Thursday, December 24, 2009


Unimpressed with celebrigods

Dec. 19, 2009

In January, of 2009, and with the aid of in vitro fertilization, "Octomom," a.k.a Nadya Suleman, gained international attention when she gave birth to octuplets. Aided by science, she became an overnight celebrity and a worldwide sensation. Like a global traffic accident, we all slowed down to view this quasi-virgin birth.

Now as the year closes, Tiger Woods, a superstar and truly amazing sports celebrity, literally and figuratively crashed, while dragging with him his own brand and doing insurmountable damage to a number of orbital ones (Nike, Gillette, Accenture) that revolved around his persona.

It was also the year when names of politicians who claimed the moral high-ground, John Edwards and Mark Sanford, fell down from their perch.

Like Octomom, ordinary people who desired celebrity crashed through the gates of the White House, while others unhinged themselves from grounded reality (see balloon boy's dad) as they sought and entered the eternal world of fame.

LOCATED BETWEEN these two strata of manufactured earth and heaven, exists another dimension, a mythical creation generated by a mediasphere, where they'll live on in cyberspace for eternity, locked by their 15 minutes, to wander in a modern day Gehenna.

This clash of titanic proportions is a direct descendent of ancient mythology.

Today's celebrity gods, who live on a Mount Olympus in media, have a lineage that extends as far back as Zeus, who would spy a fair mortal, swoop down and have his way with her.

Tiger's trysts with mere earthly courtesans will be told and retold for as long as those ancient Homeric legends. Only now and forever they live in captured digitized bytes.

Like the Greek gods, that represented sea, war, harvest, what have you, Tiger has been heroically aligned as the embodiment of the particular products he sponsors.

Seen through the Wayback machine, the ancient struggle between hucksters of myth and those who want to be left in peace on earth is the story of Hanukka.

It is the story of a collision between Hellenism (a statue of Zeus was erected by the Syrian Greeks in the Temple) and its many gods, and the one singular Judaic God. And for a shining moment, the Jews, led by Judah Maccabee, were victorious in their resistance.

In the centuries to come, while gods and idols would continue to be worshiped, Judaism and its offshoot Christianity would disperse throughout the world, ultimately redefining the notion of God.

But as those two paths of Judaism and Christianity diverged, you won't find an individual who possesses the attribute of being both a mortal and a god in Judaism. Yet Hanukka's calendrical cousin does have God and a mortal comingling.

When John Lennon, who died 29 years ago this past month, claimed The Beatles were bigger than Jesus, the leader of the greatest celebrity band of the 1960s was knockin' a little too hard on heaven's door.

The very concept of Jesus is that he was a man and a god. Born from a virgin mother, his father was God.

Since then, no other man, god or celebrity has had the lasting influence, the durable brand recognition, symbolically represented by the cross than that of Jesus. That '70s show wasn't called Jesus Christ Superstar for nothing.

Jews who don't buy into this idea are consistent with their forbears who rejected the notion of God taking human form as described by the Greeks and later the Romans (the same guys who ultimately crucified Jesus.)

So as we sit here during the Christmas season, surrounded with unavoidable Christmas kitsch looking back on the past year, now an unwrapped present with its content strewn out, we can take pride in our culture's long battle with advertised idols, its own consistent core brand belief and its adherence to something higher.

At the same time, we need a sober reality check, because in 2010, the stories, the legends, the myths, like the show, will go on.

Saturday, November 28, 2009


Between reading about the media’s apocalyptic, tide-altering times with “The Chaos Scenario - Amid the Ruins of Mass Media, The Choice for Business is Stark: Listen or Perish” and “Googled: The End of the World as We Know It”, I needed a safe harbor and shelter from the harsh bookish storm.

I found the brackish eddy alongside our port while on a school visit to the Baltimore Museum of Industry beside Key Highway not far from the venerable Domino Sugar plant.

Amongst the ruins of long lost labor was memorabilia with names like Allied Signal, Head and our most recently poorly departed Black & Decker, whose HQs will be exiting north next.

At the museum, children learned about the stuff we once made in this great land and how here in Baltimore we had a hand in much of it, from Henry Ford’s assembly line to printing on movable type by printing press.

Decidedly, if our harbor is ever to again be a beacon to the world, we need to plan and dam quickly for what’s to come, because this new tide of change is no longer just coming, but is already causing us to bail.

Sure, there have been monumental shifts due to innovations and inventions before, but never with the same degree of momentum surging over the gunwales.

If Noah’s flood took forty days and forty nights, the current speed of today’s change is a tsunami and will leave much of what we’ve relied on buried with the tide.

Recall Perchik’s prognostication, “A revolution is coming” in Fiddler On The Roof. I don’t have to tell you how that one turned out.

But when you are in the eye of a storm it’s difficult to know you are in one.

So take a look at Bob Garfield’s Jeremiad, “The Chaos Scenario” where he writes, “Traditional media are in a stage of dire retrenchment as prelude to a complete collapse. Newspapers, magazines and especially TV as we currently know them are fundamentally doomed…”

Or read Ken Auletta’s “Googled”, where he compares this era to other times of historic change whether the wheel, Guttenberg or even electricity and points out that what’s made this one different, is the velocity. “It took telephones seventy-one years to penetrate 50% of American homes, electricity fifty years and TV three decades. The Internet reached more than 50 percent of Americans in a mere decade.” Today that number is over 80%.

So we’ve seen how fast this sea can come in, yet it’s the speed by which it ebbs that’s most devastating. Witness how quickly investments can be cut in half, how quickly dwellings we thought we owned can enter foreclosure and how many businesses that once called Baltimore home can fast become candidates for entry into the Museum of Lost Labor.

It might seem appropriate to ask for leadership to guide us out of this current typhoon, but the whole paradox is that the power is no longer in their hands. It’s in yours and mine.

If you have a digital camera and a computer and these days everyone does, you are a reporter, a photojournalist and an ad exec.

On Youtube you can find a video of a car driving recklessly in a parking lot and suddenly, like one of those Monster Trucks it lands on top of two others. One of the crushed cars was a Hyundai. The next day, Hyundai came out to the same lot and gave the guy who owned the crushed Hyundai a new one. Hyundai filmed their act and posted it to Youtube garnering millions of hits.

What was the other car? No idea. But Hyundai was just named Best Marketer of the Year by Ad Age Magazine.

The irony is there was no ad agency, no television, no newspaper needed. Just you.

Now, pass me an oar.

Abe Novick, whose work is at abenovick.com , writes regularly for the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES on the intersection of American and Jewish culture.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


One year ago, the country and the world were caught up in Barack Obama’s ideas envisioned through words like “hope” and “change.” Today, we are focused instead on President Obama the man.

And Obama the man is everywhere. In fact, no other president has traveled the world as much as he has in the given amount of time he’s been in office.

At the same time, and while many factors are at play — from the ongoing health care debate, to controversy surrounding his Nobel Peace Prize — the president’s approval ratings have fallen with Rasmussen’s Presidential Tracking Poll, showing only 32 percent of the nation’s voters strongly approve of the way he is performing and 40 percent strongly disapprove, giving a Presidential Approval Index rating of minus-8.

Like Icarus’ wings, much of Obama’s magic has melted away. Granted, it is natural for a president to come down to earth after being elected and he has remained aloft longer than many. However, while the campaign used ambitious, metaphysical language to describe their forward thinking outlook, there are no single words today that capture the imagination. Where is the “hope” ? Where is the “change”?

In our celebrity culture, Obama the man has overtaken and eclipsed any message. In a world of celebrities, he’s commoditized as just another celebrity. He is an American idol.

To counter that, he again needs to link his cause beyond himself and to ideas that can be captured in a word.

Because while his oratory skills can soar, they need the language of ideas to carry the people. Within the language of health care for example, are terms like “public option” and “single payer.” Where is the aspiration in lingo like that?

He should borrow a page from Judaism. It does not rely on any one individual. God is not nailed to anything. He is abstract. The Hebrew Bible is adamant that God has no shape or form, so no idol can ever capture God’s essence. The Torah’s essence and its power are unleashed in language and words.

In Deuteronomy’s final chapter, just read on Simchat Torah, when our hero Moses dies we are not told where he’s buried,to avoid turning his place of death into a shrine.

I am afraid that with Obama’s move to shrine-filled Washington, he has taken on the iconic stature of one of the many idols that fill its streets and avenues.

