Friday, May 7, 2010

Snide and Prejudiced

I fled the valley and 90% Jewish Grant High School and summers at Camp JCA in 1974. I was thrust into a world of options. Since then I find that I have never been attracted to a Jewish man unless the Judaism was conferred in adulthood and since has morphed into a sort of weird misanthropic Buddhism. I laugh at Jon Stewart (born Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz) but I feel embarrassed when he goes into a high pitched shrieking mode that nudges me a bit further into the abyss of self loathing. I detect this same whiney worked up Jewish guy thing in Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Jason Alexander, Garry Shandling, Richard Lewis and Adam Sandler. When any of them reach a certain decibel range, the neon on the marquee flashes “That’s Why I Don’t Like Jewish Men” and then I feel like an asshole.

A person of other than the Jewish persuasion does not have the liberty to make generalizations with regard to shrill pitch about roughly half of the living descendents of the 12 Tribes of Israel. Anyway, based on the number of gentile girls who’ve apparently infiltrated J-Date, the gentiles don’t seem inclined to this particular prejudice against the Jewish male. The Eurasian daughter of a friend bristles at attending a college with a high Asian enrollment and this seems curious to me until I realize that instead of doing the embrace of community thing, in a big shout out to self-loathing, I myself would probably go for the least Jewy option.

I’d be intimidated attending a preponderantly Asian institution myself because based on the percentage of Asian students attending prestigious universities it is natural to assume that due to a combination of cultural and social values, Asians often turn out smart. The assumption of smart is conferred on my people too but oddly, while I am intimidated by smart people of other cultures, I do not have the same issues with smart Jews, even the millions who are smarter than I, except if they whine. I do admit to experiencing a satisfying snide pleasure when I encounter staggeringly stupid Asians and/or Jews.

A writer of the non-Jewish persuasion could never get away with attributing shrill whininess to Jewish men and I would be the first to 911 the Anti Defamation League if one dared to. Jews do all sorts of weird shit like swinging live chickens in the air but can only be safely disparaged by their own or in private non-Jewish company. I’m ok with this and sharing genetic code with the chicken swingers, I pretty much keep my nose out of the weird stuff that happens under the aegises of other religions. While I can diss my own landsman with impunity, political correctness dictates that Jews are pretty much off the table as fodder for satire or baser derision. It is confounding to me though that Mormons, Catholics, Evangelicals (except Black Evangelicals-I guess Black trumps speaking in tongues) are completely fair game.

I spend a day in the northern part of our state, where you can’t get Splenda for your coffee, all of the religious institutions profess agnosticism, and there is a greater attention to political correctness. I am invited by a colleague to take a private tour of the newly renovated Oakland Museum of California which has shaken up my definition of museum and scores huge points for the Bay Area in the historical North/South California cultural rivalry.

The museum is closed the Tuesday after the weekend grand reopening, having been shuttered for eight months. This my first experience of a museum as a place of work, as employees are busy with tweaks after an enormously successful and crowded debut weekend. The museums of my childhood were pretty much faded dioramas and lots of pottery you couldn’t touch. Here, there is so much stuff that begs manhandling, that the opening weekend proved a bit rough on certain more delicate articles. A few polite “Please Don’t Touch” signs are being placed strategically. We move from the exhibit room abruptly to a cluttered office and it is jarring but I feel privileged to note that the genius behind the door was conceived at these very desks and easels.

I am excited by the salubrious effects that immediate access to information will have on my kids’ intellectual development. When I was curious about something that wasn’t included in the Encyclopedia Britannica or annual Book of the Year, my only recourse was to visit the library. Now we find out what we want to know with a keystroke. The museum designers have capitalized on the digital revolution and most exhibits have a complimentary multimedia component.

We are fond of ephemera. Our fridge is cluttered with oddball pamphlets and snapshots of families we don’t know that we find in library books. I have family Scrabble score sheets from the 1940s. I am always excited to find someone’s hand scrawled list lodged in my shopping cart. These days I email marketing lists to myself and retrieve them via Blackberry. My paper trail diminishes with every hard drive memory upgrade. Curators and designers at the Oakland Museum obviously share our affection and wistful nostalgia for paper artifacts, and crate labels, and lists and letters have been digitized and cleverly incorporated, usually via touch screen, to enhance three dimensional exhibits and add a human and cultural dimension to events of history. I could happily spend many more hours exploring sections depicting various eras or themes in the history wing and the galleries are spacious with ample seating to encourage comfortably hanging around.

Controversial subjects are not shirked or watered down nor is there a ginormous lambaste of white male culture. Instead of a wuss out or pandering, shameless boosterism, the history wing is focused on the divergent experiences of “coming to California” and effectively captures the experience of this for various groups and different eras and the state’s shifting tectonic plates of culture and time.

