was nine when I made my first trip to Israel in June of 1968, almost exactly a year after the Six-Day War. My parents had been in Italy the autumn before, and while vacationing in Rome they learned that there were inexpensive flights leaving twice a week for Tel Aviv. The whole of Israel was giddy at the time, unburdened by their insecurities for the moment with the stunning success of their having just won the Six-Day War and their having increased the total size of their young, besieged nation by more than two-thirds.
My mother finally found a use for the crumpled phone numbers of distant Israeli relatives she’d been carrying in her purse for the past several months, relatives on both her father’s and her mother’s side, Romanians all. Osnat, my mother’s second cousin once removed, had had the misfortune of remaining in Europe while the Nazis were on the move. She spoke of having spent five days hiding from the Germans in the liquid filth of an outhouse and breathing through a tube when they came near.
Meeting scores of warm and loving relatives and having been feted by them as “our dear American Mishpacha” was partly why my parents were both so taken with Israel—that and the Israeli people themselves, the Sabras, so proud and brash, and the ancient beauty of the land. With some talk of perhaps making Aliyah, or at least exploring the idea of our moving to Israel, my parents, my siblings, my first cousins, and my Grandma Rose and her younger brother, Uncle Sol, gathered up a month’s worth of warm-weather clothing and flew en masse to Tel Aviv. We were greeted at Lod Airport by a crush of relations, all of them clambering to hug and kiss us. And then as the sun descended into the Mediterranean and night fell over the coastal plain, they drove us all north in a rag-tag caravan of tiny old Fiats, Renaults, and Peugeots to the beach town of Netanya, where we stayed for the entire summer in a tiny flat just behind the home Osnat shared with her husband, Shlomo.
Days later, I’m with my father and my brother Paul at the Wailing Wall. It’s weird to think that only a week ago I was at home watching Gilligan’s Island and looking for my dad’s Japanese Playboys in the bottom drawer of his bedroom closet during the commercials. Now, I’m in Jerusalem, in the glaring sun beneath this gigantic wall of stone. When I’m sure no one’s looking, I put both hands on the wall, and then I touch my forehead to it. The stones are colder than you’d think they’d be in all this heat.
For reasons I don’t understand, I start to cry. I’d be embarrassed if my brother or my dad saw me like this, so I pretend that I’m praying. I wonder, though, am I just crying because you’re supposed to cry here? If the rabbis from the Talmud Torah had shown me pictures of some random bridge in Saint Paul from the time I was in nursery school, would I have cried at that, too?
When I look up at the wall again, I see some birds’ nests and a million pieces of paper with people’s prayers in them, all stuffed into the cracks between the stones. Everyone who comes here wants God’s attention. I’ll bet He loves all the notes. They probably make Him feel like someone gives a shit about the cool stuff He does.I
had been born a Jew in Minneapolis. Growing up Jewish there wasn’t a good or a bad thing any more than growing up with snow was good or bad. It just was. Because we Jews were so few, being one made us all feel different. It wasn’t a difference we’d asked for or earned either. It, too, just was. It was natural for us, that is, becoming somewhat Jew-centric. We were fond of staying close to one another, close to our causes and to our history, it was just a natural reaction to being the “other.”
It’s 1970 and I’m in junior high, on my way to English, when I see Nelson Gomez, Stuey Nyberg, and Craig Walner. They’re hip-checking kids into the tall metal lockers that line the hall. They are the three kings of the Westwood Junior High’s dirtball dynasty, young hoodlums who regularly and without fear skip school, smoke filter-less Marlboros, and shout “Fuck you, faggot” to students and staff members alike, save perhaps for Mr. H, the anti-Semitic shop teacher with whom they have forged an abiding friendship.
To the left and right of me, hapless students fly, body-slammed with alarming speed into the lockers by the three of them. It doesn’t escape my notice that these unfortunates have not been chosen randomly. There goes Brian Resnick. Next it’s Shelly Abramovitz and then Alvin Fishbein. As I round the corner, Stuey Nyberg grabs my second cousin, Elaine Kamel, by the shoulders and slams her face-first into her own locker. She and they were selected for no other reason than their Jewishness.
I grab Stuey by his neck with both hands and I claw at him until my fingernails pierce his pale skin and blood spurts from his jugular. Now I take the clear plastic aquarium algae scraper that I made in Mr. H’s shop class this very morning and use it to gouge out one of Nelson Gomez’s eyeballs, making sure he can see it in the palm of my hand with his remaining eye. Craig Walner tries to run, but I catch him by his mullet and shove his head into Elaine Kamel’s locker. I slam her locker door on him again and again. I don’t stop until his head is severed from his neck…
…and my daydream comes to an abrupt halt when Stuey Nyberg says, “Himmelman, it’s your turn to meet the lockers, you fucking kike.” Without a word of warning, he clouts me with a stinging jab right to my nose. It’s the first time I’ve ever been hit in the face, and while it’s agonizing, the blow is also somehow euphoric. I’m supercharged with adrenaline, I feel as if I’m on fire. But of course, I don’t hit Stuey back. God, no. I simply stand there glowering at the three of them, blood dripping from my large Jewish nose. And for the first time in my life, I feel downright heroic. I look around me and I see that, for now at least, our bitterest enemies have stopped hip-checking what feels like the entire Jewish nation.
Six months later it’s summer vacation, and we Himmelmans fly from Minneapolis to New York and connect with a nonstop to Tel Aviv. In less than two days, I’m on a towel on the beach in Netanya looking out at the cerulean blue of the Mediterranean.
As I lay on the hot sand, Mirage fighter jets with blue Jewish stars emblazoned under their wings suddenly streak so low across the water that I can smell jet fuel. As they scream overhead, the whole beach seems to shake. With a strange sense of clannish pride, I laugh and stare up at the planes as they accelerate and finally rocket out of range.
My father died, after suffering from Stage IV lymphoma for five years, in 1984. I was 25 years old. A year later, I was living in the Twin Cities working on music with my band when I received a call from a woman named Ruth Grosh. She asked if I’d be willing to write some songs for a therapeutic teddy bear she’d dreamed up called Spinoza Bear. Ruth, a bona fide subversive by nature and New Age before anyone had even come up with the term, named her ursine brainchild after Baruch Spinoza, the heretical 17th-century Jewish philosopher. Spinoza was seen as harmful to, and at odds with, the views of the Jewish establishment of Amsterdam at the time. Eventually, both he and his writings were placed under a religious ban called a “cherem” by the Dutch Jewish community where he lived and worked. Aside from the fact that he was reviled for his modernist views, no one had much bad to say about him personally, except that “he was fond of watching spiders chase flies.”
The songs were to play off a battery-operated tape deck that fit into a zippered pouch beneath the soft brown fur of the bear’s stomach. A red heart-shaped knob on the bear’s chest served as the on-off switch. By today’s standards, the technology would seem crude, but at the time, with just a modicum of suspension of disbelief, it was possible to feel that the voice of the bear along with the music was issuing directly from its cheery muzzle. As to whom to hire to be the voice of Spinoza Bear, it was decided after some deliberation that not only would I write and sing the songs, I should also be the kind, concerned voice of the bear itself.
Each of the dozen or so cassette tapes that were eventually recorded had themes of self-empowerment, a kind of you-can-make-it-if-you-try bent. After just two years, the bear became a huge success—not as some plebeian, retail teddy, but as something greater. Spinoza Bear soon found his way into hospitals, health clinics, and centers for healing of all kinds. By holding the bear and listening closely to his stories and songs of wellness and inner light, rape victims, grief-stricken parents, bone-lonely pensioners, autistic kids, as well as children on cancer wards all across America found it possible to relieve some of their pain and fear.
Aside from the good works, the bear provided me with twenty grand in seed money that our band, Sussman Lawrence, used to set sail for New York City in 1985.
We were five new-wave rockers in an Oldsmobile Regal Vista Cruiser wagon, and two roadies in a spanking-new Dodge cube van. The van, which we were overjoyed to discover, had been hastily christened from bumper to bumper with graffiti sometime during our 45-minute debut set at CBGBs, the legendary East Village rock-and-roll club, only days after arriving on the East Coast.
Given the high cost of living in New York City, New Jersey seemed the next best thing. As it turned out, there were very few homeowners interested in renting a house to a band. I hatched a plan, which involved my calling on a middle-aged real-estate agent named Carol we’d found advertising in a Bergen County newspaper. When I finally got her on the line, I explained to her that we were medical students enrolled that fall at nearby Rutgers University and in need of a quiet place to live and study.
The following morning, as the rest of the guys waited outside in the Oldsmobile, I and my cousin Jeff, our band’s gifted keyboard player, showed up at Carol’s office in suits and ties we’d purchased at a local thrift shop and carrying responsible-looking briefcases. I had boned up on some medical terms as well, orthopedic surgical techniques mostly, in case she needed proof that we were actually who we were claiming to be. But there had been no need. We had the cash and seemed honest enough—“honest enough” to let her know that a few of us were also part-time musicians and that there might be some music playing, quietly of course, from time to time, just to ease the strain of our intense studies.
Two days later, Jeff and I woke up early, signed the lease papers, and pulled our now multihued, invective-laden cube van into the driveway of 133 Busteed Drive in Midland Park, New Jersey.
Trying for as much discretion as possible, lest the neighbors notice anything out of the ordinary, we backed the van up to the garage, lugged the gear up a short flight of stairs and into a large, unfurnished living room. Once upstairs, we began unloading beer-stained amplifiers, at least a dozen guitar cases, a drum set packed tightly into three large metal flight cases, assorted keyboards, and an entire public-address system and lighting rig. Aside from some bad scrapes in the hardwood floor and a gaping hole or two in the walls on our way in, the load-in was accomplished with speed and efficiency. We were up and practicing by late afternoon, our new-wave rock blaring fast and loud into the New Jersey autumn night.
A month after settling in, Ruth Grosh reached me at dinnertime by long distance, in the squalor of our band-house collective. After some catching up, she gently let me know me that some psychic friends had explained to her that I had just a few months left on the planet. “What!” I said, “they told you I was gonna die?” Ruth was practiced at this kind of thing, it seemed, although her nonchalance about my imminent demise didn’t make me feel any less concerned. “They asked me to find out if you’d like to come in for a free consultation,” she said. I was due to fly back to Minneapolis later that week anyway, and I figured I might as well find out what all this planet-leaving nonsense was about.
Back home, on the morning of my appointment with the psychics, I found my mother, who was normally quite composed, flitting around the kitchen and singing quietly to herself. She had agreed to a lunch date that afternoon with the contra bass player from the Minnesota symphony, her first since my dad had died almost two years before.
“Does this blouse look good on me?” she asked. “Be honest.”
“Yeah, it looks great,” I said.
I was uncomfortable in the extreme watching my mother dart around the house like a schoolgirl primping for a date with some dude who wasn’t my dad. True, it’d been two years since he’d died, and given all that she’d been through, it wasn’t like she didn’t deserve to live a little. After all, I thought, it was just lunch. But the more I saw of this weird, giddy side of her, the less I liked it. A car honked. It was Ruth.
She and I rode wordlessly as Japanese New Age wooden flutes intoned from her car stereo. We arrived after twenty minutes at the northern suburb of Brooklyn Center, and Ruth parked her car near a long row of newly built town houses. A man and a woman in their mid-forties greeted us at the front door, both smiling in a scary, off-putting way. They appeared to be a kind of husband-and-wife psychic tag team, and they rushed headlong into the consultation by asking if I’d like to give them some names of people I knew.
“We’ll be able to tell you all about them,” the woman said and smiled again. I thought it was just some cheesy method of showing off.
“The first names are enough,” said the man.
“Okay, let’s go with Jeff,” I said.
My cousin Jeff is a musical genius, a pianist of remarkable facility, who’s had to contend with neuromuscular tics most of his life. The two psychics were seated facing each other in cheap leather armchairs. In an instant, they were both precisely mimicking my cousin’s facial tics. I recognized each of them from the names Jeff and I had given them. When Jeff’s thumbs bent downward spasmodically, we called it “Southerner.” When his palms flexed upward in a sort of hand-waving motion, we called it “Reckless Greeter.” In another, with his eyebrows pinched together, lips compressed, and eyes blinking, Jeff looked like someone who was very curious about his environment. We called that one “Curious Man.” His most frequent tic was also his most unsettling. We called that one “Round the World.” It involved his eyeballs rolling uncontrollably in their sockets. Suddenly, to my astonishment, the corners of both of the psychics’ mouths had formed narrow half smiles. Their eyebrows began squeezing together; their eyes were blinking—open-shut-open-shut—perfectly mimicking Jeff’s Curious Man.
