Category Archives: Jewish Stuff

We Need to Talk About the Mensch on a Bench™

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….

mensch on a bench

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.

ladies man

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.



Filed under Jewish Stuff, Parenting

Why I Chose Not to Program The Death of Klinghoffer and Why I Still Support It

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.

Achille LauroMy 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.

photo by D. R. Walker, via Wikimedia Commons


Filed under Arts, Facts as we see them, Jewish Stuff, Non-Profit

Doubling-Down on Philip’s Jewish Identity in The Americans

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.”

Is Philip thinking whether or not this man can be turned...or something more?

Is Philip thinking whether or not this man can be turned…or something more?

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.


Filed under Half-Truths, Jewish Stuff, Lies

JewPlay: The Future of Jewish Theater is in the Past

The series of #JewPlay posts that recently ran on HowlRound have had me regretting my relative absence from the Jewish Theater scene for the past decade. There’s been a lot of good work done during that time, and with the exception of what was happening in my backyard at Theater J, I’ve missed most of it. That’s not to say I regret the decisions I’ve made that charted my personal and professional course for the past ten years or so – a time period during which my wife and I had twins and she was able to publish four books (one nonfiction and two novels and another novel coming this spring). I had the opportunity to run a major film festival, program and meet major authors, commission new scores to old silent films – lots of creative and rewarding work, a lot of deep thinking about the roles and uses of Jewish culture, but not much personal theatrical output. But as the old Yiddish saying goes, “You can’t dance at two weddings with one tuches,” and while I was dancing at a special and unique wedding, that doesn’t mean I’m not curious about that which made the other wedding special and unique. We can always wish for an additional tuches.

When I was last on the scene I was making profoundly Jewish theatre. My play Miklat told the story of a ba’al t’shuvah – a newly observant Orthodox Jew – whose parents come to Jerusalem to try and retrieve him on the eve of the first Gulf War. It was a comedy but it also tried to ask serious questions about faith, the depth of identity and whether those of us who reject fundamentalist religion are also brave enough to embrace a principled atheism. It struck a nerve with audiences and had a successful run at Theater J, (where I was the Associate Producer) as well as at theaters in Atlanta, Minneapolis and Palm Beach. Why it never made it to New York, I’ll never know. Something about the new play “pipeline” at the time flowing in one direction from New York?

A dozen years later I’m entering a new phase in my professional life and I’m lucky to be able to return to playwriting in a serious way as a participating artist in Theater J’s Locally Grown Festival. The play I’ll be work-shopping, To Kill a King tells the story of the 1968 Sanitation Workers Strike that brought Martin Luther King to Memphis, Tennessee where an assassin’s bullet found him on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. What attracted me to this story was not its heroes – the sanitation workers, whose story has been well told in other ways, nor its primary martyr, MLK who has been the subject of numerous dramatizations. What interested me, and what makes it a Jewish play are three more ambivalent figures who sit at the center of the drama – Mayor Henry Loeb, a former Jew and recent convert to Christianity, in-league with old-line segregationists who stonewalls the strikers and refuses to negotiate; Jerry Wurf, the President of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees who is representing the strikers and Rabbi James Wax, leader of Memphis’ reform synagogue who at different times during the strike served as a reluctant mediator, a prophet predicting disaster, an opponent of public confrontation with the mayor, and ultimately the moral conscience of Memphis who engages in a profound act of public protest. For each of these characters, how they behave in accordance or in opposition to their perception of their Jewish identity has tremendous consequences, not only for themselves, but also for the outcome of the strike, and the course of American history.

The American Century of prosperity has been accompanied by the rise of the most successful, secure and accepted Jewish community ever. In many ways the history of America over the past 75 years is the history of the Jewish community – and that history, with its myths and misconceptions deserves dramatic re-examination. Just as our brethren in Israel are confronting their foundational narratives to unearth the deeper truths necessary to move forward, so too must Jewish theater seek to examine the past that is not so distant that we cannot bear some responsibility for it. When we do so, we’ll still find much to be proud of, but also ambiguities and hard decisions that may not have been the best, but the best they could do.

