in PR material and they’ve sent me the VHS tapes and I never watch them. They’re somewhere gathering dust.

The first time I watched it I had about a third of a bottle of good Irish whiskey beforehand. I didn’t want to watch myself. I know that I’ve become a popular teacher and I know that the students vote with their feet and I know that they can take a wide range of courses and a lot of them choose to take me. And I know I have no natural constituency here; there are very few Jewish students and I teach basically Jewish studies, in an odd way. So I know that that means something, but I just didn’t want to see exactly what I’ve said. Am I a charlatan? Is it all pap?

When Dan got in touch with me, I was at first very reluctant. He came to town in the summer, we talked and he asked me if he could film one of my small classes so that I could see how unobtrusive he would be and in fact, I forgot about him almost immediately. The kicker was when he sent me a copy of one of his Work Series films, Musician. And, wow, I don’t like this kind of music but the last scene in that, when he plays in the darkness… it just moved me. It really moved me and I thought well, that’s good and it’s bad. It’s good because Dan has a sense about this and it’s bad because a musician is actually a musician but what the hell am I? This guy can really play; can I play my particular game? So I was reluctant but for reasons that may have to do with my ego, for reasons that may have to do with just a former student who thinks something of you, you don’t say, “No.” I still don’t understand it, but I agreed to it. He did say though that if I saw it and didn’t like it, it would never see the light of day. He came to town for 10 days or two weeks and he’s a consummate professional. In the classroom, I immediately forgot he was there.

How did your observational style benefit you in this case?

KRAUS: The first way is that you’re not asking questions, and that’s when people really clam up, when you have a camera on them and even worse, lights. I don’t use lights and I typically don’t use a crew either, and that allows me to fade into the scenery much more quickly. It also reassures the subjects that I’m not going to be taking over their life – it’s not going to be very disruptive to them, and I work hard to not be disruptive.

HOLSTEIN: When he came into our home, I immediately forgot he was there and I grew to like him so that when he was finished with the whole thing we sat down in the screened-in porch and sipped some good Irish whiskey and I thought, this was a good experience. And he assured me that I wouldn’t be seeing anything for months, and that comforted me greatly. I thought I would die or something before it came out. But eventually he sent a rough cut and I began to understand part of the reason for my popularity and I began to understand that some of it may have to do with flair and, I’m willing to admit it, doing things that are normally not done in the classroom and using language that is normally not used in the classroom. There was something there that did not displease me. I’m hypercritical about myself, and about everything else, probably. And this made me feel better about myself. I don’t know how he did it. He uncovered parts of myself that I’ve not seen. I’m not gonna say that suddenly I don’t have warts or when I look in the mirror I see George Clooney or Brad Pitt or Russell Crowe. I still know what a joke I am in a million ways come Sunday. I still think I’m basically unimpressive. But Dan was kind to me and allowed me to speak for myself and I’m indebted to him big time.

I’m interested in your teaching style, because it opens the door to the substance. How much thought goes into matters of presentation?

HOLSTEIN: The rhetoric is everything. You’ve got to keep people moving. Boredom will overwhelm and kill you. After a while, I’m not really sure whether you can draw a sharp line between how it is that I present the material and the material itself. When I’m really cookin’, then my presentation is as ironic as the material is ironic. It doesn’t happen a lot, but every once in a while it happens and I think, this is not bad. But the more I talk, the more like an idiot I feel.

What surprised you the most about Holstein during the course of filming?

KRAUS: The main thing that surprised me was everything that happens in his office hours. Because again, as just a typical student of his back in the day, I never went to his office hours and I only saw his “game face”. I really had no idea what to expect in the one-on-one sessions. After I met him at our initial meeting in his office, he was very kind and open and generous and that’s what I got in a lot of these office hour scenes. It was this much more subdued persona where he was really engaged with the students who came in and, for many of them, knew a lot about them and already had a relationship. I didn’t know if his interactions with students would be one-sided or curt or intimidating, so that was a nice surprise.

You talk a lot about not achieving the goal, not getting the point across, not being understood. People often say the cliché, if they can just change one mind, they’ve been successful. What is your definition of success?

HOLSTEIN: When I walk into the classroom, my idea of success is, a) surviving the 50 minutes, or for however long it goes, in front of a large group of students who are unbelievably different in interests, intellectual acumen and ability, and doing it in such a way that they don’t openly revolt on you. That the yawning and the shuffling and the coughing does not overwhelm you, does not suck you dry. So, that’s the first level.

The second level is, every once in a while tapping into something that a significant number of the students respond to – not just the best students, not just the worst students — but a significant number across the spectrum. And you get this feedback, you know, they’re looking at you, of course some of them are thinking about God only knows what, but after a while you feel, “I’m gettin’ through here.” That’s the second level.

