Is he a different kind of bear than I remember?
Saw this on Fandango.
Is he a different kind of bear than I remember?
Saw this on Fandango.
I was not going to say anything.
I mean, there are plenty of products out there on the market that I’m not going to buy for my home, so why go out of my way to pick on the Mensch on a Bench™? If the topic were to come up on conversation, I’d just say, “Not for me,” and change the subject. I would let it go. I don’t disagree with the message to our kids: be a Mensch (a person of high moral character). I say it all the time to my kids because it was said all the time to me by my grandfather (of blessed memory). I think the world needs more menschlichkeit and if some hokey doll can help with that, then what’s the harm?
But I can’t….
Image: Gwyneth Anne Bronwynne Jones via Flickr
I mean I could, but then I got a promotional email inviting me to “Welcome a Mensch into your family!” I could ignore the Mensch on the Bench™, but when he entered my inbox he crossed a line and I can keep silent no more.
I hate the Mensch on a Bench. I hate everything about him. I hate the concept. I hate the cheap imitation of a (creepy) Christmas tradition. I hate that he holds onto the shamash candle needed to light the other candles of the Menorah and that kids are told that if they misbehave he may not let it go, resulting in no lit Menorah and no presents. I hate the ultimate focus on gifts as a reward for good behavior (distinctly unmensch-like). I hate the slogan urging us to put more “Funukkah in Hanukkah.” I hate the Mensch’s “origin story” — he stayed up all night making sure the Menorah in the Temple didn’t go out so the Maccabees could get some sleep, AND HE WASN’T EVEN GRUMPY ABOUT IT THE NEXT DAY!
Most of all, I hate the picture of “normative” Judaism his white, bearded, talit-wearing, short-and-dumpy physique projects. In the companion book he anachronistically pals around with the Maccabees but still dresses like a 19th Century Polish Hasid. Because, as we’ve all come to be taught, the ultra-Orthodox Jew is the Jewiest Jew there is, imbued with all the moral authority of “authentic” Judaism (when he isn’t spitting on immodestly dressed 8-year-old girls, demanding sex-segregated busing, delaying the departure of Israel-bound flights or demolishing a town’s secular education system). This is the personification of a mensch.
Image: The Wu’s Photo Land via Flickr
Hanukkah isn’t Christmas. If your kid wants an Elf-on-a-Shelf better you should give him or her one, than embrace this B-minus, novelty shop, moralizing troll. Move the Elf around the house. When the kids are asleep post your ironic “Elf in the Hot Tub with Barbie” photos to Instagram. Then when they wake up, teach your kids how to be mensches by your behavior: by how you treat them and how they see you treat others. Talk to them about the injustices in the world, big and small, that you and they can do something about. Hanukkah already has a mascot — the Maccabees, who overcame tremendous odds to defeat a much more powerful enemy in the cause of being able to worship freely.
I don’t bear the creator of the Mensch on a Bench™ any ill will. From the website, he seems to be a nice guy, with a background in the toy industry, who just didn’t want his kids to feel left out around Christmas. He’s singing the right song, just hitting the wrong notes in the process. While kids like their toys when they are young, once they get older the toys don’t matter so much as the lessons we teach them. And I contend that parents can teach their kids better than the Mensch can.
Over the past week or so I’ve had many difficult exchanges with friends and family over social media around posts I’ve shared about the Metropolitan Opera’s production of The Death of Klinghoffer. I’ve shared articles defending the production, reviews of its artistic merit, social critiques of what the controversy represents and even parallel experiences of the production in other cities. Those who were convinced it was anti-Semitic remain firmly convinced. Those who believed the protests were just another example of right wing denial of any legitimate Palestinian narrative remain similarly unswayed. Depressingly, this episode has only reinforced the worst stereotypes each side had of the other in the ongoing shouting-match over Israel (can we really call it a conversation at this point?). The Jewish general manager of the Met Opera has been compared to a Nazi sympathizer and a supporter of Hamas. I’ve read comparisons of the actions of those who opposed the performance of the opera to a “book burning of Adams’ work.” By my rule of thumb, whoever calls his opponent a Nazi first loses — and it’s hard to find any winners in this encounter.
