Choice of a Jew generation

If you’re in a bookstore and see a book with two impish-looking guys trying to sneak a light for their cigarettes from a chanukiah, then you’ve happened upon “Jewtopia: The Chosen Book for the Chosen People” (Warner).

Yes, the saga of Los Angeles’ longest running original play continues. “Jewtopia,” the play, was first brought to us in 2003 by two unemployed writers/actors who maxed out their credit cards to mount the funny, if somewhat stereotypical, comedy about dating and Jews. It was originally supposed to run for six weeks but was so popular that it extended for another year, then left in 2004 for an off-Broadway run in New York, where it’s still playing to sold-out audiences.
Now Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson, the creators and sometime actors in the play have expanded their “Jewtopia” vision into a book, and they are working on a movie deal as well. The 200-plus page color book, might be mistaken for a coffee table book — except that much of the material inside is not fit for the living room.

Consider, “The Jewish Kama Sutra: An Illustrated Guide to Lovemaking,” because “Jews are certainly not known for their prowess and skills in the bedroom.” Positions include “The Challah,” “The Heimlich,” “The Reader” “The Minyan” and “Bubbe’s Visit” (She cleans while he…oh, don’t ask.)

“It’s to be read in the bathroom only,” jokes Wolfson, who plays Adam Lipschitz, a Jewish guy facing extraordinary parental pressure to marry a Jewish woman.

“I think it should be read at the family seder — it’s a good substitute for the Haggadah,” replies Fogel, who in the show plays Chris O’Connell, a Christian obsessed with meeting a Jewish woman who strikes up a bargain with Adam to help him pass as a Jew if Chris can find Adam a date.

To be sure, there’s more than just sex jokes in “Jewtopia: The Chosen Book…” There’s a chapter on Jewish History, the Holidays (“Celebrate the Bad Times”), Food (“Anyone Have Some Zantac?”) Travel (“Planes, Trains and Diarrhea”) and Conspiracy Theories (“Do Jews Control the World?”) with real, live facts mixed in with, well, bubbemeises, like Moses’ lost diary or the game “Match the Nose to the Jew.”

In a world where it’s hip to be sardonic about Jewish identity (Heeb, Jewcy, Rabbis Daughter) “Jewtopia: The Chosen Book…” is a more idealistic, “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Jewish Stereotypes” kind of take on our people-sophomoric and sometimes scatological humor by two guys who are clearly having fun.

“We kind of consider ourselves the Trey Parker and Matt Stone of the Jewish world,” Wolfson says, referring to the creators of “South Park.” “Not so much enforcing stereotypes but having fun with them.

So they’re not self-hating Jews?

“We hate ourselves for so many other reasons,” Wolfson says. “There are so many good reasons to hate ourselves aside from being Jewish.”

Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson will be reading from “Jewtopia: The Chosen Book for the Chosen People” on Nov. 2, at 7:30 p.m. at Barnes and Noble, 16461 Ventura Blvd., Encino.— Amy Klein, Religion Editor

Likud Heads Right, Labor Goes Center

The Likud Party’s list of Knesset candidates, chosen in a party primary this week, left Ariel Sharon’s campaign strategists scratching their heads.

With national elections approaching on Jan. 28, they had meticulously laid out a centrist strategy in which the prime minister directs moderate peace messages at the large reservoir of floating voters between Labor and Likud, who take a tough line on security but believe in the possibility of a negotiated peace agreement with the Palestinians one day.

It is in the battle for the centrists that Israeli elections are won and lost, experts say.

The problem for Sharon’s spin doctors is that the list of Knesset candidates elected by the Likud’s 3,000-strong Central Committee on Sunday leans heavily toward the hawks.

In contrast, the Labor Party, which also voted for its Knesset list this week, shoved the doves to the back of the line and promoted the party’s centrists.

In addition to determining which politicians are likely to rise to prominence after the elections, the lists may help determine whether Israel is led by another unity government or whether its next government will tilt strongly toward one side of the political map.

In Likud, all nine of the top spots after Sharon are occupied by people opposed to President Bush’s "road map" to peace and Palestinian statehood, which Sharon says he supports. Environment Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, who finished at the top of the Central Committee poll behind the assured spots for Sharon and Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, described the outcome as "a vote against a Palestinian state."

That kind of talk hardly helps Sharon’s strategists project a credible centrist message.

Labor Party strategists, on the other hand, were delighted at the Knesset slate the party’s 110,000 members chose on Monday.