So here’s an iconoclastic notion that could have worked better, and like a lot of winning ideas is really quite simple. In fact, it’s a word that Jews wear around their necks … Chai.

While health care legislation is an enormously complicated issue, it has gotten so weighted-down, laden in Beltway-speak and tangled up in the cavernous halls of Congress, that it would take Robert Langdon from Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol” to unravel its mysteries.

Had he launched his health care effort like he did his campaign, not calling it “health care,” but LIFE, he would have been able to take hold of the high ground and keep it.

Just as change had been the word emblazoned on the front of every podium last year, imagine if at every whistle stop LIFE had been the keyword the public saw?

While giving support to a more preventive approach to health care, it also would have provided an aspirational idea that could have fueled the long hard slog through both houses of Congress. Not many politicians have the ability to magically wield such an encompassing word and own it like Obama can.

But given the downward projection he’s heading into as 2010 approaches, his wings are being weighed down by the man, when all they really have to carry is a message.

Abe Novick writes monthly for the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES on the intersection of American and Jewish culture. His work is at abenovick.com .

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Vienna Circle

In September of 1929, while a gathering storm was hovering in Europe and a worldwide economic crisis was closing in fast, an inlet of intellectual debate based on logic and facts was uniting in Vienna.

The group became known as the Vienna Circle and was made up of philosophers, mathematicians and scientists. A substantial number of its members and those who participated in its discussions were Jewish including; Otto Neurath, Gustav Bergmann, Karl Popper, Hans Hahn, Felix Kaufmann, Friedrich Waismann and, perhaps its most famous, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was raised Catholic but was of Jewish heritage.

It was indeed, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus that had enormous influence over the group with its emphasis on a verifiability principle, (i.e., the meaning of a proposition is identical with the method of verifying it.) The Circle’s overall aim was to infuse a scientific approach into philosophy with the help of modern logic.

As would be expected, there was widespread disagreement on many issues among the vast array of thinkers. Yet their manifesto, largely authored by Neurath and presented exactly 80-years ago, had two essential features. First, its stated world-conception was empiricist (knowledge came from experience). Second, logical analysis, and mainly symbolic logic, was the method to determine clarity of assertions.

This kind of attention to fact-based thinking is sorely needed today.

Over the summer, we’ve witnessed an unprecedented debasement of both logic and empirical fact-based knowledge in the form of Town-meetings where speakers are shouted down, paranoid arguments claiming President Obama is a Fascist or a Communist or just simply not American along with an overall lack of civil discourse culminated in congressmen Joe Wilson’s crescendo “You Lie!” during a Presidential address to the United States Congress.

Writing in the New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg laments, “This sort of lunatic paranoia—touched with populism, nativism, racism, and anti-intellectualism—has long been a feature of the fringe, especially during times of economic bewilderment.”

But what’s frightening today is that it no longer rests on the fringe. What we’re seeing is the injection of the rabble’s style into mainstream politics.

More concerning still is Hertzberg’s description could have been made of Europe in 1929. And yes, while 1929 was a long time ago, human nature’s remarkable ability to forget the past is timeless.

To our credit, we put enormous emphasis on teaching facts as evidenced by the propagation of museums dedicated to learning.

But just as important as learning facts are, and they are vital, teaching the principles of logic are just as critical.

How is civil discourse to be instilled without the framework from which to build it? It’s often not until college that a student is introduced to the word “syllogism”. How many school children today are actually taught the fundamental rules of logic?

While holding fast to their thinking, the VC’s ultimate disbandment came with the crush of indisputable fascism. When the Nazi party took power in Germany and irrationalism dominated public discourse, many of its members immigrated to America, where they taught in several universities.

Unfortunately its founder, Moritz Schlick, who was not Jewish, remained in Austria only to be killed in 1936 by a Nazi sympathizer and a student in the University of Vienna. It is said the killer thought he was a Jew.

Far from being snuffed, debate has become a cacophony of shouts emanating from ever growing numbers. In turn, weeding through what is fact and deciphering it from falsehood, has become a full time profession for organizations like CAMERA and Factcheck.org who have dedicated themselves to providing analysis within the Babel-like world of mangled verbiage.

Though the lost world of the Vienna Circle is another remnant of the shattered past, their writings, their influence and the need for their precision and clarity are essential and crucial today.

While their circle may seem like a distant orb, their impact can still resonate.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Where'd the Jews go?

How TV Jews Moved To Cable

The new Jewish TV ‘homeland’ is on cable.

September 4, 2009

Abe Novick
Special to the Jewish Times

It was back in May of this year when the 2009-10 fall television season was unveiled to advertisers in what’s called the “upfronts.” This is the opportunity for the networks to showcase their shows while attempting to gain interest and attract sponsors.

New York Times ad columnist Stuart Elliott wrote a column describing the season that carried the headline, “10 New Sitcoms Meant to Cure the Recession Blues.”

With a banner that contained the word “Sitcoms,” it was in hopeful anticipation that one would find the next “Seinfeld,” or a show like it, with Jewish characters.

After all, with the medium of TV and the content of comedy, there had to be a punch line with a few funny Jews. Or at least one could hope. But reading further, what followed were names like Courteney Cox Arquette in “Cougar Town” and Chevy Chase in “Community” and Kelsey Grammer in “Hank.” Not exactly the making of a minyan.

What’s going on? Where are the Jews?

Surely with the success of shows like “Seinfeld” and “Mad About You” with a character named Paul Buchman and show like “Friends” with Rachel Green and Monica and Ross Geller, all turning Thursdays on NBC into “Must See TV,” the networks weren’t going to abandon us again as they had in the late ’50s with an expulsion that lasted up until “Bridget Loves Bernie”?

Rather than settle back like a remote-less couch potato and accept the disconnect to cultural sustenance that feeds the funny bone, there were three experts in the field of television and media to turn to, who have each written remarkably in-depth books on the subject of the history of Jews on the small screen.

Beginning with Baltimore’s own David Zurawik, author of “The Jews of Prime Time” and the Baltimore Sun’s TV and media critic, the quest was launched to find our lost tribe.

On the way, there was also David Marc, who wrote “Comic Visions, Television Comedy & American Culture,” and Vincent Brook, author of “Something Ain’t Kosher Here, The Rise of the Jewish Sitcom.” Between the three of them and some sachel (Yiddish for common sense), the passageway to piecing together a fall TV guide that’ll lead to a virtual promised land where Jews are entertaining us was in sight. Like many investigations, it’s the search that’s as rewarding as the discovery. (Though this one didn’t take 40 years in the desert.)

In Mr. Zurawik’s book, which came out in 2003, he documents how the same Jewish network TV executives, who were all Jewish, suppressed identifiably Jewish characters. He explains how the phenomenon was encapsulated in the phrase, “Too Jewish,” which was frequently invoked by network bosses to describe their perceptions of Jewish characters on television.

While the term dates back to the early days of TV and “The Goldbergs,” it was used as a label all the way through to 1991, when Brandon Tartikoff, the late president of NBC Entertainment, labeled it in relation to “Seinfeld.’ (He actually did get them to change the name Kessler to Kramer.)

Larry DavidToday, distinctly Jewish characters do occupy a place on television, but they’re not on network TV. Jews there have been homogenized and assimilated into a multicultural bouillabaisse. If you want chicken soup, you have to go to cable and perhaps nowhere is “Too Jewish” exemplified more than on Larry David’s HBO show “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”

This season on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” the cast of “Seinfeld” will come together in what’s sure to be one of the most anticipated and talked-about group reunions since The Beatles broke up.

On a macromedia level — the same way that Jews emigrated from the old country to the new country; the same way Carl Reiner’s Laura and Rob (who were originally conceived as Jewish, based on Reiner’s life as a writer with Sid Caesar) lived in New Rochelle; and the Goldbergs in an episode actually called “Moving Day” moved from New York City to Haverville — today’s Jewish characters have fled from the networks and found a homeland on cable.

For a medium that was once skittish about depicting Jews, it’s like a Bizarro Catskills on cable. Moreover, the same way there once existed media barriers that kept Jews hidden and under the radar of TV detection, now, due to the multiplicity of channels and the ability to segment to specific audiences, walls have opened — but also realigned.

For Mr. Zurawik, the aggressive Jewish satire on cable is a reaction to an unnatural repression. “When the floodgates are open, they responded in an extreme way and it was in-your-face and meant to provoke.

“With any kind of repression it doesn’t flow out naturall, it explodes,” he continued. “Oh, you’re afraid of ‘too Jewish,’ I’ll show you ‘too Jewish!’”

