Michael Richards: Still not a Jew

There’s a civil war brewing in Lebanon, missiles sizzle on their launch pads in Gaza; death and doom stalk Iraq; the earth’s climate speeds toward collapse; andIran is five days closer to going nuclear than it was before my Thanksgiving holiday began.

And when I return to work, what does the whole world seem to be wondering?Hey, is Michael Richards Jewish?

Richards is the former “Seinfeld” star who was videotaped at the Laugh Factory in West Hollywood lashing out at hecklers using the N-word.

He’s been making the usual Stations of the Media Cross, apologizing ever since.And from the beginning, somehow Richards’ Jewishness, or lack of it, became an issue.

Comedian Paul Rodriguez held a press conference at the Laugh Factory, saying that Richards should know better, because the Hollywood community defended Jews against actor Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic tirades.

The implication was that Richards, a Jew, should not be launching racist attacks.

Black leaders, self-proclaimed and otherwise, told journalists that they’d be watching to see whether Hollywood reacted as strongly to Richards’ racist outburst as they did to Gibson.

How proud Mel must be that the intensity of Hollywood hate speech is now measured in Gibsons.

But if Gibson himself set the standard at 10 Gibsons, Richards is probably closer to a 5. He never made a full-length feature film shot through with vicious stereotypes. He never stood by a kooky Holocaust denier. And when he vented, he vented onstage in the course of an act.

I happened to catch Richards’ act at the Improv back in September. Richards showed up unbilled and stole the evening. He didn’t have punch lines — he had riffs, rants and characters — and he wasn’t close to offensive. At one point, he channeled the conversation of two dogs barking to each other across a suburban neighborhood. You needed to be there, and maybe you needed a drink in you, but it was hysterical. But channeling a racist without sounding like one is a much taller order, and best left to someone not as untethered as Richards.

That said, there’s also just a touch of hypocrisy in roasting a guy for using a word that a great many black comedians from Chris Rock on down use like … a noun. He may have gone too far, in character or not, but he certainly went where other comedians, not to mention hip hop artists, have gone before. How ethnic groups speak among themselves is one thing. But to maintain that the N-word is okay only when black comedians say it in public is a perverse kind of racism of lower expectations, as if they can’t help it but we should know better.

A lot of people in this affair should know better. How goofy is it that Richards must genuflect in apology to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who, for all his good works, is hardly pure in these matters? Evidently, people who live in glass houses can throw stones, so long as the houses are outside “Hymietown.”

And how obscene that attorney Gloria Allred immediately tried to shake Richards down for money on behalf of her clients, the hecklers. How inspiring to see the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement looting the headlines for ratings and cash.

But what interests me about Richardsgate is not black hypocrisy, but Jewish pathology. What tribal chain of ours is yanked the moment someone of indeterminate ethnicity hits the headlines?

The second the brouhaha erupted, there was an atavistic rush to get to the bottom of Richards’ identity. On Nov. 20, The Journal posted a story at reporting that Richards, contrary to the intimations of Rodriguez and others, is not Jewish.

By Tuesday night we had tens of thousands of hits from around the world.

By the following Monday, after a period of Thanksgiving reflection led people to realize what really matters most in life, our Web site had hundreds of thousands of hits, and the piece had been picked up and echoed and blogged on ad infinitum.

Monday morning I had several phones messages and two dozen e-mails demanding confirmation that Richard is not, in fact, Jewish.

What happened is that over the holiday, two more aggrieved audience members came forward and accused Richards of launching into an anti-Semitic rant on the Laugh Factory stage April 22.

Richards’ New York publicist Howard Rubenstein tried setting the record straight. It was preposterous to accuse Richards of anti-Semitism because, Rubenstein told Yahoo News last week, “He’s Jewish. He’s not anti-Semitic at all. He was role-playing, he was playing a part. He did use inappropriate language, but he doesn’t have any anti-Semitic feelings whatsoever.”

That quote was good for another tens of thousands of Web hits. Thanks to Rubenstein’s one man beit din, our original story was under attack.

But our sources were entertainment industry people who’d known the actor his entire professional life.

“Not a Jew. Never was. Take him off the list for a minyan,” e-mailed one comedy writer by way of reassurance. “Rubenstein should be wasting his time on real Jews, like David Beckham.”

(For many in Hollywood, what matters is that Richards’ outburst doesn’t cripple the “Seinfeld” franchise. There are tens of millions of dollars to be lost if fans can’t separate Michael Richards from Cosmo Kramer.)

Hollywood Jews may not know much Mishna or give to Hadassah, but at the tribal level they are sharper than Abe Foxman at knowing who’s in and who’s out.

Rubenstein knows, too, of course. The man Inc. magazine called “PR’s top dog” started his career servicing the Menorah Home and Hospital for the Aged and Infirm in Brooklyn and got his first Manhattan real estate tycoon publicity by arranging for him to sing to little Jewish orphans on Jewish holidays. So I called him and asked how, suddenly, Michael Richards is a Jew.

