Sunday, August 24, 2008

It's Only A Lobster: Woody Allen's Neurotic Pleasures

There's a new film by Woody Allen. Which made me wonder: why have Allen's movies been so disappointing for so many years? Or, why is Annie Hall of 1977 still the standard against which all of his later films are judged? It's not much of a movie, more a series of memorable vingettes, held together by a feeble plot line-the failed romance of Alvy Singer played by Allen and Diane Keaton, the title character.

Would it be too much of a stretch to say it's his best film because it's his most Jewish? Between screenings of Max Ophul's Sorrow and the Pity, a four hour documentary on the Nazis, Alvy hangs out with 'some guys from NBC', and asks: 'did you eat yet or what?' One of them, Tom Christie [read Tom Christian] responds with the innocent, 'no, did you?,' misheard by Allen as 'd'jew?' 'You get it? Jew eat?' Jew? 'You're paranoid Max,' says Roberts to Allen who always has Jews and Judaism on his mind. But the paranoid anti-semitism probably doesn't get as much play as Allen's tortured Jewish consciousness. How many non-kosher animals are there in Annie Hall? Alot. There's the ham served at Annie's family gathering. 'Nice ham this year' says Annie's mother to Grammie Hall, 'the classic Jew hater' in whose eyes Alvy appears-at least to his own imagination-as a chassid, complete with hat and long payos.

Then there's the 'pork and shellfish' that Alvy's doctor rules out as causes for his stomach ailment (surprise: it's hypochondria), and the spiders--one the 'size of a Buick'--in Annie's bathroom. Most notable of the non-kosher creepy crawlers are the lobsters on the kitchen floor of Hampton's summer home, with the squirming Alvy's shouting 'they're disgusting!' As one of the lobsters escapes behind the refrigerator, Alvy implores Annie: 'you talk to him, you speak shellfish!'

Annie does speak shellfish, and that's part of Alvy's fascination with her. There's enormous pleasure for Allen--even though it seems like he's in pain--with the transgressive love affair with the shellfish-speaking Keaton and her lobsters. It's the kind of pleasure that French psychoanalysts call jouissance-the neurotic pleasure one gets from unresolved psychic battles. Alvy knows he shouldn't be eating the lobster, but there's the jouissance in doing it anyway. Towards the end of the movie, after Alvy and Annie have separated, Alvy tries to repeat the scene-same house, same kitchen, same lobsters. Allen with lobster in hand, looks up plaintively to his new companion who responds with utter indifference: 'it's only a lobster.'

There's a whole generation of Jews who share Alvy's neurotic pleasures; the kabbalists might look generously at such neurosis and see the 'sparks of holiness' of a struggling Jewish soul. Not that the Torah wants us to be neurotic. The Talmud tells us we shouldn't make theatrical shows of disgust at non-kosher animals: it's not that I don't want to try the eel at the local sushi place; really I crave it. But, as Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel says of the cheeseburger he forgoes, 'I want it, but my Father in Heaven decreed me not to partake of it.' So I admit my desires, and become responsible for them, even as I decide not to pursue them.

Some might say that Alvy admits that he really likes lobsters, and just wants to eat them. That's one form of resolution, and maybe some sort of psychic health for Allen. Though it's a shame really, because for all of the images of Jews in his films, almost all center on fear--paranoid anti-semitism and neurotic anxiety about being Jewish. When there are Jewish scenes in Annie Hall, they are more generically ethnic than particularly Jewish. If Alvy--with all those Jews he represents--had access to a lived Judaism and not just its negative stereotypes, he might have worked out his inner conflicts in some other way, true to his neshama as well as his psyche. He might have been responsive to his desires, as well as the voices of Jewish tradition which he knows and feels, but eventually represses to satisfy the perspectives of those who say: 'it's only a lobster.'

And had he found some other resolution, and sought an audience other than the one which looks with pitying condescension at his Jewish connections, maybe his movies would still be funny.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Cosmic Sharing and Cycles of Love: Parenting for Independence

In Kurt Vonnegut's short story, 'Harrison Bergeron,' a society of the future installs 'mental handicap radios' in the ears of its population, sending out periodic sharp noises to keep the overly intelligent 'from taking unfair advantage of their brains.' My oldest daughter was in London recently, and on the Friday before her return I thought of the story I read with so much pleasure in junior high. That day, each time I sat down to my computer to work, there was that vibrating buzz--'one message received'-'where are you?' When she and her friend first arrived at Heathrow, I welcomed the buzz: after the first encounter with British Immigration, and the flurry of messages which accompanied it (the two Israeli Beis Yaakov girls, deemed a threat to Her Majesty's Commonwealth, were detained for over an hour), I was less enthusiastic: 'two messages received'-'what are you doing now?'; 'four messages received'-'what are you having for dinner?' When we finally spoke, just before the onset of shabbos, I couldn't disguise my frustration: 'fifty-seven messages in one day! you're joking, right?'

So parents make mistakes. Mentioning the sms excess had been the planned opening to the conversation, but from her point of view it was already over: 'Where's Mommy?' That was a snub.

'Your mother has already lit shabbos candles.'