Most of us may not realize it today, but the dam that held us back is as old as the beginning of television. For example, both Jack Benny and George Burns, who had emigrated from radio to television, also had to hide that they were Jewish. While they played themselves in their shows, they both celebrated Christmas on them, too.

The cast of SeinfeldEven with a program that would seem like an exception to the rule, like “The Goldbergs” (another radio to TV transition) about a Jewish family in the Bronx, they too had to assimilate, eventually changing the show’s name to the more wholesome and homogenized, “Molly.”

That closeted approach to Jewish identity carried all the way through to 1972, when a blip on the screen materialized and Bernie Steinberg married Bridget Fitzgerald on “Bridget Loves Bernie,” about an intermarried couple. It aired for one season.

Sitting and watching today’s line-up with characters like Jon Stewart, it’s hard to recognize where we had once been. But as Mr. Zurawik sees it, Stewart is a descendant who can say, “Hey, it’s the Jew here.” If he was born even 10 years earlier, he wouldn’t be saying that and one-third of his act would be dead or he wouldn’t be doing it on TV.

Lucky for him, cable has allowed these antics, whereas the networks have put a kibosh on such over-the-top pranksters.

Part of the reason is when that wall came down, others materialized. By having outlandish Jewish comedy on the outer channels of cable, marketers have created a separate space where they can corral particular audiences off and advertisers can appropriately target them with specific messages that will appeal to them.

The term used by advertisers today is “segmentation” and cable is one of the fronts on which to implement it. The Web is another and is even more powerful.

On the flip side, while cable can target with fine cross-hairs, networks still use a big net and continue to haul in more audience share than cable. If cable’s aim is to customize, networks are selling to the masses. To do that more cost effectively, and with a changing demographic, they believe they need to appeal to everyone.

Fran DrescherIn doing so, one trend we’ve seen for years is what Mr. Brook calls “platoon” shows with casts that resemble a military platoon and are made up of multiple ethnicities. Old shows in this category include “Barney Miller,” “Welcome Back Kotter” and “Taxi.”

Today he refers to them as “neo-platoon,” as they derive from the same structure but are also made of multicultural casts. He describes them as “a tight-knit or fatefully intertwined cohort of ethno-racially intertwined diverse characters with a complex, soap-like narrative structure.” Examples today would be shows like “Heroes” or “Ugly Betty.”

Writing about the changes in demarcated media, Mr. Marc writes in an essay called “Audience Segmentation: The Lonely Crowds,” “For most of the 20th century, the American communications industry worked at building audiences of unprecedented size.” However, he goes on, “cable robbed the medium — and American society — of a functioning electronic gathering point.”

At one point, everyone in America sat around the set on Saturday nights and watched “All In the Family.” It placed No. 1 in the Nielsen ratings for five consecutive years in the 1970s. Everyone knew Archie.

Today, due to the wide array of programming, a typical audience of viewers lives in a Balkanized, post-Diaspora world, rather than a traditional, unified Nielsen family. Mom will be on the computer while Dad is watching the game, one of the kids is surfing the Internet while the other is watching a video game. Multiply that into the millions and you have a picture of current viewership.

Aside from technology, networks have lost those viewers because they’ve lost social significance. Along with their pull, they’ve also lost their edginess. Gone is their observationally satirical and socially critical perspective. That brand of humor moved out of the main metropolis, where most people received their fix of shtick. Today those sharp arrows of televised wit and irreverence get tossed down from a satellite, or they travel down the long, fiery tail of cable on the outer limits of a 500-plus channel universe.

Matt WeinerLike the old neighborhood we’d left behind, once the culture that inhabited it left, it lost its moxie. Looking back in time, it wasn’t that long ago that a number of Jewish characters occupied a place on networks beginning in the late ’80s with shows like “Anything But Love,” “Northern Exposure,” “Brooklyn Bridge,” “thirtysomething” and “The Nanny.” Each possessed a clearly identifiable Jewish character with themes woven into them that dealt with Jewish characteristics.

Today, there are only a few Jewish characters lingering on shows like ABC’s “brothers & sisters” (Ken Olin, who played an identifiably Jewish character on “thirtysomething,” is an executive producer) and where Sally Field, (that’s right, the former “Flying Nun”) plays a Jewish matriarch, the widow of a mixed marriage. Then there’s “The Big Bang Theory” on CBS with a stereotypical nebbish named Howard who lives with his mother. There are others, too, but one has to go digging to find them. They simply don’t have the top-of-mind recognition that comes from tapping a societal nerve, the way great shows in the heyday of network sitcoms did.

Form and content meld together as never before in this altered landscape. As Mr. Marc points out in “Comic Visions,” “Television — especially the sitcom — valorized suburbia as democracy’s utopia realized, a place where the white middling classes could live in racial serenity, raising children in an engineered environment…”

Hence McLuhan’s maxim on media, “The medium is the message,” is as true today as it was in 1964 when there were just three networks. The message of the shows today is directly related to the medium by which they get delivered. The form aligns with the current crop of programming — only it’s the reverse of what it was in the ’50s when the Goldbergs left town to join Ozzie and Harriet in the plain-Jane, non-ethnic ’burbs.

On the media, it’s the networks that are now like the white-bread cities, while cable and the Internet provide ethnic identity.

With niche programming, Jewish-themed shows can be segmented off and ghettoized.

The irony is that just as in Molly Berg’s day, when the neighborhoods of New York were clearly demarcated between Chinatown, Little Italy and the Jewish Lower East Side, every ethnicity left the city in order to lose their identity. Virtually with cable and the Internet today, we’ve again walled ourselves off, albeit with cable’s subscriber fees those walls are tony, virtual-gated communities that mirror Westchester, N.Y., Montgomery County or Caves Valley, Md., rather than duh Bronx.

Furthermore, and again like the medium, the message too reflects this affluence, as Larry David’s Santa Monica, Calif., home in “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is a palatial mansion, as is the home of his friends Jeff and Susie Greene. While the setting is serene and affluent, thematically there’s nothing that resembles a “Father Knows Best” atmosphere. The dysfunctional personalities of Larry and Susie, along with Richard Lewis (who plays himself), chew up the vicinity, turning them into crazed enclaves of tsuris.

Adding further ironic perspective to this notion of the more things change the more they stay the same, it was network executives who lifted “The Goldbergs” from radio and placed them onto television. Their thinking was radio would disappear and that television was just radio with pictures.

However, according to historian Marc, “While on radio ethnicity and thick accents played very well, whether ‘Amos ‘n’ Andy,’ ‘The Goldbergs’ or ‘Life With Luigi,’ when all those shows were brought to TV, something that was amusing on radio became grotesque on television. Adding the physical gestures to the aural ones was going over the top.”

Is it any wonder, after years of being held in tow and straitjacketed, that we now wave our arms, curse and go bananas after being freed from the binds of the nets?

Evidently it’s just what the world needed. As trust in traditional media waned, a savvy consumer turned to other sources to rely on news, information and entertainment. While networks and traditional news have lost relevance, during the same period humorists have claimed the stage and the microphone.

The height of this post-modern phenomenon is that, while back in 1964, and an era when Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America, now Jon Stewart (a full-fledged Jewish comedian who hosts a fake news show on cable) is able, like Prometheus, to steal the fire away from the news gods of network to become the most trusted man in America, according to aTime magazine poll.

Through a glass darkly, we also witness that same bygone era on yet another cable network, AMC, with its Emmy Award-winning, period drama, “Mad Men,” about the advertising business on New York’s Madison Avenue. The creator, producer and head writer of the show is Matt Weiner, who was born in Baltimore and began his career as a comedy writer on the Fox network.

In another twist, “Mad Men” has a producer who is Jewish and is now pulling the strings at a faux ad agency during an era when ad agencies were notorious culprits for keeping Jews out of their industry.

Sarah SilvermanLikewise, advertisers at the time were far more powerful when it came to programming decisions on television and in the late 1950s were in large part ultimately responsible for turning television into a reflection of their more white/less rye bread envisioned culture. They are the behind-the-scenes culprits who cleansed ethnicity from the networks in the ’50s. Mr. Weiner, to his credit in season one, had shows dealing with anti-Semitism and the tensions that existed during the period by having the Jewish retailers go to the WASP agency in order to remake their department store so it would adapt, conform and appeal to the rising middle class.