“Well, he wasn’t born with Jewish blood,” Rubenstein tells me in a voice that is silky, deep and confidential — with just a shmear of Flatbush. “It wasn’t an inherited religion. But after studying some of the other religions, he believes in Judaism, and that’s what he’s adopted for himself.”

American-Born Spokeswoman Big Asset to Israel

First Lady Jostled in Jerusalem

She may have brought a message of American goodwill toward Muslims, but Laura Bush spent a potential high point of her Middle East tour fending off protests from Palestinians angered by U.S. policies — and from Israelis, too.

After arriving from Jordan, the first lady toured Jerusalem on Sunday, traveling from site to site under heavy Israeli police and U.S. Secret Service. In lieu of speeches, she spoke to her media entourage of the need to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“What an emotional place this is, as we go from each one of these very, very holy spots to the next,” Bush said. “We’re reminded again of what we all want, what every one of us prays for,” adding, “What we all want is peace.”

Some want more. When Bush arrived at the Western Wall, demurely dressed, to place a written prayer in the cracks of its stones, she found herself facing off with dozens of Israeli demonstrators who chanted that the United States should free Jonathan Pollard, who is serving a life sentence in a U.S. jail for spying for Israel.

From there, it was up to the Temple Mount, for a tour of one of Islam’s most revered sites, the Dome of the Rock. Most worshipers looked on incuriously, but there was heckling from Palestinians angered at a Newsweek magazine report — later retracted — that U.S. interrogators had flushed a copy of the Quran down a toilet in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to torment a Muslim prisoner in their custody.

“Quran, Quran,” hissed one woman.

The Islamic terrorist group Hamas even posted a notice against the first lady on the Internet.

“We in principle don’t reject anyone’s visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque [compound], but we see in the visit of Mrs. Bush an attempt to whitewash the face of the U.S., after the crimes that the American interrogators had committed when they desecrated the Quran,” it said.

Having earlier voiced regret at the Newsweek report and the Muslim rioting that has been linked to it, Bush took a more positive tack on the Temple Mount, marveling at the beauty of the shrine. She also voiced hope for the U.S.-led “road map” to Israeli-Palestinian peace, which has been tested by renewed fighting in the Gaza Strip but which President Bush hopes to bolster by hosting his Palestinian Authority counterpart in the White House on Thursday.

“The United States will do what it can in this process,” Laura Bush said. “It also requires the work of the people here, of the Palestinians and the Israelis, to come to the table…. What we all want is peace and the chance that we have right now to have peace, to have a Palestinian state living by a secure state of Israel, both living in democracy, is as close as we’ve been in a really long time.”

‘Heart’ Celebrates a Nation’s Dream

Controversy sells movies. Remember "The Passion of the Christ?" Now Michael Moore’s Bush-bashing "Fahrenheit 9/11" is raking in millions since launching its own firestorm when Disney refused to distribute it, citing the studio’s nonpartison history. This July 4 weekend, "Disney will offer a counterdocumentary called ‘America’s Heart and Soul’ with panoramic vistas, soaring music and heartwarming profiles of cowboys, gospel singers and handicapped athletes," Newsweek said.

If the controversy pumps up "Heart," its Jewish filmmaker, Louis Schwartzberg, isn’t taking advantage. The 54-year-old is hardly as flamboyant as Moore, nor has his face been all over the news. Rather, he has been quietly attending Q-and-A sessions about his film, which Disney is promoting via word-of-mouth screenings — a less incendiary marketing tactic borrowed from "The Passion." His powerful, jaw-droppingly gorgeous documentary has been shown to dozens of targeted groups, from Jewish musicians to Future Farmers of America.

The Journal recently caught up with Schwartzberg on the Disney lot between screenings for radio host Dennis Prager and an evangelical Christian organization. Soft-spoken and dressed in jeans, he almost faded into the background as the dynamic Prager conducted an informal Q and A.

"My parents are Holocaust survivors who came to this country with nothing," he said. "They instilled in me a strong appreciation of the American ideals of tolerance, freedom and opportunity, which I wanted to celebrate in a movie."

"Heart" presents 26 vignettes of ordinary Americans with extraordinary stories (think Studs Terkel) including a blind mountaineer, a klezmer clarinetist, and an ex-con who heads the Olympic boxing team.

But don’t call Schwartzberg the anti-Michael Moore. Some of the media spin "makes it seem like [Moore’s] the left and I’m the right, but that’s not true," he said. Schwartzberg describes himself as politically liberal (he’s a board member of two environmental groups); he didn’t intend his film to be "a whitewashed, Pollyanna greeting card vision of America."

