Sunday, December 30, 2007

Lost Compass

When Mad Mel snapped his cinematic whip in The Passion, Jews cried out about the film’s depiction of their faith. In Gibson’s movie, Jews were distinctly made to look sinister, marked by centuries-old stereotypes including the requisite hooked schnoz.

While many Christians thought the work a thing of beauty, most Jews I knew found Jesus being whipped to carpaccio repulsive and hard to digest.

Cut to: A new holiday movie sparking its own controversy, causing the Catholic League to call for a boycott of The Golden Compass.

The problem they say is the first book in the trilogy on which the film is based, a children’s fantasy called His Dark Materials, is anti-Catholic and promotes atheism. They’re afraid kids’ll get hooked on the series and, like Harry Potter, will devour all the books which eventually reveal God to be a charlatan right before He’s killed.

While the act of deicide would offend most religions, Jews included, the CL’s particular problem is with the depiction of a sinister institution closely resembling the Catholic Church called “the Magisterium.”

On the other side of this argumentative sphere, atheists aren’t happy either, saying Hollywood has caved into pressures from Catholics and watered down the screen version of the book.

To lend further fictional perspective to this cultural maelstrom, the Compass story takes place in an alternate universe. If The Passion was an historical event and was of this world, it was seen through the lens of an Anti-Semite (Mel’s In Vino Veritas moment ended any debate) and got the praise of the Church. But while Compass is a work of fantasy with talking polar bears, it still’s got Church leaders hot under the collar. I’m no Einstein, but on the outrage meter, there needs to be some universal equilibrium between what’s historically inaccurate and what’s make-believe.

The narrative kicking up all the dust is about a 12 year-old girl who goes on an adventure with the help of a golden compass, (a sort of magical Nintendo DS) after she hears about an amazing substance called, well, Dust. When asked a question, the compass tells the truth. (I’m sure both sides in this fight wish they had one.)

What’s interesting about this latest row is, unlike other recent holiday fare of past years, from The Lord of The Rings to The Chronicles of Narnia, Compass’s two-sided controversy and the tension it personifies are indicative of the moment.

Atheism has been re-popularized in the culture with books out by Chris Hitchens, “God Is Not Great” and Richard Dawkins’, “The God Delusion” and a Presidential election with the GOP’s Mitt & Mike ascending the lead on a platform of piety, each claiming they’re more in sync with God.

While Nietzsche claimed God is dead years ago (I thought atheism was so last, last century), today’s Earthly battle has resurfaced due to the collision between east and west and the polarity between Islam and Judeo-Christianity. For Hitchens and other atheists they figure, if all the heavenly talk only leads to killing each other, each claiming they’re side’s the true north, why not do what Gershwin lyricized and let’s call the whole “God” thing off.

The problem is that that model’s only led to nihilism and an impoverished culture in need of something spiritually more meaningful. On the flip side, the divinely apocalyptic crusaders are unable to grasp scientific theory, still mad at Galileo’s heresy.

Like any good philosopher, while gazing at the screen version of The Golden Compass last week, I questioned its meaning and concluded the whole controversy as overblown, deciding both sides are in need of a real compass—one that doesn’t just point blame.

After all, it’s possible to be an atheist but adhere to religious ideals. In other words, atheists can and do have a moral north and God for them can often simply be defined as something that is “higher” to strive toward—something within and not outside of us.

Indeed, the fissure which Compass represents is indicative of a lack of global perspective over religion and a misguided culture that has lost its way, instead relying heavily on opposing extremes, with no center or equanimity.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


It was a chilly fall evening on the steps of the Cathedral of St. John The Divine in Manhattan and I was passing out flyers for a New York premiere of a play I was acting in written by the newly elected President of Chekoslovakia, Vaclav Havel.

Inside the walls of the Cathedral was an evening of the who's who of New York, because the guest of honor was Mr. Havel. Accompanying him would be music performed by Paul Simon along with a line of celebrity limos wrapped around the architectural wonder.

As I approached the steps in my worn black leather jacket and unkempt artsy attire, the first person I happened upon, to hand an invite to, was none other than Norman Mailer. It was the early 1990s and already he was carefully hobbling down the steep incline.

Upon my greeting, he was at first gruff and somewhat dismissive, as if I were handing him a menu to a local deli. Then, realizing what I was offering, he softened and became interested in the play. Our conversation wasn’t very long and I told him about it hoping he could make it. He said he would try, but I knew he made his home in Provincetown and given the gait at which he was taking the steps, wasn’t hopeful about holding him a seat.

I say all of this because what was to follow on that night was an evening of paparazzi flashbulbs and swank movie stars shuttled in through the backdoor of the house of prayer. It was a night I was to remember because never before had I seen so many stars from various categories, musicians, actors, writers all strutting by with a swagger and style that was like something out of a dream. They truly glistened with a sheen as if Annie Liebowitz was spraying the air with her magic, airbrushed fairy dust.

At that youthful time in my life, there had been a few books that truly hit me and made an impact like no other. One in particular had as one of its themes, the celebritification of a killer seen through the dark lens of our media culture – The Executioner’s Song.

By coming out some ten years earlier, it pre-saged the cultish following our paparazzi obsessed civilization, would endow the media.

With Executioner, Mailer’s tender prose and simple styling was like looking into a clear western sunset. He allowed us to see and observe something that was normally impossible, prohibitive and off limits. It was a fire that was so powerful and dangerous, yet through him, one could feel Gary Gilmore’s breath.

