Monday, November 28, 2011

My blog is now on Jpost.com

Check out my blog, "Brand of the Jews", on The Jerusalem Post's site...


Friday, August 26, 2011

Larry David: The Shlemiel as Modern Hero

Not since Sacha Baron Cohen duped Israeli Yossi Alpher and Palestinian Ghassam Khalib, into confusing Hamas with hummus in “Bruno”, has a Jewish comedian had as much fun taking on the great divide in Middle East affairs.

This summer Larry David, who stars as himself on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm”, ridiculed the gulf between Palestinians and Jews with his “Palestinian Chicken” episode.

By pouring his brand of high anxiety comedy into the boiling boulibase of Israeli/Palestinian affairs, David carries on a great tradition of Jewish comedians

Cohen and David are part of an illustrious people (Jews) who have been able to mockingly point the finger at themselves and their haters, all while making the world laugh. From Mel Brooks’ “Springtime for Hitler” in “The Producers” to Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Throw The Jew Down The Well”, Jews have an ability to mock their enemies by pretending to be them, while cleverly displaying their own personal foibles.

As part of this prominent contingent, Larry David allegorically pokes fun at the recent dispute in Lower Manhattan over a mosque being built near the site of Ground Zero.

David concocts his fictional Palestinian restaurant, “named Al-Abbas” (sounds like Mahmoud Abbas) with chicken that’s so good LD says, “You know what? They should send this chicken over to Israel. Yeah, for the peace process. They'd take down all those settlements in the morning.”

(I suppose he means Jews would lay down their weapons in exchange for a pulke!)

It’s so finger lickin’ good and popular that in the episode, the owners of Al-Abbas plan to open a second restaurant, this time next to a Jewish deli. Such close border proximity is too bold a maneuver and sets off Larry’s entourage of Jewish pals to participate in a protest planned outside the new eatery.

But of course, it wouldn’t be “Curb Your Enthusiasm” or HBO without twisting in an “As The Bagel Turns,” sexual theme. While at Al-Abbas, Larry finds a Palestinian woman there very attractive and even says to his friend and agent Jeff, “You're always attracted to someone who doesn't want you, right? Well, here you have someone who not only doesn't want you, but doesn't even acknowledge your right to exist.... That's a turn-on.”

By noodling his perceived non-existence into a strength, Larry seductively takes her (to the astonishment of his friend, re-born Jew Marty Funkhouser) for a roll in the sack.

In the end, we find our non-hero haplessly walking down the middle of an alley between the supporters of the new restaurant—including the sensual Palestinian woman (offering herself to him on one side); and his Jewish friends shouting epithets at the Arabs, but enticing him to their side on the other.

It’s a Chaplinesque moment—the simpleton alone, maneuvering between opposing forces.

Just as Woody Allen before him, Larry David has become the face of the Jews. Like Michelangelo’s G0d touching Adam’s hand on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, David was given Allen’s doppelganger in the 2009 comedy “Whatever Works” as the misanthropic Boris Yelnikoff.

By challenging the political and social status quo, David has become the latest epitome of what Ruth Wisse termed, “The Shlemiel as Modern Hero.”

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Magneto is my Hero

The child watches as his parents cross into the gates of death at a Nazi concentration camp. The bars close separating him from them. Then suddenly, in a fit of emotion, Erik outstretches his arms attempting to bend open and break the gate with his unique and secret gift.

In the new movie “X-Men: First Class”, we go back in comic book lore to learn how a young boy, Erik Lehnsherr, grew up to become the metal moving Magneto.

Witnessing this show of super power is the evil Sebastian Shaw, played by Kevin Bacon, a Josef Mengele-like character, who wishes to experiment with and exploit young Erik’s gift. In a following scene, Shaw threatens and then shoots Erik’s mother in front of the boy, all because Erik refuses to do a circus trick and move a Nazi coin with his powers. That coin will come in handy later.

Cut to the early 1960s and we see Erik, all grown up, with numbers tattooed on his arm. He’s become a Nazi-hunter seeking out vengeance for the murder of his mother and his people. (In a twist of casting fate, the actor who portrays him was also in “Inglorious Basterds,” another fantasy film that swore vengeance against Nazis.)

Not until he meets his chum and eventual rival, Charles Xavier, does he hone his rage (somewhat) and control his unbridled force.

Created in the early 60s, the duality between Xavier and Magneto have been compared to the two-sides of the same coin that are MLK and Malcolm X. JTA’s Ami Eden has made the case for years that they resemble Rabbi Meir Kahane and Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg.

