Chloe Valdary: Christian, black and a rising star of pro-Israel activism
Growing up in New Orleans, Chloe Valdary kept kosher, studied the Jewish Bible and celebrated Jewish holidays with festive meals. In recent years she has become an outspoken pro-Israel campus activist, contributing regularly to the Jewish press, and speaking and posting widely about the merits of the Jewish state on social media.
But the senior at the University of New Orleans is not Jewish. She is Christian — a member of the “>piece in which she accused pro-Palestinian activists of misappropriating the rhetoric of the black civil rights movement. In the piece, titled “To the “>letter by the Black Americans to Support Israel Committee, backing Israel’s right to exist.)
Her outspoken support for Israel in the name of civil rights not only cuts against the arguments of Students for Justice in Palestine and other critics of Israel, but also against the drift of much black civil rights rhetoric over the past few decades.
While a number of early civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., were supportive of Israel, subsequent black leaders — particularly starting with the black power movement in the late 1960s — often have been sharply critical of the Jewish state. Black power leader Stokely Carmichael “>endorsed the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and “>recorded “>spoke at an event organized by The Alumni Community, a New York-area alumni group for Birthright Israel, which is less ideologically oriented. And not all of her fans consider themselves conservative.
“She’s a champion on campus of a Zionism that doesn’t apologize and also comes from a deep place of humanism,” said Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, Calif., who describes himself as a “progressive Zionist.” “Her rejection of the demonization of Israel is not based on being a talking head on the right or the left. It’s based on being a very articulate and thoughtful leader on campus.”
Although her views on Israel tend to be aligned with more right-leaning pro-Israel groups, Valdary maintains that her opinions are based on liberal ideals. She argues that Israel’s sovereignty over Arab citizens “speaks to the concept of indigenous people” — the Jewish people, according to Valdary — thus is a liberal value. This places her at odds with a number of Israel critics, as well as black leaders such as Carmichael and Angela Davis, who have argued that the Palestinians are indigenous while Jewish-Israelis are colonizing interlopers.
Valdary says that “Israeli society, like any other society, has issues with discrimination, but in terms of systematic discrimination, like apartheid in Africa or Jim Crow, that does not exist in Israeli society.” She says that she opposes a two-state solution, favoring a “Jewish one-state solution” in which all citizens in Israel and its territories can vote, but “the culture, the personality” of Israel is Jewish.
Valdary’s political views, and her invocation of civil rights history and rhetoric in the cause of Zionism, has made her a controversial figure and a lightning rod for criticism. Some of the criticism has been racially derogatory, as when blogger Richard Silverstein posted an article of Valdary’s on Facebook with the “>Valdary “>said, “This is a perfect example of where the Israel lobby is heading, of where Zionism itself is heading, is that a right-wing evangelical has been recruited to attack Jewish intellectuals and to tell them that they are bad Jews.” (Valdary does not consider herself an evangelical or right wing.)
Blumenethal added, “I find it peculiar that someone with no credentials is so outspoken, so heavily promoted on this issue.”
We just disagree
It’s never fun to wake up and find yourself on the wrong side of CAMERA. That’s the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting, a Boston-based media watchdog group that monitors the print and electronic press for anti-Israel bias. When the group finds what it considers anti-Israel opinion or reporting, it sinks its teeth into the offender, Boston terrier-like, and shakes until an apology spills out.
For the past couple of weeks, CAMERA and other like-minded readers have come after me for chastising the organization’s attempts to block the appearance here Friday and Saturday (Feb. 15-16) of the Rev. Naim Ateek, a Palestinian Christian who espouses nonviolence but employs harsh and destructive rhetoric. Lots of letters, angry phone calls, and a threat from CAMERA that if I didn’t meet their minimum standards of contrition they would send out an e-mail blast summoning their supporters to deluge the Journal with demands for an apology.
But I can’t do it.
As I wrote here three weeks ago, I am a supporter of CAMERA and its mission. They do good work. But I believe they were taking the wrong tact in trying to tell a local church with a long history of support for Israel and Jewish causes whom it should and shouldn’t listen to.
CAMERA and I disagree on only one thing: tactics.
As I said quite clearly in my Jan. 25 editorial, the Sabeel Center is not a friend of Israel. In fact, I used the word “enemy.”
My point is not that the group, or its leader, isn’t so bad; it’s that CAMERA’s prescription of how the Jewish community of Los Angeles should respond to Ateek’s appearance at a local church is wrong. In other words, these people are dangerous, but our reaction must not make things worse. I think CAMERA, which in so many cases I find useful and correct, is in this case making things worse.
All Saints Church in Pasadena is a massive, mainstream Christian church with longstanding ties to the Jewish community. It is not some small group of liberation theology radicals hosting a vegan potluck in a rented community room. The Sabeel conference also has the backing of Bishop Jon Bruno, who has done as much or more for the Jewish and Israeli cause in this town as any Christian leader.
These men lead an educated, sophisticated flock that does not want to be told who it can or can’t invite. They are not looking to CAMERA or any other Jews to kasher their lectures. In fact, attempting to do so can only build up resentment. It turns the Arab Israeli conflict into a free-speech issue, and when that happens, when Jews are perceived as being on the wrong side of free speech, we lose.
So what is the answer?
The pro-Israel center and left need to also focus their energies on these liberal Christan groups. They need to dissect the arguments of Sabeel and present the Israeli case in a much more persuasive and winning way.
I’m thrilled that this kind of dialogue already has begun. This past Monday evening, All Saints Church’s the Rev. Ed Bacon met with 100 members of Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center at the center’s sanctuary and heard their concerns. He expressed his support for Israel, his opposition to divestment and to using rhetoric like “apartheid” when speaking of Israel; but he held firm to his decision to host his friend Ateek. He also committed, according to Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater, to organizing a conference at which progressive, Zionist Jewish voices could make their case to his congregants.
“People came skeptical that the church was open to dialogue,” Grater told me, “I think their minds were changed.”
In a series of e-mail exchanges last week, Rabbi Ken Chasen at Leo Baeck Temple and Daniel Sokatch of Progressive Jewish Alliance said they would welcome such a conference.
And that is the correct reaction to the activities that have become a regular occurrence in our communities and on college campuses. This week California State University Northridge hosted Norman Finkelstein, the controversial Israel critic and author of “The Holocaust Industry,” despite the concerns of Jewish groups. Within the central organizing bodies of the Presbyterian and Methodist churches, there is renewed call for divestment from companies doing business with Israel. It took enormous good will and intense lobbying to beat back these divestment resolutions the first time around; there is no reason to think this second round will be the last.
The model that has worked for the Jewish community for decades is building relationships with different communities, working with them on issues of shared concern, supporting them in their time of need and asking for their support in our time of need. Progressive Jewish groups and leaders, speaking much the same language as these churches and academic institutions, are in a better position to counter the anti-Israel rhetoric than more hard-line Jewish groups who do not share the same depth of relationship or wider political perspective. All Saints Church inviting Sabeel, Grater said, “might be a mistake, but when you’re in a relationship, people make mistakes and you work on that and improve your partnership.”