Having drunk in that night, I remember how it tasted like nectar and how my ears were ringing at the alter of Simon’s guitar. People were aglow in that cavernous house of the spirit as vibes were being channeled, ricocheting off the stone walls.

Mailer had greeted me as I passed into a world beyond belief that night, just as he’d let so many readers into his amazing imagination.

His style of New Journalism had already blurred the line between fact and news and gave the latter half of the twentieth century’s most extraordinary events a perspective that was dangerous, anarchic and sublime from the moonwalk and Vietnam to political conventions to the CIA.

While many of his enchantments were disappointing, when he was on fire he crackled and lit up the page, taking us on a path through an underside of a world not normally seen.

His final literary descent bathed us in Hitler’s wicked gene pool, where readers came face to face with the devil himself. Mailer intended to continue The Castle In The Forest. So how fitting, how mythic of him not to return after descending the lower depths.

Now he’ll always remain for me standing at the gates of that castle, that cathedral, beckoning us to go within.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Coulter Clash

For the past few months there have been a number public and highly visible Anti-Semitic spectacles where the microphone has been handed over to a mean-spirited clown whereupon nonsensical rhetoric gets uttered followed by listeners scratching their heads wondering why the hate-mongers were ever given a platform in the first place.

To combat this warped reality, writers like me rant about them and end up giving them even more ink than they deserve. Yet, to ignore it and pretend it didn’t happen, to turn away, is morally irresponsible.

Last month it was Ahmadinejad at Columbia. This month’s Coulterclash was between famed ad man and CNBC’s host of The Big Idea, Donny Deutsch and blonde Aryan fire-starter Ann Coulter. What it hopefully revealed once and for all (though I doubt it), is the deeply disturbing vitriol at the heart of the vapid harpy and bloviating bombshell. If you didn’t catch it, it went like this.

DEUTSCH: You said -- your exact words were, "Jews need to be perfected." Those are the words out of your mouth.
COULTER: No, I'm saying that's what a Christian is.
DEUTSCH: But that's what you said -- don't you see how hateful, how anti-Semitic --
DEUTSCH: How do you not see? You're an educated woman. How do you not see that?
COULTER: That isn't hateful at all.
DEUTSCH: But that's even a scarier thought

There was a time when such comments would brand one a pariah and an outcast.
Remember Jimmy The Greek? No? Well, that’s because he was tossed out of the NFL ring of gab due to a comment he made back in 1988 (that and he’s been dead for ten years) about the superiority of African-American football players and how they were bred to produce strong offspring dating back to the Civil War. It’s a wonder Coulter isn’t treated the same.

Here’s what’s different. While Coulter is a joke, her ability to draw controversy for statements like the one on Deutsch’s show lands her more ink and ratings so that she becomes like one of those unstoppable monsters from a horror movie, she feeds off of the ammo aimed her way. She’s mastered the media’s own obsession with scream-fests hosted by loudmouths posing as talkshow hosts.

Brazenly, she manipulates this very boomerang effect by knowing the media will echo her words and image, hence giving her even more airtime. While playing into her trap is not the answer, to let her go unscathed is also not only completely unsatisfying, but it sends a signal that her style is acceptable.

I’m reminded of the Army-McCarthy Hearings when the army’s attorney, Joseph Welch says to the Senator, “You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

Ironically, Coulter authored a book praising McCarthy, actually trying to exhume his rep called “Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terror.” In it she argues that the U.S. Senator was unfairly portrayed by the media and is the deceased person she admires the most. That right there should have given everyone a reason to disown her. But she’s still alive. She keeps on returning!

Finding the right antidote is usually contained within the virus. So take a page out of history and apply it to her.

One of her own, a leading, well respected conservative should have the decency to confront her. No one doubted Welch’s credentials.

Likewise, when Patrick Buchanan uttered extremist Anti-Semitic rhetoric some years back, it was George Will who concluded that Buchanan exhibits a “fascist sensibility”.

Where is the courage in the Conservative press and in the Republican Party?

When McCarthy tried to continue his attack, Welch cut him off and demanded the chairman “call the next witness.” At that point, the gallery erupted in applause.

Likewise, Coulter needs to be laughed at, shamed off the airwaves.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Lady Madonna

The last time the Madonna was spotted in Jerusalem, time split with a line marking "Before" and "After." Now, splicing Hollywood and the Holy Land together last week, the modern mega pop icon was celebrating Rosh Hashanah with Israeli President Shimon Peres and declaring herself an "ambassador for Judaism."

OK, so this Madonna, unlike the other, is not Jewish. But she is real big on kabbalah, an esoteric corner of learning that like, a slice of Levi’s bread, is wide enough that you shouldn’t have to be Jewish to like it.

But because she’s not stamped kosher, she’s gotten a lot of flack for dipping into a plate of Jewish mysticism that for some is sacred and not just another New Age fad. In fact, rabbis have criticized both her and other celebs’ fascination with the subject, claiming only bona fide students can understand the mysteries. Pouring milk on their meat, she got them kvetching with her song, "Isaac," which they claim is about the 16th-century kabbalist Yitzhak Luria and which she says isn’t.

Say what you will, Madonna has got chutzpah and unlike her younger protégé, Britney, who can’t gain any respect these days, Madonna has remained a lasting figure. While consistently ticking off the religious community, from the time she set foot on the world’s stage, through "Like a Virgin" to recently presenting herself on the cross in concert, she has always danced at the edge of the borderline.

