Sunday, July 5, 2015

Penning Our Stories

The most recent op-ed in the Jewish Standard contributed by Adas Emuno President Lance Strate was published on May 29th, and entitled Penning Our Stories, and once again we are pleased to share it here on our congregational blog if you haven't had the chance to read it already in the paper or online, or don't care to click on the link and read it on their site:

“The last time I got a fountain pen was for my bar mitzvah.”

That line was uttered during the two-part season finale of the ABC television network’s popular series Once Upon a Time, which aired on May 10. It was a little inside joke inserted by series creators Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, who co-wrote the episode; both of them may well have received fountain pens as gifts for their own bar mitzvahs. There was a time when a fancy fountain pen was as commonplace a gift as savings bonds for bar mitzvah boys, so much so that an often repeated bar mitzvah joke was, “Today I am a fountain pen.” (This was a play on the cliché declaration “Today I am a man,” this being a time before the bat mitzvah was fully instituted as an egalitarian religious practice.) Michael Hilton, in his book Bar Mitzvah: A History, reports that “in July 1946, Barry Vine of New Haven Connecticut, received sixteen fountain pens as gifts”! Now that’s the write stuff!

Fischler as Jimmy Barrett

Once Upon a Time’s bar mitzvah boy was played by the actor Patrick Fischler, who perhaps is best known for his role as the Jewish comedian Jimmy Barrett on the recently concluded AMC series Mad Men, and who also appeared on the series Lost, a series that Kitsis and Horowitz previously had worked on as writers. Fischler’s character was introduced in March, during the final story arc of the series’ fourth season, first through references to a mysterious “Author” whose writings set the course of the series’ storybook characters, such as Snow White, Prince Charming, Rumpelstiltskin, Captain Hook, Robin Hood, Maleficent, and Regina (aka the Evil Queen, Snow White’s nemesis); as “The Author” he also had the power to rewrite their stories, and change their fate.
Fischler as Phil from Lost

By the end of the season, we learned that the “Author” is a title and status that has been bestowed upon many different people, that this particular Author is named Isaac, that his last name is Heller (possibly a tribute to Jewish novelist Joseph Heller of Catch-22 fame), that he was from Brooklyn, and that back in 1966 he was a novelist who was having great difficulty getting anything published, working to support himself selling television sets, a job at which he was also unsuccessful. Selected to become the next in a long line of magical authors, he is asked to select a pen to use, prompting his remark about his bar mitzvah. Although that comment was the only instance in which the character was directly identified as Jewish, his name, voice, place of birth, look, and manner all allude to his ethnicity, and presumably his religion.

Part of the humor of the bar mitzvah comment comes from the incongruity of inserting a bit of Yiddishkeit into a series that remixes characters from Disney’s animated films, most of whom are derived from European fairytales and folklore. (Disney owns Once Upon a Time’s television network, ABC.) After all, even during the two decades that Michael Eisner was CEO of the Walt Disney Company, the film studio added no characters to its pantheon like Fievel Mousekewitz of Stephen Spielberg’s An American Tail. And we certainly don’t expect to see anyone named Cohen or Levy in Cinderella, Peter Pan, Beauty and the Beast, or Frozen.

Fischler as "The Author"

There is, however, a long tradition of inserting inside jokes that only Jews could appreciate fully into Hollywood films. My all-time favorite is in the 1936 Marx Brother movie Animal Crackers, when the cast sings, “Hooray for Captain Spaulding, the African explorer,” and Groucho responds, “Did someone call me schnorrer?” I also love the subtle jab in the 1930 science fiction musical Just Imagine, in which characters from the future explain that people drive planes instead of cars, planes with names like Rosenblatt, Pinkus, and Goldfarb. In response, the distinctly Jewish character from 1930 remarks (in reference to the automaker’s anti-Semitism), “It looks like someone got even with Henry Ford!”

No doubt there also was a degree of identification between Kitsis and Horowitz, as the creators of Once Upon a Time, and their character, Isaac Heller, as “The Author” of the storybook tales that seal the fate of the series’ heroes and villains. And perhaps making Heller a villain involved a bit of self-deprecating humor. Certainly, it was ironic that Isaac’s status as “The Author” is revoked for changing the heroes’ and villains’ stories. That is exactly what Kitsis and Horowitz have done in the series, not the least by making both types of characters less black and white, more morally ambiguous, and therefore more realistic.

Still, portraying Once Upon a Time’s only Jewish character as a villain is more than a little problematic. There are echoes of Shakespeare’s Shylock in the explanation that Isaac gives to Snow White and Prince Charming, that it was “a lifetime of bad bosses” who “fancy themselves heroes, pushing around people like me,” that led him to resent the heroes and identify with the villains. The problem with having only one Jewish character in a popular narrative is that the character’s Jewishness becomes more than an individual attribute. Instead, the character becomes a representation of the Jewish people as a whole, in this case a negative representation, indeed, a negative stereotype.

But there is nothing negative about the Jewish connection to the role of “The Author” after all. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we pray that we may be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good year, and we wish the same for others. In our tradition, God is an author, indeed, The Author, an understanding that has been adopted by the other Abrahamic religions. Of course Moses, our greatest prophet, was also a writer, and through the Torah and the Tanach, we became the first people to write our own historical narrative. And the stories our ancestors wrote have changed the course of history for the entire world, and continue to capture the imagination of billions of people.

Upon doing a search for “Jewish authors” via Google, a listing of “authors frequently mentioned on the web” appeared, and cited 50 names, including Phillip Roth, Saul Bellow, Franz Kafka, Bernard Malamud, Sholem Aleichem, Anne Frank, Joseph Heller, Isaac Asimov, J. D. Salinger, Elie Wiesel, Isaak Babel, Ayn Rand, Primo Levi, Marcel Proust, E. L. Doctorow, Amos Oz, Arthur Koestler, Leonard Cohen, Theodor Herzl, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Gertrude Stein, Emma Lazarus, Art Spiegelman, Tony Kushner, and Boris Pasternak. No doubt a full listing of every Jewish novelist, short story writer, poet, playwright, screenwriter, comics writer, and writer of nonfiction would strain even the Google search engine’s enormous capabilities. Interestingly enough, Google’s list also included King David, Josephus, Maimonides, and Paul the Apostle, and it is certainly worth noting in this context that the Christian Gospels are to a large extent the product of Jewish authors, their impact immeasurable.

So maybe a fountain pen isn’t all that terrible a gift to give on the occasion of a bar or bat mitzvah? Certainly, research indicates that in the classroom, learning and retention is greater for students who take notes by hand as opposed to on laptops and tablets, and there is much to be said for taking pen in hand in regard to creativity. Our tradition of writing extends from Torah and Tanach to Talmud and Zohar, from Maimonides and Karo to the writings of our modern rabbis and lay leaders, from the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist branches as well as the Orthodox, and to the secular, scholarly, popular, and artistic works of Jewish authors all around the world. With the magic of the pen, we can continue to be authors of our own history as a people. And with the magic of the pen, we can inscribe our own names into a personal book of life that we each can write for ourselves.

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