My own feelings about the opera itself are mixed — I saw the film version created for Channel Four in the UK directed by Penny Woolcock in 2004. At the time, I was considering it for possible inclusion in the Washington Jewish Film Festival in my capacity as the Festival’s director. I remember being entranced by the music, disturbed by its portrayals of history and touched by certain images that have stayed with me over a decade later — such as that of Klinghoffer’s wheelchair sinking through the water after he has been murdered and thrown overboard. I chose not to include the film for a number of reasons, some practical (opera on film is a tough sell) and some artistic/thematic. While I appreciated the aesthetic strengths of the work, it felt far too removed from its subject to be included in a Festival in which other films dealing with the Israel-Palestine conflict spoke with greater authenticity and authorial intimacy. The work overall, felt like the product of outsiders to the conflict, looking to illuminate the tragedies and universal lessons for both sides. Firsthand knowledge of course, isn’t a prerequisite for great art, but when the subject is one that brings such passion along with it, one runs the risk — as Adams and his librettist Alice Goodman have certainly be accused — of naivety. That is why the work itself turns the characters themselves into archetypes more than real people, the terrorists are an extension of the chorus of exiled Palestinians and the Klinghoffers are extensions of the chorus of exiled Jews. One cannot blame Klinghoffer’s daughters for objecting to the opera — that is not their father up there (but neither should they have the last word). We are all products of our history, but the opera isn’t really interested in why these people were affected in the ways they were. It is why the captain is in many ways the most interesting character, he is also a product of history, but its effects on his character are more subtle and his choices stem from a much more personal, interesting and humanely flawed place.
A friend I respect greatly wrote me, “folks flying planes into skyscrapers, dragging gay men to their deaths behind cars,etc? They get no inner lives.” I simply can’t agree. Their inner lives may leave them twisted and deranged, committing heinous acts because of the person they have become, but to deny that their inner lives are not worthy of some kind of artistic exploration is to go too far. Why? Because to have that attitude is easy when you’re talking about Hitler, Osama Bin-Laden or Pol Pot; but there are a lot of shades of grey between them and the historical rungs of the ladder that the Achille Lauro terrorists occupy. To elevate Klinghoffer’s murderers to the level of genocidal prime-movers is to engage in a false equivalency that blurs our understanding of evil. It runs the risk of a turning a tradition which takes the weighing of justice most carefully, into a shrill hyperbole.
So, my defense of the opera has to be couched in the acknowledgement that given my own opportunity to program it, I chose not to. I think it is probably fair to say that even if I had wanted to program it, given the controversy that already surrounded the work, I might have faced internal and external opposition that would have made including it unwise and impossible. And it is that last acknowledgement that leaves me so unsettled. Because what was at stake in this debate was not the production of this specific opera in this specific venue. It was the freedom of artists, Jewish and non-Jewish, Israelis and Palestinians, to engage with the most sensitive and provocative topics in their histories and create music, theater, dance and stories from them, and for arts presenters to provide audiences with the opportunity to see and judge for themselves the results.
That is not a priority for many of the opponents of The Death of Klinghoffer. While there were some true arts supporters among the opera’s opponents, for many others (among them, the organizing core), the opera was another front in the total war for Israel’s survival. And while I can share their goal — that Israel survive — I cannot share their belief that this opera constituted a threat to that survival, or even that it was antagonistic to it (or for that matter, that its survival depends on a “total war” footing). I believe this as a Jew, as a Zionist, as a writer, and as someone who has first-hand knowledge of terrorism. But by mounting such a large, public and compelling campaign against an opera that most people will never hear or see, a profoundly chilling wind has been blown across the landscape of Jewish culture specifically and American culture more broadly. In development offices and board meetings across the land, well-intentioned but misguided leaders will ask themselves when faced with the prospect of presenting potentially challenging and controversial material, “Do we want another Death of Klinghoffer on our hands?” Only the most committed (and masochistic) will conclude that they are willing to risk it.
As I was getting this post together, another deadly chapter in this ongoing conflict was written in Jerusalem. A terrorist plowed his car into a crowded Jerusalem train station and took the life of a three-month-old baby girl; an attack which was initially reported in the A.P. as, “Israeli police shoot man in East Jerusalem.” Up in Ontario, an attack with still unfolding causes and consequences reminds us that terror, like that of the Achille Lauro, remains a frequent feature of our landscape. Events like these and their coverage illuminate how pro-Israel activists can see malevolence lurking around every corner and why their suspicions are not without a basis in reality. The urge to circle the wagons and put-off critical examination of ourselves and the “other” for the distant future is strong.
Yet, I do not believe that attacking straw men in the arts serves the long-term interests of the pro-Israel community. It conflates real terrorists with those who wish to understand why terrorism still attracts thousands to its cause; those who are ideologically committed to our destruction with those who wish to understand the historic grievances that feed such fundamentalism. Our tradition demands better.
Took a nap from 10:30 to 11:30. Woke up. Showered. Brewed a fresh pot of coffee and ate a bowl of Rice and Beans. Figured that would keep me going through the day and provide an aesthetic guidepost: keep it simple, nutritious and satisfying. Now sitting around waiting for the secret theme and realizing that I may be in way above my head, but…too late now.
The theme is “You Should Know”
I’m pursuing a couple of different angles and will pursue whichever one pans out first. But I feel like I should have known this was coming.
