Friday, June 26, 2009


This was the final week of life for three notable celebrities: Johnny Carson’s eternal sidekick ED McMAHON, Charlie’s Angel FARRAH FAWCETT, and a pop icon who embodied what the word icon really means, MICHAEL JACKSON. They were very different from each other and had distinctly different impacts on the lives of the public. But what they share is that each in his/her own way helped define both the realities and the fantasies of their particular niche in show business, and each of them came to a tragic end in personal darkness after years in the stinging light of fame.

For Baby Boomers, our parents, and some folks younger than we, Ed McMahon was our bedtime TV teddy bear, the easy-going and importantly innocuous human wallpaper on Johnny Carson’s desktop of celebrity. He was a sort of maĆ®tre d’, straightman, fall-guy and mirror for Carson, who, his predecessors notwithstanding, truly defined the tone and format of late night television.

Before Leno and Letterman downsized sidekick duties, dividing them between their band leaders and announcers, there was Ed, the “second banana,” the constant on the far end of the couch who laughed loudest, but quietly made each guest still feel special as they shifted downward to make room for the next star in the hot seat next to Johnny. Yes, Ed did commercials live with dogs who upstaged or shamed him; yes, he went on to hawk that silly Publisher’s Clearing House sweepstakes that gave brief, cheap, hope to millions of everybodies who dreamed of problem-solving fortunes; and finally, he became an elderly, almost-forgotten, but nonetheless cautionary tale about the consequences of squandered wealth. He died broke and shriveled, and it was a sad moment for those of us who remembered the comfort of his hearty laugh and perpetual presence, even on Johnny’s nights off.

Farrah Fawcett became famous for the oft-imitated backward flip of her starlet mane, her broad expanse of teeth that were whiter than anything that really exists in nature, and the curse of being a beautiful, curvaceous blonde. Naturally, what she really wanted was to be taken seriously as an actress. She was the Betty Grable Pin-Up Girl of her time, a role she accepted but never relished. She was also famous for her relationships, first her marriage to the now-hardly-remembered Lee Majors (aka The Six Million Dollar Man), which made her Farrah Fawcett-Majors for a while, then her decades-long relationship with Ryan O’Neal, who was with her when she died and had announced just days before that they would marry as soon as she was better.

Fawcett, the Bombshell of the 70s, was the antithesis of everything the women’s movement of that era stood for, and the epitome of everything that little girls who still played with Barbie dolls wanted to be when they grew up. She finally got to show her true stuff in the 1983 Off-Broadway play Extremities, about a fighting-mad rape victim who gives her attacker as bad as she got, and won a Best Actress Golden Globe for the 1986 film version. And she struck a powerful blow on behalf of battered women (and won an Emmy) for her performance in the 1984 TV movie The Burning Bed. But she died too sick and too soon to create the seriously-regarded career she longed for.

And Michael Jackson – poor abused, confused, brilliant, sweet, demented, super-superstar Michael Jackson. When I think of the 1980s, the first images that come to mind are Michael Jackson and shoulder pads; they both defined the decade. I always liked his music, although I was never a wild fan. But I enjoyed him, I appreciated his energy and distinctiveness, and I liked that for black people especially, he was a true icon who transcended race and crossed over with more clout than Harry Belafonte, Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis Jr., Jimi Hendrix, Ray Charles, and Lionel Richie combined: their own true Elvis, the King of Pop. To anyone who loves rock`n’roll, he created a sound and style both powerful and unique.

He was equally famous as a generous, discreet humanitarian and, unfortunately, equally infamous as a childlike child predator – charges never proven, but which colored his reputation as darkly as he himself tried to lighten his skin through countless plastic surgeries and chemical treatments. I was pleased to see in a recent photo with announcement of his imminent comeback, that he was looking pretty good – in his own peculiar way (love him or not, there's no denying the eccentricities of his appearance). I'm sorry that we're not going to get to see and hear what Michael Jackson, older, long in exile with time to have revived and reinvented himself, would have presented to us. It's a double loss.

Like many a genius – and I think he deserves to be called one – his demons became stronger than his talents. From hereon in, when I think of Michael Jackson, I’ll be reminded of Judy Garland: both of them exploited child stars who were rendered unable to cope with adulthood, stardom, real life, or themselves; both loved by millions and who yet [apparently] felt supremely unloved and, ironically, unlovable; both dead way before their time.

Celebrities – by which I mean show biz folk, not writers or scientists or politicians or even the renowned leaders of major social movements – become the touchstones of our lives, whether we realize it or not. It isn’t that we all adore them, but like it or not, we tell social time by their existence – and when they go, time stands still for a moment, leaving us disoriented and displaced. And when time moves on again, it’s not the same, something is off kilter in the ticking away of seconds, and we ourselves not only grow older but grow differently (see Dividing Lines).