Just as it is ridiculous to say that we are living in a post-racial era, similarly it is nonsense to expect that we are in a post-ethnic era – in both instances the racial and ethnic landscape has gotten more complex, more nuanced, less easily stereotyped, but to deny the existence of the geography is folly. How we draw on our history, chauvinistically or with compassion and sober honesty will go a long way to determining our future. That as I see it is one of the great challenges for Jewish theater, one that gives it relevance and one that invites a multiplicity of voices necessary to tell the perpetually unfolding story.

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Passover Amicus Brief for Gay Marriage

Last night, in the waning hours before Passover began I had this feeling of anxiety.

That’s a fairly common emotion for many Jews prior to a holiday that requires us to be completely rid of anything made of bread, anything that could be made into bread, anything with bread in it as well as anything that might conceivably be confused for bread or the products necessary to make bread (this last category particularly annoys me, but alas, for another post).

But I know our home is all set, so that wasn’t it.

Perhaps it was because the Passover ritual meal – the Seder – is a huge production with weighty decisions to make and execute regarding everything from the particulars of re-telling the Exodus from Egypt to the mass quantities of food being served. But, no. We’re attending other peoples’ Seders this year. So that wasn’t it.

Then I saw the tweet:

And I remembered, the Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments tomorrow in the case against DOMA and Prop 8. In the past few days a rash of politicians have conveniently announced their support for gay marriage just as public opinion polls make it clear that the majority of the country now favors the right of LGBT couples to enjoy the same rights as us straight folk. As the tweet makes clear, time is running short for public figures to position themselves on what feels like the inevitable side of history — who wants to be remembered as still being on the side of “separate but equal” until Brown v. Board of Ed?

It can take time for some people to stop swimming against the tide of rising freedom. The Supreme Court ruled that it was illegal for the Commonwealth of Virginia to outlaw interracial marriage in 1967. In 1983 more Americans still disapproved than approved of interracial marriage. Now 86% approve. A lot of people, over a lot of time, have changed their minds. Or at least they’ve come to understand that it is socially unacceptable to tell a phone surveyor from Gallup that you disapprove of interracial marriage. Either way, call it progress.

After all, Moses had to go to Pharaoh ten times to ask for his people’s freedom — and Pharaoh never really got behind the idea…with catastrophic consequences.

It is time for this country’s highest court to put itself on the right side of history.

Tonight we went to a family Seder hosted by one of the last members of our oldest generation. They are very traditional. At times I’ve bemoaned the fact that they continue to use an old Haggadah (the book used to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt) full of all Thee’s and Thou’s as well as the exclusively patriarchal language to refer to G-d. While I love going to this Seder, it is a large, warm, raucous family affair, I have to admit, that I find the liturgy less than inspiring. Then tonight, we came to the following passage:

haggadah pic

Suddenly, this text from 1958 (I looked on the cover page) about an alleged event thousands of years old, struck me with the full revolutionary power of its narrative of freedom. The idea that in every age some new freedom is won. That in every age we uncover “formerly unrecognized servitude, requiring new liberation to set man’s [inset irony for patriarchal language] soul free. In every age, the concept of freedom grows broader, widening the horizons for finer and nobler living.” We are still in the desert, struggling to realize the full freedom we can achieve.

1958 — only four years after Brown v. Board of Education, 9 years before Loving v. Virginia, 15 years before Frontiero v. Richardson. 55 years before Hollingsworth v. Perry.

So, while I think it’s been pretty clear where I stand for awhile, let it not be too late for me (and for as many of you as possible) to declare that a truly free society must grant equal freedoms to its GLBT citizens. The Supreme Court should make unconstitutional any law that prevents marriage between two men or two women. We should support legislation that recognizes and codifies those rights — even though equal rights for a minority should not need to be put up to majority vote.

That’s my Amicus Brief. Happy Passover.


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Continuing Obsessions: The Irish-Jewish Connection

Wall_plaques_Irish_Jewish_museumWeekend Edition Sunday had a nice piece this morning about the Loyal League of the Yiddish Sons of Erin — an affinity group of Jews from Ireland that met regularly in New York and which over time has disintegrated as their offspring have melted into the rest of America. It is one of those quirks of history that repeats itself every so often, that Jews trying to get the hell out of wherever they’re fleeing, end up in some unlikely places: Uzbekistan, Shanghai, the Dominican Republic and in this case, Ireland.

