Wednesday, March 10, 2010


On Saturday I screened the documentary Professor.

It's not often that a film makes you want to pack your bags and move to Iowa to sign up for a college course, but that's exactly the reaction I had to this one.

The professor who gives the film its title is Rabbi Jay Holstein, an educator for nearly four decades at the University of Iowa. He's not handsome, he speaks with an intonation that's insanely annoying, and most of what he's talking about is unpopular and/or provocative, yet it's hard to take your eyes off of him.

The first soliloquy the audience here gets to witness is one that consists primarily of Dr. Holstein complaining about the way the university remodeled a lecture hall. Really. He told them to "tear it down" and hates the fact that the configuration doesn't allow for him to catch every yawning face (so he can scold accordingly). He goes on and on ... and on about the hypocrisy of the setup and how he really has nothing much to say, but watching the eyes around the room, there isn't one student who can look away.

What is it about this guy?

Well, he's obnoxiously liberal and sarcastic in a non-forgiving way. But he's also undeniably sincere and self-deprecating. This combination of qualities balance out in the delivery of his rhythmic speaking. When tuning out "what" he was saying and just listening to his speech patterns, I was reminded of a great English teacher I had in high school that made me learn Vachel Lindsay poems by singing them. They meant nothing to me before I was prompted to do that, but now nearly 20 years later, I still hold onto a small book of his works—because I was moved by the rhythm of language. I have to believe that's part of what's making this man so magnetic.

Holstein would easily gel with a Seattle crowd, but he's undoubtedly "radical" by Iowa standards. He counsels a student about choosing Catholic priesthood, and doesn't hesitate to bring up the sexual scandals that have plagued the church for years along with his theories as to why they occur. He also frankly asks the kid whether or not he believes homosexuality is evil and by doing so solicits an honest, if not yet nervous, response.

Each scene we see where Holstein one-on-one with a student or a fellow adult is slightly more annoying and borderline intimidating than what we see in the classroom. There, he has enough space for his big ideas to be explored, but in the smaller settings he appears much more overwhelming.

I'd love to step into one of his lectures, brimming with brilliance and wit, to witness his energy live. It was so palpable on screen in this well-produced, organic-feeling film, I can only imagine what it must be like to experience in person.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was just searching for info on the film and came across your review. I took 2 courses with Holstein back in the early '90s and they were the most intense, invigorating, and fascinating courses I had in college. They still stick with me. I feel lucky that I was able to get into them then, and am impressed that he's still there teaching. Love that fire! He really made me think. I want to see this film.