We enter a dark gallery. Ancient songs in a native dialect play softly. In the otherwise pitch-black room, two lone spotlights illuminate one glass case containing an elaborately etched silver conquistador helmet and second containing an enormous brilliant headdress of beads and feathers. Less is infinitely more in one of the most moving and eloquent museum displays I’ve ever seen.

One of the artifacts of the 1960s is a gallery with walls crammed with old family portraits in a mishmash of frames from the era. It was like suddenly being in every house I’d ever been in as a child and I think this would speak just as strongly to kids for whom photographs taken on film are an anachronism. The only other element in this gallery of portraits is a big 1960s t.v console. On screen is a loop of archival nuclear explosion footage. Maybe I’m too long in the stock footage trenches where the iconic nuclear blast image is repeatedly cheapened, as a metaphor for sexual intercourse or hopeless mishap, in situation comedies. My first reaction to the mushroom cloud is that it’s facile although I can’t really think of any other imagery that would better nail the era so it’s probably just a bit of jaundiced archivist in play.

The natural sciences section of the museum will open next year but evidence already suggests how this will dovetail into the other two sections devoted to art and history. The history portion incorporates elements from the museum’s holdings of art. For example, there is a gallery devoted to the photographs of Dorothea Lange (most of which were bequeathed to the museum) but Lange’s photographs also appear in the history section, documenting Japanese relocation, depression breadlines in San Francisco and immigrant workers at a California shipyard and it is exciting that art and history are represented in such cooperation and unison.

One of those Caltrans signs with the silhouette of a family poised to run across a highway to warn drivers about possible “pedestrians” is familiar, but seen out of its familiar context, unsettling. It is pointed out that these signs are unfamiliar to many Northern Californians. I did not see every section of the history collection and I was on overload from all that there was to drink in. There are no maps or plans for the refurbished museum online yet to verify that this is the case, but I do not remember seeing any item or artwork in the museum representing a Jewish influence. Since the Gold Rush, there has been a consistent Jewish presence in the Bay Area but perhaps this population is less distinctive, Northern Cal Jews being businessmen who had little impact on the creation of culture. Young Jewish men who would never lose their thick accents and greenhorn dreams created Hollywood down in the South. While the museum makes a nod to Tinseltown, one of the 20th Century world’s’ largest and most influential purveyors of culture, the result seems denuded of Jewish content.

I have accused Jewish men of high pitched stridency and Northern California of sanctimonious political correctness. Perhaps I will be chastened by a list of ultra butch Jewish men who sound like James Earl Jones but certainly, the Oakland Museum has very much mitigated the dearth of artificial sweetener available in Northern California. The museum effectively arouses ethnic pride but also kindles an empathy and sense of commonality that will play to the universal audience.

A myth persisted for years that babies are blind to skin color but actually they can usually distinguish different racial groups before reaching the age of six months. We are told that we too should be color blind with regard to other races but the impossibility of this foments fear, discomfort and hostility. So much of our interaction with other members of our species is based on comparing and contrasting another person’s characteristics to our own. It’s all about me and the ways in which you are the same as me, and the ways in which you are different. When I see a person for the first time I immediately register our differences and similarities. When I meet a black person the difference in skin color from mine is the first quality that imprints.

Having grown up among San Fernando Valley Jews, I made a friend in college who was born of a very wealthy family from the Deep South and whose daddy always insisted on tipping the help at the country club ‘round Christmas time even though it was against the rules. I had never known a Southerner and had only seen the first reel of Gone With the Wind. I listened to her on the phone with her relatives and heard a mildness, deference and gentility that was new and astonishing me to me. I filed this observation under “Southern” and it has served me well in a number of relationships since then.

I notice when individuals conform to my pre-held stereotypes and I also take note when they don’t. You would be an idiot to arrive on time for a Jewish or Hispanic function but unless you’re early for a Protestant one, you’re an asshole. If you bum a cigarette off of a black person, chances are it will be menthol. Of course it’s not always going to play out like that but a sensitivity to the increased likelihood doesn’t to me smack of racism. I don’t know what’s been gained by white merely pretending that black people aren’t black. Usually blind is blind.

It might not be palpable yet, but I think that a black president will eventually lead us shift the dialogue from race to class. We have made enormous strides in the area of civil rights and I like to believe that this at least demonstrates the inevitability that one day refusing gay and lesbian people the rite of marriage will seem as weird and medieval as Jim Crow. The conversation about race is still relevant but less so if separated from the attendant consideration of our nation’s inadequate social net and how the poor of all races suffer with inferior healthcare and education. Mental health services are parsimoniously rationed but nearly 10% of the population of the U.S. is or has been incarcerated and/or on probation or parole. It is true that black men are incarcerated at a much higher rate that the rest of the population and the solution to this involves challenging racism but also some other pretty pernicious evils.