“The music, he can’t stop the music,” the woman shouted in excitement. Her husband, whose hands then began a remarkable imitation of Reckless Greeter added, “Yes, good God, the music! Can’t you feel it just pouring out of him?”
I was thinking this had to be some kind of brilliant trick, albeit a devilish one. It was astonishing, yes, but I wasn’t yet convinced that they were real. Next, I said the name “Beverly,” my mother’s, and they both giggled. It’s disconcerting to see adults giggle at any time, but when a pair of middle-aged psychics giggle at the mention of your bereaved mother’s name, it’s triply so.
“She’s doing something she feels guilty about,” the woman offered.
“Yes,” said the man. “Something she’s afraid of doing, but it seems to us that she’s also very excited.”
Almost in unison, the psychics said, “She’s acting like a little schoolgirl today!”
How in hell could they have known what I’d just experienced myself for the first time in my life that very morning? If these two freaks had wanted my undivided attention, they sure as hell had it now.
The room fell silent. I didn’t dare speak. They had officially scared the living daylights out of me with their last trick. Soon, they broached the subject I’d come all this way to talk about.
“Is it your wish to leave the planet?” the woman asked, more casually than I would have imagined possible for someone questioning a fellow human being about whether he wanted to live or die.
I paused and breathed deeply for a minute or so. It was a question I stopped and thought about longer than a mentally stable person might have.
“No,” I finally told them, “I have no intention of leaving anytime soon.”
This seemed to relieve them. The man said, “The reason we’ve been so concerned about you is that we believe music is more important to you than you may be aware. It represents your very essence, and by working as single-mindedly as you have to get a record deal, with the kind of music you’ve been making with your band, you’ve been cheapening and compromising your integrity. You’ve been, in a sense, unfaithful to your muse. That’s what’s causing this spiritual disconnect and, should it continue, my wife and I both feel like it will shorten your stay here.”
His wife took over: “What you need to do is uncover a deeper, more honest expression in your music, something closer to the bone. We know you love the blues and reggae. We think it’ll be helpful to start playing music you love, rather than music you think will sell.”
By this time, tears were spilling down my cheeks. “There’s this song,” I began telling them, “that I wrote for my dad over two years ago on Father’s Day, that almost no one has heard. It’s something that was written with the sole intention of connecting with him before he died. It’s on a cassette tape, just sitting there on a shelf in my closet.”
“Why not put that song out as your next single,” the man said.
I was suddenly speechless. Why had I never thought of this? It was such a simple yet profound idea. I flew back to New Jersey, determined to release not just the one song, but an entire album dedicated to my father.
The guys picked me up in the Oldsmobile at Newark Airport the next day. We were standing around the luggage carousel waiting for my bags when I told them I was going to record a solo record, a tribute to my father, whom they all loved and respected.
My bandmates understood this was something I needed to do. They also knew it wasn’t just talk. A solo album, produced for whatever reasons, also signaled the possibility that the ethos of the band may well have been coming to an end. Nevertheless, they played their hearts out on the record and, by doing so, tacitly gave me their blessings and their assurances that whatever happened with it would be for the best.
The recording featured the song I’d written for my dad, and it eventually became my debut album, This Father’s Day, for Island Records.
Its release also became a powerful catalyst for me personally. It took me from where I had been, locked up in pain and confusion, to some other, more hopeful place. Even before my meeting with the psychics, I thought I’d gotten beyond most of the hurt, that it was simply time to grit my teeth and persevere. It had been two years, after all. But I was mistaken. The process of mending broken hearts is never as pat as that. As much as I needed to forget, to emerge clear-eyed from the jumble and rawness of my father’s death, I knew I’d have to face my worst fears again and again. But I felt ready. I also knew, in a way I hadn’t before, that I really didn’t want to die.
While my father was suffering in the last five years of his life, I found myself in a different state of mind from that of my friends and bandmates, who were, for the most part, blithely moving through their young lives. I’m not saying pain made me wise; it’s just that it can, for those willing to accept its hard lessons, provide a bit of perspective, shine some light on what’s sacred and what’s less so.
During those years I was working very hard to become famous, whatever that might have meant. I felt that I needed to reach some level of achievement before my dad died. I suppose I was conducting a search for miracles. It’s no wonder. For my family and for me at least, miracles seemed to have been in very short supply back then.
It’s miracles after all, that compel us forward, that encourage us to move with some degree of willingness into the next day. But, despite what we might believe, it’s hardly ever the big ones that truly move us. The sea can split, we can win the lottery, we can even become rock stars, and still, those phenomenal circumstances are never what matter most. In the end, the only miracle worth wishing for is the ability to be made aware of the smallest splendors, the most inconsequential truths, and the overlooked rhythms that connect us to the people and things we love.
I felt a kind of heat rising up around me in those days, a sense that what had long been static was now stuttering back into motion. There was a pleasant strangeness to the feeling, but like many things that at first strike us as unusual, it wasn’t wholly unfamiliar, either. I’d felt that same unnamable sensation, lying awake in my bed in the dark as a young child, focusing on individual moonlit snowflakes as they fell outside my window. I felt it again in Jerusalem, at nine years old, when I first touched the sunbaked stones of the Western Wall. I felt it the first time I’d snorkeled in the Red Sea and became drunk from sheer beauty. I felt it the frigid November morning we buried my father. I felt it on the evening I finally met my wife, and again, the moment when each of my children was born.
The circumstances were wildly varying, but in each instance there was a sense of being taken from one place to another, of inertia finally giving way to movement. It was as if my mundane life had cracked open and I saw, arrayed in front of me, some image of the unseen hand that forms and directs the universe.M
y first experiences in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, at age 27 were catalytic. A rabbi named Simon Jacobson had posed a single question and it, too, set me into motion: “Why is walking on the surface of the Earth any less miraculous than flying above it?” he’d asked.
The idea that the world is a wondrous, mysterious place—even as we are destined to walk on the mundane surface of it, even if we cannot truly fly—is both a liberating and comforting notion. Being attuned to wonder is my preferred condition. Perhaps it’s natural for each of us. But why, then, are so many moments not imbued with this sense of the miraculous? Why is there such a divide between barely sensing and deeply feeling?
What I did know in the autumn of 1987, with a certainty I hadn’t known before—perhaps couldn’t have known—was that I needed to get married. I had awakened to the idea that there was nothing I was doing with my life, not my music, not my friendships, not my finally getting that almighty record deal, more important than finding the right woman with whom to create a family and live out my days. I also knew that to do this, I would need to create a powerful forcing frame for myself, not one that would constrict or limit me, but one that would allow me to channel my outsized ego and my creative proclivities toward more productive ends than I’d ever dreamed possible.
Eventually, I made a sort of pact with myself, a silent, personal agreement. It came down to this simple declaration: The next time I sleep with a woman, it will be with my wife. This meant that I had to extricate myself from my longtime girlfriend. Though I was, and still am, extremely fond of her, I could never envision her as a lifetime partner or the mother of my children. In addition, our arrangement was somewhat nebulous, and so this new, self-imposed structure also meant that I’d have to cut off any contact with the other women with whom I was having casual sex. I had to make a fundamental cultural and emotional shift. I would need to wean myself away from years of assumptions about the very nature of what a modern relationship meant. I would have to forge a new way of looking at women, at my role as a man, and at the world at large.
It became clear to me that the freedom I had always longed for could be obtained only through the somewhat paradoxical means of setting limits, delaying gratification, and cutting away many experiences that an all-pervasive consumerist culture had been (and continues to be) hell-bent on selling. If you’ll allow me, I’ll explain this further by way of metaphor.
Music is among the most transcendent of all art forms, both for the performer and listener. Since it has no form or substance, it can easily serve as a model for the boundlessness of spirituality. But as anyone who has mastered a musical instrument knows, musical ideas are expressed almost exclusively by means of structure and restriction, words very few of us would correlate with freedom.
At first glance, this seems like a paradox. How could something as liberating and intangible as music be based on restriction? Not only is music based on restriction, I’d go so far as to say that, aside from the existence of raw sound—elemental white noise, if you will—the only other thing that allows music to take place, the only thing that differentiates it from this pure noise, is what sounds the musician chooses to leave behind. In this sense, music comes about not by choosing notes but by the elimination of notes. Take a look at the idea in this somewhat inverse manner: Only by rejecting all other sonic choices are we left with the ones we truly desire. To make music, we don’t add, we subtract.
Here’s how something as commonplace as the key signature of a particular piece of music also reflects this idea. Unless you were trying to achieve a harsh atonal musical effect, you wouldn’t want to be playing in the key of B-flat minor while your key signature called for you to be playing in A major. The ensuing “music” would sound like a chaotic racket to most people. The time signatures of compositions, along with their tempos, which require that a particular note last only so long and that it be played at a particular speed, also function with this same principle—creation by negation. Avoiding the time signature, or playing at any speed without regard for the overall tempo, is another good way to produce only noise.
It is only through adherence to the limiting factors of time and tempo that music can take shape. In that same sense, if it weren’t for the constraint of playing only certain keys on a piano, and thereby negating all other choices, you would hear only noise. Anyone who has heard his or her toddler pounding away on a piano knows exactly what this sounds like.
Most, if not all, musical instruments also work on this principle of restriction. The trumpet, for example, is based upon compression and restriction. If the air a player blows into the trumpet’s mouthpiece weren’t compressed and regulated by the embouchure, the only sound you’d be able to hear would be a soft wind-like noise passing through the horn.
As I became more and more immersed in the wisdom of Jewish thought and practice, the idea of freedom-in-structure became clearer and ever more personally relevant. If it was true for music I wondered, how much more true must it be for all of life itself? And given that human sexuality (whether or not the participants engaged in a sexual act are conscious of it) concerns the creation of life, it occurred to me that causing dissonance in that most meaningful—dare I say mystical—arena of life was something I definitely needed to avoid.
I knew I had to place a set of restrictions on myself in order to make music out of my life, as opposed to just raw sound. Although this conception of the universe felt new to me, new in the sense that it was radically different from the one I’d been acting on for so many years, it wasn’t unfamiliar. Without my knowing it, I had undergone an awakening. I became alert to a perspective I recalled vaguely, even from my earliest childhood. It was as if I could see something important forming (though what it was, was still unclear) out of a barely examined and often fleeting sliver of thought. All at once, the world around me seemed to feel very much as it did when I was a child. I could remember clearly, lying feverish in bed, waiting for sleep, with every last thing in the world unknown and unexplained.
It was frightening as an adult to feel these thoughts growing stronger and more pervasive, but it also felt safe in ways—as though there’d been a kind of revelation, one that seemed to say: “Peter, son of David, there is a purpose to everything you’ve experienced in the recent past and everything you see before you now. From this moment on, there are things you must do and ways you must act.”
The mantra to live without restrictions, which had guided me for most of my life, seemed at that point to be leading me only to chaos. I believed I could, and must, do better for myself. My most fervent wish was no longer to become a rock star; it was to create my own family, one that could become a replacement for the one I’d been missing, the one that had changed so drastically when my father died.
So, in a tour bus rolling across the American continent, I did the three most practical things I could think of: I stuck to my private pact, I dreamed, and I prayed several times a day to an unseen Deity for strength and for love.
This part of the story really begins a few months after my dad’s funeral, when I found myself in a cramped apartment in South Minneapolis auditioning some songs I’d written for a local performer named Doug Maynard. I sang him a few things and he nodded quietly. Doug wasn’t a big talker. Finally he chose one. “Man, I think I could do this justice,” he said. It was called “My First Mistake.”
You taste like pepper frosting on a granite cake.
Baby fallin’ in love with you was my first mistake…
Less than a year later, Doug was found dead in his living room, stone-drunk and drowned on his own vomit at the age of forty. Before this happened, however, he had introduced me to his manager, who had introduced me to a New York City music lawyer, who had introduced me to a record producer named Kenny Vance.
Kenny had worked with a lot of famous people and he wasn’t particularly shy about mentioning just whom. “I used to date Diane Keaton,” he told me. “I know Woody Allen—been in a couple of his films. I was the music director for Saturday Night Live.” Then he said, “Tonight I’m gonna take you to my main connection, a religious Jew in Brooklyn.”
Before long, Kenny and I were crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. We arrived at an apartment in Crown Heights where Kenny’s friend, Simon Jacobson, greeted us. I liked Simon right off the bat. His eyes reflected some essential paradox, some awareness that being alive is both a source of great humor and great sadness. His wife, Shaindy, introduced herself with a gracious smile and placed glass bowls of almonds and chocolate-covered coffee beans on a yacht-sized table before excusing herself to tend to her young children. The thing I didn’t understand at first was how a big hirsute guy like Simon, in an oversize yarmulke, with a massive beard and in a white polyester button-up, was able to land such a good-looking wife. I soon learned that around these parts, it wasn’t the guy who could throw a football the farthest who got the girl. Simon had another thing going for him.
