Idol Chatter

On “Dateline” last night, Madonna spoke about the controversy over her adopting an African baby–and, of course, about that other controversy, over her on-stage crucifixion act. Watch that section of the interview:

People who find Borat or Jewtopia offensive are also likely to rail against the new release from Reboot Stereophonic Records for its title alone. “Jewface,” like other neo-cultural Jewish efforts, is named to provoke even before anyone actually listens to the music. But without previewing the music on the CD, amateur cultural historians will note that this marks another attempt to re-spark–or, as the record company itself phrases it, reboot–the connection between today’s Jews and their culture.

According to Sunday’s NY Times article:

[“Jewface”] contains 16 songs salvaged from wax cylinder recordings and scratchy 78s, from a century-old genre that is essentially Jewish minstrelsy. Often known as Jewish dialect music, it was performed in vaudeville houses by singers in hooked putty noses, oversize derbies and tattered overcoats. Highly popular, if controversial, in its day, it has been largely lost to history–perhaps justifiably.

Consider song titles like “Under the Matzos Tree,” and “When Mose With His Nose Leads the Band.” Or, as the Times points out, “My Yiddisha Mammy,” a 1922 riff on Al Jolson’s “Mammy,” written by Eddie Cantor and others, wherein lyrics run like this: “I’ve got a mammy / But she don’t come from Alabammy / Her heart is filled with love and real sentiment / Her cabin door is in a Bronx tenement.”

The Anti-Defamation League, usually the first to react to news items that may be anti-Semitic, was unsure what to do with “Jewface.” The Times reports that the ADL acknowledged that this release was “complicated.” While clearly comedic and most often performed by Jews, it couldn’t be counted as anti-Semitic. But there’s still a fear, the deputy director said, that “our experience in this kind of thing is that inevitably somebody will probably use this for not such good purposes.”

But this release is part of a larger trend, an unofficial project of rediscovery or reclamation of old culture and the reframing of it in a contemporary context–a project that is being conducted by Jews in their 20s and 30s. (Look at the ages of the men cited in the article; they’re all 35-37.) Finding old methods of connection (mostly the synagogue and Jewish organizational structure) boring or unmeaningful, they are actively inventing ways of engaging with their religious and cultural heritage through the musical or literary frameworks that hold personal meaning.

Take a Hasidic guy, add a love of reggae, hip-hop, and rap and you have Matisyahu, whose videos I can watch on the TVs at the gym. Take cultural reclamation and add a provocative edge and you have Heeb Magazine, which presents a “Food Issue” with a pig on its cover. JDub Records, which originally repped Matisyahu, signs eclectic acts, holds huge concerts, and shows no signs of slowing down. Or check the blogosphere for the varied, snarky, and sometimes controversial perspectives of Jewish bloggers, like those over at Jewlicious and Jewschool, the social action-centered JSpot, or other Jewish magazines of thought and culture, like Zeek, PresenTense, and American Jewish Life–each initiative representing a group of different (but often overlapping) Jewish 20- and 30-somethings struggling with issues surrounding Jewish life and identity.

For example (and with this sentence also functioning as full disclosure), I contribute to Jewlicious, PresenTense and American Jewish Life, and have attended events sponsored by JDub, Heeb, Zeek, and Jewschool. We’re all doing slightly different things, but it’s all in the name of connecting to our tradition, and thanks to the internet, we’ve created connections to each other as well.

I admit, I don’t have many non-Jewish friends who are involved in their faiths to the extent that my Jewish friends are involved in theirs. But I would assume that faith in general may represent more of a challenge to my generation than it did for generations past. From “Jewface” to Heeb, the fact that there are so many of these innovative cultural efforts indicates a basic dissatisfaction with the way things are, and a hope that involvement, even if the point of engagement is self-created, will allow Generations X and Y to make meaningful connections to Jewish life.

Did bookstore mega-chain Borders ban a young adult novel because the book implied sex was as good as soda pop?

Borders’ recent decision not to stock the young adult novel “Pop!” has caused some puzzlement in the publishing industry. Though penned by a former “Sex in the City” writer, Aury Wallington, “Pop!”–published by Penguin’s Razorbill imprint–is not so different from many young adult novels: It features hot boys, a teenage girl who is ambivalent about what to do about them, and tons and tons of single-sentence paragraphs. Sex is amply represented in the novel–about a young woman’s quest to lose her virginity–but Wallington’s point, as she told one interviewer, is that “sex is going to have emotional consequences no matter how much you tell yourself that it’s not.” This is YA lit in the sex-ed-with-self-esteem mode invented by Judy Blume in her novel “Forever,” to which “Pop!” has been compared.

Why did Borders nix “Pop!”? The chain won’t say precisely, but there are some clues. For one, customers may special order it from their stores, meaning it was the display that made things dicey. And after giving The Book Standard a boilerplate answer about “making choices every day” about what to stock, the children’s buyer added, “Other factors in this decision include the format of the book, the price, the cover design, and the competitive landscape.” Since the format, price, and competitive landscape don’t distinguish “Pop!” the focus falls to the cover, which shows the title splashed across the front of a soda can.

Call it the Joe Camel Syndrome. Back in the ’90s, cigarette companies were excoriated for using cartoon characters to advertise their product, notably Camel’s hipster with the body of Ken doll and the head of a dromedary; ever since, any image that attracts the notice of children has raised hackles. In Marshall, Missouri, graphic novels with “themes” more innocuous than “Pop!” have nonetheless been banned from the local library because they look like comic books and might draw young readers.

Have young adult novels become too racy? Are young adults too sex-obsessed? Are the lessons of “Pop!” healthy for our teens? Don’t look for the answer here. We can say, however, that if you want to talk about sex in literature, label it like medicine.

There are “scary” movies, and then there are “Halloween” movies, and then there are “scary Halloween movies.”

With all respect to well-done “scary” movies such as “Silence of the Lambs,” “Psycho,” “Alien,” “The Shining,” “Jacob’s Ladder,” the original “Nightmare on Elm Street,” and the clever “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” I think there’s something different about movies that clearly carry the Halloween theme of ghosts, goblins, and, more specifically, demons and Satan himself. A spiritual person cannot ignore the importance of such things.

And for me, the movie that brought that most home to me—even beyond “The Exorcist” or “The Omen” or “The Devil’s Advocate”—was John Carpenter’s original “Halloween.” It’s probably too late to rent it today, but it’s worth ordering. I originally went and saw it because we had all heard it was filmed in our hometown of Burbank. Never, though, did I experience the true edge-of-my-seat authentic feelings of being scared of what evil could do like I did in that movie.

It was low-budget, smart, surprising, obvious at times, and unrelentingly honest about how those who would seek to name the evil among us (in this case the pyschiatrist played by Donald Pleasance) are often seen as out of touch and over-dramatic while the innocent among us (in this case Jamie Lee Curtis’s “Laurie”) seem so naïve and blind to the ever present evil.

Before “Halloween’s” dénouement and the final chase scenes, the battle of good v. evil in “Halloween” brings out the most important question for the spiritual seeker: “Is this spirit stuff really real?” If it is, we ought to equip ourselves for it. If not, then we can all go back to the fun and games and tongue-in-cheek way we treat Halloween.

But for me, before I even started reading the Bible and finding out what it’s all about, I had a deep sense of the existence of how bad people can be and how scary it is that we don’t notice, and it came from the experience of seeing “Halloween.”