As our writers discovered in reporting this week’s cover story, left-leaning Zionist groups receive less communal dollars than their more center-right counterparts. That’s also a mistake. These groups are the best defense all of us have in the ongoing struggle to counter destructive voices and policies among mainstream Christians and in academia. Their communal support is in Israel’s best interest.
Election coverage, CAMERA, illegals, Goldberg, Spinka, Auschwitz
That old joke has no place in your paper (Cover, Feb. 1). Jews, like everyone else, should be voting for who is best for the country; not who is best for the Jews.
In addition to being wrong, it is grist for the mill of anti-Semites.
What is good for the country is good for everyone, including the Jews.
It is important that you printed Andrea Levin’s (of CAMERA) piece clarifying the dangerous illusions of Rob Eshman’s take on Sabeel, Ateek and All Saints Church (“CAMERA, Sabeel and The Jewish Journal,” Feb. 1). Could we get Ms. Levin to take over the job of Editor of the Journal? It would definitely be an act of pikuach nefesh [preservation of life], big time.
I was away and just got around to reading your Jan. 25-31 issue (“Butt Out”). I believe it deserves a Pulitzer Prize. Eshman’s gutsy editorial, Gorenberg’s golden words and an array of fabulous articles by authors who represent a broad scope of Jewish and non-Jewish thoughts and actions that impact local and global issues. Great job!
Martin J. Weisman
I write to thank Rob Eshman for your “Butt Out” editorial in the Jan. 25 edition of The Journal.
As you have on many occasions before, you have made an eloquent pitch for engaging in dialogue with those with whom we disagree. Sabeel, and the North American Friends of Sabeel may stand for many things that are controversial in the Jewish community, but surely it is the prerogative of All Saints Church to host them and enable us to know — rather than speculate on — their position.
The question that is tougher for me is: am I also obligated to listen to the views of CAMERA?
So here we have it. Two blatant Israel bashers (if not outright anti-Semites) are getting together, and Eshman — being the watchdog of free speech he is — orders the Jews to “butt out” for daring to speak up! Those pesky CAMERA Jews should shut up, unless of course, they agree with Eshman’s worldviews.
I’m ashamed to admit that under the cover of the night, and away from the watchful eyes of The Jewish Journal, I sometimes read CAMERA’s forbidden stuff. Please, Mr. Eshman, don’t be angry with me.
Come to think of it, CAMERA is terribly needed in here, perhaps now more than ever.
La Canada Flintridge
As you note, there is a threat to Christians in the Middle East from Islamic attacks against them. Downplaying this threat as a Christian problem misses the point that neither Jews nor Christians are acceptable for some in the Islamic world. Ateek and Sabeel are so consumed with their anti-Judaism that they do not see that the seeds of their own destruction are sown with the potential destruction of Israel. Criticizing Israel without criticizing the Palestinians is at the root of CAMERA’s objections to the efforts of the liberal churches sponsoring Sabeel.
Samuel M. Edelman
Dean, College of Arts and Sciences
The American Jewish University
Illegal aliens are tax consumers (“Immigration: Time to Share the Heavy Lifting,” Feb. 1). According to a recent report by State Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, member of the California Budget Commission, it costs Californians $10.5 billion a year to educate, medicate and incarcerate illegal aliens.
Aiding and abetting, hiring and exploiting illegal aliens is a federal offense punished by a fine of $3,000 per illegal and six months in prison.
Having spent years living and working in Mexico and witnessing first-hand how they treat strangers, travelers and “illegal aliens” that just happen to make it to the northern border region, and that includes the vast majority of the civilian population, I have no sympathy with their so-called plight here in the U.S. The “good” rabbi may want to rethink his position regarding his desire to play with the American people under the guise of Judaism.
Dr. Leonard I. Antick
I disagree with the notion that we should find a sensible way to give the illegals citizenship. The ones that snuck across our border will have to go home or be sent home. The ones that overstayed their visas will have to come forward and be checked out, fingerprinted, DNA, and made sure [they] haven’t committed a crime here, then possibly pay a fine and go to the back of the line.
Should Israel Care?
While it is Israel’s prerogative to negotiate Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries, Diaspora Jewry should have a right to veto any proposal to relinquish places at the core of Jewish history, namely the Old City, archaeological City of David and Temple Mount (“Why Should Israel Care What We Think About Jerusalem,” Jan. 25).
First, if Israel surrendered security control over the Temple Mount, it would leave the safety of visitors there or to the adjoining Western Wall to the mercy of Palestinians who, in the past, have bombarded Jewish worshippers with rocks and boulders at the slightest pretext.
Second, it would undermine the very reason for having a Jewish state in the Middle East. The Temple Mount is not only the holiest site in the world for Jews, but also a singular national symbol and a testament to Israel’s historical right to exist.
Finally, it would invite an irreparable archaeological crime and an assault on history itself. Archaeologist Eilat Mazar has reportedly uncovered the foundations of King David’s royal palace in the City of David, and the Temple Mount may contain not only the remains of the temples, but also biblical-era archives, temple artifacts, and perhaps even the Ark.
These are not just Israeli concerns — they are concerns for all Jews.
CAMERA, Sabeel and The Jewish Journal
Rob Eshman’s peculiar attack on CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (“Butt Out,” Jan. 25, 2008), for alerting some of its Los Angeles area members and friends to the pernicious activity of an anti-Israel group called the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center and its spokesman, Naim Ateek, is wrong and distorted on many levels.
First is the absurd suggestion that CAMERA has no jurisdictional standing to comment on the Feb. 15 Sabeel conference at a Pasadena church. Eshman rightly identifies CAMERA as headquartered in Boston, but fails to mention it is a national organization of 60,000 members with offices in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. An active L.A. Advisory Board and more than 8,000 area members, as well as professional staff in Los Angeles, also belie the notion that a national group cannot comment on local events.
For more than a decade, CAMERA has been involved in Southern California, sponsoring briefings, conferences and lectures and monitoring and interacting with the Los Angeles Times.
Literally, as Eshman was writing his strange attack, CAMERA was running ads in local newspapers in the area deploring the incidence of bias in the Los Angeles Times, citing a 19-month study of L.A. Times Op-Eds, prepared by a CAMERA analyst and highlighting a recent anti-Semitic cartoon in that publication. The CAMERA ads challenging the L.A. Times’ bias appeared in the LA Weekly, Hollywood Reporter, L.A. Business Journal, Orange County Register, USA Today, Beverly Hills Courier — and The Jewish Journal itself!
Beyond this, CAMERA has on its staff a Christian-media analyst, Dexter Van Zile, whose focus is church commentary related to the Middle East and who has done extensive research and writing on Sabeel, has attended five Sabeel conferences and has spoken personally with Naim Ateek. A key finding of Van Zile’s invaluable work on the topic has been that Sabeel’s many appearances in mainline American churches have helped poison attitudes toward Israel in some of those denominations.
In communication with numerous Jewish organizations, CAMERA has worked on the difficult challenges presented by events such as the Sabeel conference in Pasadena.
Finally, on this point of CAMERA’s right to raise such matters, it’s notable that while Eshman devotes an entire column to demanding CAMERA “butt out” of Los Angeles, he evidently has no objection to the gathering in Pasadena of Bethelem-based Sabeel and Naim Ateek, along with speakers from various nations and places, to assault Israel.
