The cigarettes and the smoke are meant to be metaphors, but of what?
by Rich Robinson | September 26 2023
I’d just finished the new biography of Golda Meir by Deborah Lipstadt (current Special U.S. Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism), when I went to see the even newer movie, simply titled Golda. The reviews have generally been less than stellar, despite it featuring Helen Mirren in the title role. Golda is not a biopic; it focuses on the events of the famous (or infamous) Yom Kippur War of 1973. Whatever else it might be lacking, it is nothing if not intense, filmed in a grayish palette that alternates with actual black-and-white footage.
And there’s something else noted by the reviewers: the cigarettes. They are the other stars of the film. In virtually every scene, there are cigarette butts galore. There are endless cigarette lighters and continual lighting up by Golda and others, frequently in closeup shots. There is cigarette smoke coming out of everywhere. If not for the unforgiving seriousness of the film, it would almost be comical. But comical it is not.
It’s pretty clear that both the cigarettes and the smoke are meant to be metaphors. Metaphors for stress, metaphors for dogged determination and pressing on, metaphors for war itself. At one point, Golda’s cigarette smoke merges with the smoke of explosions on the battlefield.
It was only after the movie that I was also jarringly reminded of the smoke that rose from the crematoria in which millions of Jews were killed, which led in part to the creation of modern Israel. Even today, smoke continues to rise every time Israel is attacked.
What to make of all this, of Golda and the nonstop cigarettes? In Lipstadt’s book, I could not find a single mention of them. In this movie, they crowd in at every possible moment.
In Jewish tradition, there is a more positive connotation of smoke. Everyone knows about the exodus from Egypt. Not everyone will remember that when we trekked through the desert, for 40 years no less, it is said that God led the Jewish people by day with a pillar of smoke, and by night with a pillar of fire. Technically, it’s really a pillar of cloud, but for all that the cigarette smoke in Golda fills the air and obscures things, it might have been a pillar of smoke. Let’s just say that’s what it was.
Looked at in this way, the screen-filling smoke in Golda could work as a more positive metaphor. Though I doubt the filmmakers intended it as such, Jewish tradition encourages us to find multiple meanings in any text, so why not here as well?
What if we looked at the film’s smoke not as omnipresent stress, danger, and death, but as the omnipresence of God, even in the most horrific of situations? We survived the Yom Kippur War, just as we survived the Holocaust (even with 1/3 of our people gone, we still survived). And God willing, we will continue to survive, even thrive.
The prophet Jeremiah gives us a landing point for this reading of the metaphor:
Thus says the Lord, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—the Lord of hosts is his name:
If this fixed order departs from before me, declares the Lord, then shall the offspring of Israel cease from being a nation before me forever” (Jeremiah 31:35-36).
If we want, we can view the smoke in Golda as intensely oppressive. Or we can believe that even in the horrors of the battlefield—horrors that changed the real Golda, who was never the same again—God is there with us, like a cloud of smoke, somehow enveloping the Jewish people even in the midst of tragedy.
The Jewish people did not have it easy in Jeremiah’s day, nor in the centuries preceding. Yet the prophet had the chutzpah to underscore the continuity of the Jewish people: what we call l’dor va dor: “from generation to generation.” If there is a message in the smoke of Golda, let it be this one.