Jewish filmmakers, ministers grapple with Judas Iscariot

Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Jesus is once again a hot topic of conversation following the screening of two movies at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. But unlike Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” — which some have called anti-Semitic — they both offer a Jewish perspective on the issue.

Celia Lowenstein’s “Sorry, Judas” is a satirical film that looks at the centuries of negative stereotypes of Jews as greedy, ugly and corrupt and suggests it’s time Judas was forgiven for his actions. In it, British writer and filmmaker Howard Jacobson plays the betraying apostle who guides viewers through centuries of art and dozens of movies to deconstruct the roots of Christian anti-Semitism.

Accompanying it is the 18-minute “King of the Jews,” Jay Rosenblatt’s highly personal work that explores the director’s own relationship to the historic figure and uses dramatic imagery to draw parallels between Jesus’ suffering and the Shoah. Both movies discuss how Christianity has used Judas’ mistake, which he finally admits in the biblical narrative, to scapegoat Jews over the centuries.

Both Christians and Jews served on the panel, following the screening July 24, at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre. The film screens again next week in Berkeley and Mountain View.

The discussion with the filmmakers and others focused on the relevance of the betrayal in modern society and posed the question whether it made sense to talk about the issue nearly 2,000 years after Jesus’ death.

Lowenstein, an American director living in England, said her film was as much about the biblical story as the origins of evil. “There are many forms evil can take, such as sexism and racism. Anti-Semitism is just one of them,” she said.

“This wound that was left from anti-Semitism has never been healed,” said Rosenblatt.

Despite being an outgrowth of Judaism, Christianity took a strong stance against Judas and helped plant the seeds of anti-Semitism, Lowenstein argues in the film. The Revs. Mark Stanger and Bruce Bramlett, two Episcopalian priests on the panel, agreed with this irony, and said they hoped the film would spark off much-needed discussion between Christians and Jews.

“The connection of the betrayal with anti-Semitism is more potent than many of us realized,” said Stanger, associate pastor at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. “I had not heard that in such explicit terms before, and I am glad the filmmakers brought it out.”

Stanger said he is already planning to bring “Sorry, Judas” to Grace Cathedral in the spring to make sure more Christians see it. So far the film has only been shown in England and at the Jewish Film Festival because American television has refused to broadcast it.

Judas, according to the Christian Bible, was a Jewish apostle who conspired with the Romans to have Jesus arrested. The Romans had reason to believe Jesus’ teachings were destabilizing their power and had their own reasons for eliminating him. In a scene of political intrigue befitting any Hollywood blockbuster, Judas led the authorities to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he kissed Jesus in greeting so they would know who he was. For this, he received 30 pieces of silver, although he later repented for his sin.

Stanger said unlike some Christian churches, the Episcopal Church is more accepting of Jewish teachings and considers Judas one of their own. At Grace Cathedral, for example, worshippers recall their Jewish origins as they break bread during services, he said.

But while the issues “Sorry, Judas” raises are serious, not all of it is somber. There are many comic moments, such as when Jacobson walks among flanks of meat at a butcher’s cellar to make a point about sacrifice, and applies a crooked nose and fake warts to remind people of what Judas was and, hence, all Jews are, like.

Getting people talking, laughing and, in the process, shedding the Jewish guilt over Jesus’ death, is what Jacobson is hoping for. During the discussion, he said the film has relevance for the religious and secular alike, but is especially important for someone like himself, “a secular Jew who eats pork and thinks about being Jewish every day.”

“I want people to feel a relief of the tension of finally talking about something that wasn’t said for a long time,” he said.

“Sorry, Judas” and “King of the Jews” screens at 2:30 p.m. Monday, Aug. 2, at the Wheeler Auditorium in Berkeley and 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 4, at the Mountain View Century. Information: (925) 275-9490 or