Idol Chatter

How Jewish is Jackie Mason? “As a matzo ball,” says the comedian. “Or kosher salami.” So Jewish, that when Jews for Jesus published a pamphlet suggesting that Mason had accepted Jesus, he let loose with a $2 million lawsuit.

The pamphlet, also known as a broadside, which is still available (but hurry) on this website, features a cartoon image of Mason on the front, and asks, “Jackie Mason… A Jew for Jesus?” Inside, a lesson is built around Jackie Mason’s famously politically incorrect shtik about the differences between Gentiles and Jews, punning egregiously on the titles of the comedians Broadway shows. “There’s one thing [the commission of sin] where there’s no difference between Jews and Gentiles,” the copy reads, causing the cartoon Mason to exclaim, “No difference! There goes my whole show!”

Two million bucks seems a little bit of an overreaction to what appears to be, in the words of Jews for Jesus spokesperson Susan Perlman, “good-natured,” if not to well-written, fun. But anyone walking around Manhattan this summer knows Jews for Jesus proselytizers have been out in force, and it’s difficult to imagine a person more dependent on his Jewish identity for his livelihood than Jackie Mason, unless it’s Ehud Olmert, or a rabbi–which, for the record, Mason is. Ordained at 25 following four generations of tradition in his family, he also became a comedian, his website says, because “somebody in the family had to make a living.”

“Blacks to the right. Whites–you go over there. Asians, step to the left. Latinos, stay where you are. Remember to stay within your groups. We’re going to drop you off in the middle of nowhere, with limited supplies, and want you to fight for your lives.”

Sounds like a sadistic case study in Social Darwinism, no? Well it might be, depending on how you look at it, but it’s also the format for the new season of CBS’s “Survivor.” In what’s being called a “social experiment,” this season’s teams, called “tribes” on the show, are based solely on ethnicity–whites vs. blacks vs. Asians vs. Latinos.

In an interview
with The New York Times, series producer Mark Burnett acknowledges that the new setup is “going to be controversial,” adding, “I’m not an idiot.” Burnett also says that the idea actually came from criticism about the show’s lack of diversity. He says approximately 80 percent of the show’s applicants are white. For this season’s crop, host Jeff Probst says blacks, Asians and Latinos were actively recruited to participate.

This isn’t the first time Burnett, who is also the producer of Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice,” wanted to pit ethnic groups against each other. Last year, Burnett tried to do a race-war edition of the hit business competition show, after “The Donald” suggested it during an interview. However, NBC heads–who obviously have a bit more sensitivity than those at CBS–scrapped that idea.

Although many are sure to find the show’s new format in bad taste, as I do, others will undoubtedly be curious as to how the competition is played out. Will fans of the show start rooting for tribes and contestants on the basis of their skin tone? And, if say, a Latino decides to root for the white tribe, will he or she be looked at as a traitor by other Latino fans?

In the end, the winner isn’t a team–it’s an individual (who wins $1 million)–but this format can only bring out the worst in America’s racial stereotypes and prejudices, conscious and subconscious. If a black person wins, will people say it was a set-up designed to finally let a minority win? If an Asian wins, will people say it’s because he or she was way smarter then everyone else and therefore, at an advantage?

As in all competitions, there are winners and losers. How “Survivor” presents each of them will make or break the show, and, perhaps, destroy any improvement in race relations this country has achieved during the past 60 years. Well, maybe our race relations are safe. But the show’s plan still doesn’t seem like a good idea.

The new season begins September 14th. Will you be watching?

This week the History Channel is celebrating Ancient Week (kind of like Shark Week at the Discovery Channel, but with no sharks). In honor of Ancient Week, they premiered a hokey, but ultimately interesting, TV documentary called “The Exodus Decoded,” produced by none other than James Cameron.

The show aims to prove scientifically the cause behind the 10 plagues and the parting of the Red Sea; provide a new historical estimate for when the Israelites were lead out of Egypt by Moses; and archaeologically trace the route of the Exodus and location of Mount Sinai, challenging all previous speculation on these subjects.

The use of special effects is distracting and, at times, disorienting (no surprise there, though, given the fact that James Cameron is behind the production) and the narrator, Simcha Jacobovici, is rather corny in his attempts to build suspense. But the contentions and new explanations the team of researchers and scholars provides about the Exodus is fascinating–perfect for viewers who love all things “Bible: Decoded.”

It airs again tonight at 8:00 p.m.

Dear Daniel,

Our time together at the Geneva Convention was nothing short of magical… the way we “released international tension together”.. back when you were just a little nameless country called “Jewlandia,” and I a poor naïve Palestine, when the U.N. threw us together in the same convention booth. How did it all go so wrong? When did our Middle East passion become so muddled, all over “that stupid thing with your country being declared at the expense of my country’s autonomy”?

“If only we’d sat down in a Starbucks and written a statement of mutual agreement,” if only we had made a pact that day to never let anything come between us, so much fighting could have been averted. I don’t regret our time together that night, but have regretted every warring moment since, and thought you should know.

Passionately yours,

The above letter, while a fabrication by this blogger, could easily have been part of the play “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: A Romantic Comedy,” an official selection of the New York Fringe Festival. As the play’s title and the above letter indicate (quotation marks indicate direct quotes from the script), the show imagines Israel and Palestine as a man and woman, respectively, who meet and fall in love at the Geneva Convention, only to have their brief union destroyed by the declaration of the State of Israel. As is the case when countries mate, there is post-affair awkwardness, which manifests as regional turmoil and violence. And of course, there are musical numbers.

The play’s fearlessly “out-there” concept–typical of the annual Fringe Festival (which this year also included shows with titles like “Corleone: The Shakespearean Godfather” and “Reservoir Bitches”)–comes courtesy of its Iranian-American birth mother, Negin Farsad, and her partners in writing, Alexander Zalben, and in acting, John Flynn. The show has a madcap, high-energy feel and, if just for a moment, makes us wonder, “Why can’t those two wacky kids work things out?”

When the wacky kids in question are Israel/Daniel and Palestine/Suha, we all know it’s not that simple. But the tropes of relationships gone haywire are surprisingly appropriate. When Suha complains that Daniel “can’t balance a healthy relationship with nation-building,” she needs to find an outlet for her anger. Her epiphany: “I’ll take all the hatred and anger I have and use it constructively to destroy Israel!”

Over the course of the play, the actors get to play with different styles and characters. While some seem a little random (Israel and Palestine do a rap battle! Or a tango! Suha goes on reality show “Blind Date”!) others serve analogies straight up and nuclear.

Farsad plays the petulant student who is also, in the show’s conceit, Iran. She wears a baseball cap and a teenager’s surly and disobedient grimace. She’s called into the principal’s office because he’s found enriched uranium in her locker. “Iran” whines and blame-shifts. “I totally saw Pakistan and India making nuclear warheads under the bleachers during recess…” The principal (playing the role of U.N.) cautions her to wait before launching an attack, reasoning that “waging war is so much better with a standing army that you love.”

Love and war, two areas in which all has been deemed fair. And the line between love and hate is often hard to discern. It takes a rare and inventive imagination to set a region plagued by strife as a romantic musical comedy. If only political unrest and centuries of violence could be erased by a comedy from the fringe.