A lot is awry at the moment: political violence in America, white nationalists in the streets, and a general feeling of unease as 5783 kicks off with a renewed sense of dread and antisemitism. A recap of October.
035: Pop culture moment: Sukkah-in-Place, Urchatz, the Ides, and Passover
In this entry:
- Anne Frank and being on lockdown on the anniversary of her death (and no, it’s not the same thing)
- The Ides of March, ancient Jews, and the rise of dictators
- Revisiting 2005 projects: HBO’s Rome and Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven
- The new HBO series, The Plot Against America
- Ugh, Nazis onWestworld
Let’s dive in. Wash your hands first.
It’s really…. not great that pop culture is still more comfortable showing Nazis being Nazis than Jews doing Jewish. Sure, the depictions of Nazis are accurate, but given the rise of actual Nazis in America is it really wise to give them any more visibility whatsoever? There are plenty of great movies.
Above: the new “theme” park in the Westworld universe. Luckily it only portrays Nazi-occupied Italy, better than the other countries which had higher Jewish populations; and it did not portray atrocities against civilians, at least not in the episode. But knowing what went on in the show’s neighboring parks made me wonder WHAT THE HELL the real-life creators and the fictional in-show creators were/would be thinking
I recently learned of America’s turn toward acceptance of Jews in the mainstream after World War II; I was raised in a time and place where it was a given. And at the same time I’m realizing how much that acceptance hinged on overseas massacre, for one, and it also depended on the same phenomenon that dictated gay acceptance. Mainstream culture is fine with it so long as they don’t have to see it or experience it or really know the details. Will on WiIll & Grace (90’s first run) was asexual, gay-in-name-only GINO, and similarly, Jews who aren’t Orthodox aren’t usually depicted actually being-and-doing-Jewish very well on screen.
March saw the premiere of The Plot Against America on HBO and I was re-struck by all of this. The depiction of a Jewish enclave in the pre-war New York suburbs was just fantastic. They played, they gathered, they said the HaMotzi over bread on Shabbat. “Good Shabbos” they said to each other, with no explanation or translation or context.*
German-sympathizers or German-Americans in a beer garden, we’re not sure, but Plot quickly shows us Nazis openly being Nazis in the streets. Knowing what would happen abroad in the 40s and what would happen in Charlottesville, it’s eerie, and it’s not the cartoon-version Nazi depiction we get in Westworld or Inglorious Basterds (finally watched this too) and Jojo Rabbit.
The men depicted saw German power rising again and were celebrating; white men are doing the same here and think Trump is their man. As cringeworthy and unimaginable that is to most of us, it makes a certain sense. If you’re ignorant, down on your luck, and hate other people, seeing a political outsider take the reins seems like your moment.
And then a pandemic comes along.
That Trump and Bibi are using this crisis to take power and profit is both unsurprising and disgusting. And naturally, Jews are being blamed and targeted for COVID-19.
At first, holed up in Hollywood and binge-watching TV, I wanted to only watch positive things. Then these stories came along (Plot, above), and coincided with both the Ides of March and the anniversary of the death of Anne Frank.
I wanted to learn more about ancient history in particular.
Rome, Ridley Scott, and Exodus
My Jewish renaissance has made curious about its ancient history and lots of history in general, so after plugging through some Wikipedia and books I restarted HBO’s Rome. On second viewing I paid a lot more attention to the Jewish references. The show was only two seasons and can be silly, but ancient Rome was silly. (Spoiler: Rome, Italy is still silly, what with a whole country inside of it with homophobic men in drag). Re-reading about the production I learned that they were setting up a potential 3rd and 4th season to venture to Jerusalem for a plot line with one Jewish carpenter.
That didn’t come to pass, but we do get a few great looks at what Jewish life may have been like in Rome at the time, including this temple scene early in season 2.
My viewing coincided with the Ides of March; spoiler: Julius Caesar gets stabbed, a lot. And realizing I wasn’t gonna get the Jewish storyline I wanted and that I wanted to see historical Jerusalem, I next turned to the Ridley Scott flick Kingdom of Heaven, half-expecting a bad pseudo-historical, tone-deaf glorification of the crusades.
Spoiler alert: The crusaders murdered children. Not good. The movie did indeed have lots of silliness, including the idea that a white European dude was gonna save Jerusalem and also be super woke about what was really going on, including giving one of those speeches that no doubt made the trailers about how white imperialism is bad, m’k? And like, we’re fighting over religious sites? How is that holy? (Side bar: Multiple speeches in this movie where maybe 20 people would hear the speaker, yet thousands respond. Game of Thrones did this too. TL;DR: White dudes’ voices carry well over men on horseback, I guess?)
For a movie set in Jerusalem in the 1100s there was very little Judaism, natch, because of the aforementioned crusading. So this brought me to the next Ridley Scott silliness, Exodus: Gods & Kings (2014). Lots of interesting choices here. Orlando Bloom worked for me in Kingdom (he can work for me anywhere, especially paddle-boarding) but Christian Bale was an… interesting choice for Moses. This was right when he first played Batman, too.
I have thoughts. Like where’s Alfred?
Spoiler: There is only one god and one King in this movie, so the title is odd, as is the choice to portray G-d as a creepy child who speaks in riddles. Aaron Paul works as Joshua in a pre-Breaking Bad role, serving us full Jedi realness which sadly is what this movie feels like: Star Wars in ancient Egypt. Oy.
Dicks & Dictators
The theme of these projects: Rome, Kingdom of Heaven, and Exodus, are dictators and kings abusing people and power and the reality that creates on the ground for the masses. In ancient Rome, their attempt to take down Caesar and return to a republic fails with direct impacts on the Jewish community.
We’re seeing this now, of course, and because all dictators are incompetent, we get the scapegoating that follows when an incompetent ruler gets blamed for, you know, things that are his fucking fault. The charge that Jews spread or created COVID-19 is one; and reports that online, far-right groups were plotting to intentionally spread it to kill Jews and people of color.
In ancient Rome Jews were doing mostly OK, at least in the city-state of Rome itself. I’d love to see how HBO would have portrayed that change. Caesar died 44 BCE, so there were over 100 years between that and the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem. Things were already bad in the holy land under Roman rule (thank you, Jesus Christ Superstar) but who knows if it would have gotten so horrendous had the Roman elite not gotten so bloody and dictatorial. (Side bar: between these series and Netflix’s on ancient Rome: my G-d, from Caesar on, every leader in Rome was murdered, why would you take the job?).
Passover & Plagues
While we sukkah-in-place and hope the plague passes over our homes this Pesach, don’t forget to wash your hands. A lot. In fact: Jews staying home and washing their hands may be why they fared better during the plague—and also part of why they were blamed for it.
And with all this “free” time some of us have, let’s really figure out how the hell we’re gonna keep the would-be-dictators at bay. Trump. Netenyahu. Charles Lindbergh (Plot Against America). A computer program and a trillionaire (Westworld). The Caesars, like our Orange Julius Caesar. The crusaders, past and present, and their leaders, who now control the levers of power and still want more.
Our Pharaoh is shrugging at the plagues, telling us to go back to work on the Pyramids, and Christian Bale is nowhere to be found.
Chag sameach, as it were.
More on Pop culture moment: Sukkah-in-Place, Urchatz, the Ides, and Passover
For generations, Jews have observed the Passover holiday with Haggadahs. The book guides Seder participants through a re-living of the Jewish people’s suffering under the Egyptians and celebrates their freedom from a vain, capricious, thin-skinned, small-handed, megalomaniacal, temperamentally unfit President— er, Pharaoh.