She’s stumbled without totally wiping out, consistently remaining in control of her brand, even while re- inventing it. Her dare has always been part of her act. That thin borderline today is known as the TMZ line and while strutting on it, she’s paradoxically created for herself an iconic status that aspires toward the spiritual.

TMZ, a popular Web site and now nationally syndicated half-hour show on Fox, puts the "oi" in tabloid. It’s the site that publicized Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic tirade, Michael Richards’ onstage meltdown and an up-to-the-minute skinny on a chubby O.J. While more and more celebrities get engulfed in it and drown in the swamp of Hollywood, she’s a survivor.

That show’s host happens to be a Jewish boy, Harvey Levin, who covers the strange fascination we have with fantasyland. On the site he writes, "I know a lot about Hollywood, in no small part because I’ve lived here almost my whole life and I’m pretty much older than dirt." Interesting description, since he peddles it, too. Meanwhile, in the past decade overall production has increased to mud slide levels.

Since the Juice in the Bronco, how far off has mainstream news been from the same feeding trough? O.J. was when it all shifted and the polluted tributary became the contaminated river. You don’t have to read the tabloids to know Rosie’s wacko, Eminem’s a misogynist and Mel’s a psycho. Their stains are all part of the same washload now. Madonna just lifted the underwear out, wore them as outerwear, pranced on the catwalk and made them hip.

Along the way, she’s rocked the books. "The Guinness Book of Records" lists her as the most successful female recording artist ever; she holds the record for the top-grossing concert tour by a female artist and has an estimated net worth of $325 million.

Fame can be nasty, brutish and short. Like our people, she has lasted. And like us, with more branches than a burning bush, stretching in various directions all pointed up, she digs our eretz, recently claiming, "I wouldn’t say studying kabbalah for eight years goes under the category or falls under the category of being a fad or a trend."

While the material girl from Michigan has her feet planted in the mud, she’s also always reached for the stars.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Jewish Flare of New TV Shows

The new fall television season is filled with mysticism, from stories about angels and the power to bring back the dead with the touch of a hand to a time-traveling hero.

I first read about the upcoming season — which starts the week of Sept. 24 — back in May during what’s called "the upfronts," when networks unveil to advertisers their fall lineup. Picking up The New York Times’ advertising column, Stuart Elliott’s headline, I read "In a Time of High Anxiety, A Sedative of the Occult," and I wondered, "Is there something Jewish behind an upcoming season with such a banner?"

By extending my antennae a bit and reaching out, I picked up the signal from last year’s hit show "Heroes" about a group of people who "thought they were like everyone else ... until they realized they have incredible abilities," such as telepathy, time travel, flight and instantaneous regeneration.

It was then I realized that if Jews were responsible for the heyday of comic book superheroes, such as Superman and Captain America, was this latest crop of prime-time players an outgrowth of that same "hero" worship, and if so, then perhaps there is something Jewish rooted underneath this new season?

While television has long been a medium for science fiction, the genre has come in waves, and we are clearly heading to a different, more supernatural world.

Part of what’s allowing us to get there is technology. Long gone are the days when we were given a choice between "The Munsters" or "The Addams Family" on only three networks. From TiVo to On Demand, television has come light years. Add those forces to cable and satellite and the choices are, well, astronomical.

Out Of The Ordinary

It was cable TV that came out of the gate early this summer. While the networks were gearing up for the fall, it launched a number of new shows. One of them was "Saving Grace."

While the term grace is usually thought of in a Christian context, the word is actually derived from the Hebrew Bible as chesed. Though "Saving Chesed" doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, according to the show’s creator, "Saving Grace" is a show about a woman who talks to an angel.

Creator Nancy Miller explains that the angel, Earl, is non-denominational. "He speaks to Grace in the language she grew up in. Grace came from a Catholic family, so he speaks in the language that she would understand," Ms. Miller said. "As we go on, you’re going to find out that Earl is a last chance angel to a Jewish guy, and speaks from that culture to him. Later on, you’re going to find out that Earl is a last chance angel to someone who is Muslim. So he speaks that language to him."

In addition to the cable stations, the networks also are channeling the spiritual and confronting the eschatological.

On Monday nights, NBC will air a show called "Journeyman" about a San Francisco newspaper reporter who travels through time and gets reunited with his long-lost fiancé who died in a mysterious plane crash. Interestingly, in Zoharic and Lurianic Kabbalah, communing with the dead is an act called yichud, and is a ritual that Rabbi Isaac Luria, one of the most influential men in the history of Jewish mysticism who lived during the 16th century, often performed at the grave.

Also, on ABC this fall will be "Pushing Daisies," a show about Ned, a pie maker with a mysterious ability to make the dead live again. The gift is not without its complications, however; if he touches this being a second time, they’ll be dead permanently. If they live for more than 60 seconds, somebody else nearby will die.

While that may sound like a weirdly morbid game show, Ned actually resembles a shaman, again a concept not without Jewish roots. If it seems like a lot of hocus-pocus, according to Rabbi Gershon Winkler, author of several books on the subject of Jewish mysticism, "Shamanism and sorcery are not antithetical to the Hebrew Scriptures."

In his book "Magic of the Ordinary," Rabbi Winkler writes, "The notion of Jewish shamanism may seem like an oxymoron to a lot of people, but it happens to be an integral part of the Jewish tradition that has been suppressed for centuries."

While this may seem foreign to Jews of the 21st century, the reason is that it was associated with devils and demons and suppressed by the Catholic Church.

"Christians considered the Jew as the magician par excellence, a reputation that ultimately turned against them since, as practitioners of the occult, they were regarded by the church as demonic," according to Rabbi Winkler.