Why is that?
One answer may be head-in-the-sand avoidance of the realities, and anger at those who suggest there’s a need to speak out and confront Israel’s detractors. Indeed, Eshman argues that Ateek’s chilling statements are just talk. In a contradictory leap of illogic he notes on the one hand that Ateek purveys classic “Christ-killer,” anti-Semitic imagery, but on the other that Ateek is a man with whom one can discuss and debate issues. He quips that Ateek’s anti-Semitic imagery “sure beats Hamas” and that he’ll take it “over a suicide bomber any day.”
This is remarkable thinking. Need it be said that spreading anti-Semitic messages in American churches is perilous in itself and must be opposed? Need it also be noted that there are dangers short of suicide bombings? Or that defaming Jews can lead to violence against them — as it has so often?
But Eshman claims CAMERA has chosen “the wrong enemy” and that exposing the statements of Sabeel and Naim Ateek risks “unraveling longstanding local relationships.”
He quotes the Rev. Ed Bacon of All Saints Church saying CAMERA “is trying to paint All Saints as an anti-Semitic organization that is against the State of Israel.” He insists: “What we are trying to do is teach people to be sophisticated about how they talk about these issues,” and adds he is “not sympathetic with Sabeel to the exclusion of the right of the state of Israel to exist.”
The Rev. Bacon may have good intentions (CAMERA has not suggested his church is anti-Semitic). But to believe that bringing Sabeel and a roster of anti-Israel speakers to excoriate the Jewish state will benefit an audience and make them “sophisticated” in discussing Middle East issues is truly troubling.
That conference lineup includes Illan Pappe, an Israeli academic and member of Israel’s tiny Communist party who has spearheaded boycott efforts against Israel in the UK and who admits to having no interest in facts. Reviewing Pappe’s book, “A History of Modern Palestine,” historian Benny Morris wrote that much of it was “complete fabrication” and that in Pappe’s world “The Palestinians are forever victims, the Zionists are forever ‘brutal colonizers.'”
Another speaker, Don Wagner, has also defamed Israel in his efforts to convince Christians in the United States to divest. In his book, “Dying in the Land of Promise,” he compared “the 100-year process of Zionist occupation in Palestine” to a “killer-vine” strangling a rose bush in his back yard.
Speaker Anna Baltzer authored an article titled “Israel’s Nazi Atrocities: The Dawud Story” concerning the alleged death of a child at a checkpoint. She likens Israel to apartheid South Africa.
And so it goes. Speaker after speaker.
The All Saints-Sabeel program will not be an opportunity to help fair-minded people gain greater understanding; it will be a one-sided assault that promotes prejudice and enmity. Why Eshman thinks Jews in Los Angeles and Pasadena should not be aware of such an event and what it may portend is inexplicable, and entirely irresponsible, for the editor of a Jewish newspaper.
Rob Eshman responds:
Though you wouldn’t know it from the harshness of Andrea Levin’s tone, she
and I actually disagree on only one issue — tactics.
As I said quite clearly in my editorial, the Sabeel Center is not a friend
of Israel. In fact, I used the word, “enemy.” If Andrea doesn’t think that
word is strong enough, I apologize.
My point is not that the group or its leader, Naim Ateek, isn’t so bad; it’s
that CAMERA’s prescription of how the Jewish community of LA should respond
to Ateek’s apperance at a local church is wrong.
I’m always leery when Jewish groups ride in from out of town to try to save us from the bad guys. We have plenty of sharp-eyed Jewish defense groups locally who can tussle on our behalf. It’s just a bit condescending to think we rubes, out in America’s second-largest Jewish city, don’t know how and when to fight. Or whom.
For the past couple of weeks, the Boston-based pro-Israel media watchdog group CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America) has been riling up rabbis, congregants and any Jew with an e-mail address to pressure the All-Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena to cancel the appearance of a prominent Palestinian activist, the Rev. Naim Ateek.
Ateek, an Israeli Arab who lives in Jerusalem, is scheduled to speak at the liberal church Feb. 15-16. As founder of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center and its sister organization in the United States, Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA), Ateek has championed the cause of nonviolent resistance to Israel in the West Bank. His writings are numerous and explicit: Ateek wants an end to occupation according to U.N. Resolution 242, and reconciliation between Israel and a Palestinian state.
“We want Israel to live in peace and security within its pre-1967 borders,” he said in a sermon at Boston’s Old South Church last year. “At the same time we want justice for the Palestinians in accordance with international law and the creation of a Palestinian state living in peace and security alongside the state of Israel. There is no other way.”
CAMERA and other Jewish organizations vehemently protested Ateek’s appearance in Boston and elsewhere. Their critique focuses less on his vision of a future settlement than on his language and methods. In his sermons and writings, Ateek uses imagery that portrays Palestinians as suffering under Israel as Jesus and the early Christians suffered — raising disturbing images of the ancient anti-Semitic canard of deicide. He has also championed comparisons of Israel to apartheid South Africa and has promoted divestment as a nonviolent tool to bring pressure upon Israel.
These are disturbing tactics and unsettling words. But, man, it sure beats Hamas. It beats Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the armed wing of Fatah by a mile. I’ll take a man who writes that the occupation is the equivalent of the stone blocking “Christ’s tomb” and that “The Israeli government crucifixion system is operating daily,” over a suicide bomber any day. This is an opponent you can debate, propogandize and educate.
This is the Palestinian resistance that, had it taken root in the Palestinian body politic 45 years ago instead of that cancer called Arafat, the history of that region would have been much different, much better.
So, CAMERA, I admire you, I respect your work, but butt out. Get back on your white horse and go rescue some other Jews.
Besides choosing the wrong enemy here, you risk unraveling longstanding local relationships that have taken much time and care to knit together.
“CAMERA is trying to paint All Saints as an anti-Semitic organzation that is against the State of Israel,” the Rev. Ed Bacon, leader of All Saints, told me. “That is far from the truth. What we are trying to do is teach people to be sophisticated about how they talk about these issues. I’m not sympathetic with Sabeel to the exclusion of the right of the state of Israel to exist.”
Bacon and the local Episcopal diocese, which also supports Ateek’s efforts, have been more than open to the entreaties of the local Jewish community. In late 2004, responding to concerns of local Jewish leaders and its own wisdom, the diocese voted to bypass a resolution put forward by activists to divest church funds from companies doing business with Israel.
Los Angeles Episcopal Bishop Jon Bruno has been to Israel nine times. A former beat cop and pro-football player, he doesn’t need to be schooled by Jewish activists on Israeli geography or the importance of security. And it was Bruno who, in April 2005, stepped in and helped the Silver Lake Jewish Community Center buy its $2.1 million property when every Jewish organization said no.
But what about balance? If Ateek is allowed to criticize Israel, shouldn’t pro-Israel activists demand equal time? (Never mind that many of the most damning things Ateek often says are direct quotes from Israeli soldiers, politicians and journalists, who just haven’t learned to be as uniform in their opinions as American Jews).
