Jewface & Borat

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Yesterday, my friend Rabbi Eliyahu Stern over at Beliefnet contrasted the new Borat movie with another recent cultural production highlighted by the New York Times last weekend: Jewface, an album of early 20th century songs that both mock and celebrate Jewish stereotypes (songs like Irving Berlin’s 1916 ditty “Cohen Owes Me Ninety-Seven Dollars”).

Stern wrote: “Unlike Borat, here it is actuall [sic] Jews embracing and promoting the worst Jewish stereotypes. Unlike the Borat effect, ‘Jewface’ does not mock anti-Semitic sterotypes; it celebrates them and says yeh, there is some truth here.”

While I don’t know that much about Jewface, my instincts about it were quite different, which inspired an email exchange with Rabbi Stern about Jewface and Borat — and the nature of art — that I reprint here for your reading pleasure:

Daniel Septimus wrote:
i totally disagree with you about jewface (i read your post). is there no value in exploring the ways we’ve perceived ourselves in the past? and is it not more interesting if we do it through past (kitschy) artistic explorations?

From: eliyahu stern
Sent: Tuesday, October 31, 2006 11:44 AM
To: Daniel Septimus
Subject: RE: Question

regarding the issue of artistic exploration: i think there is good art and bad art. likewise i think there is a good politics and bad politics. Jewface is art that promotes bad politics. the question i have about exploring our past is why these texts why these tracks? what are you trying to do when you are exploring this genre? what is the value? i don’t see how this is in any way redemptive. i don’t believe that art is neutral and that said i don’t see how what this is offering is in any way socially beneficial.

Daniel Septimus wrote:
as for good/bad art: pop culture tells us more about a society than just about anything else. i would say this jewface business, at the very least, has historical value in that it tell us things about how we used to perceive ourselves. but ultimately i also support the artistic experiment of throwing it back into the world to see what will happen. i agree that the politics of art is relevant, but ultimately its goal cannot be political or social. if it those are its goals then it’s propaganda, not art.

From: eliyahu stern
Sent: Tuesday, October 31, 2006 12:21 PM
To: Daniel Septimus
Subject: RE: Question

to me the difference between propaganda and art is only a matter of degree…both have non-neutral intentions and goals. the difference between them is only a matter of the degree to which the work, tract, or piece is open for interpretation (i.e. art) or more interpretatively closed (i.e. propaganda). assuming jewface is art i don’t get it what it’s suppose to be saying. oh how funny we look and behave etc?! there is nothing about those songs that would lead me to see it as a form of critique…critique is always redemptive pointing to something better this is just self mockery, comedy, farce.

Daniel Septimus wrote:
you’re not supposed to totally get what jewface is supposed to be saying! it was created for jews of a completely different era. just like 75 years from now people might see borat and not get the joke. pop culture, particularly humor, is too tied to other aspects of a cultural vocabulary to fully appreciate its resonances. but just because we can’t totally understand what it meant to the people who first consumed it, doesn’t mean it’s not interesting and thought provoking to revisit. additionally: not every piece of art needs to directly be obviously redemptive, just like not every individual human action is always obviously redemptive. both of us would agree that war is sometimes necessary, but that doesn’t mean you can isolate an instance of a wedding party bombed to smithereens and say the war is bad. it’s part of a larger project. just like different arts and different cultural projects are part of a larger project. art should stir the soul and the soul needs to be stirred in all sorts of different ways.

From: eliyahu stern
Sent: Tuesday, October 31, 2006 1:47 PM
To: Daniel Septimus
Subject: RE: Question

ok what’s the larger project?

Daniel Septimus wrote:
for you, it’s redemption. and art can further that by directly advocating socially productive ideas, but more often than not, it furthers this by stirring the soul, provoking us to feel and experience a wider range of things than we’d be able to do in our average, daily lives.

Posted on November 1, 2006

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