Thank you, Ed, Farrah, and most especially Michael. You wanted to touch people’s lives. You came to matter in our hearts.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Searching For Peace In the Time of Crazy

Once again, the confluence of current events and cultural activities has cast the conun-drum of creating something akin to genuine, peaceful co-existence in the Middle East into stark relief.

Yesterday, 88-year-old James W. von Brunn – a notorious anti-Semite/Holocaust denier, racist and hate site Webmaster – was politely helped into the entrance of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC by a security guard – whom he promptly shot and who died shortly afterwards. This elderly hatemonger, with the end of life well in sight, felt compelled to take his shotgun (which, as a convicted felon, he shouldn’t have had in the first place) and continue his vitriolic battle against all things Jewish and African-American. The FBI astutely labeled this an act of domestic terrorism and said “We know what he did, now we have to find out why he did it.” Duh?!

It is important to note that the guard – as much a hero as any soldier on the front lines of war – was named Stephen Tyrone Johns. He was black, 39-years-old, had worked at the Museum for six years, was known as Big John to his colleagues and was appreciated by everyone who works there for his courtesy and friendliness. He lived in Maryland, had gotten married about a year ago, and had a son. If he had not literally used his own body to stop von Brunn, one can only imagine how many of the thousands of Museum visitors von Brunn might have gotten.

This appalling incident came on the heels of President Obama’s Middle Eastern/European trip, during which he said and did some very sensible, sensitive, important and difficult things. But today, when he responded to the Museum shooting by saying he was “`shocked’ and saddened,” he confirmed for some Israelis and other Jews that on a fundamental level, he just doesn’t get it; he doesn’t understand that the most virulent kind of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial are not only alive and well, but growing. Which is why the president’s call for peace and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians is not well received in some Jewish quarters, where the prevailing sentiment is that compromise is a direct road to annihilation. An excellent explanation of this position is expressed by Mitchell Bard in his essay Did Obama Learn the Lesson of Buchenwald? on the Encyclopedia Britannica Blog.

Although I champion the president’s position, I’m frankly shocked that America’s first black president, a man who understands language and uses it well, wouldn’t know better. Chris Rock, on his most recent HBO comedy special, talks about racism at one point. I’m about to paraphrase here, because I don’t have a transcript, but the “language” is accurate. He says it always surprises and irritates him when a black person says he’s “shocked” by a racist incident. “I’m ready for some kind of racist bullshit anytime, anywhere,” he says. “If I was being interviewed by Regis Philbin, chatting and saying `Yeah, I’m in Madagascar 2 and it’s great,’ and all of a sudden Regis jumped up and stabbed me in the neck yelling `Take that, you lousy nigger!’ I’d say to myself `I shoulda seen it coming’.”

Also yesterday, in the parallel universe of the arts, there was a program carried by many PBS stations, America At a Crossroads: Stand-Up Muslim-American Comics Come of Age. It was interesting and entertaining and, not surprisingly, a good deal of the humor was grounded in the difficulty of just being a Muslim-American in post-9/11 America, where everywhere they go, everyone they meet, thinks they’re a terrorist. And this weekend, on the PBS program Sunday Arts, there will be a segment about “Light of the Sufis: The Mystical Arts of Islam,” part of a current presentation at the Brooklyn Museum entitled The Muslim Voices, Arts & Ideas Festival. Apparently, politics, media and the arts are joining forces (synchronicity in action?) to give us a more positive, sympathetic image of Muslims in general and Muslim-Americans in particular.

Bill Maher, at the end of his wise and funny documentary, Religulous, says “Religion must die if humankind is to live.” As you no doubt know, Mr. Maher believes that traditional, organized religion is the root of all evil, violence and stupidity. But whether or not the world would be a better place without religion is a moot point, because it’s not going to happen. For the record, James W. von Brunn is not a Muslim or a person of any faith, so far as I know. But most people want and need a religion to make their lives manageable. Like it says in the old Scottish folk ballad, All My Trials, “If religion were a thing that money could buy, the rich would live and the poor would die.” People of all faiths want to practice their faith and preserve their history, their future – and their sanity in a crazy world.