Ideally, yes, there would be debate and rebuttal. But in the real world grownups hear strong opinions all the time and judge them against past and future information. That’s why most Jewish groups don’t invite Palestinians to their lectures.
Still, the Rev. Bacon has invited pro-Israel activist Daniel Sokatch of the Progressive Jewish Alliance to address his congregation this Sunday.
“The message the liberal churches get from the Jewish community on Israel is, ‘You’re either with us or against us,'” Sokatch said to me by phone. “I think there’s a third way. But we have become hypersensitive on our side.”
Now, there’s awful evidence that the Palestinian state Ateek is fighting for will be anything but hospitable to Palestinian Christians. Last October, Rami Khader Ayyad, the 32-year-old director of Gaza’s only Christian bookstore, was shot in the head and stabbed numerous times by Islamic fundamentalists. A month earlier, a masked attacker beat an 80- year-old Christian Palestinian woman in Gaza, calling her an “infidel.” Since the Palestinian Authority took over control of Bethlehem, Christians have emigrated en masse.
But that’s Ateek’s problem. If he believes in the power of nonviolence to win over a Palestinian population educated for generations in hatred and intolerance, good luck to him.
Meanwhile, I, for one, want to hear what the man has to say. I believe Israel is strong enough to withstand the rhetoric of a 70-year-old cleric dedicated to nonviolent coexistence.
If it’s not, even CAMERA can’t save us.
Bedouin life from a child’s eye view through a camera
A young Bedouin boy casually leans against a rough-hewn wooden table, his kaffiyeh blowing in the wind. Laid before him are some of the traditional tools of Bedouin coffee-making, essential to their culture of hospitality. A mortar and pestle for grinding the beans, a large cast-iron pan for roasting them, and a bacraj, or coffeepot.
Behind him is a section of a cinder-block wall, a sign of the permanent housing that is gradually replacing traditional Bedouin tents. English writing appears across the chest of the Western-style sweatshirt he wears beneath his jalabiyya jacket.
The photograph is part of an exhibition titled, “Passages Between the Past and Future: Photography by Bedouin Children of Abu Kaf, Israel,” which continues through Sept. 30 at the Venice Arts Gallery. According to Kim Frumin, the educator, artist and Fulbright Fellow who designed and implemented the project, this and other photos in the exhibition accurately show the fluidity between tradition and modernity at Abu Kaf. Frumin sees the boy’s relaxed pose, amid artifacts ancient and new, as epitomizing a “great harmony … between the past and the future” in the children’s lives.
The seeds of this project were sown in the summer of 2003, when Frumin visited Israel on a community service trip. Walking through the Bedouin village of Wadi El Na’am, Frumin felt like the “pied piper of 35 millimeter film.” Fascinated by the camera slung over her shoulder, the children followed her around, excitedly calling out in Hebrew: “Take my picture!”
Frumin was intrigued by the fact that “in a village without water or electricity … the children were so excited about the camera.” Concerned with escalating tensions between the Negev Bedouins and Israel over land disputes and access to basic services, she thought about ways she might help create bridges between the cultures.
“I realized that my experience and expertise lay in art education and in working with different cultures,” she said.
With the children’s excitement for photography fresh in her mind, Frumin decided to use art “as a tool for communication and expression.”
From December 2004 through April 2005, Frumin worked with 10 youths at a school in the recently recognized Bedouin village of Abu Kaf. The students practiced taking and developing pictures — none had ever used a camera before — and examined photographs taken by other children around the world.
Frumin and the children also “spent a lot of time with the idea … of how the camera gives you new eyes to see everyday things in new ways,” she said. “I hoped that spending time examining and reflecting on their community would foster a pride in their unique culture and a love for Israel.”
Though shy at first, the students quickly became eager to write and talk about their culture.
“The project tapped into a wellspring of thoughts [and] feelings about their community and their traditions,” Frumin said. They also “knew they had a unique perspective to share, the experience of being a Bedouin child,” a notion that was very “empowering” for the children.
In another photo, a young girl is counting on her fingers as she kneels for prayer. Frumin explained that “she is praising Allah the prescribed number of times and is showing how kids remember to count the correct number.”
The principal of the Bedouin school, Ali Abu Kaf, has been so impressed by the children’s “work, their ideas … and the power of their writing and photographs,” that he suggested Frumin undertake an expanded second round of the project. This time, however, he’d like the Bedouin children to partner with children from Jewish kibbutzim in the area.
As Frumin said, “the project would be a ‘living together’ — not just tolerating each other or existing together — project.” Frumin hopes to begin this second round in February or March and is “actively looking for sponsors.”
“Passages Between the Past and Future: Photography by Bedouin Children of Abu Kaf, Israel,” through Sept. 30. Venice Arts Gallery, 1809 Lincoln Blvd., Venice. (310) 822-8533.
Avoid an Oops in Shooting Your Video
Little Rachel takes her first steps — but your camcorder battery dies before you get the shot.
Your family reunion includes Grandma Shirley, whom you haven’t seen in 15 years and, frankly, may never see again. You interview her on video, but when you sit down later to watch it, the sound is so bad you can’t understand a single word.
At my brother’s bar mitzvah, a family member showed up late with the video equipment, set up the camera and forgot to push record.
Whether you’re trying to capture a wedding, b’nai mitzvah or 50th anniversary celebration, the day will come and go whether you’re ready for it or not. Unless you’re prepared, the opportunity to capture family history can easily slip through your fingers.
Losing such precious moments can be depressing. But with a little advance planning, attention to detail and some practice, you can shoot home videos your family will kvell about for years to come. Here are some tips:
1. Don’t forget to push record. Once you push “record,” confirm that you are recording. Every video camera features a recording indicator, typically located in the viewfinder or the view screen. As you get ready to focus on your subject, the first thing you should do is look in the viewfinder or on the screen and note whether the recording indicator is on.
2. Charge your batteries. This is one of the most common mistakes. The battery that came with your video camera will not last longer than one hour. In addition, after a few years, rechargeable batteries don’t hold their charge well. Even buy an extra battery pack or two, charge them and have them on hand in case your primary battery loses its charge.
3. Focus on sound. Bad sound is often the biggest killer of home videos. Are you only using the standard built-in microphone? Be conscious of its limited range. If you’re recording someone nearby, try to get as close to the person as possible. If you’re at a gala event and someone is using a microphone, try to get close to the electronic amplification speaker.
4. Stabilize your shot. All modern video camcorders have a stabilization option. Turning this option on will improve your shots tremendously. I require my professional videographers, who shoot everything from wedding videos to commercials, to turn this option on.
5. Use both hands. Shaky camera work can give friends and family headaches. Do not hold the camera in one hand, stretching your arm out in front of you. Instead, hold the camcorder with both hands, and hold the camera against your body. For even greater stabilization, lean your back against a wall.
6. Forget the zoom. Don’t use the zoom. Instead of constantly zooming in for closeups and then zooming out for wider shots, try holding the camera against your body, framing your shot like a still photograph. To get closer to the image, simply walk closer, using your body as a large stabilization weight. To get a wider shot, simply walk backward — but be careful.