In another of his books, "Dybbuk: A Glimpse of the Supernatural in Jewish Tradition," he speaks to the issue of why now we see this trend toward the occult and a resurgence of interest in the supernatural. According to Rabbi Winkler, "A major factor behind modern man’s renewed flirtation with the occult is his quest for meaning in life."

He says: "Trapped, the human creature opts for the achievement of powers outside the realm of the natural world."

TV As Bible

In light of the events of the past six years, as 9/11 poked a hole between East and West, media analysts and television critics have noted the shifts in the wider cultural landscape and have remarked on its reflection through the medium of television.

David Zurawik, author of "The Jews of Prime Time" and television critic at The Sun, says, "The reason it’s happening now is the post-9/11 jitters. There’s this sense that in America we don’t know what’s going on. I think there’s a tremendous uncertainty in this country, a tremendous underlying anxiety. There hasn’t been this kind of anxiety since the Great Depression and World War II."

Interestingly, it was during that very time when the fantastic era of comic books was first created, and the comic book hero was born. I brought up the issue that was still unresolved for me with Mr. Zurawik, though, that 9/11 was six years ago. Why was this new metaphysical phenomenon taking shape on fall TV in 2007?

I then shared with him a book that describes the era we are living in, while depicting the period during the birth of the comic book. About halfway into Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," there’s a passage where things change. Mr. Chabon has one of the main characters, Joe, and the creator of "The Escapist" transform, from fighting the forces of the Iron Chain, in battles that were increasingly grotesque and ornate "grinding Adolf Hitler’s empire into paste," to creating a creature of the Other World.

Mr. Chabon has Joe create Luna Moth, "a creature of the night and of mystic regions where evil worked by means of spells and curses instead of bullets, torpedoes, or shells. Luna fought in the wonderworld against specters and demons."

I wondered aloud, "So as we’ve gone from television shows like ‘24’ and ‘Rescue Me’ to this new season filled with fantasy, are we seeing a similar kind of transformation take place, a tipping point — a metamorphosis?"

I ran this notion and the passage from Mr. Chabon’s book by Mr. Zurawik, and he agreed, summing up the point simply, "For a while, Osama bin Laden was real. Now, he’s a phantom we can’t catch."

That seemed to explain so much. He then added, picking up on the hero idea again, "There’s something otherworldly we have to try to attach ourselves to, for strength or purpose or for a reason to go on, so as not to be defeated."

He likened our time to the Cold War of the ‘50s, a time like today when we lived with anxiety and a threat that wasn’t fully manifested. The show that summed up the era for Mr. Zurawik was none other than "Superman," and the other was "The Lone Ranger," a variation on a theme but with a different genre — the Western. "Together," he said, "they combined the two great frontiers — the Space Age and the frontier."

A former colleague of Mr. Zurawik, Diane Winston, who is now a Knight chair in media and religion at the University of Southern California, lent an additional perspective.

"The popularity of Westerns in [the 1950s] spoke to the Cold War mentality of good guys/bad guys, and the Americans as heroes who were strong and tough and macho in a cowboy way," she said. "We had a more conventional view of religion than today, when we’re much more interested in spirituality."

I asked her about shows like "Heroes" that tap into that sense of both the hero and the otherworldly and have led to this new slew of fall shows that portray humans with extraordinary powers.

"Everyday, people find a new reason to be overwhelmed," Ms. Winston said, "whether it’s the bridge collapsing or talk about earthquakes in California. We live in what feels to be uncertain times, all with the backdrop of 9/11. These things give us a sense of our own mortality and vulnerability.

"When we look to be entertained, we want to be soothed and calmed, we want to see things that make us feel as if people can triumph over death. All these supernatural shows feature heroes who can control what’s going on. They speak to our deepest needs and fears."

I asked Ms. Winston if she sees these stories having deeper roots, mythical ones that go back to the Bible. Her immediate reply was, "I think television is the contemporary equivalent of the Bible. Not that television supersedes the Bible, but at a time when biblical language sounds foreign to us, we find similar stories of heroism, suffering, sacrifice on television, and they are like biblical morality stories."

Indeed, finding pop culture’s pulse in the Bible is, and has been, more prevalent than a lot of us think. For example, you may not think a show about a vampire has much to do with Judaism. But it does on a few levels.

CBS’s "Moonlight" will be about a city-dwelling vampire who attempts to resist his urge to kill and drink the blood of humans, but instead decides to help them. As it turns out, the earliest reference to a vampire is in the Bible. And, of course, one who tries to help people is practicing tikkun olam, repairing the world.

Helping to tie the thread together in these particular shows was something interesting that Rabbi Winkler told me. "There are many stories about the living dead in the Zohar," he said. "As for chesed, it is the ancient act of taking care of the dead. You’re not going to get a ‘thank-you’ from the dead. It’s altruistic, unconditional love."

Why all the interest now with such notions? "The obsession with the occult is a response trying to understand the great mystery of suffering of the innocent," he replied. " ... In our own time, every human being is thirsting for something beyond what is tangible, because everything is becoming too tangible, too instant, too accessible, and the soul is searching for mystery."

Scanning over the television landscape this fall, what’s coming in clearly and noticeably is we are tuning in a new frequency. It’s a channel that’s projecting our collective psyche with shows that are far from reality TV, but instead cable and the networks have aimed their satellite dishes toward a higher orbit, one that’s closer to God, steeped in spirituality and, in many ways, grounded in Judaism.

