Inside the surprisingly Jewish world of the new movie about classical music that’s garnering awards buzz
In the first 10 minutes of the new film “Tár,” a conductor played by Cate Blanchett discusses the Hebrew concepts of “teshuvah” and “kavanah,” along with her affinity for Leonard Bernstein—all while being interviewed by the real-life Jewish writer Adam Gopnik at a New Yorker event.
It’s an auspicious Jewish opening for a movie that gives no indication that its main character and driving force—Lydia Tár, played by Blanchet—has a personal connection to Judaism. But “Tár,” which follows a fictional female genius in the classical music world as she grapples with demons past and present, is wrestling with big ideas about art, culture and society—including the role that Jews, and antisemitism, have historically played in music.
The film is winning rave reviews and early Oscar buzz in part for how convincingly Blanchett and writer-director Todd Field portray Lydia Tár as a powerful, terrifying and abusive force in the world of high culture. Many have reported leaving the movie convinced, through the sheer force of its world-building and Blanchett’s deeply committed performance, that Tár was a real person.
With every detail so convincingly sketched out, the amount of Jewishness on display is surely no accident.
Here are some of the big Jewish ideas in “Tár,” which is now playing in theaters. (Spoilers for the movie follow.)
Leonard Bernstein is an inspiration.
In the world of the film, Lydia Tár is a celebrated conductor and composer who credits legendary Jewish conductor Leonard Bernstein as both her early inspiration and her mentor.
Bernstein’s influence, and his Judaism, get a lot of playtime in Tár’s early scene with Gopnik, which takes place at the New Yorker Ideas Festival. (This is also where Gopnik excitedly notes that Tár has won an EGOT, or an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony; he adds that Jewish comic Mel Brooks is one of the only other figures to have received an EGOT, to knowing chuckles from the audience.)
Late in the movie we see a snippet of Bernstein’s famous televised “Young People’s Concerts,” in which he introduced children to classical music; the implication is that these concerts were what pushed Tár to envision a life for herself in the arts.
Tár’s affinity for Bernstein makes the film an unexpected companion piece to “Maestro,” Bradley Cooper’s own biopic of the composer, scheduled to be released on Netflix next year.
Jewish concepts become musical terms.
Speaking to Gopnik, Tár says she learned from Bernstein not only how to appreciate classical music, but also how to think of it in Hebrew terms. Two phrases stick with her in particular: kavanah, or “intention,” and teshuvah, or “return.”
Tár’s own interpretation of these ideas puts an artistic lens on their meaning in Jewish tradition, where they’re most often used in connection to prayer and repentance. She sees kavanah as respecting the intent of the music’s original composer while also imposing the conductor’s own intent, and she sees teshuvah as an extension of the conductor’s grandiose belief that they can “control time itself”: winding back the clock on a piece, holding the orchestra in a suspended state until the leader chooses to move on.
Of course, Tár’s public life, much like her life on the conductor’s podium, is a kind of performance she delivers (with finely attuned intention). So it’s possible she’s using so much Hebrew in these early scenes because she knows her audience of New Yorker aficionados includes a good deal of Jews.
But there’s another hidden meaning to the inclusion of teshuvah beyond the pages of a musical score. Jewish teachings also understand that the word, frequently invoked on Yom Kippur, refers to the concept of seeking atonement for past sins. Tár, as it turns out, has a lot of past sins she needs to atone for, and her failure to do so ultimately leads to her downfall.
Whether she can ever find forgiveness is a question the film declines to answer, but the concluding scenes see her begin what appears to be a process of humility, on a long road to redemption: the inklings of teshuvah.
Gustav Mahler is omnipresent.
The Austrian-born Jewish composer-conductor is a spirit who haunts the edges of the film. Mahler is Tár’s most revered artist; at the film’s outset she has recorded performances of all of his symphonies save No. 5, often considered one of the most complex and memorable pieces of music ever written.
Much of the film is devoted to Tár’s efforts to finally record Mahler’s fifth symphony, and to lead the Berlin Philharmonic (where she is head conductor) in a live performance of it. An ad for this performance makes the connection between the two explicit, placing Tár and Mahler in equally sized headshots. In addition, much of the film takes place in Germany, and a mid-film discussion of the classical music world’s denazification reminds us that Mahler’s own music (as well as that of many Jewish composers) was banned and suppressed by the Nazis.
Why Mahler? In addition to his stature as a conductor, the film is also drawing parallels to his history of manipulative behavior. Characters discuss how he suppressed and discouraged his composer wife, Alma, from pursuing her own musical career, much as Tár comes to do to her own subordinates. (Alma’s own documented history of antisemitism, despite her marriage to a Jew, goes unremarked upon.)
And perhaps a more subtle connection: Mahler was well-known for his reinterpretations of the works of composer-conductor Richard Wagner, famously an antisemite and race theorist whose ideas about ethnic superiority inspired the Nazis. Tár, too, as a pioneering woman in an industry dominated by misogynists, finds herself reinterpreting the works of men who would have hated her for who she is—but her fierce defense of classical music’s old guard indicates that, far from trying to separate their work from their toxic behavior, she may actually admire both in equal measure.
The Israel Philharmonic is name-dropped.
As an acclaimed conductor, Tár has of course been invited to some of the most prestigious orchestras in the world. In the film, one of the only ones that mentioned by name is the Israel Philharmonic.
The name-dropping comes in a discussion with a friendly rival conductor, Elliot Kaplan (played by Mark Strong), who is himself Jewish. The Salieri to Tár’s Mozart, Kaplan is amazed that she managed to coax such a remarkable performance out of the Tel Aviv-based orchestra.
Tár brushes off his compliments (and his requests to peek at her musical notations), but the two do get into a further discussion about klezmer music.
Yes, Nazis come up.
About that denazification: The question of how to treat great artists alongside their toxic behavior is one of the biggest themes of “Tár,” which is being hailed as the first great movie about “cancel culture.” And music’s connection to Nazis and antisemitism becomes a kind of signpost for where Tár’s own patterns of abusive behavior may lead her.
In the film, Tár’s former mentor Andris (played by Julian Glover) is still nursing a grudge that even German musicians who were not card-carrying Nazi Party members were included in denazification efforts (and also expresses sympathy for American Jewish conductor James Levine, who experienced a fall from grace owing to decades of sexual misconduct). As a member of the generation before Tár’s, Andris is even less scrupulous than she when it comes to reckoning with artists’ bad behavior: “I made sure all the hangers in my closet were facing the same direction,” he says, ominously.
The scene comes after Tár berates a Julliard class full of young adults for what she sees as their eagerness to get offended by the sins of classical giants, pointing out that some of the so-called enlightened composers they want to embrace instead have also been antisemitic in the past.
It’s all of a piece for the character, who—Gopnik tells us early on—wants modern-day female conductors and composers to be “in conversation with” the old male greats. Likewise, “Tár” is a film very much in conversation with Jews, music, high culture and the sins of the past.
Andrew Lapin is a contributing writer to JTA and Jlife Magazine.