By being the puppet master pulling the strings and shaping the entire narrative of “Mad Men,” Mr. Weiner is the ultimate, post-modern auteur behind the scenes. He’s the outsider shaping what the audience sees. And, oh, that’s exactly what the advertising industry does.

Meanwhile, as more and more industries need a public persona, they’ve borrowed heavily from the television model. In politics today, Rahm Emanuel is the White House chief of staff and David Axelrod is President Obama’s main adviser. As an archetype, the Jew behind the scenes dates from television and film today, all the way back to Joseph in Egypt.

In many ways, it’s the fundamental conundrum — the Jew as both insider and outsider — damned if he tries to fit in and treated suspiciously, and damned if he separates, remaining aloof — too good for the hoi polloi.

In a strange, cyclical example of reality and fiction intertwining, recently Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel referred to both Messrs. Axelrod and Emanuel as “self-hating Jews.” (Weeks later, he denied he said it.)

Relationally, the term has been used for television characters, too. In an essay, “Laughing to Keep from Dying: Jewish Self-Hatred and The Larry Sanders Show,” Mr. Brook explores the issue of the self-hating Jew. In two episodes from Garry Shandling’s program that ran on cable’s Showtime in the ’90s, the issue of Larry as a self-hating Jew came up.

Ironically, one reason Mr. Brook gives for the occurrence is, “The most potent new source of internecine Jewish self-hatred is Israel itself — post-1967 Israel, that is, of the Palestinian occupation, the Lebanon invasions, the ‘Who is a Jew?’ controversy, and the two intifadas.”

The hall of mirrors continues. In another show about showbiz, the Jewish super agent Ari Gold on HBO’s “Entourage” was inspired by the real life super Hollywood agent and brother of Rahm Emanuel, Ari Emanuel? In real life, Ari Emanuel represents Larry David.

No exploration of breaking the bounds of comedy would be complete without Sarah Silverman, who personifies both the challenge for how far comedy can delve into dangerous territory, while also expanding the limits of the Web and new media as a vehicle for that expression.

She’s had a good year, too. First, she’s nominated for an Emmy (for outstanding lead actress in a comedy) for the title role in “The Sarah Silverman Program” on Comedy Central. Also, she’s the recipient of the Webby Award for Best Actress at the 13th Annual Webby Awards in 2009 (for Best Political Video) called “The Great Schlep,” aimed at Jewish kids and pleading with them to urge grandparents in Florida to vote for Barack Obama.

If networks are for the masses and cable can narrow-cast, then the Web can micro-target. Ms. Silverman and comedians like her who Webcast online have reached audiences that have shied away from traditional forms.

Unlike television and radio that seek out viewers, with search engines like Google the opposite occurs — viewers seek them out.

In talking about the impact of niche programming on the Web with David Rath of GenerateLA, a partner at the media and entertainment company where he creates content across multiple platforms and has worked with Sarah, he commented on how it relates to Jewish content:

“Jews will see more of it than non-Jews and I don’t know if that’s good. There’s something about ‘Seinfeld’ and all these shows that were on broadcast, that forced people to contemplate cultures, ask questions and share ideas and in an age of very targeted consumption, you don’t have that same potential to send broad messages.”

The emphasis on “search” is posing a whole new set of challenges for Jewish programming to reach a mass scale of people. The exposure of “Jewish” culture and identity and the groundbreaking impact television has made on a massive scale will diminish as consumers will only seek out what they are interested in.

For a culture that left the shtetl by crossing the ocean, and ended up living in neighborhoods only to move out to the nicer ones in the ’burbs, one wonders if we’re headed back to where we began. Or, if we ever actually left.

Abe Novick is a regular contributor to the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES writing about the intersection of American and Jewish culture.

Monday, August 31, 2009


It’s become a tradition to go the shore every summer and while staring into the rhythmic surf, with its endless sequence, I’m reminded of the cycle of the Hebrew year, its ongoing pattern and its onward projection.

Henri Bergson, the French philosopher who was also Jewish, described time not as cut up segments of momentary sensations, but as flow. Because of memory, each wave that passes becomes part of every other.

Like the ocean, on Rosh Hashanah, the last day is connected to the first day.

But how do we reconcile time, when an altered state of reality poses as the past and a present is seen through the lens of an unavoidable media?

That same Sunday, while looking out onto the infinite horizon, a wireless link connected me and held me captive both to an imaginary, bygone world of Baltimore, along with one I thought I left behind.

On AMC’s “Mad Men”, a dapper Don Draper, headed down to Baltimore and the prized London Fog account which was a Baltimore based business.
They even dined at the historic Haussner’s restaurant. Both establishments are now gone with the tide.

Meanwhile in another part of the wireless world, the day’s news from Baltimore was of the contemporary nasty and brutish reality of shootings in the city that bleeds.

Juxtaposed and spliced, the past and the present clashed. The wireless world was whizzing the stuff of The Wire back from the series’ syndicated turf, streaming it in living color.

Once Baltimore had been a city known for providing manufacturing jobs with companies like London Fog. The snappy dressers of Mad Men and
cool veneer they wear, covers what lurks underneath and truly troubles them. The sharkskin lends a protective coating like the sheen layered onto the slick ads they create.

The airbrushed prints, their coifs and clipped speech is camouflage for what lies they labor over in their lives.

Mimetically, Mad Men’s sleek style is all the rage and is depicted in an article and flamboyant spread of Annie Lebovitz’ photos in the current Vanity Fair.

Doubtless, the show about the early 1960s will influence 2009’s Fall Fashion, which is ironic, as now I’ll see people in Baltimore dressing the part, based on a show whose narrative just illustrated how Baltimore, once was the home of London Fog and a locale where ad men were able to manipulate a public into buying their wears.

It’s a contemporary show about a long, lost world, where men who create ads for us to see that world through, will now influence real people living in the same city that’s since lost the manufacturing base the show depicted.

But perhaps, we should be placated in this postmodern pastiche. At least on its surface, it’s not the harsh and violent world many viewers and the world, have come to associate these days with Baltimore.

When Anthony Bourdain recently did a segment on his show for Travel Channel, Baltimore was described as the home of The Wire and a violent world of crime in the heart of the Rust Belt.

Bordain’s skewered view is tainted, not by reality, but by what he knows from fictional television programs projected through the lens of HBO.

While there’s realism in The Wire, Bourdain’s take is indicative of how we base reality off fiction. It’s become the inverted method from which life is consumed and lived. I escaped to the beach to get back to the state of nature, yet couldn’t help being reminded due to the jolting tide of technology drowning us.

Rather than fight the current, we resignedly brought our devices with us.

How does one reconcile one’s past on Rosh Hashanah, in light of our divided lives, which are bifurcated due to fiction’s invasion into reality?

Time will tell. There are two days to dwell on the subject—one for the past to flow into the next day’s future.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Mr. Sammler's Planet Revisted

Jul. 19, 2009

To look into space is to look back in time. The starlight we see meeting us here on Earth, from out there, was created light years ago.

Closer to home, peering up at the moon's reflective beam is to gaze on our closest orbital companion in this lonely space and while doing so, we remember our first walk together.

In 1969, while it seemed like the Earth was coming apart due to social and political upheaval, the writer Saul Bellow created what's perhaps his most politically grounded and fantastically unbound novel, aligning the forces taking place on this planet with a future on the moon.

The book, Mr. Sammler's Planet, is about an elderly Holocaust survivor, who after getting an eye knocked out by a Nazi's rifle butt and buried under a pile of human beings is left for dead. Sammler crawls out, leaving his dead wife behind, rebirthing himself and never losing an iota of his dignity as he sallied forth to the future. We then find him, a man from the past replanted in an era of tumultuous unrest, just as we embark on a future toward the moon.

By pitting his elderly Sammler against the tide of the 1960s and the "movement," Bellow lost many friends. He in turn divided himself off from the Left and charted a new course.

Peering back into that time through one lens, and observing what split our culture, is like looking at a distant, faint star today. After all, our president is African-American, women have gained enormous strides and the youth from the '60s are, well, in their 60s.

Through another lens, the old Left has morphed into MoveOn.org, while much of the Right has shifted off the planetary charts. Both sides nevermore magnetically polar opposites.

While 1969 further split a divided country, for one brief shining moment, the residual light of JFK's Camelot captured our attention, our imagination and held us together as we stared in amazement at what was taking place on the lunar landscape.

IT'S STILL hard to fathom, that we were ever there, but after traipsing on the moon, it's like we've fallen and we can't get up.