Abe Novick is a frequent contributor to the Baltimore Jewish Times.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Rescue Me

While Rudy Giuliani’s image as hero of Gotham gets snuffed by the International Association of Fire Fighters with Democrats all too happy to help douse his flame, the FX’s “Rescue Me” about life in a New York firehouse after 9/11 also has viewers evacuating.

The TV show, now in its fourth season has suffered a Nielson meltdown with Ad Age’s Brian Steinberg saying it’s in need of triage.

That both stories converge now is telling on a few levels.

Rudy’s remark, “I was exposed to exactly the same things they were exposed to. So in that sense, I’m one of them.” may have singed him, but it wasn’t fatal. Rather, the back draft from it is just part of the now standard media cycle.

Gaffes get gobbled down so fast and digested into the meat grinder of news they pass through like bland chopped liver. They’re fuel for a few runs around the news track, and then become heartburn. First the faux pas. Then the daily feeding frenzy. Then the endless spin cycle. All are typical of our magnified media endoscope. In time, it will be one more stone that future historians will have to turn over and piece together never able to find the original cause.

Rudy’s bigger misstep is linking himself to W and trying to take ownership of an event that for each of us holds a sacred place. Just as no one individual can own The Holocaust because it is larger than any one person, to brand oneself as the savior of 9/11 is a shaky scaffold to support.

W’s leaned on it so heavily over the past six years that it’s bowing. Using it as a hook to hang your Uncle Sam hat on is, well, old.

As a culture, while we feel an emotional bond with that day, we also feel it was leveraged against us and our sympathy used for a war we’re sick and tired of watching.

It’s the reason shows like “Rescue Me” are flaming out. Rescue me from “Rescue Me”.

It’s the sheer exhaustion with the constant state of alarm we’re in without finding the match that started the whole thing. It feels like we’ve been blown plenty of smoke. But where’s the spark that started it all?
Where is bin Laden? He’s a ghost. An apparition.

Similarly, the TV shows that were so rooted in the ground of 9/11 have evaporated. Gone are shows like “The Nine” and “Vanished” which tapped into a realistic sense of danger.

Replacing them are fantasies based on the metaphysical that picked up from the phenomenon of “Heroes.” I’ll have more to say about them once they start to air, but look for shows this fall like ''Pushing Daisies'' a forensic fairy tale that focuses on Ned, a piemaker with a mysterious ability to make the dead live again and “Journeyman” about a time traveler.

Last year’s hit show “Heroes” depicts various people around the world who discover they possess real superpowers from instantly healing physical injuries to manipulating time in order to travel through it.

But all these shows reflect more than just the state of anxiety that pervades a post 9/11world. They are a backlash against the very shows that picked up on that tension.

The ratings war is picking off the shows that were the first responders to the cultural chasm.

In the arrangement of Aristotle’s treatises, his Metaphysics follow his Physics and are so called as they literally follow, though some have interpreted that to mean they go beyond.

Likewise, if television is any indication of the times, with a season of shows that tap into the metaphysical, perhaps it’s also time pols do the same and move beyond the ground war and continuously trying to lay claim to lower Manhattan.

While we remember the past, the country is tuned into a different frequency, one on a higher, more spiritual level.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Comic Relief

Captain America is dead and now buried. He was killed earlier this year by a sniper’s bullet on the courthouse steps in New York. He died just as he lived, a hero, when he stepped in front of a bullet that was aimed at him but was going to hit a police officer. He’s now supposedly laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. Or is he?

That Cap has occupied space in our collective pop-culture consciousness for some seventy years is a tribute to humanity’s spiritual quest for something greater than ourselves. Just as Greek gods and biblical heroes were vital to their epoch, Cap and assorted comic book stars have woven into our lives, enveloping us like a super suit.

First created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in December 1940, Cap’s what Gerard Jones in his book, Men of Tomorrow called, “the passion of the immigrant, of the Jew”. Both Simon and Kirby are of course Jewish (Kirby was born Jacob Kurtzberg in 1917, the same year Steve Rogers AKA Captain America was born). In the first issue, even before the U.S. was attacked at Pearl Harbor, they had Captain America punch Hitler in the jaw. Way to go boys!

That he’s dead now serves as a metaphor. At a time when civil liberties are curtailed and one’s identity is being monitored by the government, never mind an unpopular war in Iraq, his current animators aptly iced him. But as Joe Simon, said in reaction to the news, “It's a hell of a time for him to go. We really need him now.” Doing a little research I learned that he’s actually been reported deceased some dozen times and will probably resurrect again.

In the meantime, all is not lost. Just last night (Thursday) a super mensch made his debut on the Sci Fi Channel. His name is Mr. Mitzvah aka (Ivan Wilzig) and like Cap, uses a shield, but in the form of a Star of David, as he’s described as a direct descendant of the biblical King. His super powers include flight, night vision and super-strength while his vulnerability is Non-kosher foods.

The show is called “Who Wants To Be a Superhero” and is co-produced and hosted by legendary comic creator Stan Lee and picks up on the reality TV trend by with an hour-long weekly competition series.

If all sounds a bit silly and a little too fantastic, it’s nothing new. After all, it’s a story that’s been told, re-told and remolded out of Golem-like clay going back thousands of years to the prophetic, Messianic age.

From Bar Kokhba (not an east village pub, though that’s a great name for one), the leader of a revolt against the Roman Empire in 132 CE to Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson who died in 1994 and who still has followers who believe he will be the messiah and reveal himself, Jews have been in search of heroes for, well…ever. We’ve found ways to either fictitiously create them or truly actualize them by anointing them with god-like powers.