7. Look in two places at once. This is a more advanced move. Learn to keep one eye watching your camcorder’s viewfinder or screen and the other eye looking outside the field of the screen to see what person or object may soon be coming into your frame. This allows you to anticipate and prepare your camera move.
8. Learn from your mistakes. Take some time out a few days before an event and shoot some practice footage. Spend a few minutes reviewing a short piece of it, and note how you could improve.
Also, don’t save the camera for special events. Keep practicing your video skills by recording everyday family moments. After all, you don’t want to be scrambling for footage 10 years from now, when you want to create a video montage of your child to show during a bar or bat mitzvah.
Spectator – Lessing’s Shots of Liberty
Erich Lessing received his first camera when he exited the synagogue from his bar mitzvah in Vienna in 1936.
“There was no idea of taking up photography as a profession,” said Lessing, 82, from his house in Austria. “In a good Jewish family in Vienna you would only be a lawyer or a doctor.”
But the camera stayed with Lessing when he left Austria for Israel in 1939 to escape the Nazis. There he took photographs for the British army. When he returned to Austria in 1947, he started working as a photojournalist. His interest was the newly communist Eastern Europe, and the photographs he took in Austria and in Hungary during the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 have become Cold War icons.
For one week, starting Sept. 25, a selection of Lessing’s photographs of Austria will go on display at the Beverly Hills Country Club in conjunction with Austrian American Day. The exhibition, titled “From Liberation to Liberty” includes images famously emblematic of the period, such as “Four in a Jeep” — a photograph of four military policeman, one each from the United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union, a symbol of the post-war occupation in Austria.
Lessing did not stay with this reportage: “After the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, all the photographers who had been there saw that it was not our documents that were changing political decisions. I do not want to downgrade the influence of photography — the photography at the end of the Vietnam War was very influential. But it took another 50 years for the end of communism in Europe.”
In 1960, Lessing started taking photographic “evocations” of the lives of great poets, musicians and scientists, often taking still photographs of their work in museums. The result was more than 30,000 photographs of art, history and archeology that have filled 40 books. But his seminal work remains the photographs of the 1940s and ’50s.
“I found it a very strange title, being dubbed the photographer of the Cold War,” he said. “But I think it is true.”
“From Liberation to Liberty,” will be on display at the Beverly Hills Country Club, 3084 Motor Ave., as part of the Austrian-American Day Celebration. For more information, call (310) 444-9310.
Diaspora: A Photographer’s Quest
"My work was driven by a sense of imminent loss," writes Frédéric Brenner in the introduction to his new book, "Diaspora: Homelands in Exile." "Two thousand years of history were about to vanish. I felt a desire and a responsibility to document these permutations of survival in exile before they disappeared…. As I began my journey, I realized how much loss had already taken place."
It was this sense of loss that led Brenner, a 44-year-old French photographer on a 25-year journey to more than 40 countries, to document the lives of Jews in exile. Brenner wanted to record the process of acculturation that has distinguished the history of the Jews since the Temple was destroyed and the Jews were scattered into exile.
"The journey undertook me more than I undertook it," Brenner told The Journal. "I needed to unveil and uncover the many threads which make up the fabric of my identity. I am a product of the East and West — my grandparents came from Algeria, and my other grandparents came from Ukraine and Romania. I am typical of the blending which makes up the fabric of our people."
So Brenner traveled all over the world, using his camera to tell stories that might otherwise never be told. He went to Abyssinia, where he photographed Jewish women who still practice the pre-talmudic custom of confining themselves to a hut during menstruation; he captured Jews in Yemen who know how to read Hebrew upside down, because they have only one book that all need to learn from; descendants of Marranos (secret Jews) in Portugal who light Shabbat candles in hiding and celebrate Passover in the attic; Russian peasant Jews who work on kolkhozes (communal farms); and Gen. David Dragunsky, the leading Russian anti-Zionist during the Brezhnev era. Brenner shot Jewish merchants in India; female rabbinical students, all wearing tefillin, in New York; Chasidim in Mea Shearim, and Hell’s Angels in Miami.
The photographs, all black and white, give the viewer a glimpse into the many permutations of Jews and Judaism today. They manage to shake any sense of complacency that one might have about definitions of what the religion should be, and should look like. All in all, they are profoundly moving, because it is only this gossamer chain of religious identity that is shared by all.
"What these people have in common is mainly their differences, and their acceptance of their own differences," Brenner said. "What Jews have in common is that they altogether make the experience of dispossession and dispersal, again and again and again. This experience is not only experienced passively as a curse, but very often it is claimed as reinvigoration. The ‘wandering Jew’ is something we reclaim, as a project, a vocation."
In "Diaspora" (Harper Collins) the photographs are presented in two volumes. The first installment is a coffee-table collection of some 260 photographs; the second is a selection of the shots with accompanying text surrounding them, laid out like a page of Talmud.
The text is written by a variety of authors: Jacques Derrida, Stanley Cavell, Sami Shalom Chetrit and Carlos Fuentes to name a few. They approach the photographs as a layered text, attempting to discern the meaning in the image, and to raise the issues that they see embedded in the duotones. "What rouses me against this photograph and doesn’t let me go?" asks Michael Govrin of a shot of four Greek Holocaust survivors, each stretching out their arms so the viewer can see the numbers tattooed there. "Did Frederic mark those nameless men yet again in a ‘composition’ of tattooed arms and clenched fists? Did he violate the pain etched in their bodies by imprinting it on film?"
Sometimes, the text tells the story of the person in the image, such as the wonderful letter, written in 1821, that accompanies the "Tribute to the Raba Family." The letter tells the story of the Rabas, Portuguese Jews who escaped the inquisition keeping their Judaism intact, and went on to amass a huge fortune in France.
"I don’t offer any answers, only questions," Brenner said of his images. "The texts chosen are very elliptical, and so there is a lot of space for the viewers to trust their own commentary."
Brenner is an outgoing, lively and handsome man, who is as likely to quote biblical commentators like Rashi in his speech as he is postmodern theorists. He gives the sense of always being in flux, his projects are infused with the same gusto that his every gesture exudes. One can easily imagine him jetting around the world, camera in tow, feeling invigorated as he traipses through a ludditic Ukrainian village looking for the last remaining Jew.
"Jews are people who subvert the archaical forces of death," Brenner said. "A large majority of Jews, and non-Jews, know how Jews died, but they don’t know how Jews lived. The history of the Jewish people is becoming the history of the Shoah; there is a fascination with our own disappearance and that is not Jewish. The fact that we have been victims for a large part of history has taken over the other part, which defines who we are. There is a famous verse in the Bible where God says ‘I will put in front of you life and death, and you will choose life’ — and that is what we have to do."
Frederic Brenner presents and discusses images from "Diaspora: Homelands in Exile," at the Skirball Cultural Center on Oct. 21, 7:30 p.m. This lecture is in association with "The Photograph and the American Dream, 1840-1940,"on view Oct. 18-Jan. 4. For more information, call (323) 655-8587.