Upon reflection, to what end was it all aimed?

When Sammler finds a stolen manuscript called "The Future of the Moon," he reads the first line, "How long will this Earth remain the only home of man?" and resignedly reflects, "How long? Oh Lord, you bet! Wasn't it the time - the very hour to go?... To blow this great blue, white, green planet, or to be blown from it." Still in need of repair here on Earth, we come closer to the ultimate question, which we needed to ask then, "Why?"

Why were we, like Icarus, attempting to fly into the heavens? Was it purely because it was there? Or are we finding out now that we may actually be in desperate need of moving?

The part of the world that was torn asunder by war, poverty, race and mankind remains alive and is pulsating. Perhaps, we are just that much more aware of its beat, as we mark, note and scribe all of its throbs today, via some of the same technology that gave us liftoff then. While it has brought us closer together via social media on an iPhone, Blackberry or some such techno-thingi, the speed of light has gotten faster here, as we've abandoned our footprint there.

Just look how a tyrant's oppression on a people is Twittered around the world in an instant (Oh, for Sammler's lens to have seen that!). Gazing back at the end of the novel, Sammler, the Holocaust survivor who lived a misanthropic life eyeing the pain and hardships all around him, abandons his belief in departing Earth and affirmatively learns to value human life here.

But 40 years later, the question remains: Are we to live here forever or blast off at some point to a distant planet when this Earth becomes uninhabitable after we've wrecked it?

As Jews, wanderers, subjects of Exodus and the original text message beamed from above, we should focus our lens and search for the answer still hidden back, deep in our history, while we look out toward the future.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

From Borat To Bruno

Jack Benny
George Burns
Eddie Cantor
George Jessel
Fanny Brice
Milton Berle
Henny Youngman
Phil Silvers
Bert Lahr
The Marx Brothers
Neil Simon
The Three Stooges
Al Jolson
Ed Wynn
Gertrude Berg
Red Buttons
Danny Kaye
Jackie Mason
Alan King

Joan Rivers
Mel Brooks
Lenny Bruce
Mort Sahl
Jack Gilford
Carl Reiner
Jerry Lewis
Woody Allen
Sid Caesar
Mike Nichols
Elaine May
Jerry Stiller
Anne Meara
David Steinberg
Shelley Berman
Albert Brooks
Richard Lewis
Gary Shandling
Al Franken

Rodney Dangerfield
Paul Reiser
David Brenner
Jon Stewart
Ben Stiller
Adam Sandler
Goldie Hawn
Andy Kaufman
Jerry Seinfeld
Shecky Greene
Robert Klein
Don Rickles
Billy Crystal
Bette Midler
Fran Drescher
Roseanne Barr
Sandra Bernhard
Madeline Kahn
Gilda Radner

What other race, religion, culture, ethnicity has a list like this? None.
Sure, there are a handful of successful black comedians who are household names like, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy. And they are great comics to be sure. But it’s small latkes comparatively. Truthfully, no other group comes close.

While the roots of Jewish comedy in the twentieth century trail back to the old country, here in this decade there’s a British import by the name of Sacha Baron Cohen who is again taking Jewish comedy into new territory. Who is he and how does his brand of humor fit in, or veer off, from what’s come before?

In speaking with experts in the field of comedy, Sacha Baron Cohen, might have just been Sacha Baron, had it not been for his predecessors.

Within our long, winding tree of laughter, there are demarcative eras, branches of media that carried the message that changed the course of history while influencing politics and pop culture.

Vaudeville transitioned into radio, which then made it’s way to movies and, along with a detour creating a new Jewish Eden in The Borscht Belt, eventually landed onto TV screens. That winding path of comedy throughout the entire 20th century is a genealogy of Jewry. So powerful was it, that in many ways it’s become like religion.

According to Lawrence Epstein, author of The Haunted Smile a book about the story of Jewish Comedians in America, “For the secularized Jewish community, the comedians were especially important as secular rabbis providing both meaning and a way into American society.”

In speaking with Mr. Epstein, I asked if our comedians have been a salvation to more than just us Jews? Are gentiles even aware of what we’ve given to them with this gift of laughter? And, with a names like Sacha Baron Cohen, do they even know we’re Jewish?

“If Jerry Seinfeld had been putting together a radio program in the 1930s, it wouldn’t have been called Seinfeld, his name would have been Jerry Smith” he retorted. But Epstein remarked, “much of gentile awareness came by way of Woody Allen, who in the 1960s deserves a lot of the credit in movies like Take The Money And Run and later in Annie Hall where he’s dressed like a Hassid.”

For Baron Cohen, who is a an observant Jew, his characterizations seem so far from that bygone era when Jews were afraid to admit their Judaism, that he’s actually taken it 180 degrees. Though most Jews are in on the joke, in some of his characterizations he actually portrays an anti-Semite. That trick of the audience being in on his ruse, is a necessary linchpin of his comedy.

Rewind back to the early years of this century on HBO, when his new voice came onto the scene.

In the first season of Da Ali G Show on HBO, Sacha Baron Cohen introduced Bruno to America. Bruno was part of his trio of characters who along with Borat wore a guise while interviewing unsuspecting individuals from politicians and celebrities to ordinary folks. In turn, Cohen would expose their reactions to his outlandish behavior and questions, each time making them look like utter fools.

Now on July 10th, for a much wider audience, he will revive a character known to only cable subscribes and Youtube followers.

To get a sense of his various characters’ shtick, Cohen’s Ali G., for example would pretend to be, as he simply put it on David Lettermen’s Late Show “a twit”.

Cohen’s feigning idiocy is definitely a part of his act. But his description is also about as understated as his Ali G wardrobe. For it takes sheer chutzpah to insert himself into the situations that he does. Fashionwise, Cohen’s Ali G. often dons a bright yellow homeboy sweat suit with wrap around shades and a British inner city attitude. He is the modern day version of Norman Mailer’s The While Negro, i.e., a white hipster who clothed himself in black garb and speaks and gestures like a rap star.

In one of his shows he wangles his way into interviewing former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh. Ali asks him “What is legal? And gets a legit answer. Then asks what is illegal, again, a normal answer. But when he asks with a straight face what is “barely legal” and still gets the same naïve answer back, the audience is in on the joke, while Mr. Thornburgh is caught completely unaware of what he’s gotten himself into. I won’t even get into the bit where Cohen asks him about a “hung” jury, but let’s just say, Cohen might as well play a schoolyard trick and “pants” the poor man. It’s hard to contain laughter, while squirming in sympathetic pain as the chief law enforcement officer gets conned by a comic.

With Cohen’s alter ego gathering so much fame however, came an inability to fool an ever shrinking pool of unsuspecting individuals. Consequently, with Ali G. so famous, he then had to rely on the two other doppelgangers in his repertoire.

One was Borat (the anti-Semite I referenced earlier), who in 2006 became a hit movie with Cohen playing the dope from Kazakhstan and perhaps the most infamous foreign visitor since Tocqueville.

Borat swept the country by storm in his movie, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. But again, like Ali G, once exposed to the world, Borat became such a recognizable character there was no way Cohen could have again used him successfully. His jig was up.

That leads us to Bruno, who, luckily for Cohen, and for us, was not as overly, err, out.

The character Bruno is an Austrian gay fashion reporter who works for a fake TV station (ÖJRF - revealed once as Österreichischer Jungen-Rundfunk, or in English, Austrian Boys' Broadcasting).

In each of the three faces of Sacha, his guerilla style of comedy lures the unsuspecting victims of his ruse in, often with the intended effect of revealing their own prejudice and darker side.

His same in-your-face technique is similar to the one used by Michael Moore in his movies, most notably Roger & Me, Bowling For Columbine and perhaps his most infamous, Fahrenheit 9/11.

Yet for Cohen, by donning his characters with a disguise and the guise of satire, he’s able to twist his punch just as we’re keeling over in cramps from a belly laugh.

While Moore lures his victims in and let’s them get tangled up in their own contradictions, he plays himself while intending to make a serious political point.

Cohen dressed in peculiar garb, has fun dancing outside the edge of what’s deemed appropriate behavior. While less overt in his approach to politics, it could be argued that because his gags are so outrageous they hide any socially or politically redeeming quality.

Indeed, some think his humor a far cry from anything that could be deemed sophisticated.