There have been entire PhD dissertations written about the most famous Irish Jew, James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom from Ulysses (a book I’ve begun many times and never finished). Robert Briscoe and his son Ben Briscoe get trotted out from time to time as past Jewish Lords Mayor of Dublin (I actually got to work with Ben Briscoe’s granddaughter Carla when she was acting in the DC-area about ten years ago). Former Israeli President Chaim Herzog‘s father was the Chief Rabbi of Ireland. But I’ve always felt this hall-of-fame of Jews-in-Strange-places approach to Irish Jewish history missed some deeper themes which I’ve never truly seen explored.

I had proposed to study them at the end of college when I applied for a Watson Fellowship — my idea was to study the development of National Theater in Ireland and Israel. Why Ireland and Israel? Well, to be honest, they were both countries I loved visiting and have been to multiple times. But that’s not what I put in the Fellowship application. I pointed out that the countries share some very compelling similarities in their modern development as nation-states.

1) Both countries grow out of ancient cultures that were highly influential in the development of Western Civilization but only achieved independent Nation-State status in the 20th Century.

2) Both countries have a history of genocide and diaspora — the Jews, many times over the millenia and the Irish with the Great Potato Famine which reached its peak in 1847.

3) Both countries have a history of linguistic revival, although with varying degrees of success.

4) Both countries have unresolved issues of national territory that play-out very differently, but at their essence speak to a psycho-geography that extends beyond the physical boundaries of the state, and entangle them with competing claims to the land with another ethno-religious group.

5) Both countries struggle with the line between church (or synagogue) and state.

5) Both countries see themselves as victims of European history. The British in-particular play a strong adversarial role in the struggle for political independence in both national narratives.

6) Most significantly to the fellowship I was applying for at the time, both had National Theaters before they had actual Nations. The Habima Theatre began in Europe, but eventually established itself in pre-State Israel and began performing in Tel Aviv in 1929 (it wasn’t the official national theater until 1958). The Abbey Theater was established in 1904, well before independence as part of an Irish Literary revival lead by Yeats and Synge. The Irish national theater is much better known, but both played important roles in the self-definition of a modern national identity in the run-up to and following independence. As a result, the theatrical traditions in both countries are today still vitally connected to national issues and the continuing evolution of that identity. That was my thesis anyway.

I didn’t get it. Partly because the past fellowship recipient who interviewed me didn’t really “get” theater. When I tried to explain to him how theater could reflect and shape a national narrative I held up as an example Angels in America, which had recently won the Pulitzer. He hadn’t seen it, but his friend had and told him he hated it.

It also may have had something to do with the fact that after the interview I realized the fly on my pants had been down during the entire conversation. Certainly, that was a foible that Leopold Bloom would have appreciated.

Image: By RustyTheDog, via Wikimedia Commons

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Memo to “The Americans”: Philip is Jewish

matthewrhysMel and I have a new television obsession. It’s The Americans on FX and we’ve become devoted watchers. As children of the 80s, we love the whole world of the show, and we are particularly attracted by the conceit that dangerous international espionage could have been taking place under our very noses when we were growing up in our milquetoast suburbs. My only complaint with the show is that practically nothing looks like it is actually set in Washington, DC or its suburbs. They shoot somewhere in New York I guess, which is too bad because it is the only part of the show that feels inauthentic. They nail the 80s clothes, music and cars; as well as the Cold War fever-pitch that Reagan whipped the country into. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are excellent as Elizabeth and Philip — the KGB agents who are living so deep under-cover that they blend in with the rest of the suburban families in their neighborhood. But they are textured and complex characters who struggle with the line between the lies necessitated by their assignments, and the authentic relationships they have living as a family, both within their is-it-or-isn’t-it-fake marriage and their very unfake children who live life completely oblivious to their parents’ true identities. [spoilers ahead]

Like many couples, Elizabeth and Philip have differing attitudes toward work. Elizabeth is ideologically committed to her role as a KGB officer. She’s devoted to the mission and trusts in the chain of command to issue orders which she is not to question. She believes that America is a shallow, materialistic society bent on the destruction of the USSR. Philip is less absolutist in his attitude, but no less effective. He seems more motivated by devotion to people than to the advancement of a Soviet espionage agenda. He’s ready to defect during the pilot episode, but abandons that plan because the ex-KGB agent about to bring him in had raped Elizabeth during her training as an agent. Whether it is Philip’s sense of justice, his genuine love for his fake wife or something more calculated, he kills the defector, rather than follow him out of the KGB’s employ.