My thanks to The Jewish Journal for opening its pages to a Palestinian American journalist living in Los Angeles to present a Palestinian perspective on why they initiated an intifada two years ago (“Intifada Fruits: A Palestinian Perspective,” Oct. 4). At the end of Muhammed El-Hasan’s article, he seemed to imply that the intifada grew out of Palestinian frustration at what former Prime Minister Ehud Barak had offered the Palestinians at Camp David and later at Taba, Egypt. The issues he presented for their frustration were not the real reasons for the failure. The two major items that separated the two sides were contained in former President Clinton’s bridging proposals. They involved Jerusalem and sovereignty over the Temple Mount. It should be pointed out that Barak had agreed to Clinton’s bridging proposals and Arafat did not. Furthermore, Arafat scuttled the peace talks in crossing Israel’s most sacred red line by insisting on the Palestinian right of return.
While there was urgent need for further negotiations between the two sides, the Palestinians resorted to violence and terrorism. This is the major cause of today’s tragic situation. It is indeed a pity, and it is about time the leadership of the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people assume responsibility for the options they choose and their consequences.
Dr. Michael Ben-Levi President Meretz USA Southern California Chapter
In Mike Levy’s piece, “Support for Israel Elementary to Watson” (Oct. 4), he described the recent “primary defeats of African American incumbents Earl Hilliard in Alabama and Cynthia McKinney in Georgia” and comments that the two incumbents “were defeated with the help of Jewish organizations and individuals.” He should also have mentioned that the winners in both Democratic primaries — Arthur Davis in Alabama and Denise Majette in Georgia — are African American as well.
Hal Denner , Sherman Oaks
Jeffrey Dvorkin takes CAMERA to task but doesn’t address any of its many complaints against NPR (“CAMERA Out of Focus,” Oct. 4). He does not even address the issue raised by Andrea Levin that Israelis are not permitted to answer charges made against it by NPR. Dvorkin is an advocate, apologist and spokesman for NPR. This is not the legitimate role of an ombudsman.
Mike Michelson, Mission Viejo
It’s Not Easy Backing Simon
The left (i.e., those who still believe that appeasement is the path to peace in the Middle East), are suddenly discovering that free speech isn’t free. There is a price to pay for taking positions that are not popular, and there always has been. The fact that the vast majority of Jews in America reject the left’s views does not mean that “honest and open discourse” cannot take place or that there are “some serious limits” on free speech. It means that they are losing the argument.
To illustrate the utter childishness of those on the left who are whining about their supposed inability to express unpopular views, all one needs to do is turn the page to the story about Dr. Joel Strom who was told, “You are a traitor to your people” at a Santa Monica synagogue for the grievous sin of supporting Republican Bill Simon for governor (“It’s Not Easy Backing Simon,” Sept. 27).
Which end of the spectrum was it that gave us political correctness?
Ira Mehlman, Marina del Rey
An Inch Late, a Dollar Short
Having read your “An Inch Late, a Dollar Short” (Sept. 27) three times, all sorts of memories spanning six decades came flooding back. The snubs, disdain, contempt, etc. inflicted on so many Jewish height-challenged fellas that I witnessed may be of use to you in some future article. The attitudes of so many Jewish females concerning height may be masking some deeper feelings that cause them to be so rejecting. There may be deeper issues behind the ladies’ repugnance.
Name Withheld Upon Request, Glendale
Nobody Likes Saddam
President Bush has no proof on Iraq. Waiting for proof is like waiting for the sky to fall. Your article in this regard is quite an understatement (“Nobody Likes Saddam,” Sept. 27). Should we be afraid of Saddam Saddam? Yes. Should and can he be contained? Yes. Through the U.N. inspections and resolutions. Saddam has been seriously weakened through embargo and exposure. Bush and his cohorts are frightened men and are fear-mongering and trying to distract us from the real fears of the weakened economy and business immorality.
The question of war is more than not idle. War is terrible, costly, and is a failure. Imagining terrible things happening in the United States without a complete and total wipeout retaliation of Iraq by our country is absurd and insane. That’s insane, Hussein is not.
Isaac Motola, Pasadena
Kudos on Covers
Many thanks to Carvin Knowles for the thought-provoking covers of Sept. 6, Sept. 13 and Sept. 27.
It’s not often that l am so moved by a front cover that I check to see the name of the designer. The one of Sept. 6, “A Time to Reflect,” shows the reflection of the World Trade Center disaster on an apple that is next to a bee (our symbols of hope for a sweet upcoming year). This cover brings chills to me, whenever I see it. I have shown the cover to other people. I know the covers have been criticized in the past (Arafat caricature), so l wanted to express a thanks for these covers.
Judy Lederich-Mayer, Sherman Oaks
The Silencing of the Left?
The real loneliness has been on the right for many years (“The Silencing of the Left?” Sept. 27). Those of us who questioned the wisdom of Oslo were labeled as enemies of peace when all we said is that Yasser Arafat will never be a Nelson Mandela.
Oh, of course there was lip service for a variety of views. A great exhibit of this was some two years ago when The Jewish Federation put on a community meeting just after of the violence broke out. My solitary voice that challenged the then-accepted wisdom that Oslo was “good for the views” faced six other opinions that ranged from the extreme left of Peace Now to the moderate middle of “maybe there are some flaws in the process but essentially it is good.” That was balance then and, alas, I doubt The Journal ever did a piece on the isolation of the right.
The problem today is not that the left is isolated because of some kind of group-think. Their intentions may have been noble, but simply put, their ideas have failed. Some still cling irrationally to a dream that has proven unrealistic.
The left needs to take some responsibility for what it has done. Today Israel, instead of being somewhat safe with the master terrorist cooped up in Tunis, faces an enemy armed by Israeli guns. Those guns, and the empowerment provided by the dreamers of left to the Palestinians has forever transformed the Middle East into a place much more dangerous for Jews — and Arabs also.
Rabbi David Eliezrie President Rabbinical Council of Orange County
Jewish Values and Work
I took notice of two articles in the Sept. 27 issue: Rabbi David Saperstein and Rachel Wainer’s article on “Sukkot and Our Duty To Alleviate Poverty” and Julie Gruenbaum Fax’s article “The Silencing of the Left?”
In both articles, my colleagues passionately connected their work to Jewish values and Torah. Indeed, it is our passion for what Jewish traditions, history and values teach us that drives our social justice work, not just the other way around. The important work of the organizations that are summarily described as “the left” represent the support of significant numbers of affiliated and unaffiliated Jews.
Whether it be a focus in the Middle East or at home in the United States it is projects and organizations whose missions are driven by our Jewish traditions of tikkun olam that are resonating with increasing numbers of supporters, especially from many Jews in our community who have been disconnected from mainstream Jewish institutions.
Celia Bernstein, West Coast Director The Shefa Fund
Marlene Adler Marks
It’s reflex, I suppose. I can’t help it. Is anyone else out there opening The Jewish Journal each week since Marlene Adler Marks’ passing, only to find herself or himself looking for her? I know that many of us would turn to her column soon after opening The Jewish Journal’s pages. I miss it. I miss her spicy yet gently irate reactions to injustice. And even though I’m confessing this secret, I’m still looking.
Leah Schweitzer, Valencia
CAMERA Is Out of Focus
The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America’s (CAMERA) Andrea Levin wants to start a boycott. She has urged Jewish listeners to stop supporting National Public Radio (NPR). Levin said that NPR’s coverage of events in the Middle East amounts to biased reporting and a "defamation of Israel."