Unfortunately, some people of some faiths want to obliterate all people of certain other faiths – and Jews have good reason to feel endangered in this regard. I think it’s a good, helpful thing for Americans, who are so often so ignorant about so many things, to learn more about Islam, the fastest-growing religion in this country (and the world) today. But it also wouldn’t hurt for more people to learn and understand more about Jews – including our well-intentioned president, who perhaps doesn’t fully comprehend the depth of Jewish fear and anger, and the potency of Israeli resolve.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Yes, Obama's Efforts Are Good For the Jews

There are many Jews who are not happy with Barack Obama tonight – Jews in Israel, in America, everywhere. There are also many Jews who are thrilled with the president – in Israel, in America, everywhere. Today, the President of the United States did a very ballsy, creative, politically risky thing: he stood on a stage at Cairo University in Egypt and made a speech about many serious, contentious, and ancient struggles related to the existence and security of Israel; the status and strategy of the Palestinians; and the violent antipathy between America and the Muslim World. He talked about terrorism and peace and freedom and communication and understanding and tolerance. He reaffirmed America’s support of Israel’s national integrity and security, but also criticized certain Israeli policies which, he believes, have been counter-productive in the efforts for peace. He talked about Muslims and Christians and Jews, and he quoted from the Koran, the New Testament, and the Torah. He was bold and straightforward and spoke truth to intransigence in all quarters. Needless to say, he got mixed reviews.

Thomas Friedman in today’s New York Times offered a pro-Obama op-ed that ended with: “An Egyptian friend remarked to me: `Do not underestimate what seeds can get planted when American leaders don’t just propagate their values, but visibly live them. …When young Arabs and Muslims see an American president who looks like them, has a name like theirs, has Muslims in his family and comes into their world and speaks the truth, it will be empowering and disturbing at the same time. People will be asking: “Why is this guy who looks like everyone on the street here the head of the free world and we can’t even touch freedom?”’ You never know where that goes.”

On, the Web version of an independent Israeli daily newspaper that describes itself as having “a broadly liberal outlook both on domestic issues and on international affairs… founded in Jerusalem in 1919 by a group of Zionist immigrants, mainly from Russia,” there is a great deal of reportage and analysis, most in support of President Obama, but by no means in lockstep agreement. For further commentary in opposition to the President’s words and approach, check out Peter Daou’s fired-up essay on The Huffington Post.

The Jewish connection in my very mixed heritage is the strongest. I spent my earliest youth in Jewish neighborhoods on the Lower East Side and in the Bronx. I grew up at a time and place where the Holocaust was a recent trauma, not a distant memory; where Israel was viewed as a miracle, a dream-come-true, and an entitlement strengthened by Hitler’s considerable anti-Semitic, genocidal success; when people bought Israel Bonds and planted trees and sent care packages; when Jewishness and a fierce tie to Israel were synonymous, and Arabs on their massive lands surrounding the tiny Jewish Jewel in the Desert were viewed with suspicion, distaste and outright fear, as eternal enemies.

And, perhaps most politically significant, the Left were the great supporters of Israel, while the Right indulged in socially acceptable discrimination, restriction, and stupidity, the quietly hateful milieu faced by Gregory Peck in the classic film, Gentleman’s Agreement. One of my mother’s co-workers in a New Jersey factory, on learning that she was Jewish, asked to see my mother’s horns. In that world, the answer to any question, both jokingly and very seriously, was predicated on the answer to the primary one: Yes, but is this good for the Jews?

Fifty years later, the struggles and animosities in the Middle East may be much the same, but both there and here, the rules have changed. The Left have abandoned Israel and come to view it as an imperialist oppressor of the Palestinians, who are still portrayed as desperate, destitute youths fighting guns and bombs with rocks and moxie. The Right, largely for their own Fundamentalist Christian reasons, have come to embrace Israel as a holy land and a cherished democracy. Surely, this alliance epitomizes the adage, “with friends like these, who needs enemies?” For those who are not Jewish (in any way, shape or form), the importance of Israeli existence and security seems greedy and defensive; they don’t understand (or just don’t care) that for many Jews, Israel represents Jewish survival in the face of millennia of efforts to destroy us.

However, even in Israel, there is a growing consensus that the Palestinians cannot be defeated anymore than the Jews can, and peace can only evolve from a two-state solution and [albeit grudging] mutual acceptance. And even this imperfect solution cannot be achieved if the Muslim World sees America as its cultural, religious, mortal enemy. But like many Americans and other Westerners, I have huge problems with traditional/ orthodox Muslim attitudes towards and treatment of women, as well as anyone else whose views, behaviors and very existence are regarded as an affront to Islam.

I don’t know what the hell should be done about all this. But I believe, as I’ve said several times on this blog, that Barack Obama’s bi-racial, multi-religious heritage and even-handed personality make him a conciliator by nature. And while he appreciates the enormity of these issues, he also regards it as his presidential duty to try to craft peace, cooperation and co-existence out of this mess. He doesn’t hate Jews or hate Israel or want the peculiarities of the Muslim World to hold sway around the globe. He wants to find in this situation, as in many others, a workable middle ground.

So yes, I think it’s good for the Jews.