Saturday, July 21, 2012

In the Waiting Room: a poem about National Geographic Magazine in 1918

In Worcester, Massachusetts,

I went with Aunt Consuelo

to keep her dentist's appointment

and sat and waited for her

in the dentist's waiting room.

It was winter. It got dark

early. The waiting room

was full of grown-up people,

arctics and overcoats,

lamps and magazines.

My aunt was inside

what seemed like a long time

and while I waited and read

the National Geographic

(I could read) and carefully

studied the photographs:

the inside of a volcano,

black, and full of ashes;

then it was spilling over

in rivulets of fire.

Osa and Martin Johnson

dressed in riding breeches,

laced boots, and pith helmets.

A dead man slung on a pole

"Long Pig," the caption said.

Babies with pointed heads

wound round and round with string;

black, naked women with necks

wound round and round with wire

like the necks of light bulbs.

Their breasts were horrifying.

I read it right straight through.

I was too shy to stop.

And then I looked at the cover:

the yellow margins, the date.

Suddenly, from inside,

came an oh! of pain

--Aunt Consuelo's voice--

not very loud or long.

I wasn't at all surprised;

even then I knew she was

a foolish, timid woman.

I might have been embarrassed,

but wasn't. What took me

completely by surprise

was that it was me:

my voice, in my mouth.

Without thinking at all

I was my foolish aunt,

I--we--were falling, falling,

our eyes glued to the cover

of the National Geographic,

February, 1918.

I said to myself: three days

and you'll be seven years old.

I was saying it to stop

the sensation of falling off

the round, turning world.

into cold, blue-black space.

But I felt: you are an I,

you are an Elizabeth,

you are one of them.

Why should you be one, too?

I scarcely dared to look

to see what it was I was.

I gave a sidelong glance

--I couldn't look any higher--

at shadowy gray knees,

trousers and skirts and boots

and different pairs of hands

lying under the lamps.

I knew that nothing stranger

had ever happened, that nothing

stranger could ever happen.

Why should I be my aunt,

or me, or anyone?

What similarities

boots, hands, the family voice

I felt in my throat, or even

the National Geographic

and those awful hanging breasts

held us all together

or made us all just one?

How I didn't know any

word for it how "unlikely". . .

How had I come to be here,

like them, and overhear

a cry of pain that could have

got loud and worse but hadn't?

The waiting room was bright

and too hot. It was sliding

beneath a big black wave,

another, and another.

Then I was back in it.

The War was on. Outside,

in Worcester, Massachusetts,

were night and slush and cold,

and it was still the fifth

of February, 1918.

-- a poem by Elizabeth Bishop in 1976

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

New New York Times Public Editor: Margaret Sullivan (HOW LONG WILL SHE LAST? BETTING POOL HERE?)

On the other hand, Margaret Sullivan, above, might prove a genius in her new slot as NYTimes public editor OMBUDSWOMAN, the first woman and first WHITE WOMAN ever to hold the job. She was a newspaper editor in Buffalo, one of only an estimated 30 newspaper editors in the city’s entire history! --
“One of them was Mark Twain, and one of them was me!” she once told a reporter. “It’s a great legacy.”

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

It is 'not kosher' to joke about Anne Frank, Ricky Gervais!

Back in April, an America writer challenged British comedian here to stop cracking

vulgar and crude jokes about Anne Frank after the writer spotted him

making a tasteless joke about Anne Frank and her family on the Jon

Stewart Comedy Central "Daily Show" on national

television. The news posted on The Wrap about his challenge to Gervais

to please stop with the Anne Frank jokes was picked up by

several Jewish and non-Jewish news outlets, from The Foward and The Tablet in New

York to the Jewish Chronicle in London.

After I wrote an "Open Letter to Ricky Gervais" for The Wrap here,

Gervais responded, through his PR people apparently, with an email to

me which was published

in the Jewish Chronicle newspaper in Britain. His piece was titled

"Why it's kosher to joke about Anne Frank," and with no apologies,

Gervais wrote, among other things:

"I have had that routine for nearly 10 years now. It is about the

misunderstanding and ignorance of what is clearly a tragic and

horrific situation. My comic persona is that of a man who speaks with

great arrogance and authority but who along the way reveals his

immense stupidity.

In this particular routine, I envisage an almost slapstick version of

the Nazis entering the home of Anne Frank on a daily basis and always

failing to bother to "look upstairs".

I even have one of them suggest, "Looking upstairs today, Sarge?" The

officer replies, "No, let's move on."

The first Nazi then says: "What's that tapping sound?" - as I mime

using an old fashioned typewriter. Again the joke here is the

supremely stupid assumption that Anne Frank obliviously and noisily

typed her diary.

The Sarge (who I am portraying as a lazy and incompetent Nazi)

answers, "Mice! Move on".

The final layer of ignorance in the routine is that, instead of taking

the obvious and correct stance that Nazis were disgusting, immoral and

evil, I merely conclude that they were "rubbish" because of their

inability to find Anne Frank earlier - like it was all part of a big,

mutually agreed game of hide-and-seek.

I can see if [if a Jewish person] took this routine at face value as

my real opinion on this profound and heroic tragedy, it could be

deemed highly offensive. However, this is obviously an absurd comic

position with the audience well in on the joke, fully aware that I am

saying the exact opposite of what every right-minded person thinks.