His, at the time, was to memorize every word of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Shabbos dissertations and record them on Saturday night for publication later in the week. To understand the scope of the job, it’s necessary to know that when the Rebbe spoke, it was often for four or more hours straight, without breaks, without notes, and in a manner of cyclical and increasing complexity. To make things even more challenging, the Rebbe wasn’t freestyling. Everything he taught was derived from a compendium of source materials that ranged into the tens of thousands of books. And they could not be recorded because it was the Sabbath and no electricity could be used.
When I once mentioned to Simon how awed I was at his ability to memorize this much information, he looked at me and said: “The memorization is the least of it. It’s the task of compiling it with the proper source notes that’s the real challenge. Every day I correspond with the Rebbe, and he writes me back with perfect editor’s notes. Once I wrote and said I didn’t understand a particular passage and couldn’t find the source for it. The Rebbe had a sharp sense of humor. He sent me back a markup with a big red circle, not just on the sentence I was having an issue with, but around the whole page, with the words, ‘What do you understand?’”
It was getting late. Kenny had left me there and driven back to the city. As Simon spoke to me, I kept looking up at the oil paintings of shtetl life and the Rebbe hanging on the walls. I was prodded more by fatigue than bravado when I finally asked, “What’s the deal with those pictures of the Rebbe? They seem sort of cultish to me.”
“I like the pictures,” he said, “To me, the Rebbe is like a very inspiring grandfather, and I get a lot out of reflecting on the things he says and the way he lives his life. There are people for whom there is no sense of self. People called Tzadikim, and they have no need for personal gain. A Tzadik lives only to serve others and they can do anything they wish.”
“Really,” I asked with just a hint of comic disdain. “Can they fly?”
“Understand, I’ve never seen anyone fly,” Simon answered. “But for a Tzadik, the act of flying is no greater miracle than the act of walking.”
This idea stunned me. Not because it was new. The things that move us most never are. They are things we already know, beliefs that are buried away inside us. Of course, when you stop and think about it, there’s absolutely no difference between the weights of the two miracles, walking and flight. It’s just that we non-Tzadikim get so tired of the one that happens all the time.
At that moment, at that table in Brooklyn, I started thinking about the little-known rhythm-and-blues singer Doug Maynard. I was remembering the sound of his voice and simultaneously considering the infinite number, the impossible number, of tiny coincidences—the tendrils, if you will, that in their unfathomable complexity, had guided me to that particular apartment on that particular night. The thought was so vivid, it was as if I could hear Doug singing again. Singing most soulfully, most truthfully about the joy, and the sweat, and the pain of this world. It wasn’t long after that I met the Lubavitcher Rebbe for the first time. He handed me a bottle of vodka and a blessing for success, and I started becoming more Jewishly observant right away: keeping Shabbos in my tiny apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, keeping kosher, and putting on tefillin. I married Maria two years later. We’ve been married for nearly 30 years.
About a year ago my cousin Jeff asked me what it had been like to meet the Rebbe. This is exactly how I answered him.
“You know when you’ve done something you think is horrible (whatever the hell it may be) and you start going down—deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole of regret? When you’re in so deep that you start to feel like the biggest loser ever born, like nothing is possible, that nothing good is ever gonna come your way, and that you can’t even face yourself in the mirror?”
“Sure,” Jeff said. “I’ve been there.”
“Well,” I said, “meeting the Rebbe was the exact opposite of what I just described.”
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‘Why Is Walking on the Surface of the Earth Any Less Miraculous Than Flying Above It?’
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When the panels ended and the bar opened, the participants sipped their martinis and made deals until the wee hours. This dynamic was repeated in March 2018 at the Innovative TV Conference in Jerusalem hosted by Keshet Media Group, the largest Israeli television company. Guests included Casey Bloys, president of HBO programming; David Nevins, president and CEO of Showtime; Gary Newman, chairman and CEO of Fox Television; and Kevin Reilly, president of TBS and TNT. A month later, at the Series Mania competition in France, the YES series On the Spectrum won the top prize, a year after YES had won with Your Honor. This show about a judge drawn into the underworld after his son critically injures a mobster’s son in a hit-and-run is being remade in English by Robert and Michelle King, the creators of the beloved CBS legal drama The Good Wife.
Netflix is making an English-language version of YES’s The Good Cop, the story of a straitlaced police officer (Josh Groban) and his less scrupulous father (Tony Danza) and is already committed to producing and showing four seasons of Greenhouse Academy, based on a show for preteens called Ha Hamama. The Israeli show, Yellow Peppers, from Keshet International, about a boy with autism and his family who live in a small village in the Negev, was remade by the BBC as The A Word, which is set in the Lake District of England. These are just a few of the dozens of Israeli shows that are currently being remade all over the world.
But the highest-profile upcoming series is an HBO-Keshet coproduction about the kidnappings and murders of Jewish and Arab boys in 2014 that led up to that year’s war in Gaza. Its guiding hand is Hagai Levi. Levi was the creator of the series BeTipul, remade in 2008 by HBO as In Treatment and the first Israeli show to sell its format abroad. Levi is working with Joseph Cedar, perhaps Israel’s foremost writer-director; his most recent film, Norman, starred Richard Gere, and two other Levi movies, Footnote and Beaufort, were nominated for Oscars in the Best Foreign Language category.
How is it that Israel, a country that had no television at all until the mid-1960s and that continues to be under daily attack in elite precincts around the world, has become a leading force in the one of the most influential and important mediums? Is Israel’s prominent new role in television going to prove an enduring facet of worldwide popular culture, or is Israel merely the flavor of the month on the international TV circuit?
From 1966 until the early 1990s, there was just one Israeli channel, run by the government, that featured mostly news, documentaries, shows for children, and imported series. The transformation began when a commercial network, Channel Two, was officially launched in the early 1990s. It caught on, partly because it did things that suggested its programmers actually thought about the needs of the people who were watching. Channel Two showed the news at 8 p.m., when people were sitting around after dinner, instead of at 9 p.m., as the government channel did, when people wanted to go out or go to sleep. It hired celebrities such as pop stars to host game shows, but most of all, Channel Two spent money on programming.
Three companies〞Keshet, Reshet, and Tel Ad〞were responsible for the programming, and by the mid-1990s, they had discovered that local audiences were eager to watch shows about Israelis. A series called Tiranoot (Basic Training), about the army, ran three seasons and made stars out of its cast. Another popular show was a glitzy soap, Ramat Aviv Gimmel, named for the upscale neighborhood where it took place (think Melrose Place on the Mediterranean). It was followed by Florentine, another series that focused on attractive young people and their lives after military service, but in a very different context—it was about their struggles to define their identities in the aftermath of the Rabin assassination in 1995, and it was set in a rundown neighborhood that was beginning to attract artists and bohemians. The cast went on to starin Israeli movies, commercials (which had previously been shown only before movies but were seen now on television), and films (Ayelet Zurer starred opposite Tom Hanks in Angels & Demons, the sequel to The Da Vinci Code).
Another commercial entity, Channel 10, was added to the mix in 2002. Now Israeli television resembles the American landscape in miniature, as broadcasters compete with two cable companies, HOT and YES, featuring dozens of channels with locally produced programming. In addition to Keshet and Reshet, the two largest production companies, there are dozens of others, including Dori Media, Armoza, and Ananey Communications.
But the emergence of Israel as an important maker of international television began in the mid-2000s with BeTipul and Hatufim. BeTipul, which began in 2005 on HOT cable, took an extraordinarily simple (and low-budget) concept—a psychologist (Assi Dayan) treating patients—and realized it beautifully. In each episode, the shrink would see a different patient—a seductive and troubled young woman (played by Ayelet Zurer from Florentine) with whom the therapist fell in love; a guilt-ridden air-force pilot; a troubled married couple who seemed to have everything but were miserable—and at the end of the week, there would be an hour in which he discussed his patients and his life with his own supervisor.
BeTipul was the brainchild of Hagai Levi, who sold the format to HBO for the series it called In Treatment. The credits of the original BeTipul read like a who’s who of contemporary Israeli film and television directors, and include Ari Folman, whose 2008 film, Waltz with Bashir, was nominated for an Oscar, and Eran Kolirin, whose 2007 feature, The Band‘s Visit, was turned into a Broadway musical in 2017. In addition to being made in the U.S., BeTipul has been remade in more than 20 markets—probably the record for a drama—including Russia, Japan, Brazil, and the Netherlands.
The show was so accessible that often they didn’t need to write an American version, said Adam Berkowitz, co-head of the television department at the talent agency CAA, who has brokered many of the deals between Israeli programs and foreign networks. “Instead they just translated the Israeli script, which is ironic, because it means that Israelis talk about the same things in their therapists’ office as Americans. It just shows how much the cultures are intertwined.
Hatufim traveled a similar path. The original was created by Gideon Raff in 2009 for Keshet, and it tells the story of Israeli prisoners of war who return home after a decade and may have been turned into Syrian agents during their captivity. The Israeli version lasted just two seasons and didn’t have a character quite like Carrie Mathison, the bipolar CIA agent. But, just as with BeTipul, the core of the story was enough to entice American premium cable networks, as well as broadcasters around the world, to remake it. Homeland was on Showtime just two years after Prisoners of War debuted in Israel. Like Fauda, Hatufim has also been a hit in its original Hebrew-language version, with subtitles on Hulu and other streaming services around the world.
The list of formats sold and developed by Israel in the realm of unscripted programming (or reality television) is equally long. A new show called The Gran Plan, in which three grandmothers take charge of a young person’s life for a week (perhaps the ultimate Jewish high concept), has already been sold to 25 territories.
These shows highlight the diversity of Israeli society, but audiences from around the world can connect to their plots. Reshet’s Nevsu, for example, a satirical sitcom about the marriage of an Ethiopian man and an Ashkenazi woman, is being remade by the Fox network.
Religious Jews are also having a moment on the small screen. Young, unmarried Modern Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem were the subject of the wildly popular (and somewhat soapy) Srugim, the title of which is a reference to the kind of kippot they wear. Several shows have focused on the ultra-Orthodox community, including Shtisel, about a strong-willed father and his artist son (which is being remade in the U.S.). One series, Kipat Barzel, which literally means the Iron Dome but which has also been translated as The Iron Yarmulke, about ultra-Orthodox teens who defy their families by enlisting in the IDF, was cited by several industry watchers as one of the few shows that was too Israeli to travel well.
The television industry is moving at such a whirlwind pace that even those in the center of it have a hard time keeping track. “I’m working on four Israeli series that I hope we will shoot this year,” says Karni Ziv, head of drama and comedy for Keshet Media Group〞but when she describes them, there are actually five.
One, called Eyes, is set in the world of Mizrahi music, a popular industry in Israel that has not gotten much respect until recently. Stockholm is about several septuagenarian friends who know that one of them, an economist, is about to be named as the winner of the Nobel Prize. When he dies a week before the announcement, they decide to keep his death a secret until after he is announced as the winner〞after all, how hard can it be? Of course, it turns out be quite complicated. The Missing File is a series based on two Israeli crime novels by Dror Mishani, who was on the writing staff of The Wisdom of the Crowd, a recent series produced by Keshet for CBS. There are two new sitcoms: Age Appropriate, about an older woman with a younger boyfriend; and a second comedy featuring an old-fashioned father living on a moshav whose daughters and son come back to live with him because they can no longer afford Tel Aviv. The list of remakes of Israeli shows abroad that Ziv is supervising is even longer and includes versions of Israeli shows in Russia, the Czech Republic, Germany, and several Asian countries.
Ziv says of the days when she started her career: “I don’t think any of us thought that content in Hebrew can interest someone out there in the world. The key change, for Ziv, is that TV is now a global industry in a way it never was before. “If you do a good series here, you have a chance to sell it or to make an adaptation. You get a good idea for a series, but you understand that you can’t produce it in Israel or it’s not really a Keshet Broadcasting series, but it’s still a very good idea, so you can take that idea and sell it as an idea to another territory. When producing a series for Israel, she says, “I always think first about the Israeli audience. And then I will think: Will it travel? . . . But the core is: ＆Bring me a good story.’
The one time any show has drawn negative attention for being Israeli was when the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement called for Netflix to cancel plans to broadcast the second season of Fauda in the spring of 2018. Fauda (the title is the Arabic word for chaos) was created by Lior Raz, a veteran of an elite special-forces unit turned actor/writer, and Avi Issacharoff, a journalist who specializes in Arab affairs.