He believes it depicts the flipside of the American dream, including homelessness and unemployment, while celebrating the proverbial devotion to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

"It doesn’t matter if these values aren’t perfect or whether they even exist," he said, later, while sitting in a gleaming lobby amid images of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse. "I know there isn’t yet equal opportunity for all, but shouldn’t we strive for that? That’s what I’m hoping my film will inspire people to do."

"Heart" ends with breathtaking images of Fourth of July fireworks near Ellis Island, which Schwartzberg also traces to his parents.

"The Statue of Liberty is the first thing they saw when they came to this country, and it represents the ideals that brought them here," he said.

Although he shares these ideals, he didn’t always share his parents’ politics. During the Vietnam War, his father, a tool and dye maker from whom he inherited his love of photography, worked for a military aircraft manufacturer; Schwartzberg, meanwhile, shot photo essays about police violence during demonstrations at UCLA.

Rather than go to work for the audio visual department of dad’s company after graduation, he developed a reputation as a preeminent time-lapse photographer. Later he directed commercials and spectacular time-lapse sequences that have been featured in films such as "American Beauty," among other endeavors.

It was while traveling the country to direct promotional spots for local news broadcasts that he got the idea for a movie featuring vignettes that, strung together, "would provide a snapshot of the American character." He spent millions of his own dollars to shoot "Heart," which uses 35mm stock and looks like the priciest of IMAX films. ("I’m out on a limb, big time," he said of the expense.)

Schwartzberg persevered even as every studio in town rejected his film; Disney finally bought "Heart" 18 months ago, well before the Moore brouhaha.

If generating movie controversies has become as American as apple pie, Schwartzberg wants no part of it. "For me, it’s a nonissue," he said.

He’s equally direct with those who might label his film as right wing or naive: "I don’t think it’s hokey to love your country," he said.

"America’s Heart and Soul" opens today in Los Angeles.

Did you know

The New York Times devoted 1,500 words last Sunday to a biographical profile of Monica Lewinsky, the 24-year-old woman who allegedly had an 18-month affair with President Clinton and who has been accused of lying about it under oath.

The New York Times’ reporters are nothing if not thorough. We learned just about everything about young Monica.

But nowhere was there a word indicating that she was Jewish.

Perhaps that is as it should be. There was no mention of Linda Tripp’s religious background or Kenneth W. Starr’s either. That Monica Lewinsky is Jewish clearly has no resonance in the mainstream media. The implication of that astonishing fact seems fairly straightforward: To be Jewish is simply to be American. Beyond the fringe world of Internet hate groups, most of which consist of marginal men and women in our society who have regaled fellow chat room users with references to her religion, there is no ethnic imputation, no stereotyped past or present. Monica Lewinsky, for many Americans, is just another young woman from a privileged, upper-middle-class family. Beverly Hills and Brentwood conjure up more associations than her Jewishness.

And that is the way it should be.

But, of course, we know that she is Jewish; that her parents are members of Sinai Temple; that she was a bat mitzvah there some 11 years ago; that there were relatively few strong affiliations with Jewish organizations here; but, nevertheless, a good number of friends who were Jewish, including her father’s attorney, William Ginsburg, a medical malpractice specialist who now represents her.

And so the question — so what? — hangs above us in some unstated way. To The New York Times and most of its readers, that she was Jewish remains largely beside the point. We are way past those days of the old anti-Semitic canard about the Jewish Temptress. And for that, if nothing else, we should be grateful.

But what about us, the Jewish community of Los Angeles? Are we, too, so thoroughly part and parcel of this wider America that her Jewishness is only an incidental sidebar, a curiosity that merely causes a blink of recognition and a guess at her genealogy?

We know that Fred Goldman turned to his fellow Jews in Los Angeles for support during the O.J. Simpson trial, after his son, Ron Goldman, was murdered along with Nicole Brown Simpson. Indeed, his havurah, a study group, became a rock that helped sustain him throughout those gray days of despair.

To be sure, there is no comparison between a father’s unrelieved grief in the face of his son’s killing and the charges that confront Lewinsky. But do we stand apart with most other media consumers, reading with fascination, and not a little incredulity, the next unfolding chapter of the story? Is Monica Lewinsky, for us, as she is for The New York Times, simply another young American woman wrapped in a startling series of tawdry episodes involving the president of the United States?

Or is she, by reason of birth and background, part of what we assume to be family, a member of the tribe? Someone who may or may not have acted foolishly and improperly, may or may not have broken the law, but someone we recognize, embarrassment aside, without exchanging a word?

And if so, without judging whether she behaved well or badly, within the bounds of the law or outside of it, do we offer a hand, a shoulder, a word, even a murmur of friendly encouragement? Do we extend just a show of personal acknowledgment and a joining of hands, a nod that says we all rise and fall together no matter what direction our journeys have taken us? — Gene Lichtenstein, Editor-in-Chief