Monday, August 20, 2012

"Hey JC, You're Alright By Me"- in which we travel thousands of miles to see a play we might find racist

An American, an Israeli, and some Brits walk into a bar in Nottingham…. There’s no punch line (yet) because it hasn’t happened yet. This may well happen when I go meet my friend, Ori, who is from Israel, and we go to see Jesus Christ Superstar in England. We’ve purchased our tickets months in advance, and have been excitedly planning our trip. In our anticipation about the show, we’ve been discussing many aspects, but one that is intriguing to us is that the play can be viewed as anti-Jewish.

In my discussions with Ori, I find that a lot of notions ingrained from my WASP upbringing, that I hadn’t even realized were biased, are essentially…ummm…wrong. First of all, in our discussions, I was using the term “anti-Semitic”. Ori has corrected me a couple of times, and I will now try to use the term “anti-Jewish”. Secondly, growing up in the Bible-belt here, when we talk about something in the New Testament, we just say, “In the Bible”. This has led to some amusing exchanges, as Ori and I try to discuss whether something is in the Bible or not, if I am referring to the New Testament as the Bible. So I will try to say New Testament, when we are talking about…umm, yeah, the New Testament. Which is probably what we will be talking about, given the subject matter of the musical.

Ori and I have both watched the 1973 film version of Jesus Christ Superstar, but not the 2000 version.  I think although Ori finds the original lyrics troublesome, she felt especially offended by the portrayal of the Jewish clerics and the Jewish masses in the film. I will let her elaborate more.

So, welcome, my first guest blogger, Ori!  We have discussed a bit here and there about Ori’s reactions after seeing the film, and have realized that this is an important and interesting topic. I am going to make a list of questions or perhaps brief comments, and Ori can elaborate about her perspective and conclusions, and add any additional comments, or even questions for …umm…whoever may read this post, (maybe those Brits in the joke which hasn’t happened yet).

Directed to Ori:

- Do you want to include any background about yourself? I mentioned you are from Israel. Anything else? If not, that’s OK, of course.

- Will you discuss the term "anti-Jewish", as opposed to "anti-Semitic"?

- You have mentioned that when you first saw the film, you had an initial gut reaction about the racism in it that was later confirmed for you by reading other people’s similar opinions. Will you elaborate on why you feel the film is racist, and your feelings of realizing that others feel this way too?

- One of my reactions to hearing you say that the Jewish clerics were portrayed negatively was, “Well, that is how they were portrayed in the New Testament. It’s not the play’s fault.” Almost immediately, I realized the inherent bias I am showing there. First of all, even though I am no longer Christian, I realize I still hold this assumption that the New Testament is a more or less a historically accurate (albeit embellished with supernaturalism) telling of events. I had NEVER thought about how the New Testament itself can be read as anti-Jewish, and its portrayals may not be at all accurate in many ways. (I’m being stupid, but honest.)

- Do you find the New Testament to be anti-Jewish? Are there Jewish versions of the Christ story? How would you prefer the clerics and the crowds in JCS be portrayed?

- You have said the film is especially offensive, but that the racism is embedded in the lyrics. I found a quote by Tim Rice, discussing how he wrote Judas:
He did what he did, not because he was basically evil, but because he was intelligent. He could see Christ becoming something he considered harmful to the Jews. Judas felt that they been persecuted enough. As far as what Christ was saying, general principles of how human beings should live together – Judas approved of this. What Judas was worried about was that as Christ got bigger and bigger and more popular, people began switching their attentions from what Christ was saying to Christ himself. They were saying that Jesus is God, here is the new Messiah, and Judas was terrified because, a.) he didn’t agree with it – he thought Christ was getting out of control and it was affecting Him, and b.) Judas reckoned that if the movement got too big and people began worshipping Christ as a god, the Romans who were occupying Israel would come down and clobber them. – Superstar lyricist Tim Rice  source

When I read this, I got the impression that Tim Rice, at least here, at least in this one aspect of his intentions for Judas, wanted to make Judas protective of the Jews. Does that make his lyrics less offensive at all?

-I’ve read three complaints, in this article, and other places that some consider JCS blasphemous, some consider it anti-black, and some consider it anti-Jewish? Do you have any comments about the first of those two?

- Is there anything else you want to add, or discuss?

