November 16, 2018

Torah Portion

You can’t miss her. All over town, huge billboards advertise not cigarettes, automobiles or banking services but the image of a scantily clad young woman, with the caption “Angelyne.” Her image is a caricature of male fantasies. What was once confined to the back pages of so-called “men’s magazines,” now decorates the public thoroughfare. From street level, it’s virtually impossible to miss her — her gigantic voluptuousness measured not in inches but in yards.

But having grown immune to every conceivable urban aberration, I hardly notice anymore. It was my son who paid attention: “Abba, who is that lady, Angelyne, and why is she on that billboard? What is she selling?” Good question. Why is this lady all over town? What do you tell a child about this phenomenon?

Well, kids, in our culture, and especially in this city, being famous is dearly valued. Fame conveys validation, fulfilling a deep need to be recognized. Celebrity is ontology — you’re not anyone until you’re on TV. “Is that someone?” I ask my wife, pointing to a lesser-known character actor sitting across us in a restaurant.

Most of all, fame is immortality. There are people so terribly anxious that their lives will amount to nothing — people who worry that they will live and die and leave no trace of themselves in the world, their lives touching no one, accomplishing nothing, making no difference — they fear no one will ever know that they lived. Somehow, being famous relieves them of this terror of oblivion.

For most, such as star athletes, actors, authors or musicians, fame is earned through the contribution of some talent or gift. Then, there are people who become famous accidentally (see Kato Kaelin) or those who are famous for no reason at all (Oprah Winfrey and Regis Philbin come to mind). Saddest of all, there are people so desperate to be known that they will do anything, even buy up billboards, just to be famous for a few moments. They will do anything to gain fame because only in fame will they ever feel important and real.

“Maybe she’s trying to make friends,” says my young daughter. Indeed. What an image to set before a little girl — a woman who buys her place in the world with peroxide and silicone. Evidence again that, for such a sophisticated culture, our appreciation and mastery of the mysterious power of sexuality remains so crude.

Of course, it’s not just Angelyne. The equation of a woman’s worth with the measure of her bust is a common American tale. It just seems to have gotten worse lately. Consider the phenomenon of the “supermodel.” Once an anonymous mannequin for the display of clothing, now they’ve become cultural heroes. For doing what? I want my daughter to emulate Golda Meir, Margaret Mead, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but she’s constantly confronted with Cindy Crawford and Claudia Schiffer.

For a culture that has come so far in liberating women from all that bound them for centuries, we have yet so far to go. Women today govern nations, manage major corporations, direct scientific missions to Mars. But the leading consumer product in 1990s America remains the “wonder bra.”

In this week’s haftarah, the section of the Prophets that’s read along with the weekly Torah portion, the prophet Jeremiah receives his calling. He is only 17 and looking for the mission and measure of his life. In what will he find success and fulfillment? Fame, wealth, power all beckon. But the word of God comes to him: “See, I appoint you this day over nations and kingdoms; to uproot and pull down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.” He resists. The career of the prophet will make him anathema to his community and people — the anti-celebrity. But God will not be put off. What is celebrity, compared with the sacred work of speaking God’s word? In the shadow of the holy task of mending God’s world, the pursuit of fame brings only hopelessness and futility. And if you don’t believe Jeremiah, just ask Angelyne.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.