According to Ruth Wisse, a Harvard College Professor and Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and author of the classic, The Schlemiel As Modern Hero, “Sacha Baron Cohen’s style is much less of an emphasis on jokes or on verbal repartee and more on slapstick and violence.” Sadly though authoritatively, she remarks, “He relies on a greater vulgarity and coarseness. As the degree of Jewish literacy declines, the literacy of Jewish humor also declines.”

I suppose the same could have been said of other Jewish humorists and certainly was of characters like The Three Stooges. But while Cohen’s humor can and does incite physical violence, it’s very reliant on word play as evidenced by the Dick Thornburgh repartee. The joke however is when his victims misinterpret it. And that phenomenon gets repeated in all too many of his encounters. When he plays a dolt who mangles the language, it’s in order to set the trap for his victims.

In many of the scenes in Bruno, like a chameleon, he blends right into the trendy circumstances, fitting in perfectly, only to then create a scene.

To give you some sense of the character, let’s rewind to an early episode on Da Ali G Show for some of Bruno’s appearances. Take the one where he infiltrates NY Fashion Week and interviews stylists while getting them to say outrageous things like “trailer trash are primitive rubbish people” and laughing that “we take the clothes from the homeless people and sell them while jacking up the price”. While posing with his blond coiffed hair, swooshy stance and microphone he has fashion designers nod and agree “that is the beauty of fashion”. Or, in another interview, he has a male fashionista claim that fashion has saved more lives than doctors. But perhaps the most edgy is when he has a stylist agree “people without fashion sense should be sent on a train to a camp and told ‘bye bye’.”

Cohen, who is an observant Jew, often reveals the horrors in his unsuspecting victims hearts, many of whom probably consider themselves to be “politically correct”, but due to the nature of the bait he lays for them, he is able to have them utter such pronouncements.

Now, by taking his showbag of tricks and opening it up on the big screen, the medium’s ubiquity will become part of the show. Like a modern day Candid Camera with a twenty-first century edginess, the larger the audience he has to expose humanity’s embarrassing elements, the greater impact it has due to its dependency on us all being in on the joke. His medium and his message are symbiotic.

In the upcoming film, Bruno, Cohen travels to Fort Smith, Arkansas, where a riot ensued at a stunt orchestrated by Baron Cohen.

Imagine the reaction when approximately 1500 fans are lured by print and on Craigslist to an event billed as cage fighting, held at a Convention Center and promoting "hot girls", $1 beer and $5 admission. But, instead of hot girls and cage fighting, the acts taking place are homosexual! Lo and behold, the performers in the cage were none other than Bruno (Baron Cohen) under the ironic gimmick, "Straight Dave" and an unknown actor portraying his opponent in the cage.

The crowd truly went nuts throwing chairs and beer and luckily, though risking his life for a laugh, Cohen got out alive. Yes, taking their lives in their hands is what comics do whenever they get up on stage, standing there with nothing between them, a microphone and a one-liner. But Cohen is a daredevil.

Of the earlier long list of Jewish comedians, the one SBC puts me most in mind of isæGroucho.

And long before Baron Cohen made rubes of southerners in Arkansas, one of the most verbally adept and hilarious of any Jewish comics, had his own fun with neighboring Texas.

It’s Marx Brothers lore that during an evening performance of theirs in 1912, (long before their movie career), at the Opera House in Nacogdoches, Texas, the show was interrupted by shouts from outside about a runaway mule. The audience hurried outside to see what was happening, Groucho, angered by the interruption, yelled out "The jackass is the flower of Tex-ass".

Luckily for Groucho, when the audience returned, instead of becoming angry, they laughed and the family then realized they had potential as a comic troupe.

But what some younger readers may not realize is that the era in which the Marx Brothers films ran, was the height of The Great Depression; The Cocoanuts (1929), Animal Crackers (1930), Monkey Business (1931) and on and on. Throughout the hardest of times, Jews were making the country laugh.

Now we’re in the Great Recession and in a summer which is giving us Star Trek, Transformers, Terminator and Wolverine the two dimples on either end of the season’s haunted smile are Woody Allen’s Whatever Works starring his central casting’s stand-in Larry David, and Cohen’s Bruno.

It cannot be ignored either that SBC’s character is not just gay, but flaming and at a time when more and more States are allowing same-sex marriages. We have yet to see what influence, if any, Bruno will have on the debate that’s taking place across the country, but historically humor and Jewish comics in particular, have played a vital role in moving both the political and social scrimmage line.

No doubt comedy and Jewish comedians will have a role to play when it comes to the issue. But it may not be all laughs.

While many refer to the phrase “comic relief”, I often wonder if comedy does just the opposite and in turn, exacerbates. Writing of the schlemiel in her book, Wisse describes this comic stance as “a stage from which to challenge the political and philosophic status quo.”

Likewise according to Epstein, “The Jews have had to come up with a way to deal with the tragedies that punctuated their history.” And what people know from pain and tragedy more? To ask the question is to answer it.

While Jews in the 1930s had to fake a self, by either changing their name or changing their accent, being Jewish at home and non-Jewish in public. For Cohen, by donning all of these various disguises he is taking those same characteristics and mocking them.

According to Epstein, “The very act of faking a self is mocking what the Jews had to do. Cohen’s mocking gentile society and mocking what the gentiles forced the Jews to do. ‘You want to see what it’s like to fake a self…here, I’ll show you’.”

Note too, Cohen’s characters are narrow-minded and prejudiced. By playing them, he’s in essence satirizing bigotry.

It’s exactly what other political Jewish satirists have done, though due to the advancements Jews have made over time, Cohen’s able, unlike The Marx Brothers, to be openly Jewish about it, just like Jon Stewart can.

But if Cohen and other Jewish comedians who poke fun at politics and in turn move the needle of what’s acceptable while affecting political and social change, what about Jews who’ve been politically active, but use satire and comic techniques as instruments of change?

Speaking to one who knew both Lenny Bruce and Abbie Hoffman, I was able to get a hold of the immanent writer on politics and civil liberties, Nat Hentoff on the subject. For Hentoff, “Lenny used words to show people, why they’re so afraid of words. Lenny, like Richard Pryor and Dick Gregory used comedy to point to social issues.” He said, “People talk about free speech, but those people are only for free speech if they believe in the right of people saying things you hate.”

In a more radical fashion, Abbie Hoffman, purposefully used theatrical and comic techniques for political ends, like when he gathered together 50,000 demonstrators in front of the Pentagon and attempted to lift it using psychic energy. He describes in his autobiographical book, Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture, how his cohort Jerry Rubin’s style was “too forceful and rhetorical. It didn’t have the silly element to appeal to the spirit.”

It’s that element, the human element, which great creators of comedy have leveraged most successfully. Hentoff uses the example of the satirist Mark Twain whose book Huckleberry Finn was the most powerful anti-racist book with a great impact.

But if African Americans and Jews were the token oppressed minority and the pool from where most comedians rose during the past century, then gay comedians have and are asserting their role to play today. Two of the most notable gay, Jewish comics today are Jason Stuart and Jaffe Cohen.

Stuart, whose father was a Holocaust survivor and his mother grew up poor and in Brooklyn, explained to me how his father told him at age eight, that no matter what young Stuart experienced, it will never compare to what he’s experienced. For Stuart who again punches home the fact that he was eight, emphasizes the only way he could comprehend what he was talking about was through humor.

I asked them what it’s like when a straight guy, like Sacha Baron Cohen, plays a gay character. Is it at all offensive? Stuart replied, “My only concern is that when you are talking about something that’s not your experience, your poking at it, rather than playing it…you’re doing an impression. But through the years straight men love playing us. More straight men have played gay men, than gay men have.” And he’s right. After all, from Tom Hanks to Al Pacino and, most recently with Sean Penn, straight men have dominated.

For Jaffee, “Being gay is only part of the act. In the age of Obama, we should care less about the differences and more on what we have in common.”

Ultimately, that’s what all of the great comedians have been able to do, whatever their background. By creating a direct connection with their audience they used that very human element, no matter whether it was Bill Cosby, Jerry Seinfeld or Sacha Baron Cohen.

While Cohen may not set out to achieve social change, it will be interesting to see if by inserting himself as a reporter into circumstances where he’s able to expose an ugly side of our humanity, he’ll expose prejudice and enlighten our sensibilities. All that while making us laugh at the same time.

Saturday, May 23, 2009


Parents: I don’t know about you, but deciding where to send my kids for summer camp had to have been easier for my folks than it’s been for me.

There was the Jewish camp or the very Jewish camp. I started out at the former and ended up at the latter.

