Once we were invited to speak to the Harvard Law School Film Society. We walked into their Mock Trial courtroom armed with all sorts of notes, but somehow got started on a funny note, and the whole appearance became stand-up comedy. Separately or together, we were never funnier. Even the audience questions were funny. Roars of laughter for 90 minutes. I’m not making this up. I don’t know what happened. Afterwards Gene said, “We could do this in Vegas. No, I’m serious.” He was always serious about things like that.
That night we had dinner together in a hotel in Cambridge, and had our longest and deepest philosophical discussion. We talked about life and death, the cosmos, our place in the grand scheme of things, the meaning of it all. There was a reason Gene studied philosophy: He was a natural.
He spoke about his Judaism, which he took very seriously. His parents had started the first synagogue on the North Shore after World War II. “I had a lot of long talks with my father about our religion,” Gene told me. “He said it wasn’t necessary to think too much about an afterlife. What was important was this life, how we live it, what we contribute, our families, and the memories we leave.” Gene said, “The importance of Judaism isn’t simply theological, or, in the minds of some Jews, necessarily theological at all. It is that we have stayed together and respected these things for thousands of years, and so it is important that we continue.” In a few words, this was one of the most touching descriptions of Judaism I had ever heard.
But I will say that I do suspect there was more to it than that… that perhaps he didn’t even realize it. He must have been drawn to something more than mere tradition. I don’t think Ebert would find it “touching” if someone said, “The importance of [Nazism] isn’t simply theological, or, in the minds of some [Nazis], necessarily theological at all. It is that we have stayed together and respected these things for thousands of years, and so it is important that we continue.” And I don’t think Siskel would either.
No, I suspect that Siskel stayed with Judaism for more than just tradition. I suspect there was something beautiful, something true about it that kept him from wanting to stray too far from it.
Maybe that’s just wishful thinking. Whatever the case, Siskel also clearly respected the tradition of great filmmaking, and I’m grateful to him for the part he played in teaching me to care about excellence as I grew up staring at the television and imagining all of those movies that he and Ebert discussed, most of which I still have yet to see.