The third level is what weightlifters call “the white moment”, where suddenly, after a lot of work — and for reasons that are as mysterious as love, hate and all the deepest emotions — in a lift, you are able to do it just the way you want to do it. It’s still hard but you get this jolt of adrenaline, endorphins, whatever it is and you will do anything – anything – to get this back. Every once in a while in the classroom, after I’ve gotten through the first and the second level, magic happens. Sometimes it lasts for a minute, sometimes it lasts for ten minutes, but it’s the kind of magic that if I decided to say to the students, “Let’s storm the dean’s office,” they’d follow me. They might stop, you know, once we got outside and reality clicked in but it’s almost as if you’ve got them in a trance. It almost never happens unless you’re super-prepared but sometimes you just trip over it, and I’m telling you, you’ll do anything to get that back and it keeps you going in a real way.

It must have been tough to edit down all the lectures you documented. How did you decide what made it into the film?

KRAUS: The particular challenge of Professor was taking lectures that were an hour long, or in some classes, 90 minutes long, and turning them into a five-minute scene while maintaining some sense of logic so that it wasn’t this unintelligible thing. That’s very difficult because in his classes he tends to tell a long story. So the question with the Bible and the Holocaust class was how can I possibly take what took him 90 minutes to tell and make sense out of it? So basically what I ended up doing was, with any given scene, I could make several different scenes out of it, and I just had to choose what scene I was going to make out of every class. That was the hardest part of the editing.

Even when you’re not discussing religious or philosophical matters, the film shows you constantly running, going to the gym, adding more classes to teach, etc. It takes a lot of energy to be you. To borrow one of your phrases, what is your “generating center?”

HOLSTEIN: The first is survival. It’s almost completely ego-driven. I want to be good at this. How this happened is still mysterious to me but from the beginning I saw that I could be good at this and being good at your work is a treat.

And then, if you piggyback onto that… the one commandment that King David never broke was respecting the dead. If you piggyback onto that my reverence for my maternal grandfather, an Orthodox Jew who basically raised me, who came to this country with nothing and died loving this country more than is imaginable, for what this country afforded him and his family. He’s hovering around me in the classroom and that’s part of the generating center too because I’m trying to thank him. It sounds sloppy when you talk like this but he meant everything to me and, I don’t really believe in afterlife or anything like that, but I do believe that along the way you meet certain people and after they die you try to give the dead a voice.

Another part of the generating center is now that I’ve got grown children, I wouldn’t mind making the world a safer place for them, even though I know that’s a ridiculously impossible goal because for the last 2,000 years, Jews have been often getting it in the neck from nominal Christians simply because they’re Jews. And this country is a Christian country. And as a Jew you watch this because you just wonder whether you should keep your bags packed because, you know, it was good for 300 years in Poland – Poland, of all places! The shitstorm hit when the Nazis came to power as it hit nowhere else. I’m aware that most of my students have never seen a Jew and know nothing about Judaism except somehow Jews were complicit in the death of their God. But that’s another part of the generating center: honor to the past and make the future better.

But the center of the center is I’ve got a passion for teaching the Bible. I think it’s a work of genius. I’m constantly enlightened by it, educated by it. If you really want to know something, you teach it because when you teach it, you know it enough to try to explain it to somebody else and I’ve learned a lot by teaching the Bible to people who know nothing about the Bible. These people don’t read the Bible, they don’t know the Bible, most of them don’t know that they don’t know the Bible. Showing them that this book can rank right up there, without apologies, to Shakespeare and Melville and Tolstoy and Salinger – all the great ones – that’s the center.

But I don’t want to examine it too closely. It’s like, I’m in love with my wife but I don’t want to examine it too closely, I just accept the love as some kind of a gift. This is a gift too. This country is a gift. The University of Iowa, where both my kids went with radically different experiences, it was good for both of them. My health, I’m 72 years old and I feel great, that’s a gift. So, you keep runnin’ until you can’t run no more and then you hope that you can find Kevorkian. I ain’t joking. No nursing homes, no fucking nursing homes.

You regularly allude to movies as a way to help teach. What movies have gotten your mind working recently?

HOLSTEIN: It’s a great question, particularly because it turns out that the musician’s favorite director is Sergio Leone, who is my favorite director. I haven’t recently seen a good movie, it’s depressing. I keep going back to Leone’s films and John Huston’s films. And Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, my good God. My good God. This is Spielberg in praise of the United States of America. Whoo! What a potent film. It begins and ends in a cemetery. Sacred. Both the beginning and closing frames are themselves framed by an American flag blowing in the wind, translucent in the sun. And Spielberg, after showing us the rows of crosses punctuated here and there by some stars of David, he shows us the flag on which there are no Jewish stars and no crosses – this is our country. Whoo! Wow. I wouldn’t mind watching that the last day of my life.

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At the end of Professor, Kraus turns the camera on the students to finally show us Holstein’s canvas. The impressionable youth he stares out at semester after semester, year after year. The blank slate that unendingly makes him wonder, “Am I getting through?” Whether or not he knows the answer, he moves forward anyway. Because that’s what a worker does.