Ori's Response

First of all, I want to thank you for letting me be a part of this post. The questions are perfect. I assume the subject was thoroughly discussed in 1973, but I wasn't alive then, so I'm very happy I get to discuss it now. OK, I'll dive in.

-         I'm glad you asked about background, because I feel I need to provide some anyway, and you just gave me an excuse.

I was born and raised Jewish in Israel (which is the perfect excuse for my poor English and lack of eloquence. I hope I can be coherent enough). I was a child of two Holocaust babies (which might explain my enhanced sensitivity to this issue). My mother was very religious and forced the entire family to do silly things like pray, eat kosher food etc.

I was always secular. I'd tease my mother about her ridiculous ways even as a small child, while trying to keep a balance between my mocking and being given up for adoption.
I think the most important thing I can say is that everything I will say from now on is personal: I'm not a rabbi or scholar of religion, and not an authority on anything. Whatever opinions or thoughts I express are representative of me alone (even if I've seen a lot of them expressed before by others).

-         The "anti-Semitic" vs. the "anti-Jewish" thing. That's my own fussiness getting in the way. Wikipedia may not be the most accurate source, but its definition of the term "Semitic" is sufficient for this discussion: "The term Semite means a member of any of various ancient and modern Semitic-speaking peoples originating in southwestern Asia, including; Akkadians (Assyrians and Babylonians), Eblaites, Ugarites, Canaanites, Phoenicians (including Carthaginians), Hebrews (Israelites, Judeans and Samaritans), Ahlamu, Arameans, Chaldeans, Amorites, Moabites, Edomites, Hyksos, Arabs, Nabateans, Maganites, Shebans, Sutu, Ubarites, Dilmunites, Bahranis, Maltese, Mandaeans, Sabians, Syriacs, Mhallami, Amalekites and Ethiopian Semites." I have no idea how this term came to mean "anti-Jewish". Since "anti-Semitic" is the commonly used term, we can use it. It just bothers me in the same way that hearing Tim combine his Latin and Greek words bothers me. I can live with it, and I'm not really that anal about it, but it's just not accurate.

-         Two questions for the price of one. I'll start with the one that asks why I think the film is racist. In order to respond to that I need to define how I see "anti-Semitism" (or "anti-Jewism"). In an article about the character of the Jew over the centuries, a history professor (whose name I can't add here because I can't find how he spells it in English anywhere) explains that the church isolated the character of the Jew and represented the Jew as a demon; a diabolic devilish evil entity. According to him, the church claimed the Jew embodies evil forces and must not be placed among the "good" creatures of the world. Here's a link, if you can read Hebrew (or just feel like staring at some Hebrew scribbling): source

The Hebrew version of Wikipedia which talks of the character of the Jew in Nazi propaganda was edited and some parts didn't make it into the English translation. According to Wikipedia, among other representations of the Jews, they were seen as parasites, pests, long nosed rodents (rats, for example). In caricatures drawn in the 1940's they are represented with a curved nose, and described as greedy murderous rapists. See Der ewige Jude, "The Eternal Jew" or "The Wandering Jew". 

(Cover of the film "The Eternal Jew", released in 1940)

These tales, by the way, are reinforced by my grandparents and other holocaust survivors. I apologize for only drawing on Hebrew sources; sources are not as easy to find in English. You'll just have to trust me, or not.

I hope this clears the matter of why I think the film is racist. Jesus' followers aren't Jews. They're Christians. The only actual Jews you see in the film are the clerics. The very sexy clerics (I doubt the real clerics had abs like the movie clerics, but I'm not complaining). You see a group of clerics, two of which get a prime spot in front of the cameras; the others just repeat what the front two are saying. The "head of the order" - tall and funny-hatted with the deep voice, and the shorter, lean, thin-voiced "counselor", whispering his opinions and advice in the ear of the "head guy". I don't even know where to begin. These characters are so stereotypical and caricaturesque it makes me want to puke. The thing that hits home for me, and removes any doubt from my mind is the depiction of the "counselor" character with long narrow snake-like hat and conniving expressions, his low voice and slithery secretive behavior. The Jews in the film come up with a secret plan to destroy Jesus, who is infringing on their territory, (while they plan, the "head guy" says to his little assistant "we need a more permanent solution". Sound familiar?) The clerics pay Judas for his help. They don't just pay. They pay well. Why? Because they can. Because they have the money to pay for it.