As the ombudsman at NPR, I have received much mail about NPR’s coverage of the Middle East. My role is to make sure that the listeners’ concerns are conveyed to management and to help NPR journalists understand how their reporting is perceived. Many of the criticisms have been very helpful. But some critics are not interested in bettering our coverage. The idea of a boycott falls into that latter category. Levin said it’s not really a boycott, but ending funding for NPR is precisely what she wants, and that sounds like a boycott to me.
As history has shown, boycotts have had a dangerous role in the life of the Jewish community — whether it is the Arab boycott of Israel or the calls today for universities to divest themselves of their Israeli investments.
I would like to speak against this dangerous proposal by CAMERA and why a boycott of NPR would work against the best traditions and best interests of the Jewish community:
NPR is one of the very few American news organizations to maintain a continuous presence in Jerusalem since 1982. In Israel, NPR has two permanent correspondents, Linda Gradstein and Peter Kenyon. A third correspondent will join them over the next few months. NPR reporting has been recognized as a leader in its international coverage from the Middle East and around the world. Other news organizations have reduced their presence overseas. Many news bureaus have been closed as money-saving measures. NPR now operates 12 foreign bureaus. CBS, once the gold standard for foreign broadcast journalism, now has only six.
That does not mean that NPR gets it right every time. Like every other news organization, it makes mistakes. But NPR does try to report this story with all its complexity and in context. NPR also reports on an hourly basis, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Like CBS and CNN and the Los Angeles Times, it makes mistakes. When they happen, NPR corrects them quickly — both on the air and on the NPR Web site.
CAMERA, along with other media watchdogs, tells NPR when it has made an error. NPR acknowledges those mistakes and learns to be a better news organization as a result. One important result of the criticisms was to place all reports in written form on the NPR Web site (www.npr.org). Listeners can now go back and read the reports to decide for themselves.
Another result was to create a nimble corrections policy so that errors are caught and acknowledged in a much more timely fashion.
NPR has reinforced its own policies on attribution of sources, the use of interviews and the use of natural sound from the scene. It remains NPR policy that all reporting must be fact based and fair.
But for some critics, those improvements are too little and too cosmetic. Many listeners still feel that NPR’s reporting on the Middle East remains subtly — or not so subtly — biased.
Some of that is because this story is enormously painful and deeply disturbing to many listeners — both pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian. We hear from people in both communities how the coverage seems tilted away from their concerns. The intensity of this feeling from the Jewish community has been powerful.
In July 2002, NPR’s President Kevin Klose, along with News Vice President Bruce Drake and I went to Israel to see for ourselves. The goal was to talk to our correspondents, to meet with Israeli politicians, academics, pollsters and journalists and to meet their Palestinian counterparts. We came back with a renewed commitment to this story and a deeper understanding of the need to broaden our perspectives beyond the violence. While the terror attacks and the military pressure can’t and mustn’t be ignored, there are other stories as well. We resolve to tell those stories about the anguish along with the hopes of individuals and communities.
We also need to continue to report on the political and military events in the region and the effects they might have back here in the United States. As the United States continues to press the war against terrorism in Afghanistan and against Iraq, the situation in the Middle East becomes increasingly critical and dangerous. This is not a time to reduce our reporting, or to confine it to one side or the other. CAMERA would like NPR to do precisely that. When it comes to NPR, CAMERA sees only the faults and presumes only a malign intent.
We will continue to listen to the critics, and provide our stations with the most reliable information possible. The listeners deserve no less. But the most serious consequence of CAMERA’s disingenuous appeal lies in what might happen to the entire public radio system if a boycott should succeed.
Most of NPR’s funding comes from its more than 600 member stations. NPR collects dues for the programs it produces, and the stations subscribe to the service. So a boycott of NPR is really a boycott of the local public radio stations — not just NPR. In Los Angeles, that includes several public radio stations such as KPCC, KUSC and KCRW.
Public radio has an increasingly important role for communities around the country. Not only do the stations provide quality information, the stations also nourish their communities by playing a critical cultural role. Many also have their own local news programs. There are more than 1,000 public radio stations throughout the United States. They represent a reflection of their communities by providing local information, music, drama and discussion of significant local issues. More than 30 million listeners a week now listen to public radio in order to find a serious source of news and culture that is, frankly, better than anything else that can be found on the radio. Public radio stations play that role brilliantly. More and more community groups around the United States are asking NPR how they can set up public radio stations in their towns.
NPR can always do better reporting. And it must. Public radio will continue to serve the cultural and information needs of all its listeners. But NPR also needs the support of all its listeners at this critical time in our history.
Public radio has always found some of its deepest support inside the Jewish community. It is because public radio’s commitment to quality information and humanist culture finds a kindred spirit among many in the Jewish community. Rather than exacerbating community anxieties and tensions, a more useful role for CAMERA would be to redefine its role to that of media critic and gadfly. Every news organization — NPR included — can benefit from that kind of constructive criticism.
CAMERA needs to find a way to engage in effective feedback, something it has failed to do as it attempts to demonize the media. Should it do so, it might be surprised at the response from news organizations that now view CAMERA as shrill and unrepresentative of the community it purports to serve.
NPR and public radio are much more than just the Middle East coverage. In these times, never has public radio been more needed and more valued. Never has a call for a boycott seemed more shortsighted.
Jeffrey Dvorkin, NPR’s ombudsman, writes a regular column on media criticism at www.npr.org/yourturn/ombudsman/ and can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Television Jews: How Jewish Is Too Jewish?
The new television season is upon us. African American and Latino groups are making the expected protests about the lack of people who look like them before and aft of the camera, and the Jews are — as usual — adding up their TV IQ on the fingers of one hand.
If there aren’t many “brothers” out there, there are even fewer “Members of the Tribe,” and those that are there are not particularly Jewish Jews, if you know what I mean.
Take 40-something, newly divorced father “Danny,” played by Daniel Stern. In CBS’ new series, Danny looks like he’s Jewish, sounds like he’s Jewish, but his live-in father is played by Polish American Robert Prosky, and his kids Sally and Henry come across as just, well, kids.
Ah, but wait, Danny is described in the program notes as “adapting to his single life one neurotic step at a time.” Neurotic is television-speak for Jew — just like “New York” as an adjective means “Jew” in the Midwest.
The whole subject makes the producers of the show, which, by the way, is set in that hotbed of neuroses, Portland, Ore., a trifle nervous. “It’s implied,” one of the show’s producers told The Journal. “It’s not an overt kind of thing. You don’t get it rammed down your throat. It’s not about his Jewish life — it’s about his life.”
Actor Daniel Stern himself, however, seems more relaxed about the idea of playing a Jewish man with a thing about basketball. “I was happy to be Jewish on the show,” he said. “And I like sort of putting it out there. And I want to put it out there in a sort of funny way. I thought that might be something that I hadn’t seen.”
That’s because he hadn’t seen the pilot for “Inside Schwartz” (see below). Adam Schwartz is also Jewish and a basketball nut. It’s not implied — he tells you that right off the bat, even though he’s played by non-Jew Brekin Meyer.