I began here by refusing to sleep with any of a long list of Jewish comedians, most of whom have made enormous contributions to our culture and would be indifferent about my sexual rejection anyway, most having ended up aligned with shiksa goddesses. I think many people have a love/hate relationship with their own culture, often confused or exacerbated by family and other issues. I am proud of the rich contribution made by Jewish comedians. I still get off on hearing about the Mossad raid on Entebbe. And how ‘bout that Sandy Koufax? Bernie Madoff and the shenanigans at the Iowa kosher meat plants make me berserk and ashamed. On the rare occasions when we do attend services it seems too often that the Hebrew God of the liturgy is vengeful and I just can’t get down with being “chosen.” We assemble the family every Friday for Shabbat with a challah but usually beer instead of the fruit of the vine. My parents and sister were alive when Jews were being gassed at Auschwitz but I censure Jews who cling to what Hannah Arendt calls the “eternal holocaust.”

Richard Bernstein, "Ultimate Journey" (2001, p. 247), speaks as a skeptical secular: "This is a constant with me, the tribal connection. I don't know what else to call my attachment to Judaism, which is not based on religious observance so much as it is on a kind of moral aesthetic, an unwillingness to be disloyal." Later that page, he adds how his attachment to Judaism is his "fundamental loyalty" to a girl whose photo he saw in a book of Holocaust victims, and those like her. "My feeling is it would be unbearably light, insouciant, spiritually shallow, to give up on my Judaism just at the moment when being a Jew entails no danger, not even any important exclusion, no decisive inconvenience."

Bernstein is right. It requires nothing of me to be a Jew. I look forward to Shabbat with the family but the religious component transpires in fewer than thirty seconds and we really just exploit a tiny shard of the Jewish framework to sanctify our family time. I am different because there was a Holocaust but I strive for my Judaism not to revolve around this. It is this Holocaust that probably spares Judaism, unlike Catholicism or Evangelical Christianity from mockery and ridicule. Even if we are chosen I don’t think that this is the kind of choseness that God really had in mind.
Shabbat Shalom


FionnchĂș said...

The Oakland Museum's inclusion reminds me of the two places we saw in non-Californian Ontario, the Mennonites in St. Jacobs and the Jesuit mission at St Mary of the Hurons, and how evenly and ethically they encouraged visitors to reflect upon the cultures commemorated, for better and worse. They refused glib summaries.

Speaking of pat responses to cross-cultural contentions in most media: an aside to the last section of your typically eloquent piece. The L.A. Times featured Charlotte Allen in "Undermining the Catholic Church." She made a relevant point about who gets a free pass in religious coverage in the media.

Her op-ed article's uneven but she does observe: Lately [Maureen] Dowd, along with half the other columnists in America, has been speculating about what Pope Benedict XVI knew or didn't know concerning clerical abuse of minors [...] And she and her gang seem to find it hilarious that Catholic priests and bishops often wear cassocks or other long traditional robes, especially on formal religious occasions and when celebrating Mass.

It's odd that no one ever uses the word "dresses" to describe the ankle-length liturgical garments worn by Episcopal priests. Nor are Protestant ministers or Jewish rabbis derided as cross-dressers when they don long robes for religious services. Has anyone ever called the Dalai Lama "a man in a dress"? Or Genghis Khan? Not unless you wanted to see your ribcage sliced into salami by a scimitar.

Yes, but I do note (a la the censorship of "South Park" lately?) that Allen eschews sartorial comment on imams or mullahs in her essay. Shabbat Shalom indeed! When Jon Stewart comes on I must leave the room, however. His whine fills our house. He's no Larry David. xxx me

Jerome said...

Hey layne.

tribal? that's so ridiculous. And the american jewish phrase of "member of the tribe" is patently offensive (to me). An ethnic attachment, an acknowledgement that an ethnos might create a culture, a set of langauges and a set of world views - that's not tribal = and if it is, then here's to the tibe of france.

I'm certainly americanized and a jewish male so no sex for us so far - but all of your examples are american. no disagreement with me that there are plenty of issues in the american jewish communities, among men and women.

it's also telling that the Autry has no qualms about exploring the role of jews in western history as opposed to the oakland museum. the bay area communities tend to be so assimiliated that they are californians of hebraic origin, or mosaic faith as opposed to jews. the magnes museum etc aside,sutro of sutro heights and the sutro library - jew - the owners of the giants and the oakland a's - jews. they're sitting pretty up there. and hurrah. temple emmanuel in san francisco is beautiful and high reform. then again - having been to bat mitzvahs up there (so far) the egalitarian neo-traditional world is very active up there, as are queer jews apparently (although LA had the first gay synagogue and in good tradition - it split and now there's two).

nice piece. what do we think about jewesses being bitchy, as long as male jews are whiny? depends i guess. so here's to jewesses scarlett johanneson and layne drebin murphy.