The Frisco Kid (film & discussion)

Saratoga Jewish Cultural Festival through a generous grant from the Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York presents the screening of The Frisco Kid on August 5 at Temple Sinai in Saratoga Springs.  This comedic 1979 under-rated film has now reached cult status. It is directed by Robert Aldrich and stars Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford, an extraordinary combination.

The film is a funny, yet tender musing on the tenacity of Jewish identity as well a story of interfaith, friendship and respect. Gene Wilder would say he was not a religious Jew; however, he once played one in The Frisco Kid.  Wilder is a young Hasidic rabbi, Avram Belinski, from Poland who is sent to America in the mid-1800s by his village to transport a Torah to a new San Francisco synagogue. Getting there proves to be quite a test of his stamina, is adaptability, and his religious faith.

Docking in Philadelphia Belinski is targeted and robbed by brutish con men, comes upon Amish farmers who give him shelter and money to resume his trek, works on the railroad,  meets a bank robber with a heart of gold who he befriends, escapes from a posse, experiences trial by fire at the hands of some Indians and other misadventures. Starting his journey he is stripped and robbed by the trio of con men but despite his misfortunes he doesn’t lose his faith and commitment to the Torah and keeping it safe.  His absolute faith in God and Jewish law leads him to not ride a horse on Shabbat even with the bad guys chasing them, and this decision ends up saving him because it allows the horses the rest they need to run faster after Shabbat. His religiosity earns him the respect of the Amish (whom he hilariously mistakes at first for landsmen in their black coats and hats and speaks Yiddish to) and the respect of Harrison Ford’s bad boy cowboy.

Through it all, the Rabbi is on a higher moral and spiritual plane that the rest of the characters and is rewarded for his ideals. His innocence becomes a shield to the evil of the con-men who try to harm him. Belinisk has chutzpah, he holds on to his ethics when all around him people have none.  Belinski’s love of the Torah actually saves his life:  the Native American chief is so moved by his willing to sacrifice himself for this “book” that he decides not to kill.  In the end Belinski is rewarded.

There were previous films, great ones in fact, about Jewishness and antisemitism, but this is the first film that is “Jewish,” rather than “Jewishy” as for instance Young Frankenstein and The Producers. It includes a rabbi, a Torah, Jewish values and beliefs and uses Yiddish words. “Robert Aldrich is not Jewish,“ says Festival Coordinator Phyllis Wang, “maybe that is why he was able to carry this off. Interestingly, Jews were often fearful of such Jewishness, even as late as the 70’s, apprehensive of the potential for greater anti-Semitism and public disfavor.  In the 1947 award winning film Gentlemen’s Agreement, produced by Darryl F. Zanuck, coincidentally also not Jewish, Zanuck was strongly discouraged from producing the film by the big Jewish movie execs afraid it would stir up trouble.”

The Frisco Kid will be shown August 5, 7 pm at Temple Sinai, 509 Broadway, Saratoga Springs. A panel discussion and dessert reception will follow. A $5 donation is requested. Please call for reservations or information 518 584 8730 option 2.