Remembering when Jews were popular

One of the things that was most obvious about the Mumbai massacre was the extraordinary effort the attackers — who were ostensibly upset about the India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir — made to kill Jews.  Not only did they seek out Jews in the hotels, they planned carefully and in advance to attack the single Jewish outpost (Chabad house) in that entire city of 20 million people.  Then, once they got their hands on those Jews, they subjected them to torture so horrible, even doctors hardened to death and suffering found it indescribable.  For more on the manifestly deliberate attack against the Jews, you might want to read this Dennis Prager column, which spells out the evidence that the terrorists specifically targeted Jews, and seeks to find a reason for that tactic.

What many have noticed in the wake of the Mumbai horror is the way in which the mainstream media has been downplaying two things:  First, the Islamist nature of the attack, to the point at which media writers got incredibly excited by the fact that one — yes, folks, one — of those involved was actually Indian and not Pakistani.  I think that this raises the faint hope in media minds that the guy was Hindu (pardon me while I giggle incredulously here) and not Muslim.  Second, the media has been trying very hard to pretend that Jews were not a deliberate major target in this attack on a city of 20 million Indians and 50 Jews.  The media prefers that Americans don’t notice that the killers were trying for their own little Holocaust, wiping the Jews off the Mumbai map.

In an interesting rumination on this last point, Mladen Andrijasevic wonders if the New York Times, which led the charge for this “Jews, what Jews?” idiocy, is underestimating or correctly gauging New Yorkers’ Juda-philism or Juda-phobism:

Has The New York Times got it right? Has the feeling of being in the center of the universe on a late Saturday evening in the West Village or Upper West Side near ZABAR’S, cleaning up the various unwanted sections of the just arrived Sunday edition, has this feeling of being alive made all New Yorkers insensitive and inhuman? How is it possible that millions of New Yorkers read this obvious lie and did not react? Is it ignorance, is it habit, is it stupidity or is it just cowardice? How spineless can you be?

At least the New York Times has a certain bizarre subtlety to its “who cares about the Jews” approach.  Not so the UN, which is gearing up for its annual hate-fest against the Jews, an exercise that attracts increasingly lower levels of attention from around the world.  Not only has it gotten rote (“yeah, yeah, the UN hates the Jews”), but many nations like to nod their heads in agreement (“well, of course they’re hated, because their an evil, apartheid, imperialistic Nazi state”).  All of which makes me a little bit nostalgic for my youth in the late 1960s and 1970s.

If you were around in those decades, you’ll remember a time when America was in love with all things Jewish. Popular culture was awash in hugely successful books, songs, and shows that reflected favorably on American Jewish culture. For example, when I was a kid, everyone read and quoted from Dan Greenberg’s incredibly funny book, How to be a Jewish Mother. I had a friend who would just double over with laughter every time she thought of the appropriate Jewish mother response if she comes into the living room and finds her daughter necking on the couch with a boy: “Leave this house and don’t come back until you’re a virgin again.”

Another great (hugely) popular Jewish book of the 1960s was Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish, a book that is a dictionary, a joke book, a cultural history, and a religious history book all rolled into one. (If you haven’t read it yet, you should.)

Anyone over forty also remembers Allan Sherman, the guy who became famous singing “Hello, Muddah; Hello, Faddah” and other ridiculous lyrics to familiar music? His records are still available, but in the 1960s they were a cultural phenomenom.

Certainly, no one needs to be reminded of what an enormous hit Fiddler on the Roof was: smash Broadway show, hit movie, and revival after revival. It still does get revived periodically (as was the case in 2004 in New York), but can you imagine it opening as a first run show now, in the same world that lauds a show about Rachel Corrie?  I certainly can’t.

So much of the entertainment world generally had a Jewish gloss, with the popular entertainers of the 1920s still held in some degree of reverence during my childhood and youth. Tin Pan Alley, and Broadway, after all, were heavily Jewish (Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rogers, the Gershwin brothers, Moss Hart, George Kaufman, Lerner and Loewe, and on and on and on).  Indeed, just today I heard Tommy Dorsey’s “And the Angel’s Sing,” and was reminded of the wonderful Klezmer influence on Big Band music.

Pop culture comes and goes, and I certainly don’t mind — indeed, I think it’s a good thing — that other cultures are getting their moment in the pop culture sun. What I do mind, dreadfully, is how hostile so much of the world is now to things Jewish. Rachel Corrie is a martyr, anti-Semitism is popping up all over, churches boycott Israel, and the New York Times pretends that it was mere coincidence that the lone Jewish enclave in Mumbai was singled out for an attack that surpassed all the others in sheer brutality.  I miss the time when the Jews were a beloved people, and their culture a thing to be enjoyed and admired.

I also miss the fact that Western culture, especially America, once looked fondly on Israel too.  Israel was not then an evil, imperialist, apartheid, Nazi state.  Instead, it was viewed as a plucky democratic nation, made up of survivors from Pogroms, the Holocaust and refugee camps, that had bravely beaten back the nationalist Arab bully boys. Israel was David to the Arab world’s Goliath. Israel was also tremendously admired for turning a blighted desert into the land of milk and honey, for its successful socialist experiments (in the form of the Kibbutzim), and for its sponge-like ability to absorb Jews who were still being harassed and murdered in the Arab world.

Still, speaking of Israel, I am reminded that the anti-Israel, anti-Jewish poison has been seeping into our culture for a long, long time now.  Back in 1974/75, Ephraim Kishon, an Israeli humorist (and Holocaust and Communist survivor), wrote a very funny short story called “Unfair to Goliath” (contained in a book of the same name). I can’t find my copy right now but, if I remember correctly, Kishon used the David and Goliath analogy that was so frequently popping up then in reference to Israel, and blended it with the murmurings about how Israel somehow had an unfair advantage over those poor, densely populated, oil rich Arab nations that were perpetually attacking her. It’s a funny story, but sadly prescient.