Getting a little frustrated. I’ve got what I think is a good story, but having trouble getting in-touch with the subjects. Right now trying to crowdsource a work-around but am encountering obstacles. Tried calling the public information officer of a local police department to get some traction, but their voice mailbox was full. Have since texted and emailed them with no response. Thinking up Plan Bs in my head and wondering at what point I need to let go of this idea and try for a story that may excite me less but be more achievable in the time frame.
First big breakthrough! Made contact with my source who I first read about on Craigslist. Didn’t notice that they had listed their phone number as a way of contacting them. Slapping my head, but they totally seem interested in what I was doing and are calling me back as soon as they’re done shopping at Costco. It was an incredible rush.
So, I went and met the interview subject at the Costco. We agreed that it was too noisy at the Costco to do the interview and after a few false starts, we found a park nearby where his kids could play while we spoke. I wish I had insisted a little harder on a quieter place because I’m listening to the interview now and it has issues that I think could have been avoided if we had been indoors. My relative inexperience in radio is a major hurdle right now. Back home now listening to the interview and wondering if I need to re-record some of it — if the subject is willing. I’ve reached out to him and am waiting to hear back. It was extraordinarily nice of him to agree to do this once, so twice might be too much to ask for.
Ok, so maybe I over-reacted about the sound quality. I’ve cut down the interview and played it for Melissa and it isn’t as bad as I feared at first. I still need to cut out another 45-seconds to get underneath the 4-minute limit, but I’m beginning to hear the story take shape. To know what the important ideas in it are and what can be lost. I’m really happy with how it ends. I’ll say this, it really helps to be interviewing a smart, articulate person. Turns out the guy is a journalist for Bloomberg news so he also knows how to tell a story. I do have a long night of editing in front of me, but I’d give myself a solid “B” for the first 8 hours of the 24 Hour Radio Race.
Sort of amazed that I’ve gotten the basic story under 4 minutes. There’s still a lot of work to do, but the arc is in place and under the time limit so I’ve got some room to play with secondary tracks and music. I think I might need a Diet Coke. Luckily, one of my former co-workers sent me one the other day.
Getting to the point where I need to get some sleep. I feel good with the first draft I’ve laid down. I even found some music on Soundcloud with a Creative Commons License that I can use for underscoring the story. I just hope I’ve done some sort of justice to the story I’ve been given, which I realize now I haven’t really written about yet. I’ve spent the past week listening to as many episodes of KCRW’s Unfictional as I could cram in. I listened while mowing the lawn, riding the metro, managing my fantasy baseball team or washing the dishes. One of the stories mentioned that they often got good ideas from Craigslist — which was such a simple idea, and yet it hadn’t occurred to me. So, I went online and fairly quickly I spotted this post in the Lost and Found section. It all worked out.
Ok. Going to sleep for a few hours.
Ok. So I slept a little more than I planned, but I’m still happy with my story this morning. Going to play around with some small edits here and there and then upload no later than 12:30 so I’ve got a safe buffer in case Soundcloud acts all wonky. I’ll embed the story here once it is actually up, but you should check out all of the stories that people are working on. Part of the thrill of this has been following the Twitter hashtag #RadioRace and seeing all the other teams posting from around the world. It was kind of like being back in college during finals week when everyone was cramming for finals at the same time or working in a computer lab on a big paper (I went to college in an era where if you wanted to write your paper on a computer, you had to go to a computer lab to do it.)
Done! I turned it in. It was an amazing experience and I’m glad I did it. I learned so much along the way and given the chance to do it again, I think I’d do a much better job. But given the time-frame and the equipment I had available to me, I’m pretty proud of what I produced. It’s a pretty long-shot that my piece will make the Top Ten of the contest given how many actual employees of real radio stations are involved. I’ve listened to a couple of the pieces that have been turned in and they are very impressive. It’s a great project and a good example of how technology has really democratized media. I encourage everyone to check out as many of the projects as possible and perhaps even try your own hand at producing a piece next year!
One of the greater advantages of being in a transitional period is the opportunity to try new things. When you work in the same place for 17 years, your list of “things I would do if I only had the time” can get kind of long. With a full-time job, my side projects were limited to my playwrighting, which I could reasonably pursue by typing away on the Metro during my morning commutes downtown. Since I ride from the end of the line I could always get a seat in the morning, and I probably wrote about 80% of my most recent play on the Red Line (who needs Amtrak’s Writers-in-Residence program with its questionable TOS). The way home in the afternoon was a different story, and frequently I found myself standing the whole way home either reading from an e-book or listening to a podcast. I’ve loved This American Life since it started being broadcast in the DC area years ago — long enough that I used to record episodes off the radio on CASSETTE TAPES! The Moth is another favorite podcast and recently I’ve started listening to KCRW’s Unfictional. I’ve done some minor sound engineering over the years, recording short intros for podcasts of events at work and I even put together a 12-minute version of a much longer oral history I recorded with my grandfather before he died. So when I saw that KCRW was holding a 24 Hour Radio Race, I decided to sign up and give it a shot.
