TV: Should Jews save the werewolf from extinction?

Although few people in the Jewish community noticed, on May 2, 2000, a watershed event occurred: The last in a long line of Jewish werewolves disappeared when “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” the wildly popular vampire dramedy series, said goodbye to Oz, the character played by Seth Green. Oz left the show explaining that he had to go off to learn how to “control the wolf within.”

With this, a 60-year-long thematic liaison between Jews and werewolves ended. In fact, the whole werewolf myth seems to be in jeopardy. In this age of sophisticated computer graphics, werewolves have become steroid-bulked but ultimately vapid monsters – second fiddles to vampires. (Witness 2004’s pitiable “Van Helsing,” the year’s 16th-place box office finisher.)

The decline of the modern-day werewolf should be of concern, since it is largely a metaphor for being Jewish in the 20th century. Consider the modern werewolf narrative: A hairy young outsider becomes saddled with an identity he doesn’t want or particularly like, the meaning of which is told to him by an old European lady speaking a lot of mumbo jumbo. He is in love with a blonde girl who loves him back, but their love is doomed. Eventually he gets chased and killed by a bunch of peasants with pitchforks and torches. And, oh, yes, he feasts on human blood, but it’s not his fault.

The parallels between Jewish ideas of how non-Jews perceived us and the lifecycle of the werewolf aren’t surprising, considering that Jews effectively created the modern werewolf. Given how much has changed for Jews over the past half-century, should we try to save the werewolf or let him wander off into the California sunset?
From ancient Greece on, there have been stories of people who willingly or unwillingly became wolves. Yet, most of what you know about werewolves comes from Hollywood. In 1940, a producer at Universal Pictures told Curt Siodmak to write a werewolf picture.

Siodmak was a German Jew who had fled his native country in 1933 after hearing a virulently anti-Semitic speech by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda. Several silent films as well as one talkie on the subject had been made between 1913 and 1940, but none had been commercially successful. “The Wolf Man” was wildly so, and quickly became the template for future werewolf tales.
Most of the werewolf traits familiar to contemporary readers come from Siodmak’s films — including, most fundamentally, the transformation of the werewolf into not just a sympathetic figure but also the very subject through whose perspective the action is seen.

In fact, Siodmak wrote an early draft of the script in which the lead actor was only seen as the Wolf Man through his own perspective, reflected in ponds of water and so forth so that it would never be clear to the audience whether his transformation was real or psychological. Siodmak made the werewolf into the classic existentialist anti-hero. In later years, Siodmak slipped up in at least one interview and said that “The Wolf Man” was set in Germany, although it is in fact set in Wales. Still, Siodmak kept his Jewish references close to the vest.

By contrast, the most explicitly Jewish treatment of the werewolf by Hollywood is John Landis’s 1981 film, “An American Werewolf in London.” Yet it makes constant reference to Siodmak’s wolf man. In “American Werewolf,” Jewish American kids David Kessler and Jack Goodman (played respectively by David Naughton and Griffin Dunne) are on a European road trip. While in the moors of Wales, Jack is killed and David becomes the titular beast after surviving the attack. In an interview, Landis said that though he used a less Jewishly evocative setting of Wales for his film (at least for the early scenes), the idea for “American Werewolf” came to him while he was in Czechoslovakia. Indeed, despite the setting, Landis did not shy away from the kinds of parallels to European Jewish history that Siodmak left implicit: While David is in the hospital recovering from his wounds, he has a dream in which he is back at home with his family in America; the doorbell rings, and in come Nazi-clad wolf monsters who murder David’s family before his eyes.

What is one to make of the young Jewish man’s transformation into a beast identified with the Jew haters of Europe? Landis called the transformation into a werewolf a metaphor for teenage male sexuality. But there is also a quality of adolescent revenge fantasy found in the werewolf tale. In fact, Landis said that fantasies and nightmares of death at the hands of the Nazis were part of his own psychic landscape as a boy growing up in the 1950s. In the fantasy world of the werewolf movie, the Jew, or Jew surrogate, becomes as dangerous and powerful as his tormentors.

Landis wasn’t the first to see an allegory for adolescence in the werewolf’s transformation. In 1957, Herman Cohen cast a young Michael Landon in “I Was a Teenage Werewolf.” In fact, the teenage werewolf is a subspecies until itself with 1985’s underappreciated movie “Teen Wolf” and the fabulous Canadian film “Ginger Snaps” as prominent examples.

“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was the apex of the trend that saw adolescence and monstrosity play off each other. Unfortunately, “Buffy,” though marvelous in many ways, shied away from questions of ethnicity. The fictional Sunnydale, Calif., was a multihued but ultimately pareve town, except for the higher-than-average number of supernatural creatures that lived there.

