This week’s Uri Geller Jewish Telegraph column
Inspiration can strike anywhere. It’s hit the Bible Belt of America in the shape of a four-foot-tall penguin. The French-made movie, March Of The Penguins, is being block-booked for screenings in fundamentalist Christian churches from Montana to Mississippi.
Bizarrely, the director, biologist Luc Jaquet, was trying to publicise the effects of global warming on life in the Antarctic – but the film’s biggest fans are the American Right, the same people who have been insisting that pollution doesn’t damage our planet.
The heroes of the movie are emperor penguins, devoted parents who live in huge, peaceful colonies.
I remember watching a spectacular Sir David Attenborough series with my family when our children were teenagers. Daniel and Natalie were completely smitten by the emperor penguins in Life In The Freezer.
The way the birds paired off into inseparable couples, and willingly made any sacrifice to nurture their babies, was more than cute. It made emotional viewing.
That series was shown over a decade ago, but it seems penguins are news to Americans, who probably don’t watch a lot of Attenborough.
I met Sir David at a dinner last year and discovered that his table talk is just as witty and fascinating as his voiceovers.
But he has been an outspoken advocate for Darwin’s theories, which are even less popular than usual in middle America.
Jacquet’s film follows the penguins on a 70-mile trek across the ice wastes in temperatures of minus 40.
Viewers have been so deeply moved that churches are now putting a flashlight, pen and notebook on every seat so cinemagoers can jot down their inspired thoughts and feelings.
National Geographic, the distributors, must find it inspirational too: the 80-minute documentary has grossed £20m so far, and that’s just a snowball in a blizzard compared to the totals it is predicted to take.
The last film to grab the fundamentalist market like this was Mel Gibson’s Aramaic epic, The Passion Of The Christ.
The president of National Geographic’s movie arm, Adam Leipzig, said: “These penguins are model parents. What they go through to look after their children is phenomenal. There are parallels with human nature and it is moving to see.”
I’m certain that, if you’d asked Mr Leipzig 12 months ago what his company’s biggest movie would be in 2005, he would not have said penguins.
That’s how inspiration works. It comes out of a clear sky. At Rosh Hashanah most of all, we are seeking inspiration. The best way is to wait, and let it find you.
Inspiration can’t be obtained over the counter with a prescription, and the stories and homilies that are supposed to make me glad to be Jewish usually leave me cold.
Take the story of Rabbi Amnon, who lived in Mainz in Germany during the 1200s. The duke of Mainz offered him power and riches beyond measure if he would only renounce Judaism and convert to Christianity.
The rabbi asked for three days to consider the offer, because he was too diplomatic to tell the bishop to go take a long walk off a short log.
Later, ashamed of his timidity, he confronted the bishop and said he deserved to have his own tongue cut out for not speaking out boldly.
The bishop retorted that he would cut off more than the rabbi’s tongue, and ordered the palace guards to throw him into the street with rags tied round the bleeding stumps of his hands and feet.
This happened on Rosh Hashanah, and Rabbi Amnon asked to be carried to the synagogue, where he died reciting Unetaneh Tokef.
I heard that story at school – every New Year – and it never failed to revolt me.
Perhaps the people who flocked to see Mel Gibson’s gruesome crucifixion scenes would agree that butchering a rabbi is a good image to stir up religious passion, but I’m more of a penguin person: feathery and fluffy touches my heart, in a way that blood and horror cannot.
I was far more inspired by the 30 children who came to my home this summer with Ezer Mizion, the charity founded by Chanaya Chollak 25 years ago. I wrote about them in this paper a few weeks ago, and my mind often returns to their courage and happiness.
Children possess the strength to be cheerful and bold and cheeky, even when they are fighting pain and disease.
Some of those children might only have had a short time to live. They knew they might not recover from their illnesses, but there was no sign of defeat on their faces.
They were alive, and they were enjoying it. I see so many people who live as though they are already dead.
They let worry and fear consume them, and in their imaginations they suffer all the agonies they fear to face.
Whenever I need a splash of inspiration, I think of the children who come to my home, to play in the gardens and watch aerobatic displays in the skies above the river and meditate among the crystals under the willow tree.
They live for the moment, and that’s the greatest inspiration of all.
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