He is skeptical of the orders that come from Moscow. When events begin to spin out-of-control in the wake of the Reagan assassination attempt, he believes their job is to help prevent a war between the Soviet Union and the USA rather than gain the advantage for the USSR in an inevitable war. He is motivated by protecting his family and when Elizabeth tells him she’d rather kill herself than be captured by the FBI, Philip tells her that if they catch him he’ll cooperate so quickly that the Feds will be at their house within an hour — presumably to protect the kids and arrest Elizabeth. He contrasts the openness of the American press and political system with the fact that it takes the USSR weeks to even admit that the leader of the country has died. He’s a skeptic. A bit of an outsider. And that made me think, maybe he’s Jewish?

During the pilot episode we see a flashback to the moment that Philip and Elizabeth met for the first time in some drafty Kremlin office. Just prior to that scene, Philip, while waiting for the meeting to commence, considers a wallet photograph of a woman, and then after staring at it wistfully, tears it up and throws it in the trash. On a simple plot level, this is clearly some sort of love-interest who obviously will show up later in the series (this coming week’s episode in-fact). But I like to read it on a slightly deeper level. This act of tearing up the photo is a physical separation from Philip’s “old life.” Whoever he was, whatever was possible or impossible in that life no longer exists. He gets to re-invent himself.

And Philip flourishes as a reinvented American. It is a difference between himself and Elizabeth that the show emphasizes again and again. His ease in the American milieu is part of the reason he was put through a torturous mock-interrogation by the KGB to test his loyalty. Elizabeth by contrast, is subjected to some rather weak “psychological” manipulation by being placed in a closet covered with photos of her children.

I know that the idea of a Jewish KGB operative during this period is a somewhat ahistorical proposition. While there were plenty of Jewish spies earlier in the 20th Century, following the Doctors’ Trial it became pretty clear that Jews would remain outsiders in the Worker’s Paradise. It would have been tricky to find enthusiastic volunteers. On the other hand, Markus Wolf was the Jewish head of the East German foreign spy agency for many years — so it’s not impossible.  In fact, Philip may be constructed partly along the lines of Markus Wolf’s own spying methods, according to his Washington Post obituary,

Philip in "Romeo" mode

Philip in “Romeo” mode

Mr. Wolf said he was likely to be remembered for his prolific use of sex to gain secrets, whether in the form of brothels to trap Westerners or by procuring wives and mistresses for loyal soldiers or by cultivating “Romeo spies” to target the lonely office secretaries and bureaucrats who had access to important, restricted documents. The intention was to steal hearts and then secrets.

So it could be that show creators Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields had Markus “Mischa” Wolf in mind when they created Philip? They haven’t been asked, but they are both Jewish and in an interview with the Jewish Journal:

both men said they were also inspired as children by stories of Jewish agents and covert operatives: for example, Eli Cohen, the Israeli who was caught and publicly hanged in Damascus in 1965, and Yoni Netanyahu, the Israeli assault commander killed in the 1976 top-secret raid on Entebbe. “I got a book of his letters for my bar mitzvah, and his story just bored into me and made me feel like he was the kind of man you’re supposed to be — an intellectual and a hero,” Weisberg said.

So maybe Philip is a Soviet version of The Man Without a Face? Weisberg is a former CIA agent who would be very familiar with Wolf and they have certainly incorporated his tactic of using sex to gain access to secrets as a standard (and steamy) feature of the show. Perhaps we’ll learn that Philip comes from a Wolf-like family, Jews who survived the Nazis thanks to the Soviet Army and became fiercely loyal in-return. Perhaps Philip has always felt distrust for the Soviet State even as he operated from the heart of an agency that was central to its identity.  Perhaps he is so successful in impersonating an American because he is the quintessential American: an outcast from somewhere else who through hard work and luck gets access to circles of power that would have been unimaginable in the “old country.”  I’ll enjoy seeing the show unravel these questions.

But we may not see them arise this season. In that same Jewish Journal article Fields said,

“We wrote a great story with a Mossad and a refusenik twist, but ultimately it didn’t pan out for this season,” Fields said. “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.”

Imagine if in the end, Philip doesn’t become a double-agent for the CIA, but instead the Mossad? How awesome will that be?


Filed under Half-Truths, Jewish Stuff, Lies