But the makers of this latest film do more than endow Magneto with manipulative powers over metal. The sympathetic character manipulates us too. He wins over the audiences’ heart throughout (unless you side with Shaw who is out to destroy humanity.)

The break point comes when missiles from Soviet and U.S. ships are launched at an island and at the mutant X-men, as the superpowers seeks to annihilate those who are different (yes, the mutants are all together now on one tiny piece of land), does Erik stop them, turn them around and aim them back at the U.S. & Soviet fleets. He even utters the words, “Never Again.”

Unlike other comics, Marvel’s creators relished in ambiguity. Their characters were not drawn in black and white. It’s also why, in the end of the film, we’re left cold when our hero becomes the anti-hero and Magneto allies with a hot devil and dons his own horns. Has he gone rogue? Or, is he still to be admired?
Simcha Weinstein’s book “Up, Up And Oy Vey!” explains it was Jewish writer Chris Claremont who gave Magneto the back-story we’re now witnessing on the big screen. Claremont writes, “Once I found a point of departure for Magneto, all the rest fell into place, because it allowed me to turn him into a tragic figure who wants to save his People.”

In some of Claremont’s work, he has Magneto be a double agent for Mossad – hunting Nazi war criminals for the CIA then secretly turning them over to Israel for trial. In “Days of Future Past”, he has mutants rounded up and put in camps throughout the US.

What this prequel provides in background, it also hints at what’s to come for the mutant X-Men. Humans will seek them out, hunting them in the hopes of destroying their race.

Back to that coin. If you were given the opportunity to avenge a family member’s death by Mengele knowing (seeing) what he did, what would you do? Thought so. Yes, not everyone in Nazi Germany was a Mengele. But how many of them were witnesses to what happened? How many people throughout the world today would willingly stand there and see it all take place again?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Nakba Nonsense

Just as Israel is physically surrounded by hostile regimes, one can’t open a website, turn a news page or flip a channel without it getting attacked in the media.

While Israel was being infiltrated by angry mobs crossing into its territory on May 15th in “Nakba” protests (Nakba, or calamity in Arabic, when Israel was reborn) from across the Syrian, Lebanon and Gaza borders, it’s publicly criticized by Jewish intellectuals, writers aligned with left-leaning politics and high-profile celebrities.

This month, in a reversal of misfortune, Tony-Award winning playwright Tony Kushner, who was at first barred from receiving an honorary degree from CUNY due to his stance on Israel is now set get one. Yet, in his letter of protest to the CUNY board, he writes, “I believe that the historical record shows, incontrovertibly, that the forced removal of Palestinians from their homes as part of the creation of the state of Israel was ethnic cleansing.”

It’s not just from outside the perimeter of Israel, that it’s equated with terminology usually reserved for the most abhorrent regimes. From within Israel, Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy writes, “Were Israel a little more confident…all schools in Israel, Jewish and Arab alike, would today mark Nakba Day.”

One is reminded of Akiva’s saying, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” For a non-Jewish outsider to look in they must wonder, “Why support Israel when even the Jews are so vehemently critical?” Indeed, being critical of Israel is one thing, but portraying Israel’s birth as a “Nakba” is a dangerous misreading of history as CAMERA points out.

Yet like so many Big Lies, it’s believed when repeated over and over again. What’s omitted is that in 1948 a Palestinian state could have been fulfilled, but instead Palestinian Arabs rejected it and Israel was attacked. As historian Benny Morris notes, “the Palestinian Arab leaders, headed by the exiled chief and Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and ally of Hitler, Hajj Amin al Husayni, rejected partition and launched a three-day general strike, accompanied by a wave of anti-Jewish terrorism in the cities and on the roads.”

Another lie by omission is how nothing is ever mentioned about the disaster suffered by the Jews expelled from Arab states, and especially from Egypt, Iraq, and Syria. As Professor Ada Aharoni of the World Jewish Congress points out; Egypt’s Jewish community comprised 90,000 Jews in 1948. Today, only 38 Jews live there. Yet, the Arabs (who prefer to call themselves Palestinians) who live in Israel today constitute 20% of the population.

The noose of hostility surrounding Israel is further exacerbated by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas when he created an alliance with Iran-backed Hamas, a terrorist group that refuses to accept Israel’s existence and has fired over 328 rockets and mortars at Israel’s civilians according to The Israel Project. In September, he’ll seek unilateral recognition of a Palestinian State in front of the UN. Yet were Abbas to have his way, the so-called right of return would bring an estimated 4.8 million Palestinian refugees and descendants to Israel. The result of such an action would ensure an ethnic cleansing—of Jews in Israel.