It was sold to Netflix in 2016 by CAA’s Berkowitz. Netflix does not release ratings data, but the series was quickly picked up for a second season and received critical acclaim from around the world. Stephen King praised it as “all thriller, no filler, and the New York Times voted it one of the best international shows of 2017. Palestinian fans who don’t speak Hebrew watch the series on Netflix with English subtitles, and it’s become a guilty pleasure on the West Bank and in Gaza.
In March 2018, a BDS group wrote a letter to Netflix, urging the network not to broadcast the second season of the series. According to the group’s website, failing to cancel the show could “open Netflix to nonviolent grassroots pressure and possible legal accountability.” The plan backfired. Netflix was not going to let a group of easily offended activists dictate its programming. Fifty of Hollywood’s heaviest hitters sent Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos a letter that read, in part, “As an organization comprised of prominent members of the entertainment industry dedicated to promoting the arts as a means to peace and to defending artistic freedom, we at Creative Community For Peace (CCFP) want you to know that we stand behind you and Netflix in the face of this blatant attempt at artistic censorship.” The signatories included Rick Rosen, head of television at WME; Gary Ginsberg, executive vice president of corporate marketing and communications of Time Warner Inc.; and Jody Gerson, chairman and CEO of Universal Music Publishing Group.
Netflix didn’t comment, but season two of the drama was released as planned on its spring schedule in late May. According to Raz, the flap will just win the show more fans. “Lior said it best—no one is taking it too seriously, said Danna Stern, the head of acquisitions and programming for YES, the network that created Fauda.
“It’s ridiculous that they’re going after Fauda, because it shows two sides of the conflict and employs Arabic actors, says CAA’s Berkowitz. “A lot of people in the Arab community are watching it and look forward to watching it. One of the reasons I’m so proud of it is that it shows both sides of the conflict and it shows that there are tragedies on both sides and that they’re all human beings. It shows their struggles. It’s not black and white, it’s gray. And it makes people more aware of the situation in the Middle East. I don’t believe it’s terribly one-sided at all. Its purpose is to show the humanity of the conflict and that it’s a real conflict and there is not an easy answer.
The BDS move has certainly not spooked anyone in the Israeli television industry; in fact, most of those I interviewed seemed surprised that I brought it up. Certainly, the buyers at the two recent television conferences were more than happy to purchase Israeli shows. The most logical conclusion is that Israeli television has reached a tipping point—as the country’s high-tech industry did a generation ago—at which its product is of such good quality and so easy to work with that it has become an integral part of the international industry. Virtually no one, no matter how political, removes Intel Pentium processors, some of which are manufactured in Israel, from their computers, or refuses to exchange emails with someone whose antivirus program contains software created in Tel Aviv. Academics can try to ban Israelis from international conferences, but it seems unlikely that audiences watching, say, The Baker and the Beauty (poor baker falls for a supermodel) in their native language will be political enough to know or care about its blue-and-white origins.
A more serious question is whether Israel will ever be a center for international television production. In 2014, two English-language shows began filming in Israel. Dig (a USA Network/Keshet International coproduction) was a mystery about an FBI agent investigating a murder in an archeological site in the Old City. Tyrant (for FX/Keshet International) was a drama about a ruling family in a Middle Eastern country whose son, a doctor in America, comes home for a wedding and gets roped into intrigues. After each show had wrapped a few episodes, the war with Gaza broke out and both series moved production, Dig to Croatia and New Mexico, and Tyrant to Morocco and other locations. (Dig ran one season and Tyrant ran three.) Even Homeland chose not to film in Israel during its sixth season, when Saul (Mandy Patinkin) visits his sister, a West Bank settler, but shot instead in Morocco.
An interesting development took place in 2017, when Netflix remade the tween adventure drama Ha Hamama as Greenhouse Academy. This English-language show set in California was filmed entirely in Israel. A small group of American actors joined the Israeli cast, and an American writer, Paula Yoo, collaborated with Israeli creator Giora Chamizer to write the series. Israeli crews speak English and are good at filming on a shoestring budget and a tight schedule, and that made Israel attractive as a location for Netflix. It seems unlikely that viewers who don’t know about the true location would ever guess.
“I think there will be more series that will be filmed in Israel in the future, but I think it would be helpful if the Israeli government offered tax breaks that are as competitive as other countries’, said Berkowitz. That said, the idea that Israel might at any moment find itself at war is clearly going to affect the comfort level of production companies.
Whether or not Israel actually becomes a locale for television shows, the fact remains that millions of viewers around the world are watching programs developed by Israelis every day, and many more such shows are in the pipeline. Jews have always had an affinity for storytelling, which was put to good use by the movie moguls who created Hollywood. Now it’s Israeli Jews who have used their brainpower and energy to crack the popular-culture code. And while some academics and intellectuals would like to boycott everything Israeli, the architects of the Israeli television boom have already harnessed the power of the airwaves to entertain the world.
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A bright light in a dark place.
When UN Ambassador Nikki Haley announced America’s withdrawal from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) last October, it was clear this was only the beginning. UNESCO had spent decades defying American law and denying Israel ownership of its own cultural heritage. The organization’s “extreme politicization has become a chronic embarrassment,” Haley said. Quoting Ronald Reagan, who withdrew from UNESCO in 1984, she added that American taxpayers should not have to foot the bill for an institution that is “hostile to our values and make a mockery of justice and common sense.” That logic demands bold actions from the United States. After all, UNESCO isn’t the only arm of the United Nations that offends American sensibilities and advances the objectives of despots and thugs. Now, it seems the UN ambassador is ready to make her next move.
According to the AP’s sources, Ambassador Haley is prepared to withdraw the United States from the United Nations Human Rights Council. That would mark the first time in that institution’s history that a serving member of that Orwellian council has abandoned that post in protest. That fact alone illustrates the deficit of integrity, ethics, and courage that afflicts this defective institution.
The UNHRC is a relatively young organization, and it is no stranger to American hostility. The organization was formed in 2006 as the successor to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, which had lost much of its credibility by the time it was dissolved because its structure all but ensured human rights abusers would populate the body. Even internationalists and institutionalists, including Human Rights Watch’s Kenneth Roth to former UN General Secretary Kofi Annan, were forced to confess that the organization had become a bulwark dedicated to the defense of the world’s worst actors.
The Commission’s successor organization has not proven much better. Though George W. Bush shunned it, Barack Obama’s administration reengaged with the group in 2009. That has proven to be a mistake, and Haley’s determination to restore the status quo would be entirely justified.
Shortly after Obama sought to rejoin the organization in 2010, the UNHRC selected Libya to be a member state through a secret ballot process despite Muammar Gaddafi’s documented history of torturing his political opponents, repressing women, and marginalizing specific religious practices. Humiliatingly, Libya was ejected from the organization a year later when Gaddafi began openly murdering his rebellious people in the streets, but not before being the recipient of glowing testimonials about Libya’s commitment to human rights from its fellow abuser states.
Indeed, states like Saudi Arabia, China, Algeria, Congo, Cuba, Pakistan, Qatar, Russia, Venezuela, and a number of other pariahs routinely manage to get elected to this humanitarian watchdog group. The Council is plagued by the same problems that undermined its predecessor. Its membership is drawn from the U.N.’s five regional groups, which ensures geographic diversity. The General Assembly could, in theory, reject a state’s bid for membership on the UNHRC, but there is no incentive for a majority of nations—many of which have their own internal conflicts—to turn on one of their own absent the gravest of abuses.
This leads us to the UNHRC’s irredeemable flaw: its institutional biases are so skewed in favor of murderers, dictators, and bigots that it serves primarily to legitimize the dregs of the earth.
The Council has a permanent agenda item—item seven—which obliges it to regularly survey potential abuses committed by Israel in the Palestinian territories. Item seven is such a blatant misuse of the Council’s time that Europe and North America boycott the group when that article is invoked.
In 2008, the commission appointed Richard Falk, a 9/11 conspiracy theorist and Hamas apologist, to serve a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur for the human rights situation in the Palestinian territories. In 2011, Falk was reprimanded by UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon for endorsing the idea that the U.S. was behind the attacks on its own territory.
Jean Ziegler, co-founder of the Muammar Qaddafi International Prize for Human Rights—which is a real thing and that has been awarded to such paragons as Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Louis Farrakhan—currently serves in an elected role on the United Nations Human Rights Council.
The Council’s special rapporteur on “unilateral coercive measures,” Idriss Jazairy, is alleged by United Nations Watch’s Hillel Neuer in testimony before Congress to have executed an “aggressive campaign of non-democracies to muzzle UN rights experts.” One of Jazairy’s most recent reports to the UNHRC is a typical jeremiad attacking the civilized world for maintaining strict sanctions against Bashar al-Assad’s government as punishment for Damascus’s use of genocidal tactics and chemical weapons on civilian populations.
Despite Haley’s earned hostility toward United Nations for its biases against both Israel and the general appearance of sanity, she has proven to be a particularly effective ambassador. Last week, amid a rote condemnation of the Jewish State for engaging in targeted self-defense amid a flare up on its border with Gaza, Haley managed to expose something new: cracks in the UN’s anti-Israel consensus.
In the effort to register America’s disapproval of a resolution condemning Israel that failed to mention Hamas even once, Haley submitted her own amendment condemning Hamas. Surprisingly, a motion submitted by Turkey and Algeria to prevent a vote on Haley’s amendment failed with the support of all of the European Union member states. Even more surprising, Haley’s motion received the support of a slim majority of nations in the General Assembly.
Haley took a substantial risk by abandoning America’s passive role in the UN. Proposing a motion in Israel’s defense and not simply blocking its condemnation as past American ambassadors have done was a real departure. The vote was expected to fail. It is a reflection on changing regional dynamics as well as the ambassador’s competence that she won this victory.
Ambassador Haley’s commitment to not just curbing the UN’s worst impulses but publicizing them and shaming the complicit is the kind of boldness that diplomacy’s obsequious commitment to process over effectiveness usually precludes. There is no doubt that Nikki Haley and Donald Trump’s administration are running the most ethical and deft American mission to the United Nations in decades.
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My time among the propagandists
Efrat’s first homeowners moved into the suburban hilltop community in April 1983. Starting with 50 families, some 250 souls, Efrat has since developed into a full-fledged, independent municipality whose current populace is about 12,000. Its master plan, approved by an Israeli Labor government during the mid-1970s, foresees a total population of 30,000. Efrat boasts a number of highly rated schools, a large and active community center, a well-used multilingual public library, sports fields and playgrounds, shopping centers, a soon-to-be completed shopping mall with underground parking, a plethora of medical clinics, and numerous synagogues (to date all Orthodox)—in short, pretty much every type of institution or facility that makes a town a town.
The view from Efrat is pastoral, even biblical. Local Arab shepherds daily guide their flocks of sheep and goats across the abutting highways and past adjoining vineyards. Some of these vines were planted only in the early 1980s by residents of nearby El Khadar on empty unclaimed fields in a failed effort to thwart the first stages of Efrat’s construction. In late spring and summer, the green vineyards carpet the valleys that form the floor below the surrounding southern Judean hills. Along some of these hilltops lie the homes of Efrat, with their distinctive burnt-orange tiled roofs.
Another thing about Efrat. Its proximity to Jerusalem and several Palestinian Authority towns has facilitated its becoming a popular destination for politically themed visits, part of a larger industry known as alternative tourism. This refers to visits by foreigners, often self-described “social-justice warriors,” touring conflict areas in different parts of the world. They come to observe circumstances on the ground, to meet the actors, and to learn about the local history. Some arrive with more activist agendas.
I began meeting with foreign tourists in Efrat in 1990 during my term as an elected member of the Efrat town council. Initially the groups with whom I met were exclusively Jewish, mostly Americans who were curious to visit a new Israeli “settlement,” and Efrat, as noted, was easily accessible to tourists staying in Jerusalem hotels. The ruefulness expressed in more recent years by many American Jews outside of the Orthodox community regarding the presence of Jews living in Judea and Samaria hardly existed in those days. To the contrary, I remember the pride expressed by Jewish visitors to Efrat who were impressed by what they saw.
Following the September 1993 signing of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the newly formed Palestinian Authority, the first step in a process intended, among other things, to reduce violence in the region, Israel experienced a wave of terrorist attacks, mainly suicide bombings in different parts of the country, resulting in a precipitous decline in the number of American Jewish tourists.
