“Ratatouille” & Jewish Assimilation (an essay, with spoilers)

The key moment in “Ratatouille” is not the creation of the title dish, a layered circle of sliced zucchini, eggplant, and tomato perfectly rendered by Pixar’s animators and lovingly sauced by Remy, the film’s protagonist. It’s not the climactic scene of judgment by the film’s primary antagonist, the food critic Anton Ego, voiced by a droll Peter O’Toole. It is, instead, the moment when the father rat, Django–voiced by Brian Dennehy–takes Remy to the surface to show him what humans do to rats. Remy looks up and sees a giant store window filled with rat traps and, more horrifically, his dead brethren strung up with cold, calculated indifference. Taken along with the scene where Remy, in a sewer, overhears a woman complaining about “filthy vermin” the movie becomes–at least for me–a powerful metaphor for the 20th century Jew’s attempt at assimilation.

Like many a young Jew before me, I hated going to Hebrew school. I would beg my parents to let me skip it–I hated sitting in those dusty rooms with histrionic men and women extolling the importance of tzedaka (charity) which we collected for Israel in little blue and white tins that you may recall from Woody Allen’s “Radio Days” (he spends his tzedaka money on a decoder ring.) Most vividly, I remember my Jewish elders loudly broadcasting our need to remember the Holocaust. “Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it,” one of them would write on the board. “Never again,” others would chant and our obligation to remember the Holocaust–to “never forget–was drilled into us at a very early age. Anti-Semitism wasn’t a concept, it was a fact. And anyone who ignored that fact was doomed to suffer.

Fear of the Christian world is a very real experience for many Jews the same way that fear of the human world is a very real experience for the rats in “Ratatouille.” To me, that moment where Django shows Remy the shop window is the equivalent of Hebrew school teachers showing young Jews slides of concentration camps, reminding them that there’s no safety anywhere, that the Jews are incredibly vulnerable. What Remy must overcome in the movie is not so much the challenge of the kitchen–using Linguini (his human friend) like a puppet, impressing the corrupt head chef–but, instead, the seemingly unreconcilable worlds of humans and rats. The movie chronicles Remy’s attempt to assimilate.

Remy loves the human world. In one of the earliest scenes in the movie, he tries to convince his brother, Emile, that humans, while they have their faults, are pretty wonderful. “Look what they do with food,” he cheers. He bemoans the fact that his fellow rats eat trash. “There’s a reason they call it trash,” he quips.

The rats eat trash in “Ratatouille” because they have to eat trash. Liken that to the historical position of the Jews in post-Christianized Europe where, because handling money was considered impure, they were forced to become bankers and money-lenders. Consequently, Jews developed a deadly reputation for being money-obsessed: a reputation that Hitler used to justify their “extermination.” (Is it a coincidence that the scurrying rats in “Ratatouille” look a lot like those in Hitler’s propaganda films? And, for that matter, why does Django have a hooked nose?) Remy’s disgust at his family’s trash-eating ways is almost Philip Rothian in how he resents the cultural fate he’s been dealt. If humans think of rats as trash-eaters and rats continue to eat trash, there’ll never be any escape. To quote Roth in Portnoy’s Complaint (pg 76): “Do me a favor, my people, and stick your suffering heritage up your suffering ass–I happen also to be a human being!”

But Remy, unlike Roth, is not a human being. He’s a rat. And the movie’s way of dealing with that fact is, in my opinion, decidedly dark. At the end the rat world and the human world are not reconciled. Anton Ego knows Linguini’s secret but keeps it to himself, choosing to benefit from the genius rat (eating at his restaurant every day) without giving him the glory he deserves. And Remy’s fellow rats, while happily noshing on Remy’s food, are doing so in what I took to be the restaurant’s attic. The attic! Sure those rats look happy, but they’re still in hiding. And hiding in an attic has undeniable resonance for 20th century Jews.

The story of “Ratatouille,” then, is a story of exploitation. Django exploits Remy for his poison-sniffing abilities; Linguini exploits Remy for his arm-controlling kitchen skills; and, in the end, the world exploits Remy for his food, a set-up that he finds enjoyable but probably not ideal. He’ll never reach the career heights of his mentor, Gusteau: he’ll never write a bestselling cookbook (unless he ghost-writes it), he’ll never star in his own cooking show. He’ll never dine at other fine dining establishments to study the food; he’ll never get to hang out with other chefs and shoptalk over a beer. He’ll stay where he is and do what he does and he’ll be grateful that he got as far as he did. Is that a happy ending? The audience seemed to think so. Everyone left the theater with smiles on their faces. But for Jews worldwide, many of whom hide out in kitchens of their own–doing their jobs and then returning home to their Jewish friends and families, barely interacting with the Christian world–it is a very revealing portrait. We’re not entirely trapped, we’re not entirely free. We walk the tightrope and try to forget the fear of our elders, a fear that makes it impossible to fully step forward.

You may also like