These scenes in which the Jews are plotting and planning a murder are reminiscent of all those movies where the powerful king has an evil counselor bending his ear and controlling him. The counselor is always the evil demonic character who must die or be imprisoned by the end of the film in order to reach a happy end.

While I was looking through those scenes in search of a good image to add to the post, I noticed a subtle light shift going through the scene. When the "head guy" speaks and the "counselor" listens the faces are lit up and all expressions are visible. When the little guy opens his mouth, the scene becomes much darker. The scene is on YouTube here, in case you want to check it out:

To sum up, according to the film, what are the Jews? Rats. Snakes. Conniving plotters, murderers, power thirsty and fame hungry. It reminded me of all those Nazi newspaper caricatures I've seen in the Yad VaShem Museum. It actually physically hurt.

Now for the second part of the question. Whenever I have any thought or opinion, I always assume it's just me, and keep it to myself, the way a minority of one would. I felt very strongly about this subject, but said nothing, until Mary posted an article that reaffirmed my views. This is the reason I feel comfortable enough to do this post thing.

-         When we were discussing this issue and you said this is how Jews are portrayed in the New Testament, I was greatly surprised. I confess, I have never read the New Testament, and I didn't know it went back that far. Judaism has a lot of sects (or groups, or currents, I don't know what to call them), and each has its own version of religion. Being secular and atheist I don't know that much about versions of the Jesus story, aside from what being a part of a religious family and spending a year in a religious school could teach me. As far as I know, for Jews the bible ends at the end of the first part. The Jesus story doesn’t exist. In fact, I'm pretty sure in most religious communities here it's forbidden (as is the Qur'an).  

I wouldn't be so harsh on the New Testament for being a racist book. It was written as a sequel to the Jewish bible, and that book has racism written right into it. I've known quite a few religious Jews who are wise, enlightened, kind… and very racist, as a result of the bible. And the needle on the offensive meter goes to 100%…

To clarify: I work for an office that serves only the religious market, and a lot of the people I work with are wonderful people. However, they occasionally make the most racist comments in a very offhand way; as if they were absolute truths everyone has already acknowledged. I'm going to get killed over this, aren't I? 

As for how I'd like them to be portrayed – I have no idea. Probably less caricature-like. How would you like them to be portrayed? 

-         About the lyrics: I don't think the lyrics themselves are racist. Had I just heard the soundtrack, I would have had no problem with it. But having seen the film, I couldn't think of any way to represent it which isn't extremely racist. I honestly hope I’m completely visionless and the new production will not be racist at all, but I have strong doubts about that.

I think having a black Judas (am I allowed to use "black"? I don't mean to be offensive) can be seen as an anti-black thing. I love the character. I don't think they could have made Judas look any better than he did (even if he seemed a bit jealous of Jesus' success to me). Still, in spite of how "good" he is in the film, historically his character is the infinite backstabbing traitor no matter how you portray him. I think it doesn't matter how Judas is played, it's always going to seem to some people as an anti-whatever the person who played Judas was (so I suppose in this new production it'll be seen as anti-young white wealthy male. I don't think there's a term for that. White-ism?).

I have to say, before I'm remembered as the most negative person in the world by anyone reading this post that I can't see a way in which this musical can be completely without racism, due to the story it's based on. Besides that, I think the film is a masterpiece, I love the music, and I'm completely addicted to the soundtrack. Sorry for going on so long (and being offensive). I can't wait for the joke to happen; I know it'll be fun and funny.

Ori, I think your English is impressive, and is more eloquent than many native speakers (myself included)! I’m glad you are willing to write such a comprehensive explanation of your views! I only have minor disagreements, and those may be simply based on my ignorance. First, I thought that the masses of followers in the movie were considered Jews, and only Jesus’ apostles or close friends were considered Christians. I’m not sure if that is because they called Jesus “king of the Jews”, or if I just read that in a movie synopsis somewhere.  Either way, it is largely irrelevant, except that some people think the “masses” were considered fickle, first showering Jesus with affection, then later turning on him. But that seems to be other people’s complaint, not yours.