If you’re familiar with the 48-Hour Film Project, this is the same idea, except without the film part and in half the time. This Saturday at 10 am Pacific Time, I’ll be emailed with the theme for the contest. I’ll then have 24 hours to write, record, edit and upload an original 4-minute, non-fiction radio story. Everything needs to be done within that 24 hour period, so there’s really nothing I can do to prepare other than make sure I know how to use my sound editing software and let people know that I may need to call on them as resources for possible interviews once I know the theme. Last year’s theme was “The Last Thing You’d Expect” so I anticipate that there will be a similarly broad theme this year.
My goal isn’t so much to win the competition as to see if I can put together a listenable radio piece in 24 hours. It is exciting and a little terrifying. I’ll be posting updates here to my blog to document the process of making the radio piece.
Last season Melissa and I became unabashed fans of the FX television series The Americans. Since then it has quickly emerged as one of the best shows on television for its complex and multi-layered characters, its authentic-feeling spy-craft and its relative faithfulness to Reagan-era Cold War atmospherics in costumes, pop-culture references and plot lines. One of the running themes of the series is the differing attitudes the main characters, Philip and Elizabeth bring to their jobs as KGB “illegals” living deep under-cover. Elizabeth is the more ideologically committed of the two, while Philip is more skeptical both about the wisdom of their Moscow handlers and whether America is really the mortal enemy – he even considers defecting early in the series.
Part of the pleasure of the show is that Philip and Elizabeth are both deeply drawn characters, yet their backstories are largely unknown even to each other and only gradually and piecemeal revealed to us. We’ve learned some about Elizabeth’s childhood and her time in-training for the KGB as well as a plot-line last year about one of Philip’s former loves from the USSR. But we haven’t learned as much about his family background, which led me to speculate in a post last year that he might be Jewish. I laid out my reasons and in doing so, also cited an interview by the show’s Jewish creators in which they alluded to “a great story with a Mossad and a refusenik twist, but ultimately it didn’t pan out for this season…Yet it’s stuff that’s very much on our minds, given both of our backgrounds, and in future seasons, it’s fare I’m sure we’ll explore.”
Last night’s episode (Season 2, Episode 4 “A Little Night Music”) brought that Mossad/Refusenik story to the forefront and positioned it for at least a multi-episode arc. The episode opens with Philip at a synagogue listening to Baklanov, a former-Soviet physicist addressing the congregation about how dismal it was to be a Jew in the Soviet Union, how grateful he is to be in America, and how it offered the best future for his family and his children (cut to a shot of his slightly homey-looking wife and geek-in-training son listening with admiration in the front row). In a wonderful non-verbal acting moment, Philip (played by Matthew Rhys) seems to envy the safe harbor that America has provided Baklanov. Given the anxieties Philip and Elizabeth have for their own children’s future given their occupation and exacerbated by the recent murder of fellow agents Emmett and Leanne (and their daughter) one can hardly blame him. Reporting back to Moscow, Philip claims there is no way that Baklanov could ever be “turned” to spy for the Soviets.
Moscow decides that if the physicist cannot be turned, then he will need to be “exfiltrated” – kidnapped and returned to the USSR. Elizabeth and Philip are put on the case and as the episode ends, the attempted kidnapping has gone sideways. They are ambushed by another male/female pair of agents, one of whom they incapacitate while the other escapes with their car containing the targeted physicist chloroformed in the trunk. Roll credits.
The scenes-from-next-week confirm my initial suspicion that the spoiler agents are indeed from the Mossad. Why they were protecting the physicist we’ll probably learn and how this blown operation compromises Philip and Elizabeth’s operational ability as Soviet agents will be interesting. However, in the snippet seen in the teaser for the next episode it would appear that the show-runners are also setting-up something of an identity crisis – most likely targeted squarely at Philip. In the teaser, we see the Mossad agent, tied-up and bruised saying to Philip, “I hide what I do, I don’t hide who I am,” – a conversation that takes us into a realm of morality and identity that the show has not yet fully considered. And, I maintain, if Philip has any Jewish ancestry, which I’ve shown before is plausible, the identity crisis will be further compounded as another tug on his multiple and conflicting identities – as a father, as a KGB agent, as a husband to Elizabeth (and Martha) and a friend to (and sworn enemy of) Stan the FBI agent.
How long can Philip keep these contradictions in perpetual tension? Waiting for the breaking point is what keeps me watching.