I suppose one reason we do it, is that we find we are constantly in peril. We’ve been able to disguise ourselves blending into every culture on the face of the earth and have assimilated more times and into more cultures than Clark Kent has business suits. Eventually too, we have to reveal who we are. And if for some reason, like supers we have to keep our identity hidden, then our true identities must find a way out in storied manifestations and through actions.

While Captain America might be gone for now, the need for someone to come along and punch out the next Hitler won’t disappear. Last night’s Sci Fi renderings were only the latest in a long line of wishful projections onto an imaginary screen––a screen that we’ve used to both hide behind as well as reveal our true selves.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Color My World

We live in a consumer culture whose appetite thrives on brands for survival. And if you’ve got a cause, it needs to find its way into the brand stream of our collective conscience. It needs marketing.

These days everything is a brand, from people and places to politicians and products. Causes are no different.

From the moment we awake and turn off our buzzing Sony clocks, to brushing our teeth with Crest to pouring the Kellogg’s…well, you get the picture. Consumers come across over 3000 brand messages a day.

Finding a way above the pack has always been a challenge, but in a glutted world of media overload, how does a brand rise above? One way is to attach itself to a cause that is higher.

If it sounds crass, have a look at the most recent edition of Vanity Fair, now on newsstands. It’s the Africa issue, edited by Bono. Bono’s cause has been third world debt with a focus on Africa. Pictured on the current cover lying in front of me is Alicia Keys whispering in the ear of the supermodel, Iman. It will be one of twenty covers by famed photographer Annie Leibovitz. Photos will also include some of the most famous celebs (brands) around. Like Bono and Iman they’re so famous, they need only one name (Oprah will soon be another.)

To read Bono’s Guest Editor’s Letter is like being punched in the gut in terms of the dire situation that exists (10 million children’s lives will be lost next year to extreme poverty, half in Africa due to HIV/AIDS.) What he’s done, is link that crisis to a brand simply called Red. Red is the color of emergencies. Tied to his cause however, are marketing’s All Stars at their best including corporate partners Amex, Apple, Armani and more. Red lifts their brand and the profits they make leveraging it, goes to fight the world’s ills. Win/Win.

On the other side of the color spectrum of red, every other brand is green. With global warming rising like the tides onto the mainstream surface, due in part to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, so called green marketing is all the rage.

I don’t have to tell you about the plethora of colors adorning wristbands.

For Jewish philanthropic organizations, gaining an understanding of the power behind branding and linking their message with the sway of the other kinda green is key if they are to maneuver their message to the forefront.

Perhaps, had this kind of thing been around in the 1930s and 40s who knows what might have been.

Ironically, advertising as an industry grew out of that era. Today it’s so enmeshed into pop culture that corporate iconography is worn like a badge of honor.

Are there dangers in lending an institution’s prophetic message to the world of profit? You bet. A thin line exists. Carefully managing it is key.

Read Tova Reich’s My Holocaust for a satirical send up of how the philanthropic Holocaust industry “Make Your Cause a Holocaust” gets diluted and exploited and goes haywire from over exposure.

But while most advertising is derivative, taking its cues from pop culture and using them to sell stuff, in a world where advertising needs to be entertainment and important information needs advertising, the lines flow both ways.

Advertising, while a flimsy medium on its own, actually benefits by the weight of the world’s problems but has the pockets sewn in to help sustain it.

Brands, while possessing an ephemeral essence were at one point only figments of some creative director’s imagination. Now however, they live in the same world that we do and they’re here to stay. They’re as tactile as the Apple I’m pounding this out on.

Finding the right way to use them, for the benefit of humankind, is a notion that can go right to the heart of Judaism’s central belief in Tikkun olam. Again, like a brand, a metaphysical notion but grounded in the real world.

Saturday, May 26, 2007


Glad we Jews don’t dwell in Alaska. I for one have too much chicken fat clogging my hardened arteries from generations of Litvaks who gorged on the Jewish ambrosia preventing the warm flow of blood from my heart down to my toes.

But what if, instead of singing Ha Tikva, we were chanting Ha Sitka? In his new alternate reality novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon charts Alaska as the homeland for the Jews (“Sitka”) instead of Israel and the Chosen have chosen Yiddish as their vernacular.

Rather than winning the 1948 Arab-Israel war, we lost and are given a section of the 49th state. In a revamping of history, after 60 years up there, we now have to give it back in what’s termed a Reversion.

While the real artic is melting, imagining Israel’s defeat sent chills down my spine in the southerly direction of my cold feet. Call me a Zionist, but I’m really just a desert loving, warm and sandy, beach bum with a built in thermostat for Mediterranean temps over the cold Kodiak. (I could never bear watching Northern Exposure even though I liked Rob Morrow’s quirky, comedic style.)

Basking in the late heat of spring, I was cracking the new book open when, around the same time I came across a news item on the JTA (Jewish Telegraph Agency) which equally got my heart beating, eliciting a reverb on my dangling Mogen David. The headline read, “Jews question flying Israeli flag” which details how a number of Jewish organizations, student groups and synagogues are questioning how appropriate it is to display the kahol and lavan.

According to Benj Kamm, a former Hillel Student President at Brown who got quoted in the wire story, “Most people, but not all agreed that the flag was an Israeli nationalist symbol, although people disagreed about to what extent we as a Jewish community were obligated to support Israel, and in what ways.”

Ostensibly, there’s a debate over whether it’s too potent and nationalistic a symbol in its appearance. Does it convey the same emblematic message it once did or are the six points a flashpoint and lightning rod for a hotly divisive issue even among Jews?