I suggest that the “Nakba” protests have nothing to do with the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but are in reality in existential opposition of Israel as a Jewish State—in any form.

But why believe the pro-Israel press and Jewish organizations dedicated to understanding the truth behind the news? Just tune into Al Aqsa TV and you will find Yunis al Astal, a member of the Palestinian Authority parliament, spelling out his organization’s vision for the genocidal annihilation of the Jewish people. In a television interview last week Al Astal described the ingathering of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel in terms of a divine plan that would give the Arabs “the honor” of annihilating “the evil of this gang.”

Better yet, read your history of the Jews and then ask, “Do we still have to wonder what is actually being planned?”

Demystifying Eichmann

Tuesday May 17, 2011

Finally, on the 50th anniversary of the Eichmann trial, historian Deborah Lipstadt has taken an analytical approach, demystifying this seminal moment in 20th century court history with her book, "The Eichmann Trial."

For fifty-years, the term, “banality of evil” has been part of the political and cultural lexicon, due to Hannah Arendt’s famous book describing the trial of Adolf Eichmann, “Eichmann in Jerusalem.”

Now through scrupulous research, Lipstadt’s insightful book reveals facts that had been overlooked and exposes opinions that became lore.

No stranger to either the subject of the Holocaust (she was a consultant on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum), or court trials related to it, (she successfully won her case against Holocaust denier David Irving and authored a book on the subject, “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier.”) Her new book describes the capture, trial and worldwide response to it; the latter with a particular focus on Arendt.

In laying the groundwork in her introduction, while she draws comparisons to her own trial and Eichmann’s, their main commonality being a deeply rooted anti-Semitism, she is careful to make distinctions. In the Eichmann trial the Nazi was the defendant and survivors were called as witnesses to testify. In her own trial, the burden of proof was on her.

Importantly, her greatest contribution is in proving that Eichmann was not the “order-taker” he claimed and that Arendt portrayed him as, but that he was responsible to “ensure that the freight cars should be used to their maximum capacity.” Additionally she reveals transcripts not used in the trial to show that in Hungary, even in the face of Allied bombardment of rail stations, he resolved to “still march” the Jews to the lower Austrian border.

Equally significant is her exposure of Arendt’s detached, phenomenological approach to the trial where it was, “the transformation of seemingly normal people into killers” that intrigued her. Beyond emotional detachment, Lipstadt also points out how Arendt was in fact physically absent for several weeks of the trial vacationing in Basel.

Beyond this, another of the more significant changes that the trial stylistically bore was the term, “Holocaust.” She writes, it was “cemented into the lexicon of the non-Hebrew-speaking population.”

On that note, while the media in 1961 had nowhere near the lightning speed and utter ubiquity it possesses today, the term “Holocaust” had been on the front pages of newspapers and created a focus and attention previously unseen.

The trial also provided worldwide interest in a new field of study giving birth to countless academic institutions now offering genocide and Holocaust studies.

But perhaps the most profound effect was…

“…as a result of the trial, the story of the Holocaust, though it had previously been told, discussed, and commemorated, was heard anew, in a profoundly different way, and not just in Israel but in many parts of the Jewish and non-Jewish world. The telling may not have been entirely new, but the hearing was.”

On this, her book comes at a crucial time, when through the lens of the internet and 'Do-It-Yourself ' media reporting, fact and fiction frequently blur. Lipstadt summons a razor sharp perspective, clearly and incisively delineating the two and setting the historical record straight.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Babel Bites

This month a global survey conducted by the BBC found Israel to be one of the most negatively viewed countries in the world. In fact, Israel was the fourth most negatively viewed country, just ahead of Pakistan, North Korea and Iran.

The survey encompassed 27 countries with over 28,000 people interviewed of which 49% (essentially one-half) viewed Israel negatively.

Question: With all of the many pro-Israel organizations promoting it, a virtual alphabet of initials from the ADL – ZOA, how is it that such a perception can exist?

From a marketing angle, I believe there is a duality at play. One is an on the ground physical space that exists – a reality. The other is an idea – a metaphysical notion of what Israel stands for in the mind.

On the ground, the Middle East is a geographical conundrum. To cede land to the Palestinians, as Israel did in Gaza, is to have Hamas’s rockets rain down on homes. Conversely, to fight back and to try and eradicate the threat is to be perceived as the aggressor.