Today, there are so many choices it’s not funny.

When I was a kid at camp, there was sailing and fishing and hiking and all kinds of sports and campfires and singing and, yep, more singing. Now there are camps not just for music or for sports, but for particular kinds of music and sports.

It seems that everywhere I turn, some establishment is offering up some kind of camp. Every school’s gotten into the year-round enrollment for kids by calling their summer school “camp.” (Some of us are sending our little ones to the same place they’ve been going all year, but now we’re supposed to call it “camp.”)

I’m sure that other establishments with an entrepreneurial eye will catch on soon enough, too. I’m just waiting for supermarkets to start their own camp. I can see it now. After we drop our kids off at produce, they can learn how to hang off the carriage without falling; or learn how to ice cakes and slice cold cuts and scan items and, of course, for sports, run the aisles.

Every nail salon can have a camp for manicuring, or how about a camp that tilts more ethnic — Taco Bell offering burrito preparation?

When I was a kid, camps built character. Today, we shouldn’t let political correctness get in the way of business and profiteers joining in the camp craze. Why not have camps reflect our society in all its forms?

Let’s see who really has the bucks to fund all the fun at a camp. How about gas station camp — Camp Texaco? Kids can learn how to pump petrol, proper squeegee techniques, check oil and tire pressure, and all with a convenience counter at arm’s length, which offers hot dogs and Krispy Kreme Donuts and drinks right from the soda fountain.

When I was a kid, camp was about playing outside, exercising, swimming and baseball. Today, like everything else in life, camp is so specialized and focused around a few trees that we parents don’t even realize that our kids are missing the forest.

After searching in vain, most of what we find is the race toward specialization, now deemed so necessary to succeed in adult life, papier-maché-ed onto our children’s lives.

As a kid, I probably learned more about life in two months at camp than in the entire school year. A universe of experiences, along with great counselors (heroes I could look up to) and friends with whom I now Facebook, helped give me that gift.

After searching desperately in the back of parenting magazines, now, finally, we hope we discovered the lost land of our own past.

Desperately seeking summer, I’m at the edge of the ground where the spirits of camp past once lived. Hopefully — standing where the long road begins as I wave goodbye while sending them off on their first overnight experience — they will capture the flag that once flew for me.

It will be hard, as in the back of my mind I’ll be sure to hear the immortal lyrics of Allan Sherman’s ditty, “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh. Take me home, oh muddah, fadduh. Take me home.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Book Review - The Missing Person

The great Neil Simon once wrote that words with a “k” in it are funny. While I’m quite sure he didn’t have Kafka in mind, it’s surprisingly ironic that the master of existential anguish also displays an amazing degree of humor throughout this, his first major novel which he began working on in 1912.

With a new translation based on a restored text by Mark Harmon and published by Shocken, it’s a work that foreshadowed his later novels, which are filled with a series of strange and psychologically peculiar personal encounters.

Where it differs, is in the protagonist, Karl Rossman. Unlike Joseph K. in The Trial or K in The Castle, Karl possesses an innocent naivety that gives him a picaresque desire to get up, dust himself off and continue onward in his American quest. But Kafka never actually saw America and this rendition is an imagined expedition. Still, it’s a journey that, unlike his other work, ends on a theme of, well, optimism. Interestingly, one of Kafka’s key sources for American culture was Benjamin Franklin’s uplifting, can-do, and spirited autobiography.

Structurally Kafka’s tale is written in long, continuous paragraphs that don’t give the reader a chance to catch their breath. It is this trajectory that lends a sense of existential thrownness that steers Karl forward adding to a spiraling momentum that continuously lands him into one tense scene after another.

No incident demonstrates this more than when he is being forced to become a servant to Brunelda (an obese woman who puts one in mind of Shirley Stoler’s commandant character in Wertmuller’s Seven Beauties.)

Originally titled The Missing Person, Amerika was published posthumously in 1927, three years after the author’s death. But it was his good friend and executor, Max Brod who renamed it, branding it with the ominous “k” letter. That sense of “Kafkaesque” doom is captured in the very first paragraph, when Karl sails into New York harbor and sees the Statue of Liberty brandishing a sword, instead of a torch.

This latest version aims to provide the reader with an original understanding of Kafka, by omitting many of Brod’s alterations by infusing the story with a closer rendition of the original literal title's translation of Der Verschollene or The Man Who Disappeared.

Because the latter chapters are fragmentary, this translation provides a feeling of literary archaeology. And while incomplete, the ending describes Karl’s joy in encountering the Theater of Oklahoma along with a magnificent train ride.

With its wide-open landscape, we envision a new beginning--the perfect setting to start on a new understanding of Mr. Kafka.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Stealing Mom

Upon returning from a pre-emptive Passover pilgrimage to Mom’s house in Massachusetts, prior to Mother’s Day, it dawned on me how the symbolism of Jewish motherhood has gotten yanked from us over the ages.

Along with so many other notions now inherently part of Christianity and Islam, motherhood, too, got morphed into Mary.

Perhaps it was my own wish fulfillment, but it seemed everywhere I looked in my old hometown, there were statues of Mary with her arms stretched out in adoring fashion. In front of churches, on top of them and amongst the shrubbery in front — she was ubiquitous in the largely Portuguese enclave of southeastern Massachusetts.

How did Mary, a nice Jewish girl, become so dominant a figure by paradoxically embracing motherhood and virginity at the same time?

She’s part of an ongoing pattern. First there was Jesus. He was our guy and then … they stole him.

Then the Sabbath got moved from the seventh day, Saturday, to the numerically dyslexic seventh day of … Sunday.

But taking a Jewish mother, saints that they all are, and, with a strange Midas touch, mass-producing them into plastic ornaments, statues and collectibles is like downloading music for free without attributing the rights to the original artists.

In many forms of Christianity, the venerated symbol of Mary has assumed so much power that she casts a shadow over her son. Right there, it would seem to me we have a direct patent infringement.

And while the impact of a Jewish mother has weighed heavily on sons like myself, their presence in pop culture has dissipated.

Who can still remember Nancy Walker as Rhoda’s mom? Or Mrs. Goldberg? If you can, is there a top-of-mind, contemporary icon of such Q-rated strength today?

Motherhood isn’t just another holiday either. We all understand how Christmas eats Chanukah’s lunch. And the movie isn’t called “Passover Pageant,” but “Easter Parade.” Admit that we’ve come to accept a certain level of defeat while still celebrating our historic victories and making what we have as awesome as possible.

But motherhood is where we need to draw the line.

They say when a brand is lost it should go back to its roots. Some do and are revived (think Apple) and others veer off and don’t (think Cadillac, which combated sagging sales with muscle trucks).

During the Amidah in our shul’s new prayer book (Siddur Eit Ratzon), there is reference to not only our patriarchs, but to Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah as well.

Perhaps if more shuls incorporated this approach and showed our youth that we have some pretty mighty matriarchs of our own, they would realize their song, in its original form, was pretty cool too.

A lot of us today look back at our rich maternal heritage as if staring at a phonograph record wondering, “What is it?” and “How does it work?” It’s time we raised our matriarch’s profiles to their rightful place.

As Mother’s Day approaches, and as a Jewish son whose mom is a plucky 90 and living in the house I grew up in, her oomph has inspired me to hang on and fight for that last piece of Mother Earth we own.

Flying back from our Passover visit, the inescapable linguistic irony wasn’t lost on me; I flew on Easter weekend between Mass. and home to Maryland; after we touched down, my children ran into their mother’s arms.

As a husband who has played Mr. Mom on many occasions and with an economy creating even more of us, perhaps it’s God’s way of giving us a lesson on how the other half lives. Now it’s time to embrace how they live, and love them ever more for it.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Meshugge News

It’s hard to know whether to laugh or to cry.

Last November, once it was apparent that Tina Fey’s impersonation of Sarah Palin was to live out its life only in re-run history on YouTube, many predicted a dearth of satire. Who were we going to laugh and poke fun at now that W was out of office and McCain and Palin weren’t going to be front and center to throw pies at?

As became evident, when the world turned upside-down and the market split in two, the one throwing pies (and bulls and other toys) turned out to be Jim Cramer, the supposed history guru on CNBC. But in Bizarro-world, the one doggedly reporting the financial mess and holding the press accountable — and Cramer’s feet to the fire — turned out to be comedian/“The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart.