“I want to be the first Jew to win the slam-dunk contest,” Schwartz declares in the pilot episode. His more realistic dream is to become a sports announcer. Even if he hadn’t told us, we’d know he was Jewish, because his sidekick is a perfectly marvelous young Jewish woman played by Miriam Shore, who is ready and waiting for him to make his move on her. (We know she’s Jewish because she’s smart-mouthed and quirky.)
Executive Producer Stephen Engel says he wasn’t sure how the network would react to a show built around a Jewish character. And he wasn’t the only one.
“My father called while I was doing the show,” Engel said. “He said, ‘You know I don’t interfere in your work, but this show you’re doing, are you sure about the title? You know Schwartz is a Jewish name. I don’t know how the rest of America [is] going to respond to this.'”
Of course the central joke only works if the character is Jewish. Jews and sports — an oxymoron, right? And that was the point, as far as Engel was concerned.
“I like to consider myself a fairly good athlete,” he said. “I’m not a professional yet, but I haven’t given up hope. But there are Jews across America in sports. One right here in right field in Los Angeles.” (For those not into sports, that would be Dodger Shawn Green.)
Jason Alexander, one of the Seinfeld crew — the most successful Jews-who-dare-not-speak-their-name in TV history — is playing a Tony Robbins-style guru in ABC’s “Bob Patterson.” Patterson may or may not be Jewish — but he is kind of a lovable jerk. If in a future episode we find out the name used to be Futterman, be prepared to cringe.
Mike Binder, however, former stand-up comic star and creator of HBO’s “Mind of the Married Man,” is undoubtedly Jewish, although it’s never stated, and he’s married in the show to a gorgeous blonde Englishwoman, played by Oxford-educated Sonya Walger.
Binder grew up in a Jewish community in Detroit, and made a 1993 movie about his summer experiences at the Jewish Camp Tamakwa in Ontario (“Indian Summer”). He even wears a Tamakwa sweatshirt in one scene in the new show. But the character is just another narcissistic, sports- and sex- obsessed American male. And you don’t have to be Jewish to be that.
On the other hand, Max Bickford, professor of history in CBS’ “The Education of Max Bickford,” doesn’t know from sports. His is the ivory-tower world of old European white males to whom scholarship and love of the past is life.
And while he’s staggering under the pressure of apathetic students and political correctness, he’s doing it (from the evidence of the pilot, at least) as a slightly over the hill, all-purpose ethnic. So — is he Jewish?
“I think so, yes,” says Bickford’s alter ego, Richard Dreyfuss. “He’s got an edge; he’s a curmudgeon. The way I keep describing him is Walter Matthau, but shorter.”
He’s also the most potentially interesting of the ‘Jewish’ characters on this season’s new shows, if only because Dreyfuss is noted as that rare Jewish actor who enjoys being Jewish on screen: think Moses Wine, ace detective in “The Big Fix,” Duddy Kravitz, and even Meyer Lansky.
But since this is essentially a serious show, well written and dealing with intelligent issues, just hold your breath that it will enjoy a long run. Even if it is, don’t expect Bickford to deal with his Jewishness. Having an overtly Jewish character as the lead on a drama is still seen in Hollywood as a surefire way to cut yourself off from the American mainstream viewer.
Serious shows with Jewish content have a history of wiping out before you can say, “Nielsen, Shmielsen.” Remember “Brooklyn Bridge,” Gary David Goldberg’s loving tribute to his Brooklyn bubbie? Or how about “The Trials of Rosie O’Neill,” in which Rosie (Sharon Gless) answered to a kippah-wearing, public-defender boss played by Ron Rifkin? Neither lasted long.
Comedies have a longer shelf life. Jewish humor on television is the one thing that has been accepted with open arms by the rest of America — witness “Seinfeld.” Because, whether they know it or not, just as Jewish music became Tin Pan Alley, Jewish humor, as filtered through the Catskills, Hollywood and Las Vegas, is now American humor.
Bob Hope once quipped, “Hollywood is the only town where they give up matzah balls for Lent” — a line written by one of his many Jewish writers. The point being that everyone in Hollywood is Jewish, whether they were born into it or not. Hollywood has been shaped by Jewish culture — by now that’s a sociological truism — but the only place you’d know it on television is in comedy.
From “Seinfeld” to “Mad About You” to “Dharma and Greg” to “The Larry Sanders Show,” Jewish humor has infiltrated popular culture. On television, Jewish humor is the Trojan horse sneaked into the living rooms of non-Jewish America to acquaint them with the fact that Jews are pretty much like them, only more so.
“Northern Exposure,” for example, worked because America identified with its hero — a nice Jewish doctor (Rob Morrow) plunked down in small-town Alaska, where he was the least weird of the bunch. “Picket Fences,” created by Irish American David E. Kelley, introduced the conniving Jewish defense attorney played by Fyvush Finkel. (Kelley’s in-joke was that Finkel’s character bore the WASP-ish name of Douglas Wambaugh.) In one episode, he was called before a beit din to answer charges that his sleazy behavior was damaging his people’s good name.
Ironically, Kelley wrote the episode after receiving letters complaining that Finkel’s character perpetuated the stereotype of the shyster lawyer.
HBO’s “Larry Sanders Show,” which told the truth about so many aspects of American television, also warned about the perils of being too Jewish. In one episode, Larry’s sidekick Hank (Jeffrey Tambor) became a born-again Jew, and insisted on wearing a kippah on the show. Larry’s creator, Garry Shandling, noted his favorite line in that episode was when a Jewish network executive said it was OK for him to be Jewish because, unlike Hank, “he was behind the camera where the audience couldn’t see him.”
Larry Gelbart, one of the funniest comedy writers today, says of Jewish humor, “I think it’s our cultural heritage to find some relief from intolerable situations with laughter. To use it as both a sword and a shield, as an offensive and defensive weapon against those who are being hostile to you.” It seems that in a more dangerous and difficult America, the rest of the country increasingly wants to borrow the weapon.
The good news this season — yes, there is some — is that with “The Nanny” and “Suddenly Susan” (the JAP stereotypical Vicki may have been married to a decent sort of rabbi, but she was definitely cringe material), having passed into the lucrative afterlife of syndication, parodies of spoiled shopaholic Jewish women on primetime television have given way to spoiled shop-a-holic Italian women on “The Sopranos.”
And despite rumors to the contrary, the girls on “Sex and the City” can’t possibly be Jewish: Carrie only shops retail, Samantha is a nymphomaniac, Miranda is too thin, Charlotte is married to the only Scottish doctor on Park Avenue, and they’re always picking at a salad and getting tanked on cosmopolitans at lunchtime.
In short, Jewish viewers are likely to find this season as unsatisfying as countless others. As in real life, Jews on television this year are still married to, or dating, non-Jews. It cuts down on interesting sources of conflict, according to the writers, if two characters both celebrate Chanukah and know the difference between a matzah ball and kreplach — as if the writers never noticed the surfeit of conflicts within the Jewish community.
And there are still many Jews who, while they have Jewish names and look Jewish, never identify themselves as such. But, of course, we’ve never heard of that in real life, have we?