The same exercise took place in the North against Hezbollah in the 2006 Lebanon War. In fact, over the past 30-years, from 1982 in The First Lebanon War, to the First Intifada in ‘87 and the second in 2000 to Operation Cast Lead 2008-‘09, each time Israel tries to wrestle its way out of the net laid by its enemies, it gets further entangled in the trap set by them.

Translated on the airwaves, in the more metaphysical media space, the news gets reported through a distorted and often slanted lens as David vs. Goliath. Only in this version, Israel is Goliath.

Perceptually, it looks like this: Palestinians throw rocks, Israel shoots guns. Hamas sends crude rockets, so Israel flies powerful F-16s.

Unfortunately, perception isn’t reality. Ergo, we have a communications problem.

Yet again, with the many organizations that strive to enlighten, defend and communicate Israel’s story, it’s difficult to match words and facts against propagandistic imagery. But with too many facts vying for attention, with so many organizations and various, though well-intentioned agendas, a Tower of Babel ensues.

What Israel needs is a unified communications strategy.

In ancient Chinese wisdom, with a crisis, often comes an opportunity.

Currently, with an Arab world in turmoil illustrating the instability of the neighborhood where Israel lives, the world once again sees how vast and populace, not to mention how volatile those countries are. The world can perceive how Israel is completely and utterly surrounded by tyrannical regimes, many of which seek its destruction.

For Israel to be defined by the Palestinian’s cause is to miss the wider picture of a region of adversaries.

In marketing, when a brand is lost (and in this case I’m talking about the metaphysical Israel) go back to its heritage. Israel needs to be perceived on the airwaves, as what it is on the ground – a David.

One story. Not hundreds.

David was not without fault, but he was also a warrior, a musician and a poet. Similarly, Israel is not perfect, but strives to be righteous, is culturally rich and diverse. David’s reign signified the formation of a coherent Jewish kingdom centered in Jerusalem. And with God's help, David was victorious over his people's enemies.

One note of caution – branding is forever and needs to be differentiated from the day-to-day micro-conflicts and dramas in the news cycle. Fortunately this very idea is part of the rich history, heritage and long legacy of Israel as told through the Bible. It is authentic.

It’s also a story that is not only told in the Jewish bible, but is all encompassing and iconic, recounted by Jews, Christians and yes, even Muslims.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Void Of Horror

Void Of Horror

In the era of AMC’s “Mad Men” and in 1965, Harold Pinter wrote “The Homecoming” his Tony Award winning masterpiece, which just had a run at Center Stage here in Baltimore.

A Jewish/British playwright, Pinter, who also won the Nobel Prize for Literature, was an actor, poet and left-leaning political activist. His early plays, were able to wrench and capture the ontological void of the vast nowhere land from his predecessor Samuel Beckett and place it within realistic settings.

He infused their spare, unadorned locales of ordinariness (his play “The Room” takes place in a one-room apartment) with characters drawn by jagged razors, so sharply carved they glide before they cut. Even the proscenium at Center Stage was framed like a picture, beckoning the audience to observe the slit like voyeurs.

Enter Ruth, a name with significant lineage in the Jewish canon and no accident either. Like the biblical Ruth who is brought to her husband’s people, this Ruth accompanies her husband, a professor of philosophy, into his childhood home occupied by his father, two brothers and an uncle, while getting to know all of them in the biblical sense.

In the end, Pinter has Ruth, the object of desire, coil around and transform the house that the men built, into one that she rules. The lads revolve around her like orbs to the Sun.

For anyone who watches “Mad Men” knows, the women of that era are constantly treated like servants or worse, tarts. NOW was only founded a year later in ‘66.

Equally then, while women were still second-class citizens, Jews were an invisible minority.

Perhaps out of fear, or pragmatism, like many artists and writers of his day, Pinter doesn’t make much of his Jewishness in any overt way. One can assume, that Max and his kin are Jewish the same way Arthur Miller’s Loman family in “Death of a Salesman” is Jewish.

Fast forward to today, where names like Tony Kushner and David Mamet have their characters make no bones about their identity. Movies and books by Jews, about Jews are for everyone. Likewise, more women are in the American workforce these days than men.

Men, who have created more hot wars, cold wars and conflicts during their reign should be happy, no grateful, that at this point, when one twitch of a finger can annihilate us all, women may have been sent to rescue us.

Flip open your smartphone to the flipside of a time-warped world and from Iran to Egypt, we’re witnessing ‘60s riots in real time where woman are oppressed and Jews mostly despised.

Can this new awakening of freedom, from a world previously cutoff from progress triumph? Or, will the freedom of speech and to assemble, to go to the theatre and see Pinter plays, be snuffed? (Pause).

