Last week, Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, in a remarkable display of bad taste (to say the least), decided to put on an Afro wig and blackface in order to portray an African-American basketball player for Purim. In response, Jon Stewart, the host of The Daily Show, pointed out the hypocrisy of Hikind’s insensitivity given his career as an outspoken critic of both actual and alleged (at least to Hikind) anti-Semitism. Stewart followed his comments with this hysterical segment entitled “Crazy Stupid Dove–The War On Purim” (see video below).
This is not the first time The Daily Show has captured the humorous side of Jewish holidays. As J.J. Goldberg notes in his recent Forward blog, Stewart also introduced a laughing-out-loud funny segment about Passover last year called “Faith Off” in which he called on Jews to make Passover more enjoyable than Easter.
If you have ever attended, taught, or sent your children to a synagogue religious school, you know that teaching elementary school children the essentials of Judaism in 4-6 hours a week is extremely challenging. Given how little time there is to teach and how many other facets of contemporary American life religious schools have to compete with, we often turn to games, skits, and other ways to depict Judaism as fun and attractive. But in doing so, we sometimes revert to a simplistic, easy to digest version of Judaism without complication or obligation.
What is fascinating about The Daily Show’s Purim segment, though, is not how funny it is but how substantive it is. The segment thoroughly rebukes the transformation of Purim into a Jewish Halloween and the general trend towards fitting Jewish holidays into mainstream culture. Its message is actually the antithesis of his Passover piece, in which Stewart suggests coming up with cartoon characters and making video games to update our celebration of Passover. Through intelligent humor and sophistication, the Purim segment makes a compelling argument for rejecting the commercialization and assimilation of Jewish holidays. It is this translation, this targum, that we would do well to embrace. Most young Jews today are not interested in frontal, rote transmissions of tradition. Our religious school educators are correct that we need to approach today’s students through creative, interactive ways to reach the “multiple intelligences” of the Jewish public, to borrow from educational theory jargon. But what The Daily Show segment teaches us is that we don’t need to be reductionist to make tradition contemporary and accessible. The challenge for us, as Jewish educators and teachers of the next generation, is to pick up where The Daily Show leaves off.
There are times when Jon Stewart just hits the nail on the head of an issue. Last week he had a segment on how all of the Republican candidates for office and President Obama spoke at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) annual convention in Washington DC.
All of the Republicans spoke about how they would back up Israel and bomb Iran so that Iran cannot develop nuclear capabilities which it would likely use against Israel. All claimed that the current Obama administration would not do so. Until of course President Obama took the stage and said that he would do everything in his power to keep Iran from building a nuclear bomb including military action. Basically everyone agrees that a nuclear Iran is dangerous for Israel, the Middle East and the world at large. Everyone agrees that Israel is an important ally of the US, and the US would protect her if the need arises. Jon Stewart expertly points out all of these facts, and then closes the segment with some incendiary quotes from politicians criticizing Israel. Who , he asks, has the gall to say such things? – Well Israeli members of parliament, of course, since only in Israel “Can you hold political office and criticize Israel.”
The simple meaning of this final line is that no American political candidate or nationally elected politician will criticize Israel. The clips which he played demonstrated the truth of this statement. However, the ability of any American to criticize Israel is also now up for debate.
I myself usually do not write or talk about Israel for fear of saying the wrong thing or offending someone. If you lean a little left on Israel those who lean right will attack you, and if you lean right, those on the left will attack. There is no winning. Better to not say anything at all.
The problem with this approach is that then we leave the conversation to all of the people who are shouting their position from the rooftops. If everyone is shouting, then no one is listening. Not listening to each other is not good for Israel, and is not good for the Jewish community as a whole. We could learn a lesson from the clips Jon Stewart shows. The truth is that once all the yelling dies down, we would see that we are all basically standing in the same place. All of this rhetoric and energy around Israel is because American Jews actually have a very strong relationship with Israel. We care. In fact, we care so passionately we fight with each other over things large and small.
For decades, American Jews have questioned whether we have a right to criticize Israel. Some argue yes, we are all one big family, so we can set each other straight when we need to. And others say no, we are one big family and we just need to support each other. There is truth to both positions. There is no “right” way to talk about Israel.
I would love to see everyone calm down a bit and remind each other that we are indeed all coming from a place of supporting Israel. We just support Israel in different ways, and have different ideas and dreams about what Israel can and should be. Let’s talk about ideas and dreams. Let’s also talk about possible solutions to the political realities Israel faces.
I truly wonder if we can learn how to talk and listen to each other again. Because I don’t want Jon Stewart’s jokes to ring so true. He can make fun of the situation because when all else is stripped away, it is silly. We are squabbling and posturing to each other for no reason.
Each of us can take steps to lower the rhetoric around Israel. Be brave, start conversations with friends and relatives. Truly listen to points of view which differ from your own, and ask others why they care about Israel. There are a lot of great stories and connections that we can build in this way.