During this period, I received a phone call from a tour guide based in the nearby Arab town Beit Sahour. He had heard that I met with overseas visitors and wanted to know if I would meet with a group of Australian tourists. With no little naiveté on my part, and having become comfortable with discussing the Israeli–Palestinian conflict with mostly uncritical Jewish groups, I agreed. To my chagrin, when the group arrived in Efrat, following an initial exchange of pleasantries, I found myself the target of a volley of contentious questions from these non-Jewish visitors. Why would I build my house on other people’s land? Why was the travel of all Palestinians being restricted? Why do Israeli soldiers shoot live bullets at Palestinian children?
The continuation of violence resulted in Jewish tourist groups refusing to travel beyond the 1949 armistice line out of fear, even though most of the terrorism was taking place within Israel proper. During the years of the second intifada (2000—2004), American Jewish tourism virtually disappeared. Many Christian groups, however, continued coming. Over time, word of my willingness to meet with pro-Palestinian foreign groups spread, Efrat became the default “illegal settlement” to visit, and I became somewhat of a go-to settler for dozens of Christian and secular human-rights cum social-justice groups mostly from North America and Western Europe.
Over the years, using the name “iTalkIsrael,” I have spoken to thousands of tourists in Efrat. This activity is part of the broader burgeoning field of Israel advocacy, Israel probably being the only sovereign nation-state in the world in need of such championship to defend its existence. Unlike most others working in this field, I strive not to preach to the converted. The overwhelming majority of people with whom I meet do not try to hide their pro-Palestinian sympathies. Why, I am often asked, do these people come to Efrat? Undoubtedly they come for a variety of reasons. The most common, I believe, is curiosity.
American visitors generally have some Christian affiliation, though this varies from high church to Quakers, Mennonites, and some nonaffiliated congregations. Western Europeans coming from France, Germany, Belgium, England, and Ireland are less likely to self-identify as Christians, though many acknowledge being raised in Christian homes.
The groups I meet range in age from as young as high school to senior adults, including some of mixed generations. College-age groups are common. I am a Baby Boomer who was politically aware and active on the campus of Northwestern University at the height of America’s entanglement in Vietnam. During that era, for all but a minority of the student body, it was a given that “Nixon’s War” was unjust and wrong.
And so it is today with the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. The foreign students with whom I meet in Efrat universally view the Palestinians as the oppressed and Israel as their oppressor. This is consistent with the results of a Pew Research Center survey from May 2017 cited by the New York Times that indicates the Palestinian cause is rapidly gaining support among American university students while support for Israel is eroding.
One outstanding example is a recent visit by a group of undergraduates from Boston College. Their coming to Efrat, as is often the case, was but a short stopover within their extended itinerary. The students’ keener interests lay elsewhere as their time in the region was mostly devoted to meeting with Palestinians, especially activists, and with Israeli Jews on the far political left. They came to Efrat to witness “an illegal Israeli settlement occupying stolen Palestinian land” and for the opportunity to meet an “illegal settler.”
Their short time in Efrat, if approached differently, could have been an educational opportunity to better understand the other position framing the Israeli–Palestinian conundrum, the position with which these students were less familiar. My potential contribution lay in a perspective that came from living in Efrat for nearly 33 years. Time and propinquity have by default granted me insight into some of the complexities and nuances of this conflict that are unattainable in any other way. In addition to observing and writing about this topic, I meet with hundreds of visitors each year.
These students’ seminar on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict began in Boston with classroom studies followed by a mandatory 10-day overseas field visit. Their stop in Efrat lay somewhere in the middle of their schedule. After finding seats in the synagogue, the students waited until the completion of my introduction and my request for their questions. They then responded. Their questions and the tone in which they were presented were accusatory and antagonistic to the point of hostility. It seemed as if this group had arrived with a prepared, even scripted, agenda. The issues they raised were drawn from the familiar litany of Palestinian calumnies against Israel and settlers. Among them:
“Does providing security for your settlement require the IDF to arrest and torture seven-year-old Palestinian children?”
“What would you say to a Palestinian whose home is being demolished in order to make way for a new Israeli settlement?”
“We spent time with Palestinian families who say they often have no water because of Israel. Why does Israel steal water from Palestinians?”
The feeling in the room was akin to a combined cross-examination and indictment where both Israel and I were on trial. This was not the Q&A of any conventional academic setting. These students’ purpose in coming to Efrat was neither to listen nor to learn. They had descended into the belly of the beast on a mission to deliver a message. Wherein lay the source of their animus?
Their hostility may be presumed to have been the product of a combination of sources: the bias of their classroom lectures, the partisan readings they had been assigned, and the politically skewed experiences of their tour up to that point. Their course, Sociology 3367, “Human Rights and Social Justice in Israel & Palestine,” is taught by Boston College Associate Professor Eve Spangler. Spangler is an outspoken and inveterate pro-Palestinian-rights activist. Outside of class she serves as a faculty adviser and a speaker for the campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, and she promotes the BDS movement. Spangler is also a founding board member of American Jews for a Just Peace and lectures for Jewish Voices for Peace, two radical political groups at the far-left margins of the American Jewish community.
Sociology 3367, according to the course syllabus, “is designed to prepare students to better understand the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.” Students are advised that the course is presented through a “human rights framework.” It is intended “to test [the students’] capacity for using their education to serve the world.…The course is an opportunity to explore the possibility of making history.”
In describing the course’s higher purpose, the syllabus casually integrates incendiary words and phrases such as “apartheid,” “genocide,” and “ethnic cleansing/sociocide,” subtly attributing all these evils to the state of Israel. The syllabus further states that the students will be “bearing witness—to the sufferings and resilience of occupied communities and the courage and wisdom of dissidents,” a barely veiled reference to Palestinians living under Israeli authority. Such emotionally charged and partisan language belongs to the lexicon of the far left and its repertoire of accusations against the Jewish state. Introducing these terms into the course syllabus is a clear signal to students as to the political views of the professor.
In an ostensible show of academic balance, the course’s readings are authored by both Palestinians and Israelis. While it is to be expected that Palestinian authors write from a Palestinian perspective, anyone familiar with the literature on this topic will immediately recognize that the Israeli authors chosen by Spangler are all leftist academicians such as Morris
, Pappe, Segev, Rogan and Shlaim, Kimmerling and Migdal, who also promulgate the Palestinian narrative. Some, such as Pappe and Shlaim, have even denounced Israel and have taken academic positions elsewhere. This is intellectual obfuscation at its best. How does one not wince at the statement found in the syllabus: “Academic integrity is a standard of utmost importance in this class”?
Spangler also heads the fact-finding “Israel/Palestine” trip. The professed purpose of this tour is to enhance the students’ classroom readings and discussions with an opportunity to study the conflict through on-site observation and meetings with both Israeli and Palestinian players. To facilitate the educational content and logistics, Spangler turned to the Siraj Center, a Palestinian travel agency located in Beit Sahour, adjacent to Bethlehem; no Israeli agency is credited in the planning. The Siraj Center is a successful vendor of “alternative tours” whose stated objective is to make tourists “more aware of the situation in Palestine.” Although this visit is described by the course syllabus as “an immersion trip to Israel/Palestine,” nowhere on the trip’s itinerary does one find “Israel.”
The 10-day itinerary clearly reveals the tour’s ideological purpose. It is mainly dedicated to meetings with Palestinian speakers or with Israelis on the far political left who champion Palestinian nationalism even as they challenge the legitimacy of Jewish nationalism. The three exceptions are a visit to Yad VaShem (Israel’s National Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem), the stopover in Efrat, and another short visit to the southern Israel border town of Sderot. These are the sole opportunities afforded the students to hear Israeli voices, be they Jewish or Arab, that do not emanate from the extreme left. But even visits to Yad Vashem have been exploited by some to serve the Palestinian narrative. Some anti-Zionist Israeli tour guides, Jews and Arabs, use the museum’s horrific scenes to liken the present circumstances of the Palestinians to the treatment of the Jews by the Nazis.
Almost everywhere they traveled, the students were guaranteed to receive an earful of anti-Zionist rhetoric. The roster of speakers and sites included:
Sahar Vardi, a spokesperson for the Friends Service Committee’s Israel program in eastern Jerusalem, who served three prison sentences for her refusal to be conscripted into the Israel Defense Forces;
OCHA, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, a United Nations relief
organization that functions as a major public relations organ promoting Palestinian interests;
Mahmoud Abu Eid, a prominent Palestinian journalist and critic of Israel; a tour of the city of Hebron from the Palestinian perspective;
Tent of Nations, a small plot of land developed as an environmental farm located in the center of the Israeli-settled Gush Etzion region
south of Jerusalem by the Nassar family who use their claim of property ownership and the history of their court case against the Government of Israel as a public relations and income generating source;
overnight home hospitality with Palestinian families in Bethlehem;
lunch at a Palestinian refugee camp;
crossing an IDF checkpoint alongside Palestinians;
a visit to Birzeit University, a center of Palestinian political radicalism;
a tour of the Arafat Museum and Mausoleum in Ramallah;
a video conference with Gaza residents;
a meeting with Mariam Barghouti, a Ramallah-based journalist and advocate of the BDS Movement, and others who represent a similar perspective.
Other than myself, there was no Israeli voice from the right of the political center, or even from the center left.
By the time the students arrived in Efrat there was no gainsaying their partisanship. Conflicting facts were dismissed, some even ridiculed. Anecdotes they were offered that described day-to-day coexistence between local Jews and Arabs were ignored because they didn’t fit the recognized paradigm. Consequently, additional information that would have broadened their understanding of the conflict was either rejected or remained undisclosed, since this acrimonious session ended earlier than it might have otherwise.
The Boston College visit seemed designed to overwhelm the students with powerful affective experiences and poignant imagery that lent credence only to the Palestinian narrative. It appeared to be a stratagem whose purpose was to win over the students’ emotions. In this respect, it was similar to other “alternative” tours whose covert objective is to capture people’s passions. Such tours target the heart, not the mind.
These experiences have engendered the development of a different kind of “alternative” tour program in Efrat, a “counter tourism” itinerary, as one person has quipped. It is based on a two- to four-day homestay in the community, Thursday through Sunday, for Christian college students. The participating Christian institutions, it should be noted, are not affiliated with any of the evangelical churches known for their Zionist sympathies. The semester-long overseas Middle East Studies programs they offer are based in surrounding Muslim countries, Jordan, Egypt, or Turkey. They allocate more time to the Islamic world, Christianity, and to the region’s Palestinians than to Israel. But their program directors are committed to offering their students a somewhat broader perspective of the conflict.
These programs commit to an extended stay in Efrat, in contrast to the more typical 90 minutes, which affords the students a tour of the town and the surrounding Gush Etzion region. During their stay, they listen to lectures from some of the local residents, among them distinguished professors, senior military and security personnel, and noted rabbis. They learn about the state of Israel, Judaism, Jewish history ,and Jewish culture, this time from a Jewish and Zionist perspective. But, according to over 500 post-visit completed questionnaires received to date, the greatest impact on the students is made by the families who serve as their Shabbat weekend hosts. These are a number of English-speaking families who generously welcome these students into their homes.
Once the sun begins to set on Friday evening, these Christian students are immersed, for the first and most likely only time, in a full and traditional Shabbat. They attend synagogue services on Friday night and Saturday morning, returning each time to a sumptuous meal accompanied by traditional Shabbat melodies. The no-holds-barred Shabbat-table discussions delve, I’m told, mainly into Jewish religious practices and beliefs about which the Christian students are endlessly curious. But the talk usually gets around to politics and how these Efrat residents view the conflict. The discussions often last long into the night or at least until the lights in the house are automatically extinguished by the Shabbat clock. Throughout their stay, the students encounter a cross section of the residents. They listen to the many views and learn that some, to their surprise, strongly contradict one another.
The “alternative” weekend in Efrat challenges some of the opinions about Israel to which these students had previously been exposed. Following this weekend, one student wrote: “No one can be dehumanized—IDF, settlers, right-wing Zionists—they’re all people like me trying to do what’s right.” Another wrote: “Settlers are people too.”
What accounts for the dissimilarity in the responses of students whose itinerary brings them to Efrat for only a lecture, the Boston College group being only an extreme example, and those who remain for a Shabbat weekend? Both are familiar with Israel being publicly censured in mainstream and social media. Both have been exposed to readings in which Israel is accused of practicing apartheid, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. Both arrive in Efrat influenced by previous meetings with Arab and Israeli speakers on the far political left.
Student groups making only a short call at what is, in their eyes, a “settlement” such as Efrat are virtually fated to leave with the same opinions they had when they arrived. Their visits are too circumscribed to facilitate the type of social interaction with residents that with sufficient time can engender trust and credibility. Without developing trust and credibility in the people they meet, the students remain resistant to allowing any contradictory information to alter their world view.