I often get accused of finding comedy in places where no comedy is to

be found. I feel you can make a joke about anything. It just depends

on what the joke is. Comedy comes from a good or a bad place and the

problem is in its interpretation, with some people confusing the

subject of a joke with the joke's real target. The target of this joke

is the comedian's ignorance."

So much for apologizing for the Jon Stewart show fiasco. Now in the

middle of the summer, Mr Gervais lets loose again in a recent Twitter

message to his many "fans," whoever

they might be, tweeting: "If I had a time machine, I’d go back and

sneak Anne Frank a DVD of 'Home Alone'. It could give her the edge.”

The 51-year-old British comic tweeted that to over 2.5 million

''followers," and of course he landed in hot water again with Jewish

readers in Europe and North America.

He quickly deleted the offensive tweet after being slammed by fans,

according to London press reports, but in response the outspoken

comedian and star of "The Office" tweeted this: “We have to stop this

recent culture of people telling us they’re offended and expecting us

to give a [damn]."

Ricky Gervais is a terribly tasteless, serial offender of the memory

of Anne Frank and her family and he just won't stop. What makes this

man tick? Do Britons really lap this stuff up?

Jewish professor says Jewish humor does need to be cone down from the mountains and get 'updated'

In late May, I penned a commentary here titled ''Do ‘Jewish jokes’

need to be updated?'' which challenged Jewish comedians on stage and


movies to make modern Jewish humor in the 21st century better mirror

Jewish culture today and leave the Catskils and Borsch Belt behind.

Adding the text of a kind battle cry I called "The Silverman Manifesto

(2012)," I noted that I had some qualms about how it might or might

not go over among American Jews, and whether it might be or might not

be accepted.

Still, struck by some of the God-awful humor that has made its way

into so-called “Jewish humor” over the years — most of it good and

life-affirming, but some of it tasteless and sexist and even feeding

into the Internet hands of neo-Nazis and anti-semites — I asked

readers to look at my ''manifesto'' in order to raise some issues that

I hoped thoughtful people would address, pro and on.

The manifesto, I emphasized, was meant merely as an alarm bell, a

''wake up call'' for Jewish writers, comedians, film directors,

artists, screenwriters, producers, actors and others to re-examine the

state of Jewish humor in 2012 and where it’s headed. And a look back

to the past might not hurt either.

Now, two months later, Professor Ted Merwin at Fairleigh Dickson

University in Pennsylvania, and a regular drama critic for the Jewish

Weekly in New York, has

answered my call independently, with his own take on what's right and

what's wrong with Jewish humor today. Reviewing the current

off-Broadway revue titled

"Old Jews Telling Jokes" (which has gotten many very good reviews by

the way, and only few critical reviews).

Merwin is direct and to the point, noting: "[The play] essentially

transports its audience 'up the mountains' (as my grandmother would

say) to the Catskills. In Borscht Belt jokes, Jewish men always felt

murderous toward their wives, non-Jewish women were secretly more

attractive to Jewish men than Jewish women were, rabbis always offered

ridiculous advice, and gentiles occupied a rarefied realm that Jews

could never hope to enter. The dated quality of the show is summed up

in two of its most inspired routines, which are Susman’s heavily

Yiddish-accented, solemn rendering of “Ol’ Man River” and a sing-along

with the audience of Tom Lehrer’s “Hanukkah in Santa Monica,” a song

about Jews discovering that Jewish life can (big surprise!) actually

take root outside of New York.''

Merwin adds: "To compensate for their nagging sense of outsiderness,

the show implicitly suggests, Jews turned to humor -- in particular,

dirty jokes. Either sex or scatology is thus the underlying theme of

almost every gag. Jests about masturbating teenagers, blushing brides,

under-endowed grooms, priapic desert-island castaways, lascivious old

ladies, flaccid old men, aphrodisiac Jewish foods -- the sex jokes go

on and on. Same with the jokes about bodily functions, which embrace

everything from women stuck on toilets to men with prostate and bowel


''This is where one needs to wonder if the show, despite having plenty

of heart, has a soul," Merwin writes. "A non-Jew who wandered into the

theater could be forgiven for thinking that Jews, despite being

renowned for their intellectual attainments, are in reality obsessed

with their lower bodies. Or that upwardly mobile Jews remain stuck in

a low-class or unassimilated Jewish past that they have only

transcended on the outside, but still inhabit in some nether region of

their deepest selves.''

Merwin concludes that he wishes the revue ''didn’t insult its

audience’s intelligence quite so much," adding that he was "reminded

of Bryan Fogel’s and Sam Wolfson’s phenomenally successful “Jewtopia”

(which played at the Westside Theater in 2006), which trotted out

every Jewish stereotype and excretory joke in the book, as if paradise

for Jews is an eternity on the toilet."

The professor's final verdict: "Perhaps I’m asking too much, but I

wish that “Old Jews Telling Jokes” afforded some kind of new

perspective on the place of humor in Jewish life, rather than yet

another guilty peep into the bedroom or bathroom window.''

Professor Merwin did not read the article I wrote here on May 24, nor

did he read "The Silverman Manifseto." He does not know me, and I have

never known of his work before either, having

lived outside the USA for almost 20 years. Still, our views are very close

regarding ''some kind of new perspective on the place of humor in

Jewish life."

I was heartened to read his review in Jewish Week.