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The secret Jewish history of ‘Star Wars’

In a 2012 interview, “Star Wars” creator George Lucas made the feeble claim that the release of another episode in his now-38-year-old sci-fi franchise is “not a religious event. I hate to tell people that. It’s a movie, just a movie.” Needless to say, such a remark merely fans the flames of devotion accorded to one of Hollywood’s all-time most popular series, whose every new release sparks a fanatical response of such zealotry that any self-respecting sociologist could only describe it as “religious” in nature.

And unless you’ve been asleep this past week — or since September, when the marketing campaign including movie trailers, TV commercials, interviews, T-shirts, trading cards, and action figures began — even the least ardent fans know that “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” the seventh film in the series, opens in the U.S. on December 18, with 1,600 screenings (compared with the 1977 series premiere’s booking into only 30 theaters, because the head honchos at 20th Century Fox thought the movie was destined to be a box-office dud), attracting droves of ticket-buyers in certain cities who queued days before the opening to be among the very first to screen the new film.

This new episode boasts several firsts. It’s the first “Star Wars” in over a decade, and the first to be produced since Disney took over the series from 20th Century Fox. It’s the first film in the series to be directed by J.J. Abrams – the self-described “most nebbishy Jewish director, ever” – who is widely credited with reinvigorating the film series of “Star Trek,” the brainier cousin to “Star Wars.” It’s the first of the sequel trilogy, meaning that the events in this and the next two films take place three decades after those explored in 1983’s “Return of the Jedi” (the three films that followed that one, the “prequel” series, went backwards in time and filled in the Creation myth surrounding — not-so-spoiler alert — Anakin Skywalker aka Darth Vader).

It’s also the first film to reunite the founding trio of actors since they were cashiered from the series after “Return of the Jedi.” Nearly forty years later, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, and Mark Hamill are reprising their roles as Princess Leia, Han Solo, and Luke Skywalker, respectively. The return of Fisher has already been noted by Adam Sandler in his newly updated version of his “Chanukah Song” (the fourth edition), in which he sings, “Princess Leia cuts the challah,” a reference to Fisher’s Jewish ancestry on her father’s side (her father was mid-20th-century pop star Eddie Fisher). This time around, Fisher’s daughter, Billie Lourd, is also among the cast. Hamill, in fact, is the only one of the original trio without a Jewish background; Harrison Ford’s mother was one-time radio actress Dorothy Nidelman.

The new film also marks the return of Jewish screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan to the creative team. Kasdan wrote or co-wrote the second and third “Star Wars” films, “The Empire Strikes Back” and “The Return of the Jedi” – generally considered the two best films of the series — as well as the new film, and is slated to write a standalone movie about the early years of Han Solo.

There are plenty of other Jewish affinities throughout the “Star Wars” series. More than one pundit has noted the remarkable similarities between composer John Williams’s instantly recognizable theme music and that of Czech-born Jewish Hollywood composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s theme to “King’s Row,” starring a young actor named Ronald Reagan. The trilogy of prequels starred Israeli-born actress Natalie Portman as the secret wife of Anakin Skywalker and Luke and Leia’s mother, Queen Amidala.

You don’t have to be a linguist to figure out that the Jedi knights, who use “the Force” – the spiritual power of good deeds, aka the mitzvot — to do good in their battle with the “Dark Side” – the yetzer hara, or the evil urge within us all – bear the Anglicized name of a Jew. In other words, jedi = yehudi = Jew. And the name of the wise old man Yoda, who passed away at the very Biblical age of 900 in 1983’s “Return of the Jedi” and who was voiced by Jewish actor-director Frank Oz, translates as “one who knows” in Hebrew.

Philologists have argued, on the other hand, about just what the very Hebrew-looking writing on Darth Vader’s breastplate says. It’s been surmised to be upside-down Hebrew that translates as “One shall be regarded innocent until he is proven guilty,” which of course fits the character of Vader and his true identity.

None of this was lost on filmmaker Mel Brooks, whose 1987 “Star Wars” parody “Spaceballs” relied on Brooks’s usual Yiddish-shtick humor, including the catchphrase, “May the Schwartz be with you.”

And in case you think I am making something out of nothing, I have it on the highest earthly authority that indeed everything I say above is true. On Wednesday, December 9, at a White House Hanukkah party attended by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and other Jewish leaders, Barack Obama, the president of the United States and leader of the free world, said, “All of us come together, along with Jews around the world, to celebrate a band of Maccabees who inspire us even today. They were outnumbered. They were out-armed. And yet they proved that freedom can prevail over tyranny. Hope can triumph over despair. Light can prevail over darkness. That sounds like a description of the new Star Wars movie.”

May the Force be with you.

Seth Rogovoy mines the breadth and depth of popular culture for the Forward looking for hidden Jewish resonances.

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