By contrast, students whose visit lasts a few days, irrespective of their experiences until then, develop a sense of Efrat as a community of people—people with names and faces, with family roles, with personal aspirations and personal problems, with favorite sports teams and musical groups, and with dental appointments just like them. These people have opinions, many opinions. And they express a desire for peace. Upon their departure, most of these students acknowledge a newly acquired appreciation for the complexity of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Without losing sympathy for the Palestinians, they are willing for the first time to take Israeli arguments under consideration, and they recognize some of themselves in these “settlers.”
Both types of visits point to the importance of emotions in shaping people’s political views, a fundamental principle for those engaged in Israel advocacy. The pathos engendered in visitors taken to witness the squalor of a Palestinian refugee camp or the overshadowing presence of “The Wall” is calculated to elicit strong sympathy for the condition of the Palestinians, especially when these experiences are presented from the Palestinian perspective of victimhood. It is easy to understand how, following these experiences, a frontal lecture by an anonymous settler who insists on the ancient historical and modern legal rights of the Jewish people to Judea and Samaria or, even less relevant, being shown a PowerPoint presentation that boasts of Israel’s high-tech achievements, might fall on deaf ears and even rankle a group of compassionate foreign visitors. Pro-Palestinian ideologues and the Palestinian Authority long ago learned that the mind follows the heart and not the other way around. Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, take note.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
The brilliant and problematic work of a Jewish writer who didn’t want to be one
Roth’s title story transcribed in credible dialogue the summer romance of clever Neil Klugman (klug is Yiddish for clever) with Brenda Patimkin, whose family had already moved from Newark, where Neil still lives with his aunt, to more prosperous Short Hills. This was the familiar adventure of a boy attracted erotically and economically to the girl who would satisfy both sets of his ambitions but who is upended by her bourgeois scruples. The erotic part of the plot centers on his demand that she facilitate their sex by getting a diaphragm from the Margaret Sanger Clinic, and the economic part, on preparations for the wedding of Brenda’s older brother Ron in the kind of merger-marriage the family expects. Rather than pursue his real ambition of becoming a gym instructor, Ron is headed for the family business—Patimkin Kitchen and Bathroom Sinks, located “in the heart of the Negro section of Newark.” I would have paid greater attention than I did to the sociology of the novella had I realized that this would remain Roth territory over his lifetime.
The mature Philip Roth was not proud of this debut collection, and I am likewise a little embarrassed to admit the almost unreserved admiration I felt for all its six stories and the title one in particular. I laughed at the preliminary exchanges between the sparring couple (“What do you look like?” “I’m…dark.” “Are you a Negro?”), and at the portrait of the Hadassah-member mother who asks about Martin Buber, “Is he orthodox or conservative?”I thought brilliantly funny the scene in which Ron plays his record of “Goodbye, Columbus” that turns out to be a transcript of the final game of his football career at Ohio State. Columbus—get it? I especially fancied Neil’s discovery in the basement of Brenda’s wealthy home the family’s old Newark refrigerator that had once stocked butter, eggs, and herring in cream sauce but was now heaped with
fruit, shelves swelled with it, every color, every texture, and hidden within, every kind of pit. There were greengage plums, black plums, red plums, apricots, nectarines, peaches, long horns of grapes, black, yellow, red, and cherries, cherries flowing out of boxes and staining everything scarlet. And there were melons—cantaloupes and honeydews—and on the top shelf, half of a huge watermelon, a thin sheet of wax paper clinging to its bare red face like a wet lip. Oh Patimkin! Fruit grew in their refrigerator and sporting goods dropped from their trees!
Because the three Patimkin children are competitively proficient in every trendy sport, the yard is similarly overstocked with their equipment. This was the most energetically rendered put-down of the Jewish upper middle class I had ever seen. And it was such fun! I sent my fan letter to Roth, c/o Houghton Mifflin Company, complimenting him for blasting “the Battleship Patimkin.” Get it? I felt I was almost in his class of wit.
But already back then I had one reservation about the story. A subplot involves a little Negro boy who comes to the library, where Neil has a summer job, looking for books on “heart”—by which he means “art.” Neil alone among the staff encourages and shields the little boy whom others mistake for a potential thief.
“Who took these pictures?” he asked me.
“Gauguin. He didn’t take them, he painted them. Paul Gauguin. He was a Frenchman.”
“Is he a white man or a colored man?
“Man,” the boy smiled, chuckled almost, “I knew that. He don’t take pictures like no colored men would. He’s a good picture taker.…Look, look, look here at this one. Ain’t that the fuckin life?”
What I distrusted about this sequence, in addition to the self-serving portrait of the racially sensitive narrator and the condescending portrait of his protégé, was the contrast the story set up between the alleged boorishness of prosperous Jews and the “spontaneous” appreciation of art by the indigent black child. This was only a little less heavy-handed than the stuff of Jewish Communist or Socialist propaganda. It was one thing to play off the more genuine or honest Jew against phonies, as Roth does in several of the other stories, but it was itself part of the phoniness to make an invidious comparison between crass Jews and the allegedly more genuine and honest (because less privileged and more discriminated-against) non-Jews.
The corrupted Jew/untainted non-Jew dichotomy seemed to me not only dumb, but trite. That same year, 1959, in Montreal where I lived, there appeared Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. It was a novel uncommonly similar in its cultural assumptions, though whereas Neil Klugman is the sympathetic alternative to the smug Jews of New Jersey, Duddy Kravitz is himself the Jew who aspires to acquire—in his case, land. Roth’s satire of the Patimkin wedding has its comic parallel in Richler’s parody of a crass bar mitzvah, and both works assume that Jews sacrifice their souls in their climb from immigrant poverty into what passes for security. The only characters capable of true affection and loyalty in Richler’s plot are a French-Canadian young woman and a Gentile epileptic, both of whom he betrays. Duddy Kravitz was a knock-off of Budd Schulberg’s Sammy Glick in What Makes Sammy Run? (1952), who scrambles over people in his climb from New York’s Lower East Side to Hollywood. That was preceded, in turn, by Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky (1917)…and along the way there was plenty of fiction of varying artistic quality featuring similarly avaricious members of the tribe. I appreciated the wonderfully rendered cliché of the Jewish nouveaux-riches Patimkins but less so the redemptive Gentile as “heart” instructor of the uglier Jew.
Philip Roth was in no permanent danger of yielding to that cliché. Rather than follow up Goodbye, Columbus with books in the same vein, he moved away from Jews and tried his hand at more conventional American subjects and literary approaches. Maybe because I read his next novels, Letting Go and When She Was Good, mostly out of duty, I felt that he had written them dutifully to prove himself master of American fiction and not just its Jewish precincts. But for that I didn’t need Roth and could have gone straight to Henry James. Then something happened. On an overnight trip to New York in 1967, I stayed with Montreal expatriates who suggested we invite another friend to join us for dinner. Our friend agreed to come on condition that we let him bring a new story he had just discovered. He insisted on reading us—aloud and in company!—“The Jewish Blues” from the first issue of a paperback magazine called New American Review. We laughed harder than we ever had (maybe ever would again) at this shpritz of stand-up comedy delivered from a horizontal position. “The Jewish Blues” became the third chapter of Portnoy’s Complaint.
Written as a series of monologues that form six psychoanalytic sessions, Portnoy’s Complaint was built entirely on clichés—the Jewish son with an Oedipal complex, the vociferous mother and constipated father, Freudian analysis with a Viennese refugee, the Jew’s sexual attraction to the Gentile shiksa and corresponding fear of the assertive Jewish woman. But because joking depends on a shared cultural vocabulary, Roth’s recourse to the clichés of American Jewish culture were in this case justified and, indeed, indispensable to the comedy’s success.
Freud had explained it all in his study of Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, leaving comic writers to combine as they saw fit the features of joking that he identified, such as condensation, double entendre, displacement, faulty reasoning, etc., for purposes ranging from pleasure to aggression. Freud poignantly explains the need for this irreverence: “What these jokes whisper may be said aloud: that the wishes and desires of men have a right to make themselves acceptable alongside of exacting and ruthless morality.” Civilized adults may be forgiven for using comedy to bring release from taboos they must continue to observe. When Alex Portnoy says, “I am the son in the Jewish joke—Only it ain’t no joke!” the comedy exposes the distress that laughter only momentarily relieves.
Once the laughter subsided, a number of questions arose: Did the joking of insiders suit a general public? And did Portnoy’s Complaint really break taboos, or did it exploit a cultural shift that had already set in? On the sex front, Roth was barely keeping up with the times. Hugh Hefner founded Playboy magazine in 1953 and opened the first Playboy Club in 1960. Portnoy coincided with 1967’s Summer of Love when a group called the Hombres recorded “Let It All Hang Out.” Students were burning American flags, storming political conventions, and trashing universities. Roth’s obscenity had nothing on Lenny Bruce. It was only because Alex Portnoy was represented as “Assistant Commissioner for The City of New York Commission on Human Opportunity” that his sexual and lexical breakout felt almost as sacrilegious as Hester Prynne’s adultery. The impression of repression made for the comic release.
As I saw it, the real risks Roth took were not orgiastic or onanistic—but lay elsewhere, mainly in his satire of Christians. Alex’s father is speaking:
“They worship a Jew, do you know that, Alex? Their whole big-deal religion is based on worshiping someone who was an established Jew at that time. Now how do you like that for stupidity? How do you like that for pulling the wool over the eyes of the public? Jesus Christ, who they go around telling everybody was a God, was actually a Jew! And this fact, that absolutely kills me when I have to think about it, nobody else pays any attention to. That he was a Jew, like you and me, and that they took a Jew and turned him into some kind of God after he is already dead, and then—and this is what can make you absolutely crazy—then the dirty bastards turn around afterwards, and who is the first one on their list to persecute? Who haven’t they left their hands off of to murder and to hate for two thousand years? The Jews!”
This eruption is accounted for by the parents’ years of kowtowing to bigoted employers, but Alex is even more offensive than his father when he notices a picture of Jesus floating up to Heaven “in a pink nightgown” in the home of a girl he is trying to seduce:
The Jews I despise for their narrow-mindedness, their self-righteousness, the incredibly bizarre sense that these cave men who are my parents and relatives have somehow gotten of their superiority—but when it comes to tawdriness and cheapness, to beliefs that would shame even a gorilla, you simply cannot top the goyim. What kind of base and brainless schmucks are these people to worship somebody who, number one, never existed, and number two, if he did, looking as he does in that picture, was without a doubt The Pansy of Palestine….
Rereading this book (as I have done more than once), I wondered whether the narrator’s assaults on Jews and on himself were not the excuse for attacks on Gentiles and on Christians specifically. In the past, Jews who lived as a minority among Gentiles—and at their mercy—reasonably refrained from aggressing against their hosts. In hostile or potentially hostile societies, Jewish boys were discouraged from fighting back lest it bring on collective retribution. For the same reasons, Jews held back as well from verbal insult, and this prohibition burrowed deep into the culture. Roth violated this taboo, feeling sufficiently at home in America not to have such concerns about offending the goyim and probably realizing that, as with sex, what was once forbidden was now becoming all the rage.
As he anticipated, those truly offended by Portnoy were not Christians but Jews. Criticism came from some of the distinguished Jewish elders of the day, like Marie Syrkin in New York and Gershom Scholem in Jerusalem—intellectuals who had borne the full weight of anti-Semitism a mere two decades earlier and who now feared the consequence of Roth’s Jewish impropriety. Syrkin saw the leering Nazi-style anti-Jewish stereotype behind Roth’s Jewish joking. A little like the chief rabbi of Moscow who is reported to have warned in 1919, “Trotsky makes the revolutions, and the Bronsteins pay the bills,” Scholem thought that by trotting out every negative stereotype of the Jew, this self-styled “American writer” was actually stoking a new anti-Semitism. Trotsky had quit the Jews by changing his name from Bronstein, but just as the Moscow rabbi warned that Jews would be charged for his deeds, so Scholem wondered “what price the world Jewish community is going to pay for this book.” A second tier of criticism from American rabbis and Jewish organizational leaders protested Roth’s negative portrayal of the Jewish way of life, and from reviewers there were objections to the book’s alleged lack of artistic merit.
Against all these charges, I sided with Roth. In the late 1960s, Jews had reason to believe that there was little danger of triggering anti-Semitism in America: Jews were then at the height of their popularity. Liberal sympathy for Holocaust victims was unadulterated by fear of having to absorb Jewish refugees, now that Israel was there to absorb them. Paul Newman had strode the screen like a colossus as Ari Ben Canaan in Otto Preminger’s film Exodus, based on the Leon Uris bestseller, projecting Israel’s new image of masculine competence. Moreover, Judaism was by then enshrined as one of America’s three religions—Protestant, Catholic, Jew—sharing their fate, for better and worse, including as targets of satire. Roth’s debut coincided with the Jewish moment in American culture, and he proved it by eventually surpassing all other Jewish American novelists in popularity. By raising the specter of anti-Semitism, Roth’s anachronistic critics made Roth seem all the more up-to-date.