I see what you are saying about the black Judas, but I do not think casting a black actor for Judas was racist or even a bad idea. (I don’t think it’s offensive to say “black”, especially when the article we are referring to used the term “black”.) I think we should not even notice the skin color of the actor. Can you imagine if they had intentionally NOT made Judas black? If they had said, “Carl, nailed it. Your voice is incredible and you show such depth of character and would be perfect for this role, but we’re not going to have a black Judas.” THAT would be racist. Also, given that Judas is really the protagonist here, I think we should definitely try to move beyond any accusations of casting the black man as the evil character.

The things that interest me the most about your post, are the ways in which racism from all angles may be all around us, and we don’t even notice it, be it in the remarks of your coworkers, or in a sacred text, or in songs or in this film.  The fact that we don’t notice them isn’t just indicative of our ignorance or lack of sensitivity, it is a telling sign that what is imperceptible to some may be outright painful to others. When someone tells me something is hurtful, I want to be more aware of it now, even if I hadn’t noticed it before, and hope to not do things to contribute to that hurt. I was going to say it is also a way of saying the offended person is always right, but I don’t think this is an issue of right or wrong and it it’s not something that can be argued and intellectualized. It’s just an issue of empathy, and I thank you for helping me understand your feelings.

I'm never confident about my level of English around native English speakers. I doubt I'll ever get over that, but I'm glad this arrangement seems to have worked (and glad you think it's impressive. Thank you).

Regarding the masses: they started out mostly Jewish, but in the end they weren't. Since I can't back my understanding of the story with any real authority, I won't go into it. Suffice it to say - they were Jewish in the beginning (so was Jesus), and they didn't end up as a current of Judaism, but rather a completely separate religion. 

I agree with you that denying someone work because they're black is obviously racist, and I don't think they were anti-black when they chose him for the part. I just think it can easily be seen as anti-black by some people who aren't us. 

I completely agree with your statement about offensiveness. It's not about who's right or wrong, it's about how the people we communicate with feel about what we're saying, and how we choose to deal with it. If we don't want to offend people, we won't use certain words that offend them (or we will use those words, if we don't mind offending them so much).

Anyway, thank you for this invitation to co-post with you. I must admit I've never done anything like this before (I have an obscure blog somewhere, but I've never written anything opinionated in it. It was mostly for silly prose or trip updates), and I'm feeling a little afraid of what might happen as a result of some of the things I wrote. I'm sure everything will be ok, though. 

This was fun we should do it again sometime. 

If you're still with us, thanks for reading! Ori and I would love to hear thoughts on this subject and continue this discussion. Leave comments!! Big thanks to our friend, Cyn, for proofreading this for us, and helping us both with our less-than-perfect English.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

On Being Religious AND Secular (and maybe too concerned about labels)

I’ve been thinking about semantics lately, and the words “secularist” and “religious”.  I’ve been wondering if I am living in some sort of dichotomy or false dichotomy. Can I be religious and secularist (or is it just secular?) at the same time?  Yes, of course I can, but how do I explain that, especially when I think most people equate the word “secular” with “non-religious”?

Secular doesn’t just refer to non-religious. The AmericanHeritage Dictionary offers the deifinition,  “Relating to or advocating secularism”. Secularism, in turn, defined by the same source is “The view that religious considerations should be excluded from civil affairs or public education.”

UUs definitively support secularism. We even have a statement on the matter (of course)-

Religion and State

The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) has long expressed our support of the separation of church and state in relation to public education, partisan politics, free exercise and religious pluralism. For this reason, the UUA works to ensure that federal dollars are not used to fund religious discrimination, to combat government endorsement of religious beliefs, and to ensure freedom of religious expression.
Tim Minchin (somewhat) recently tweeted a couple videos about secularism and humanism. He is in the humanism one. The secularism one has a lot relating to British government, but I love that within the first minute, there is a thorough explanation of secularism as we UUs use it, AND it then clarifies that it benefits both the religious and non-religious and should be supported by atheists and believers alike, showing these various terms-

I love seeing the term “religious atheist” there. I recently changed my blog description to describe myself that way, and I worried I was making up some crazy term that no one would understand.
If you are interested in understanding more about secularism and humanism, these videos are good introductions or good summaries to share. Mary- the Universalist Unitarian Secular Humanist Religious Atheist

Humanism (with Tim Minchin)-