And Oz was the kind of Jewish werewolf that Birthright Israel might be aimed at attracting: If his character was meant to be Jewish, it was strictly an accident of birth. His Jewishness seems to have extended only as far as being sensitive, smart and short. He was good looking, a guitar player and un-Jewishly laconic. And being Jewish no longer qualified him as an outsider. Oz would never have had nightmares of anti-Semitic violence.

Therein lies his failure as a werewolf: North American Jews of the “Buffy” generation are so comfortable in their skins, they don’t need to put on fur. At least not in the presence of non-Jews.

So if the werewolf is no longer a viable metaphor for Jewish life among non-Jews, why should Jews go out of their way to preserve it? Let werewolves join self-help groups where they can learn to be normal members of society, ? la Oz?

Insider, Outsider

I check in periodically with David Tokofsky, who has represented the Eastside on the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) since 1995, just to find out how long it takes to stop being considered an outsider.

For a Jewish boy on the Eastside, the answer is: more than two terms. Even now, despite winning two elections, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) has made him the target of redistricting, to insure that the next time out, someone with a Latino surname gets the job.

When Tokofsky, a teacher’s union activist fluent in Spanish and a veteran chair of the academic decathlon, first ran for the school board, friends and foe alike suggested he move to Agoura, just for job security.

"Guess I have ‘Agouraphobia,’" he quipped, and moved to Eagle Rock.

He’s had some grueling battles, beating down both a recall and a recount. He’s still in there, ready to fight again.

Not so many years ago, guys from our community, like Tokofsky, were called "liberals," hard working or caring. We looked at them in admiration for self-sacrifice. We expected one day they’d go to law school.

These days, well, I don’t know whether to be embarrassed. or not. The Tokofskys of the world are few and far between. Even with the emergency inducement of the current teaching shortage, there are still few Jewish teachers, and proportionately fewer Jewish students in public school. In East Los Angeles, there aren’t many of either.

Still, Tokofsky always makes me feel that his is the way it should be: talented, professional educators should be as natural to emerge from the Jewish community as rabbis. Naturally, these professional educators should go where they’re needed most, whether or not politicians say they are wanted there.

Because Tokofsky thinks his is the natural order of the universe; he tends to get offended when others react differently.

The map intended to front-load his 5th District with as many Latino voters as possible was not a surprise. What did surprise Tokofsky, was the way the rest of the Westside/Valley political establishment, distracted by secession and its own ambitions, seemed to cave in, ignoring the work of the citizens committee allowing MALDEF to become the major player.

When I spoke to Tokofsky this week, he was livid in battle, as might be expected, facing as he was many as four potential redistricing maps in which his Latino voter base in his 5th District varied anywhere from 51 to 58 percent. The City Council was expected to hear the matter on Tuesday, June 4.

"I’ll get there, one way or the other," Tokofsky told me. "I’m good for the election system. I bring out voters."

By now, it’s no surprise to find Tokofsky under attack, especially from Latino activists who want his seat for themselves.

A nicer surprise is who his friends are. Frank del Olmo’s Sunday Los Angeles Times column praising Tokofsky was gratifying.

"The LAUSD veteran could show other politicians how to serve Latino voters," del Olmo wrote.

And how might that be? Del Olmo praised Tokofsky for many of the maverick positions for which Westsiders criticize him.

Tokofsky started out as the lone defender of Ruben Zacharias, the first Latino school superintendent.

This month he was a lone voice defending standardized tests, while the rest of the board wanted tests that made the district look better, without improving student performance.

He refused to back the completion of the Belmont Learning Complex, saying it was still unsafe.

I don’t know. The man seems to know his district.

Our community is still reeling from the Katz/Alarcon senate race of a few years ago. So we understandably worry about a man who faces ethnic conflict every time he announces he’s running again.

That’s why del Olmo’s praise of Tokofsky deserves additional comment. There seemed to be two reasons for optimism that the ethnic tensions of the recent election cycle might be passing away.

First, del Olmo accepted that non-Latinos are part of the political landscape, by implication, deserving of respectful hearing and support when warranted from his community.

Second, del Olmo reminded us that human beings don’t change. City Councilman Arthur K. Snyder retained his seat throughout the ’70s by catering to the needs of his Latino district. With such concern for the district, Tokofsky can win, regardless if his seat looks like a salamander.

The piece was brief consolation. By press time, the City Council had approved the MALDEF map. The vote for MALDEF was 13-2 with no one from the Westside or Valley on his side.