I was in no greater sympathy with those who expected Roth to be “fair” to the Jewish community. We were by then a small army of college-graduated Jews who had been trained to differentiate advertising from literature, and to reject the notion of any writerly loyalty other than to writing itself. When accused of misrepresenting the Jews, Roth responded in this magazine with an imagined list of similar complaints that might have been leveled at other authors, e.g., to Fyodor Dostoevsky for the portrait of Raskolnikov: “‘All the students in our school, and most of the teachers, feel that you have been unfair to us….’ ‘Dear Mark Twain—None of the slaves on our plantation has ever run away. But what will our owner think when he reads of Nigger Jim?’ ‘Dear Vladimir Nabokov—The girls in our class…’” When it came to defending artistic independence, Roth was clearly able to hold his own.
The more vexing question of Portnoy’s literary merit was raised most cogently by Irving Howe—in this magazine in 1972. As the literary critic who defined the New York intellectuals (also in this magazine), Howe seemed to be speaking for his intellectual cohort when he quotably wrote, “The cruelest thing anyone can do with Portnoy’s Complaint is to read it twice.” He then cruelly tried to substantiate his claim. Nonetheless, Howe managed to inflate the book’s impact while depreciating its value by calling the novel a “cultural document of some importance,” claiming that younger Jews took it as a signal for abandoning their Jewishness while some Gentile readers took it as sign that Jews were no better than anyone else:
[They] could almost be heard breathing a sigh of relief, for it signaled an end to philo-Semitism in American culture, one no longer had to listen to all that talk about Jewish morality, Jewish endurance, Jewish wisdom, Jewish families. Here was Philip Roth himself, a writer who even seemed to know Yiddish, confirming what had always been suspected about those immigrant Jews but had recently not been tactful to say.
Was it not praising with faint damn to credit Roth with having changed the direction of American culture? And why should Howe be more distressed than the rabbis? This panning could only help further stoke the image of Roth as a bold, renegade Jewish writer.
Roth later got his own back in a recognizable caricature of his critic (as Milton Appel in The Anatomy Lesson), but this was more than a personal feud. The book and the controversy it stirred marked a shift in American Jewish culture—a generational one. Howe, like Roth, had once rebelled against Jewish observance and like him, too, had married “outside the faith,” but by the time he wrote this review essay, he had created anthologies of Yiddish literature and had retrieved his heritage in World of Our Fathers, a cultural history of the Jewish immigrant experience.
Howe’s generation was saturated with old-world Jewishness. Delmore Schwartz could evoke the Jewish intonations of a mother’s speech. Isaac Rosenfeld wrote some of his stories in Yiddish. Joseph Dorman’s film Arguing the World, takes Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, and Nathan Glazer back to their immigrant neighborhoods and probes their attachments to their Jewish upbringing. While Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud are often linked with Roth in a triumvirate of Jewish writers, there is actually a world of difference between the older writers who drew from a reservoir of Jewishness and Philip Roth, whose mother made jello, not challah, whose dad played baseball rather than read the Forverts. Howe addressed this difference when he charged Roth with running on empty:
Portnoy’s Complaint is not, as enraged critics have charged, an anti-Semitic book, though it contains plenty of contempt for Jewish life. Nor does Roth write out of traditional Jewish self-hatred, for the true agent of such self-hatred is always indissolubly linked with Jewish past and present, quite as closely as those who find in Jewishness moral or transcendent sanctions. What the book speaks for is a yearning to undo the fate of birth; there is no wish to do the Jews any harm (a little nastiness is something else), nor any desire to engage with them as a fevered antagonist; Portnoy is simply crying out to be left alone, to be released from the claims of distinctiveness and the burdens of the past, so that, out of his own nothingness, he may create himself as a “human being.” Who, born a Jew in the 20th century, has been so lofty in spirit never to have shared this fantasy? But who, born a Jew in the 20th century, has been so foolish in mind as to dally with it for more than a moment?
It was impossible for Roth to recover what he never had, but Howe accused him of embracing the hollowness of what American Jewish life had become rather than trying to fill it.
This cultural shift also had a political undercurrent. Some of the New York intellectuals had undergone a political transformation from left-tending liberalism to neoconservatism. Having started out on the left, they understood its dangerous attractions and the corresponding need to protect American freedoms. Once opposed or indifferent to Zionism for its national backsliding from the international ideal, they discovered Israel and accepted responsibility for its defense. They were not all Cold Warriors to the same degree, but they wanted to bring down the Soviet Union. They were shocked by the radical assault on elite universities where some of them were now privileged to teach. Their disquiet intensified as protest against the war in Vietnam morphed into an attack on Western civilization. Though Howe continued to call himself a socialist, he was like the others culturally conservative, and he associated Roth with the radical impulse. He decries Roth for his vulgarity, by which he means not the scatology or descriptions of masturbation but “the impulse to submit the rich substance of human experience, sentiment, value, and aspiration to a radically reductive leveling or simplification.” In Howe’s judgment, Portnoy’s Complaint violated the standards of civilizing refinement that the older Jewish intellectuals were trying to uphold.
My political sympathies were generally with the New York intellectuals—but the book made me laugh. I was learning to trust my own response when it contradicted that of my literary betters, and my artless reaction to Roth’s novel made me ready to defend him from Howe’s critique. I thought Howe had missed the whole point of the comedy: Laughter would explode the clichés of American Jewish culture, including the image of the arrested adolescent who was passing himself off as the typical Jewish male. Laughter was a therapeutic purge, part indictment, part confession, with curative potential. Portnoy’s mock-analysis culminates in the punch line: “So [said the doctor] Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?” This was both part of the comedy and its resolution. Alex was about to rise from the couch a somewhat steadied Jewish American male capable of love and happiness, as donor and recipient. I saw this work as a signpost on the road to the cultural and political maturity that the neoconservatives had already reached, and I expected Portnoy’s creator, the original klug man, to move on.
Was I right?
Irving Howe was proved spectacularly wrong in his assessment of Roth’s literary powers. Endlessly inventive, Roth may have bombed with the works that came in the immediate wake of Portnoy, such as Our Gang and The Breast, but the creation of Nathan Zuckerman in the late 1970s as a Roth stand-in served him for eight full novels, ranging in style from postmodern to traditional and in quality from passable to great. Roth proved fully capable of probing the human soul in tight novellas and epic sagas. And in a one-man literary Marshall Plan, he also generously sponsored the work of European authors—Tadeusz Borowski, Bruno Schulz, Danilo Kiš, Milan Kundera—and featured other writers in his fiction, reviving Anne Frank in one of his novels and including (then) living Israeli Aharon Appelfeld in another. We now know that serious heart problems curtailed the range but not necessarily the intensity of his writing. From book to book one never knew what to expect, so I acquired and read almost all of them.
It is harder to confront Roth’s effect on American Jewry. As said, no other American writer was ever so closely associated with Jewish subjects and a Jewish readership, nor can one imagine Roth successful without them. Yet the attachment had not been his idea. When Roth’s designated biographer, Blake Bailey, said recently, “The Jewish thing was really what informed Philip as a writer,” he then noted that the credit really went to George Starbuck, Roth’s first editor, who had been given a longer manuscript and discarded all but the stories with Jewish themes. Starbuck made the shrewd decision that Goodbye, Columbus would be about Jewish life in America at the time when Jews were all the rage. Roth said, “In many ways, George formed my career, because I didn’t know that I was a Jewish writer.” It was a shotgun wedding, not unlike Roth’s unhappy first marriage to Margaret Martinson, from which he was released by her death. He could not quit the Jewish union, however, without giving up the dowry of fame it had brought him, so he stayed to the end in the cheerless marriage.
Roth’s denial of meaningful Jewish attachment remained an essential feature of his writing, complicated by the lack of alternative, for unlike Russian Jewish writers like Boris Pasternak who turned to Christianity, he disliked Christianity even more than being a Jew. In a 1961 Commentary symposium on “Jewishness and the Younger Intellectuals,” the year after he had won the National Book Award for Goodbye, Columbus, Roth wrote that he could not distinguish a Jewish style of life different from the American urban and suburban middle classes, or any values separating Jews from others.
There does not seem to me a complex of values or aspirations or beliefs that continue to connect one Jew to another in our country, but rather an ancient and powerful disbelief, which, if it is not fashionable or wise to assert in public, is no less powerful for being underground: that is, the rejection of the myth of Jesus as Christ….And wherein my fellow Jews reject Jesus as the supernatural envoy of God, I feel a kinship with them.
Needless to say, this form of kinship is not a basis for any true affection. He then goes on to deny any other form of religious or cultural cohesion so that “we are bound together, I to my fellow Jews, my fellow Jews to me, in a relationship that is peculiarly enervating and unviable. Our rejection, our abhorrence finally, of the Christian fantasy leads us to proclaim to the world that we are Jews still—alone, however, what have we to proclaim to one another?”
It is one thing to nurse such a paltry idea of the Jewish people but much more troubling to use it as the basis of a literary career. Roth’s rejection of faith is the kind that many Jews admit to at the start of their cognitive and emotional development. Daniel Bell fondly recalled telling his rabbi that he could not have a bar mitzvah because he did not believe in God and having the rabbi answer, “Do you really think He cares?” But Roth’s starting point remained his endpoint: American Jews were Jewish only by negative definition. The influence of this idea is everywhere manifest among those liberal Jews who, while finding no inspiration in their own religious tradition, reflexively distrust true Christians, especially evangelicals even when (or especially when) they are Israel’s strong supporters. Their rejection of Christians supersedes and displaces their affection for fellow Jews. That this insults Christian honesty and undermines Jewish security is not as troubling as the mean defensiveness of those who actually hold such views. Roth could fall back on the privilege of the satirist. His cultural adherents have no such pretext.
Roth was just like the earlier generation of Jewish writers and intellectuals in remaining attached to his childhood, but its imagined inauthenticity left him stuck in a time warp. The work that shows off this emptiness to greatest disadvantage is the 2004 novel The Plot against America. It reimagines what might have happened to Philip Roth’s actual family—father Herman, mother Bess, and brother Sandy—had Nazi sympathizer Charles A. Lindbergh become the Republican candidate for the presidency and defeated Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940 election. The idea for such a dystopian fiction must have occurred to Roth because by the turn of the century anti-Semitism was once again on the rise in America, but he re-created an obsolete scenario instead of the real one. As had already been obvious for decades, the new aggression against the Jews originated in the Arab war against the Jewish state and had been couched since the 1960s in the slogans of Soviet anti-Zionism. The Zionism-racism accusation, pushed through by the Soviet-Arab axis at the United Nations, penetrated the United States from the left just as German-Nazi propaganda had once done from the right. The aggression had flipped political sides. Casting Palestinians as victims of Israeli imperialism and appropriating for them the role of refugee victim, a coalition of grievance and blame made common cause against Israel and against American Jews who supported their homeland. Rather than deal with this new threat, Roth retreated to his childhood politically, to take on the familiar Nazi bogeyman and refight the war that American troops had already won. He misidentified the target.
Fortunately, there were also times when Roth was able to fashion aspects of his “peculiarly enervating and unviable” relation to the Jews into masterworks. He did this by returning as Nathan Zuckerman to the familiar Newark of his childhood to treat as tragedy the spiritual hollow he had once subjected to satire. American Pastoral (1997) looks at Seymour “Swede” Levov, a fleshed-out version of Ron Patimkin, who innocently pursues and apparently achieves his idea of American success. The handsome Jewish Sports Hero marries the Gentile Beauty Queen, wins his reluctant father’s approval for the union, and settles down with his wife in the suburban paradise of Rimrock. A century earlier, Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote The Possessed to probe the emergence of Russia’s intellectual mercenaries, and Roth uses this unlikely setting to do the same for the American radicals of the late 1960s.
Meredith Levov…the “Rimrock Bomber” was Seymour Levov’s daughter. The high school kid who blew up the post office and killed the doctor. The kid who stopped the war in Vietnam by blowing up somebody out mailing a letter at five a.m. A doctor on his way to the hospital…
The Swede’s younger brother updates Zuckerman, his high-school classmate, who then searches out and brings us the full story: How could a good man like Seymour Levov, living out his version of paradise, breed a monster? But he does. Of course this embrace of violence in the name of salvation was not strictly a Jewish issue, but Roth showed privileged insight into how the escape from Jewishness formed part of it.