Having been a part of similar discussions, I was aware of the banter when it comes to banners. I’m one who favors the presence of the Israeli flag on the bimah. I grew up with it. Literally, looked up to it and cannot imagine what, in a Chabonian world, the Alaskan flag with its eight gold stars and North Star would be like to gaze on.

It’s that “what if” scenario and that altered state which his novel shakes up and dislodges, creating an avalanche of emotions that makes for a heated debate. By crossing the border of reality, I was made to think of what it would be like if there were no Israeli flag to discuss. What if there weren’t one to get wrapped up in and wrangle over? Maybe then, its absence would make our hearts look yonder?

The repeated refrain in the book reads, “These are strange times to be a Jew”; a universal statement transcending time that could be uttered now or at any point in our history. But as a Jew today and with a sense of Eretz Yisrael, such a tectonic shift forced me to reach out and grab hold of something to ground me. Absence of a flag and pole to base me, I’m off kilter. It’s world shattering to my sense of earthly balance.

Yiddish was the language of the Diaspora, a non-territorial lingo with a romantic lilt woven into it. Having practically vanished, it’s finding a revival stitching together diverse textures of Jewish culture throughout the globe. It’s something that, in its absence, paradoxically makes us long for it more.

For those who wish to remove the Israeli flag, perhaps truly imagining no flag is a terrain worth envisioning.

Saturday, April 28, 2007


Recently I flew with my son to grandma’s house. Upon boarding the plane, once the doors were sealed like a tomb and my son was settled in next to me, I noticed Southwest’s magazine Spirit poking out of the seat pocket in front and on the cover was an article that got me thinking.

If the world is flat, are we about to fall off the edge into an unknown universe? The article was about Second Life.

While it’s debatable if Jewish souls live forever in an Olam Ha-Ba (the World to Come), Jews have clearly found a Second Life.

If you’ve haven’t been transported yet, Second Life (SL) is a virtual world which exists on the Internet and according to its website has over 5 million “residents”. Some accounts report that number to be greatly exaggerated as several residents might belong to one person. In the world of second life, residents are avatars or animated characters that embody characteristics of your own choosing.

As God made man in his own image, so man plays God recreating another version (usually more buff than real life or RL.)

Second Life has a synagogue, a yeshiva as well as a Holocaust museum. It also just published its own Jewish Magazine 2Life. Separately, I looked over the first issue which seeks to cover “the multiple Jewish aspects and developments on this virtual platform with news, background reporting and features on a monthly basis.”

I’d previously read some articles about Second Life and even poked around a bit, but flying over the real world and above the clouds at night watching the sunset next to your child is a RL experience that’s hard, if not impossible, to replicate. Okay, avid users would disagree and would remind me that in SL, you don’t even need a plane to fly. The main mode of transportation is teleporting where your avatar can float above like in a Chagall painting.

Staring out the airplane’s window in RL gazing at the lighted cities also got me thinking about the dangers this world offers. It made me wonder if Second Life is a kind of fallout shelter for our society at a time when we’re in need of a place to hide.

It’s no such thing. Second Life is created by humans and retains the same good, bad and ugly aspects.

For example, Reuters, which has a news center in SL (no kidding), reports that weaponry is a booming business. There have also been reports of terrorism and Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front, which established a virtual HQ, has rioted with Leftist organizations.

While nobody really gets physically hurt, you can lose money and lots of it. SL includes a virtual exchange center, where real dough can be converted into Linden dollars for use on the site and as of this writing $1,744,027 has been spent.

It’s fascinating to observe and wonder why we go to such lengths to dream up such fantastic worlds.

Judaism’s guiding principles are to value this life, as both The Torah and Talmud focus on the purpose of earthly life. SL seems to be an attempt to find the spiritual world. The schism between RL and shadows on the wall is as old as Plato and Aristotle and in fact Tehiyat Hameitim means the Resurrection of the Dead and is a concept that entered Judaism under a Hellenistic influence long after the Torah was completed.

Second Life is no afterlife, but perhaps it’s our all to human attempt at it.

Returning to the place of my birth with my son was a kind of spiritual journey. Not long into the flight home, he took out his Superman book where we played and read all about that other strange visitor from another planet.

That’s when I figured, if a nice Jewish boy from Krypton can find and make a second life here on earth, so can we.

Saturday, March 17, 2007


Some movies stick with you for days, weeks and sometimes, a lot longer. They can occupy a space in your mind that provokes a sudden chuckle while driving alone in the car. Other times, they reinforce the creepy realization that the world is filled with despicable souls, buttressing the presence of evil in the world.

Lost in the Cineplex this past week, I was caught in evil’s grip. I took in the epic Battle of Thermopylae, between East and West in 300 and the trail of a serial killer in Zodiac.

Both films were based on historical facts. Both are stories that resonate today.

One was a large-scale projection of a gruesome war and a film adaptation of a graphic novel shot against a Bluescreen to duplicate the imagery and style of the original book.

The other, a tighter, more focused lens on the evil of one depraved man, a demon who embodied a killer.

One was the socio-political battle between good and evil on a grand scale. The other, a psychologically twisted mystery, almost unbearable to watch, because it was so real in its depiction.

Both, while just movies, smacked of today’s headlines bringing them that much closer to home (literally, on my driveway.)

At the bus stop where I drop my son off and as I waited on the corner with all the children, I started to describe to a neighborhood mom the effect Zodiac had on me. In one particular scene, the murderer endangers a child. Her reply was, “I can’t watch those kinds of things.” I understood. In the theatre, there were times I had to turn away and not look.