Pinter’s early plays were apolitical. He even said, “I'm not committed as a writer, in the usual sense of the term, either religiously or politically. I'm not conscious of any social function.” Yet, their menacing pauses can be as terrifying as a scream from Gehenna.

In his later life and in the midst of our divisive culture, much of Pinter’s political activism rained controversy down on him. Yet know, as an officer in PEN and with fellow playwright Miller, he travelled on a mission to investigate and protest against the torture of imprisoned writers.

In fact, up until he died, stricken by cancer in 2008, and in the last decade of his life, he devoted himself to causes he believed in and rarely wrote plays.

Just as women had to be wallflowers and Jews needed to be unseen, his greatest plays left unsaid (perhaps in those frightening pauses) much of what he later saw as wrong with the world, as madness.

Monday, February 7, 2011

“Al Jaffee’s Mad Life: A Biography” - Book Review / Jewish Times

Since the new millennia and the rise of blockbuster movies like “Spiderman”, “Ironman” and “Hulk”, numerous books have been written about the invention of the comic book and how Jews were largely the creative force behind the pop-culture phenomenon. But right alongside, and when the sensation really hit its apex in the 1960s and 70s, MAD Magazine lent an added satirical slant to a cartoon culture and a world seemingly gone mad. It became a must-read for millions.

“Mad Life” is the story of Al Jaffee, the iconic cartoonist and prolific contributor to Mad, who at 89 is still at it (55-years and counting) with the pub. But aside from his zany drawings (he created the famous fold-in) and clever wit, his biography is a fascinating read because it’s so unique.

Born in 1921 in Savannah, GA to Jewish Lithuanian immigrants, his mother longingly up and yanked Al and his three brothers back to Lithuania. Speaking no Yiddish, nor a word of Lithuanian and with no electricity or plumbing, the boys were in culture shock. Then, after a year there, their father rescued them and brought them back to the US, only for them to be taken by mom once again.

But in 1933, with the Nazi threat looming, their father sensed the impending danger and saved them, leaving behind their mother, who no doubt perished in the Holocaust.

But while the lads were away in the old country, their father kept sending young Al and his brothers, cartoon funnies from the Savannah newspaper and the boys would treasure and duplicate them.

This cross-Atlantic linkage had a profound influence on Al’s art and he eventually got accepted to the new High School of Music and Art, where he met up with his future MAD colleagues, Will Elder and Harvey Kurtzman (Kurtzman would be the original mastermind behind MAD.)

The award winning and authorized biographer, Mary-Lou Weisman, writes, “given his artistic gift, Al’s mad childhood seems to have led him inevitably to satire and to MAD.”

Running alongside Weisman’s portrayal, the book is filled with colorful drawings by Al that build on the narrative infusing color and joy into his harsh, madcap life.

Promised Lands - Book Review / Jewish Times

For those asking the proverbial question, “Where are the next crop of great Jewish writers?” the answer is within the pages of this book.

Derek Rubin is to be applauded for assembling a group of highly talented, fiction writers, who’ve each contributed their unique voice to the proposed theme of Promised Land and how that idea, in his words, “continues to shape the collective consciousness of contemporary American Jews.”

Archetypically, Promised Land is a notion wide enough to encompass a vast array of interpretations by each of these creative authors, yet it also offers them a starting place from which to invent their imaginary tale.

While some of the writers are more famous than others, all of them express, a variation on a universal theme and provide a “mosaic” on it.

First in the line-up, Dara Horn knocks it out of the village in her piece “Shtetl World”, where she concocts a theme park in Western Massachusetts based on the now vanished setting of an Eastern European shtetl. Masterfully, she’s able to infuse irony within the confines of what is a haunting environment.

In another section of the book, the land of Israel provides a subject to ruminate on and in Joan Legant’s hands, she analyzes the healing nature it offers a woman who defended herself from a brutal attack.

Toward the end, the theme widens to encompass the illusory and physically unobtainable idea of Promised Land. In Jonathan Rosen’s “The True World” a reporter goes off on a quest to interview a deceased Saul Bellow, traveling first to a ghoulish Ellis Island and then onto the netherworld where he encounters the late Henry Roth who serves as his guide.

Importantly, in a category largely dominated by men for the past sixty-years, this collection exemplifies the significant rise women have attained, with thirteen of the twenty-three voices being female writers.

Mr. Rubin, like his previous book, “On Who We Are: On Being and (Not Being) a Jewish American Writer”, provides us a substantial compilation that signifies and reflects the moment and zeitgeist of our generation.