I quickly improvised: 'Mommy made the cholent, but added too many chick peas; I made your spicey orange chicken with eggplant, but Freidie left it in the oven too long and it burnt; the girls helped Mommy make the brownies, but ran out of chocolate chips; and the boys are napping and will wake up just in time to cry through the shabbos meal.' I understood that though she is eighteen and managing her independence half a hemisphere away she wanted to be grounded, reminded of home.

Recently my three year-old son gave me an understanding of what had happened. On an afternoon visit to shul, he was restless and felt like exploring, but as he started to lean away from me, ready to wander, he tightened his grip. A living emblem: his feet perched on mine, tilting away from me, pulling my hands-almost an inverted compass.

Though it was not just a simple question of his need for re-assurance. More than that, when our children are becoming themselves as toddlers or even adults, if we are good enough parents, they will be, at the same time, asserting their connection to us. Or maybe it's through connecting to us that they become independent? Almost like a conceit from a poem by John Donne: we become most independent at the very moment we are most connected. This is the identification born out of love, allowing for the self to grow. For 'living,' as Freud writes, 'is the the same as being loved.'

'Beloved is man, because he was created in G-d's image; even more beloved is he because he was so informed, as it is written: "in the image of G-d, He created man."' So Rabbi Akiva tells of the love that links G-d and man, but there is an even greater love: the love that G-d shows by telling us that we are created in His image. G-d loves man, says the Maharal, and with His cosmic 'I love you,' elicits our love. Not only is there a connection-expressed in the image of G-d that links the Creator and man-but G-d informs us of that connection because he wants our love. Through the mutuality of love, man does not become divine as the Serpent falsely promises; rather man, through becoming godly, elevates himself as man.

So when the shabbos siren sounded-just as I ran out of details of Friday's preparation to recount-I added one more thing to our globetrotting and ever-more independent daughter: 'We love you!'

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Birthin' Babies: 'Orthodox Jews Don't Care About Their Children'

Dateline: Ben Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv

In a story first reported in Haaretz, and then syndicated to the BBC, Yahoo, and, among other places, the Fort Mill Times (it's a South Carolina paper), a toddler was left behind at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv as her parents and four siblings boarded a flight to Paris. By the time the four and a half year old girl, roaming around a duty-free shop, was found by an Israeli policeman, the flight was in the air. The parents were informed by a stewardess, according to Haaretz, forty minutes into the flight, that they had left their daughter on the ground.

The left-leaning and often anti-religious Haaretz was unusually restrained in their coverage--only intimating that the girl's family is 'ultra-orthodox.' Sarit Ben Eden, the officer in charge of the departure area, Haaretz reports, bought the crying girl an ice cream cone; the latter had become sufficiently composed to inform the officer that she only eats food with strict orthodox supervision (Badatz hechsherim). Subsequent accounts in the syndicated press, however, include due mention of the toddler's 'ultra-orthodox' background. A post by 'Jane' on the Haaretz 'Talk-Back' gives insight into the world-wide fascination with the story. Jane's post--'That's What I'd Call Too Many Children'--implores: 'If you can't keep track of them it's time to stop birthin' babies.' Anyway, everyone knows, as Jane implies: 'not only do the ultra-orthodox children have too many children, they don't even care about them!'

I'm not going to try to explain or justify what happened. Perhaps the parents were anxious about their departure from Israel, overwhelmed by their eighteen bags and their return to France; perhaps they had arranged some buddy system among their children, and there had been a failure of communication. Even though we've sometimes had a hard time keeping track of our children (as recounted in these pages), I can't fathom leaving one of them behind in the departure lounge (and then snacking peacably on airplane pretzels until given the news by a stewardess!). It's unimaginable to me.

But as much as I'm not interested in apologetics for the parents, I'm also not interested in a diatribe against the media's anti-orthodox prejudice. I'd rather think about why we are so compelled by stories like this one. It probably has to do with the kind of thinking that literary critics associate with synecdoche--which is an expression through which a part of something comes to stand in for the whole. By looking at a supposedly representative part, I claim to be able to make generalizations about the whole. So the story of the hapless French couple becomes a synecdoche for all orthodox parents: 'you see they have too many kids! and the ones they have they don't even care about!'

Stories like this help us keep our pre-conceived notions about people we'd prefer not to know. They are the urban legends--which the quantitative methods of sociology (and the statistics course I never took)--would tell us not to believe. But the stories are widespread, and it's not only stories about the orthodox: there are corresponding stories about other communities as well, stories which are the means by which one community or sector retains its prejudices about another. The 'horror' story of the 'secular promiscuous adolescent,' for example, which gets great play in some circles in Israel, comes from the same psychic place as that of the 'indifferent ultra-orthodox parents.' Though totally different in their content, the stories serve a similar function--insulating from any real knowledge of people who are different. Both stories serve as cautionary tale and modern allegory, ways of transforming people--sometimes whole communities--from their complex realities into cartoon characters. To be sure, sometimes these stories are true in the particular, but they are rarely representative--they are rarely synecdoches--in the ways which some like to claim. What if all secular people are not immoral hedonists? what if all ultra-orthodox are not irresponsible and indifferent to their children?

Imagine: we'd have to re-think. And once we re-think--who knows?--we might see things differently.