Roth attempted something on the same scale three years later in The Human Stain. The main setting is a New England College where Zuckerman has befriended one of the deans, the Jewish professor Coleman Silk, who is spuriously accused of insulting African-American students by using the term “spooks” to describe their ghostly disappearance from his class. In the ensuing purge, Silk is revealed to be a light-skinned African-American who, when he decided to pass, did so as a Jew, until then—at least outwardly—successfully. Roth manages to break out of his constraints as a Jewish writer through the story of an African American who is breaking out of his constraints as a black man, and in the process inevitably damages his family and himself in ways that Seymour Levov unwittingly does in Rimrock. Roth avoided the charge of political incorrectness that he would have incurred as a writer had he written about a Jewish professor by casting accusers and offender as black-on-black rather than black-on-Jew. Roth was careful never to offend the liberal hand that fed him even as he took on hot topics. He was shrewd as well as smart.
Through this entire career studded with prizes and fame, Roth never graciously accepted his designation as a Jewish writer, much less any implicit responsibility or affinity for the Jews or Israel. Whom was he denying? A sad feature of his life as a writer is that in never pretending to feel anything for the Jewish God, the Jewish homeland, or the Jewish people, Roth could not luxuriate in the affection and gratitude that many readers accorded him. At the heart of his fiction, hence of his standing as a writer, is distrust of Jewishness and secondarily of America as home to that Jewishness. Cold kasha. Adverse relation to one’s habitual subjects is not the best recipe for great art, and Roth did as well with it as anyone could, but I wish that after Portnoy if not before, he could have reached the threshold of love.
With the sadness that attended Roth’s retirement from writing in 2012 and his death in 2018 came the realization that his work was never joyful. Funny and witty certainly, vital and intelligent always, and highly entertaining, but never plainly happy in the way a well-matched bride and groom enchant family and guests at their wedding. I was startled to find in the essay quoted above that Irving Howe calls him “an exceedingly joyless writer, even when being very funny.” He saw this before I did
Here is the Russian Jewish short-story master Isaac Babel (1894–1940 ) on Odessa, the “Newark” of his childhood:
If you think about it, [Odessa] is a town in which you can live free and easy. Half the population is made up of Jews, and Jews are a people who have learned a few simple truths along the way. Jews get married so as not to be alone, love so as to live through the centuries, hoard money so they can buy houses and give their wives astrakhan jackets, love children because, let’s face it, it is good and important to love one’s children.
Babel loved the Jews for what they were, the enjoyment of bourgeois pleasures being the best of their qualities. Babel loved being who he was despite the heavy price it exacted. Although he was first silenced and then tortured and killed at Stalin’s command, his work breathes happiness and joy. (With due respect for the difference, one thinks back to the legends of Rabbi Akiva that wrest laughter and joy from the great Destruction.) How is it that the modern Jewish writer who functioned under the most aversive moral and physical conditions should have cast himself as the harbinger of sunshine in Russian literature, whereas the novelist who benefited beyond all others from America’s freedom and opportunity should have put so little of its pleasures into his writing?
It might have been because Roth could never bring himself to say, “Damn right, America—I’m your Jewish writer, and thank you for letting me be proud of it!”
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No, we’re not stagnated
Democrats find themselves in a state of confusion. Not only is there no clear favorite for the party’s 2020 presidential nomination, it’s uncertain what economic policies the party’s eventual nominee will put forward. Among the ideas currently being argued and discussed by progressive activists and wonks are free college tuition for all, expanding Medicare, heavily regulating or breaking up the big-tech platforms, and a universal basic income or jobs guarantee.
Yet wherever Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and whoever else might climb the greasy pole come down, they will likely agree on at least one thing: While Trump and tax-cutting Trumponomics may be the immediate target of their ire, they will also argue that the U.S. economy has been on the wrong track for decades. Forget Ronald Reagan’s famous question to voters in 1980, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” As Democrats see things, the American middle class is worse off than it was before Reagan took office. In their eyes, the pro-market tilt in U.S. economic policy since Reagan’s time—lower taxes, lighter regulation, freer trade—has resulted in little more than higher inequality, lower upward mobility, and middle-class income stagnation. The claim is no longer even remotely controversial on the left and is frequently repeated by its politicians as an incontrovertible fact. This 2011 speech by Barack Obama is typical:
There is a certain crowd in Washington who, for the last few decades, have said, let’s respond to this economic challenge with the same old tune. “The market will take care of everything,” they tell us. If we just cut more regulations and cut more taxes—especially for the wealthy our economy will grow stronger…. But here’s the problem: It doesn’t work. It has never worked…. [Over] the last few decades, the rungs on the ladder of opportunity have grown farther and farther apart, and the middle class has shrunk…. This is about the nation’s welfare. It’s about making choices that benefit not just the people who’ve done fantastically well over the last few decades, but that benefit the middle class, and those fighting to get into the middle class, and the economy as a whole.
Or as Sanders summed it up at the 2016 Democratic National Convention: “This election is about ending the 40-year decline of our middle class.”
Interestingly, President Trump makes pretty much the same argument. As he said in his inaugural address: “For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry. . . . The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed all across the world.” And again in his 2017 joint address to Congress: “I will not allow the mistakes of recent decades past to define the course of our future. For too long, we’ve watched our middle class shrink as we’ve exported our jobs and wealth to foreign countries.”
Trump has never been a Reagan fan, particularly on trade. As he said in March at a rally for congressional candidate Rick Saccone, “I loved [Reagan’s] style, his attitude. He was a great cheerleader for the country. But not great on the trade.” And in 1991 he testified to Congress against the 1986 Reagan tax cuts, calling them an “absolute catastrophe for the country.”
It shouldn’t be surprising that Sanders and Trump agree on America’s supposed 40 years of economic woe. They’re both populists, and populists, whether in Venezuela or the United States, need to make a political case that goes beyond complaining about current circumstances. They must argue that the failure of the nation’s elites has been total, purposeful, and long-standing. The problem isn’t just Obamanomics, but Clintonomics, Bushonomics, and Reaganomics.
Economic facts, properly understood, simply do not support the argument that the broad American middle class has been stuck in neutral for nearly two generations. Now, it is true that Census data show real median incomes rising at an almost imperceptible 0.3 percent a year from the mid-1980s through 2013. At the same time, real per-person economic growth rose at a much quicker rate, nearly 2 percent a year. The difference between those figures reflects widening inequality. The rich got richer while others stayed relatively the same.
But only partisans think those numbers truly reflect the economic realities of the typical American family.
A University of Chicago poll of top economists found that 70 percent agreed with the proposition that the Census Bureau’s conclusion “substantially understates how much better off people in the median American household are now economically, compared with 35 years ago.” The economist Martin Feldstein, for instance, argues that the agency fails to take into account shrinking household size, the rise in government-benefit transfers, and changes in tax policy. It also measures inflation in a way many experts think overstates the actual rise in living costs. The Census Bureau uses the common consumer price index, but many economists favor something called the personal-consumption-expenditures price index, viewing it as a more reliable and comprehensive measure. And the PCE typically shows a lower inflation rate than the CPI.
One organization that does take all of this into account is the Congressional Budget Office. In March, CBO released a study that calculated much stronger gains for the broad middle class—which I’ll define here as the 21st to 80th income percentiles. One way to look at how that group is doing is by calculating “income before transfers and taxes”—roughly, market incomes plus social-insurance benefits such as Social Security and Medicare. Measured in this way, middle-class incomes rose 28 percent from 1980 through 2014. So this may not be blazing-fast growth, but it’s nearly five times larger than the number offered by the Census Bureau.
Then the CBO looked at “income after transfers and taxes”—market income plus social-insurance benefits plus means-tested transfers (Medicaid, food stamps) minus federal taxes. This more fully captures all the economic resources the American middle class commands. And it finds middle-class income increased 42 percent since 1980. More impressive still: Incomes for the bottom fifth are up nearly 70 percent. This is not the stagnated America that the populists have been telling us about.
And remember, these numbers compare the middle class today with that of decades ago. But these are not the same families and households. A 2016 Urban Institute study by Stephen Rose found that 38 percent of American families in 1979 were middle class (defined as households earning between $50,000 and $100,000 annually, adjusted for inflation) vs. 32 percent in 2014. That sounds terrible. What happened to all those middle-class families?
The study divided households into five income groups: poor, lower middle class, middle class, upper middle class, and rich. Of those groups, the bottom three got smaller over the decades while the top two grew. The ranks of the poor shrank by 4.5 percentage points, the lower middle class by 6.8, the middle class also by 6.8 points. But the upper middle class got a lot bigger, expanding by 16.5 points, while the rich grew by 1.7 points. So what happened to the middle class? It disappeared because it got richer. There has not been a middle-class meltdown. There’s been a melt-up.
Confronted with these statistics about income, stagnationists tend to narrow the focus and say that what really counts is worker wages, good old-fashioned take-home pay. And they will often produce charts showing that the typical American worker makes no more than in 1975. But they are choosing the wrong inflation measure, which makes a tremendous difference when evaluating the true purchasing power of workers. A 2017 study by the Dartmouth economist Bruce Sacerdote, for instance, finds that real wages grew by at least 24 percent since the Ford administration, and perhaps much more. “Estimates of slow and steady growth seem more plausible than media headlines, which suggest that median American households face declining living standards,” Sacerdote concludes.
And that steady growth continues to allow most American to live the American Dream, if you define the Dream as each generation being wealthier than the one before. You would be forgiven for thinking this is not the case. Last year, the superstar economist Raj Chetty and his team made headlines with a study that compared the incomes of 30-year-olds starting in 1970 with the earnings of their parents at the same age. The researchers found that in 1970, 92 percent of American 30-year-olds earned more than their parents did at a similar age, versus just 51 percent in 2014. “The likelihood that young adults will earn more than their parents has plummeted”—that is how the Associated Press summarized the findings.
Yet this is really a worst-case interpretation of the data. Other economists raised issues concerning the study’s assumptions about inflation, the role of taxes and transfers, and whether looking at adult children at age 40 might have been more relevant than age 30 given that more Americans are starting their working life later than they did decades ago. Indeed, a follow-up analysis by researcher Scott Winship finds that “roughly three in four adults—and the overwhelming majority of poor children—live better off than their parents after taking the rising cost of living into account.”
But set the data aside for a moment. The idea that most Americans are worse off than they were in the 1970s seems intuitively nonsensical to those of us who were living back then. As former Obama economic adviser Jason Furman once put it: “ignore the statistics for a second and use your common sense. Remember when even upper-middle-class families worried about staying on a long distance call for too long? When flying was an expensive luxury? When only a minority of the population had central air conditioning, dishwashers, and color televisions?”
Or look at smartphone ownership. Nearly 80 percent of Americans have amazing panes of glass in their pockets, something that didn’t exist in 1980 or 2000. How many of us would choose to live in a pre-smartphone era even with a substantially higher income? A thought experiment by Washington Post reporter Matt O’Brien neatly gets at the issue: “Adjusted for inflation, would you rather make $50,000 in today’s world or $100,000 in 1980’s? In other words, is an extra $50,000 enough to get you to give up the Internet and TV and computer that you have now? This might be the best way to get a sense of how much better technology has made our lives—not to mention the fact that people are living longer—the past 35 years.”
Of course the median or typical family isn’t every family or every person. Some groups, such as working-class men, may well have seen their living standard stagnate. And then there are the communities hurt by changes in world trade patterns that never really bounced back. But that is a narrower argument than the one the stagnationists are making—it’s not the 1-percent-versus-99-percent argument that progressives and populists have been making. Their point is that pro-market policies have failed for most Americans for two generations and are thus discredited. Or as Vice President Mike Pence has put it, “the free market has been sorting it out and America’s been losing.” Bernie Sanders couldn’t have said it better.
The populists of the left and right agree that America’s golden age was in the immediate postwar decades when taxes were high, unions were strong, and economic growth was rapid. It is against that period that populists judge the economy of more recent decades. But policymakers can’t just dial up the Wayback Machine and return to the supposed Baby Boomer paradise of the 1950s and 1960s. The post–World War II decades were affected by a host of unrepeatable factors, the most important of which was that America’s economic competitors were recovering after a global war. A National Bureau of Economic Research study described the situation this way: “At the end of World War II, the United States was the dominant industrial producer in the world,” at one point responsible for nearly 60 percent of the world’s output. “This was obviously a transitory situation.”
Not only have our competitors since recovered and thrived, but globalization has brought billions of new workers into the global labor market and raised their standards of living more rapidly than the world has ever seen. Fixating on the past and drawing the wrong lessons from economic history will only leave American workers ill-prepared to meet those challenges. And if that happens, the stagnationists of the populist left and right may finally be correct.