But when I came back home and picked up The Baltimore Sun, my eyes were met with a monster’s and a headline that read, “Killer casts a shadow of violence.” According to The Sun, Lawrence Banks was convicted of shooting to death a friend in Pasadena and then his own son in Baltimore on the same day in 1991. He killed his son because the son and a daughter claimed that Banks had abused them, the daughter sexually and both of them physically.

In 1976, he had been sentenced to 15 years for throwing that daughter, then a 7-month-old, through a glass door during an argument with his wife. Just before Banks went to trial in that case, his wife was found dead in an East Baltimore apartment. Her body was so decomposed that the medical examiner could not determine a cause of death.

Reading this news I was stunned at the malevolence. I had to read it again; to be sure I was soaking it in. Moments earlier, describing what I thought was distant celluloid and so easy to dismiss, seeped back into my doorway.

That was the front page. On the one where movies are listed, I found that
300 has angered Iranians who say the action flick insults their ancient culture and provokes animosity against Iran. Remembering what happened a few years ago, after Danish cartoons set off riots throughout the Muslim world, I wondered, given the tension today, how “epic” things could get.

Our world is like one of those overhead projectors we had in high school. We read the news and think reality couldn’t get any worse. Then we layer on top it another sheet of cellophane causing us to see that same image, in a completely different, often more distorted, way.

Earlier this month, the French critic and theorist, Jean Baudrillard died. He theorized a world of hyperreality. Wikipedia defines hyperreality as a world of simulation where illusion is what is real and where a consciousness loses its ability to distinguish reality from fantasy.

Spliced between headlines and movielines, where global conflicts and metro crime are across the aisle, one can’t escape the intersection these parallel worlds pull us down into.

The reel is real and the real is reel.

Saturday, February 24, 2007


Combining the hoopla of Anna Nicole with the seriousness of Iran, I came up with ––Iranna.

Like one of Anna Nicole’s spaghetti straps hanging on for dear life, support for Bush’s war is being stretched to its limit. America is ready to snap.

The heavy weight of what was an inflated false reality possessing a serious lack of intelligence, has become a pathetic attempt at propping up a vapid, apparitional illusion.

Observing the deceased starlet pose and preen for the cameras, knowing there was nothing in the way of integrity behind her empty veneer, only brought to light how the war, like she, was manufactured synthetically.

Underneath this garment of death that’s Iraq, has been a tabloid media unwilling or unable to stop itself on the catwalk to perdition.

This was made evident last week on PBS when Frontline’s News War: Secrets, Sources & Spin reported how the press created an echo chamber for an administration intent on war. Courageously, Frontline also collapsed the image of the gallant reporter from revealer of truth to lapdog.

In an online discussion after the program and sponsored by the Washington Post with Producer Raney Aronson, one viewer wrote, “Bob Woodward -- perhaps the most eminent American journalist – was shown in the program last night saying “there was a zero percent chance that there are no WMDs in Iraq.” The MSM (main stream media) journalists like Woodward were so taken in by the Administration that they lost their independence and judgment – perhaps forever.”

That’s a serious disintegration of trust. Yet that response wasn’t the only one expressing such a concern and with a majority of Americans disapproving of the way George W. Bush is handling the situation with Iraq, the feeling of being duped and mislead by our government is only part of the story. By threading the false line from Al-Qaeda to WMD in the drumbeat of war, the media became the enabler to the fabrication.

Of more serious concern today is how that same media loop, that swirls celebrities like Anna Nicole at us on an endless cycle, is caught pumping out more of the same lines when it comes to Iran.

The run-up to Iraq is back. After reacting to the boy who cried Wolfowitz, a skeptical country––one marred by four years of war, over 3,100 dead soldiers and a burned media––is suspiciously turning its camera gaze on Iran.

Rewinding the tape back, Iraq certainly seemed for many of us an ominous threat. We were still in a daze after being hit, followed by the jingoistic jolt of war’s intoxicating lure.

But now, with the clearer distance of time and analysis to tame us, wrestling with Iran in light of Iraq, has become a far more cautious exercise and one we’re unwilling to race toward even with the gun ready to go off.

Ever so soberly, walking a dangerous line we ask, “What if Ahmadinejad is the real wolf––his casual look only a sheep’s disguise? What if his promises of wiping Israel off the map are not false threats but replicas of Hitler sketches?”

We’ve sewn ourselves into a tough spot.

American’s are in no shape, nor do they have the stomach for a war with Iran. Hawking a sequel, when most of us want to return the original version, we’re caught, frozen in frame.

Cosmetic surgery, like a quickie air-war to take out the nukes may sound revitalizing, like a weekend at Canyon Ranch, but is it really the way to deal with the fundamental problem? (Temporary fix. What’ll it look like after?)

Long-term, like any celeb entering detox, we need to wean ourselves off the oil drug and whip ourselves into ecological shape by getting rid of the flabby dirty pollutants rife in our system.

Anna Nicole was clearly the embodiment of something unreal and phony, yet we couldn’t seem to get enough of her. (No wonder Jewish mothers warned us of latching onto big blonde shiksas!)

Her recurring phantom specter the last two weeks, left me wondering how we ever became wedded to this war through an overblown and puffed up media and why, another romp with the wrong bombshell, should be avoided at all costs.

Monday, February 5, 2007

just getting started

more to come...hang in there.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

First blog

Hey Kam,

it's ready to go!