With the fall of once great news icons that focused their lens on corruption and shenanigans (think CBS’s eye), and once great newspapers that dug out the facts to find falsehoods, it’s fallen on comedians to uncover and report the news.

CNBC was/is supposed to be a news network. Granted no one mistook Cramer for a journalist, but how many other news networks have their share of Cramers? This is a small indication of a larger trend. When newsrooms are cut to the bone and investigative reporters are sent packing, whose eye is watching?

Indeed with newsroom staffs set free, comedians like Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert, who trails him nightly on Comedy Central, have come to the rescue as journalism and news reporting go AWOL. Through a glass darkly, they’ve become the seers, the truth tellers and another warped lens on the world.

Stewart’s line to Cramer on March 12 encapsulated the irony: “Look, we’re both snake-oil salesmen to a certain extent, but we do label the show as snake oil here. Isn’t there a problem selling snake oil as vitamin tonic?”

Stewart’s show has been called “fake news,” and everyone knows it. Although Cramer’s never was given the adjective “fake,” it’s news wrapped in entertainment. Either way, with a dearth of investigative news reporting, a hungry public seeks out information any way it can, and with news becoming more like entertainment and vice-versa, we were bound to have a smackdown.

By the time this reaches print, the hoopla over the match may be over, which also is indicative of the predicament. Like a fast-changing comic repertory company, with the multiplicity of media options and viewing choices, the public sees it, shares it, laughs and moves on to the next scene change.

In fact, two days after Cramer was eviscerated by Stewart, HBO aired a live broadcast of Will Ferrell in “You’re Welcome America/A Final Night With George W. Bush.”

In this case, the comedian began to set the record straight on the legacy of our 43rd president. As one of the first out of the post-Bush gate with a take on his presidency, Ferrell is likely to have set a course for historians to follow.

Ever since Aristophanes, comedians have held sway over the shape of history. In his “Clouds,” for example, the Greek playwright lampoons Socrates, portraying him as the arch-Sophist who runs educational cult called the “Thinkery.”

Today the Thinkery could be replaced as the Punditocracy, with satirists like Ferrell and Stewart lampooning and shaping our perceptions of the windbags.

The difference, however, is television, Internet and the like are all garbled together, one medium commenting on another in talmudic fashion, leaving us to peel away the onion layers to determine what’s truth and what’s fiction.

To butcher McLuhan’s famous aphorism: The medium is meshugge.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Bagel Flambé

It all began with a bagel. In my last column I spoke of the inspiration I got from my first class at the Darrell D. Friedman Institute by realizing the connection I had with Judah Maccabee.

Now the bagel is complete. Our class had a siyyum.

Siyyum means completion. However, I was informed by one of my co-fellows in the STAR program that the Hebrew word begins with the letter Samech and ends in a Final Mem. Both are round, circular-like letters — kind of like a bagel. Where do they begin and where do they end?

With an election and inauguration still fresh in our collective conscience, it is indeed a new beginning. After a year of hearing about “change” though, I think we’re ready to say, “Enough of the change, already!” In fact, I could use a little stability. I’d be happy if the stocks would just hold steady.

Yet perhaps an important element we missed, when all of us were ready for change, is that change is constant. That may sound like a cliché, but if we think about it, it’s also inherent in the meaning of siyyum’s circuitous lettering.

In class each morning we read a parshah from Exodus. No other portion of the Torah is more representative of change than Exodus — leaving one world and entering another. Also interesting is that in it God often takes the form of fire.

Now as a former philosophy major and an ad man, too, that wasn’t lost on me. In fact, I came across a book that incorporates both callings — “The Philosophy of Branding.” In chapter one, the focus is on Heraclitus, who was a Pre-Socratic. His greatest perception was that the world is continually in flux, and to demonstrate this he uses a flame as a metaphor. A flame being a “thing,” but not the same thing from moment to moment.

Judaism, too, uses the flame, and its symbol for many occasions, from Shabbat to yahrzeit, and even the ner tamid connotes this same notion of continuity — eternal.

So if that’s a symbol of our creed, what does a flame need to survive and to grow and to be strong?

Well, it needs air. All kinds of air. Especially new, fresh air.

But oxygen that’s too pure can be dangerous. Likewise, Judaism needs a blend and needs to have a breath from outside of itself to live and spread and catch.

Can either extreme be dangerous — too pure or not pure enough? Sure. So we must all tend the flame.

What I also learned from the siyyum is, like so many Jewish holidays — from Simchat Torah, when we end and then begin the Torah, or Rosh Hashanah, when we end the year and celebrate the new — is that the beat goes on.

We mark the occasions, but they don’t end there.

And like that flame, built into Judaism is a richness of thinking and knowledge that we offer back to the world for it to soak up its rays.

Likewise, there’s a lesson for America, too. As we go through our economic crisis, there’ll be a tendency to smother ourselves off. But as Tom Friedman has pointed out, we became the wealthiest country in the world not by protectionism or fearing free trade. Rather, we invited the smartest most diverse ideas and people into the U.S. and it is they who fueled our growth.

I feel extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to be a part of the DFI and the STAR program, and I can’t wait to breathe air back into it to help continue the flame.

And so, thank you Cindy Goldstein for agreeing to meet me for a bagel that morning in Mount Washington.

Abe Novick writes monthly for the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES. More of his work is at abenovick.com.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Defiant Ones

Recently, while I was seated at a class at the Darrell Friedman Institute for Professional Development, the moderator for the seminar began the class with a list of Jewish heroes from the Bible. She then asked, which one do we relate to?

On the list were Moses and Abraham, as well as Sarah and Leah. But there, way down on the bottom, on the boy’s side, was Judah Maccabee.

Having the lingering scent of Chanukah candles still in my sniffer and, truth be told, it being my favorite Jewish holiday due to the lasting emotional connection of receiving presents as a kid, I said, “Judah.”

When asked why, I said, “Because he’s a fighter.

I didn’t grow up in Baltimore. But in many ways New Bedford, Mass., possesses many similarities to the city that bleeds. Both are gritty seaports with tough, edgy peeps in them. While I grew up with peace signs and Peter, Paul and Mary and one set of friends, the reality of hitting the crumbling neglect of the city’s junior high school, with its discordant set of races and cultures, caused conflict and combat.

Like in a Charles Atlas ad in the back of comic books, I set out to get tough. Many Jewish pals, while they respected my desire, stuck to their books and baseball cards and aimed for Brandeis.

Fast forwarding to the present, and witnessing the conflict in Gaza, which intensified right in the middle of Chanukah, I can relate to an Israel that — like that kid that gets tormented one too many times — says “Enough.”

Israel the nation is like the smart Jewish kid many of us were in junior high, who after getting shoved and beaten up, tries to talk reason with the bullies, but realizes there is only one language they’ll understand. Of course, after bulking up and pulverizing the pesky persecutor, the cowards they truly are turn around and cry to the principal (in this case the U.N.).

Rather than being a victim, as Jews have been for centuries, Israel stands defiant and delves into its Judah Maccabee persona.

I hope my kids never have to receive or inflict the kind of damage done in Gaza. But unlike me, who learned the necessity of strength as a teen, I’ve already enrolled my 6- and 8-year-olds in karate. And it’s never too late to learn. At 47, I’ve started karate, too. (All of us are now blue belts.)

While recently stepping into this fight club, I discovered Krav Maga, a self-defense style originated in Czechoslovakia by a Jew in the 1930s and further developed in Israel

According to a recent article in The Forward, it’s gained widespread popularity due to celebrities such as Jennifer Lopez and Leonardo DiCaprio training with it. And as past articles in the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES have reported, it’s become big in Owings Mills, too.

I knew Jews could be tough, but who knew we had our own martial art?

While movies, comic books and even nations go through various incarnations of hero worship, whether the wisdom of Solomon we seek in Obama or the bravado of Bibi, the current Judeo juggernaut is wrestling with the drama inherent in defiance.

And that’s where all of the past month’s actions, from a global scale to a personal one, from Judah to Judaism, were projected and came together for me. From sitting in the DFI to the Senator movie theater to watch “Defiance,” whether Jews are being hunted in the woods of Belarus or bombed by rockets in Ashkelon, we are at a pivotal moment and how we maneuver will result in us getting hurt or standing victorious.

Krav Maga, by definition, shows no quarter (no mercy) and emphasizes threat neutralization. Carrying the fire of Judah means occasionally having to use it. ••

Abe Novick writes monthly for the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES on the intersection of Jewish and popular culture. More of his work is at abenovick.com