In a few short years JDate has revolutionized Jewish dating. An electronically manipulated database of single Jews has transformed what used to be a series of emotionally tense trips to shul halls, desperate blind dates set up by elderly relatives, or the posing of tentative questions about an attractive prospect’s ethnic origins. These are now a series of emotionally tense trips to the computer, desperate blind dates set up by email, or the posing of tentative questions about an attractive prospect’s veracity in their profile. If Jewtopia is to be believed, JDate has put the date in database -- but without taking debasement out of dates.
And, in general, Jewtopia is to be believed. Yes, its assertions about being Jewish are heavy-handedly stereotypical, and the first half shows the weariness of being an expanded fifteen minute sketch that the same actors have been performing umpteen times a week for the past two years. Jackie Tohn, however, breathes deservedly fresh life into the second act, playing a variety of characters with comic gusto. Her characters perhaps owe too consistently to Fran Drescher but her portrayal of a 14-year-old at a Seder is as sexy and funny as you are ever likely to see.
What is incontrovertible about JDate is that it has centralized urban Jewish dating; making a widespread and heterogeneous population suddenly, if virtually, visible. A community has appeared where, to all intents and purposes, one had only previously theoretically existed. Jewtopia depends upon the fact that the virtual appearance of this community lowers the barrier to entry and means that people might try to enter for reasons other than being driven by centuries of guilt, cultural imperatives, and nagging relatives. Jewtopia is also about passing as Jewish and how Jewishness always looks different from outside, from different parts of inside, and sometimes even from the same part of inside with just a little more confidence. One Jewish actor plays a non-Jew who converts to Judaism only to find out the Jewish girl he idealizes is also a non-Jew who was pretending to be Jewish, so that her mother could ensure her a good husband. Be fruitful and multiply.
III. Staging Jewishness
In Fiddler on the Roof the dramas of choice are sequential, played by each of Tevye’s daughters in turn. The first daughter turns down wealth and an arranged marriage for the love of a poor tailor, the second marries an exiled revolutionary and leaves to be with him, the third marries a non-Jewish Russian. In each case, Tevye has to decide whether the Jewish lifestyle he wishes to transmit is compromised by the daughter’s choice, and in the first two cases he decides that it is not. In the third case, heart-rendingly, he decides that marrying out of the faith is too much for him and he casts his daughter out of the family.
As we view Tevye's struggles from a safe historical distance though, we see this simplification with nostalgia: it's less about pain and cultural identity than about cute traditions and shtetl life. The subtleties of the original stories -- the complication of Tevye's law-abiding yearning for the apparently clear lines that divide right from wrong, in from out, kosher from treif -- now seem lost in the cultural artefact that is Fiddler itself. Yet even Tevye has to leave his shtetl, and outside the shtetl things get complicated. Moving from the village to the city, whether it was Vienna, Vilna, London or New York changes the nature and complexity of Jewish accommodations to modern life. Even before Sholom Aleichem wrote his self-consciously nostalgic stories, the challenge of the modern world was being posed not only from the outside but also by committed Jews who wanted to stay Jewish and get modern.
This double-commitment has mean that European Jewish communities over the past two hundred years have been playing out their own living-room “clash of civilizations” that is a feature of current relationships between Arab religious nationalism (figured as Islam) and modernity (figured as Christianity). Although it is highly suggestive, Bernard Lewis’ terminology of ‘clashes’ is ultimately unhelpful, because the interpenetration of two loosely defined and heterogeneous groupings is hardly helped by characterizing it as a clash. Jewish history includes accounts of thousands of years of accommodations with seductive modernizing forces: the Egyptians, the Hellenes, the Babylonians, the Romans. These all involved friction but without them Jewish civilization would not have the depth and texture that it has.
The modern Roman Empire is, of course, the Empire of the United States. The current regime is currently establishing a Pax Americana where, instead of (to quote the Pythons again) “sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, public health, and peace,” as well as the triple pillars of Democracy, Capitalism and the Web are instituted. These have (as the existence of this magazine, among many other examples, testifies) had their own particular interactions with the current incarnation of Jewishness. These interactions result in the contemporary conundrum of how to progress at the same time as identifying with some aspect of our antique heritage.
As Jews we should be proud that we are providing a light to the nations who are coming to the theatre to see how staging Jewishness provides an example (whether to accept or reject) of how to come to terms with love, lust, religion, ethnic pride and modernity. Having all these Jewish cherchez la femme (juive) dramas on stage covering a period of nearly 150 years of suggests that the Jews have been simultaneously rejecting and coming to terms with modern secular culture for longer, with more drama, and in a more garrulous fashion than many other traditional cultures. The new post-9/11 world is a complicated one and, as proven by the elections last year, the population of the United States would rather back simple answers than face the complexity. New York is framing the question of how to come to terms with a world that has no easy answers, using the proscenium arch to provide distance, and Jewishness to provide context.
Walking through The Gates
What draws protesters to banal holocaust art?
Neurotic Visionaries & Paranoid Jews
April 7, 2005
Jews on Stage
Out of Bounds
Messianic Troublemakers: Jewish Anarchism
Our 640 Back Pages
Zeek in Print
Spring 2005 issue now on sale!
From previous issues:
Three Jewish Books on Sadness
God's Unchanging Hand
Edward Weston and the "M" Word