Centrists like ex-generals Matan Vilnai, Efraim Sneh and Danny Yatom finished high on the list.

The party’s most dovish figures — Yossi Beilin, one of the chief architects of the Oslo peace process; Yael Dayan, a leading women’s advocate; former Peace Now leader Tsali Reshef; and Haifa lawyer Yossi Katz — all were relegated to bottom spots, with little hope of winning Knesset seats. On Wednesday, Beilin and Dayan quit the Labor ranks to run on the list of the leftist Meretz Party.

Taken together, the composition of the Labor and Likud lists makes it easier for Labor to fight for the center ground.

Indeed, according to Ma’ariv columnist Dan Margalit, Labor leader Amram Mitzna could hardly have asked for a better slate — from the Likud.

"Mitzna may not be able to prove that Sharon doesn’t mean what he says" about wanting to negotiate peace on the basis of the Bush plan, Margalit wrote. "But he will be able to say to the public that even if Sharon is sincere, he won’t be able to deliver."

Writing in Yediot Achronot, political analyst Sima Kadmon also suggested that Sharon would not be able to deliver peace — unless he formed another national unity government with Labor as a counterweight to his own party.

"Unless Sharon gets a strong Labor Party with which he can form a coalition on the basis of real partnership, the fate of his peace initiative has already been sealed," Kadmon wrote. "With Likud hawks like Tzachi Hanegbi, Silvan Shalom, Limor Livnat, Dan Naveh and Yisrael Katz, there is no Palestinian state, no evacuation of settlements, no Bush road map."

Campaign strategist Eyal Arad acknowledged that Sharon is aiming for the center ground, and suggested that his trump card will be Sharon’s close coordination with the United States on the Palestinian issue.

In early December, at a conference on Israel’s national security, Sharon reiterated his support for President Bush’s plan for a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

The timing and the message had been carefully chosen: Sharon was laying the first major building block for his two-pronged campaign, against both the parties to his right and Mitzna’s Labor on his left.

"The Israeli public realizes that any divergence from the Bush plan is not in the Israeli interest," Arad said. "In a year and a half, we have managed to reach understanding with the U.S. on the tiniest details, and any divergence will hurt our relations with Washington."

The implication is that Sharon is not only ready to make peace, but can do so in full coordination with Washington — whereas Mitzna’s plan, which includes the possibility of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip even without a peace agreement, would not have American sanction.

Labor leaders dismissed the Sharon statement as electioneering. Haim Ramon, chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, called it an "election trap."

Sharon, he says, has absolutely no intention of negotiating Palestinian statehood or evacuating Jewish settlements. On the other hand, he says, Mitzna would make a real effort to negotiate peace — and, once elected, also would coordinate his plans with the Americans.

Sharon’s problems with Likud’s Knesset list lie not only in winning the centrist vote from Labor. He has far fewer supporters in high places on the list than does his archrival, Netanyahu. Some confidants say that could restrict Sharon’s freedom of action — for example, in forming a coalition with Labor, rather than the far- right, if Likud wins the elections.

Netanyahu says he won’t use his camp to undermine Sharon’s chances in the election — but after that, Netanyahu warned, how he acts will depend on what Sharon does. In other words, if Netanyahu is denied a top ministry in a new Sharon government, Sharon could face a mini-rebellion is his own party.

Despite the elation of Mitzna’s campaign strategists over the party’s election list, the Labor leader faces a similar problem. Most of the top people on the list are supporters of the former party leader, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer. They could push Mitzna into joining a coalition with Sharon on terms he would rather reject, or even chip away at his leadership within Labor.

And there is another problem with the Labor list: The demotion of party doves could lead left-wing voters, who had been drawn to Mitzna’s clear-cut positions about peace, to think again. Some might shift their allegiance from Labor to Meretz.

But the bottom line is this: Even if Labor does manage to recapture some of the center ground from the Likud, Sharon is still the odds-on favorite to retain the premiership in the elections. Though there is still plenty of time until the vote, polls show Likud winning a landslide victory.

As Labor’s Shimon Peres, the doyen of Israeli politicians, shrewdly points out, that means the election is really about the kind of coalition that emerges afterwards. That takes on added significance given the hawkish nature of the Likud list, Peres says. If Labor does well, it will be able to curb the right-wingers in Likud; if not, he warns, they may push Sharon into the arms of the far-right.

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.