Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Shut up, Shylock

Anti-semitism was a joke in my house when I growing up--literally. My parents firmly believed that anti-Semitism in the US had ceased to be a major problem and were irked that many Jews seemed to base so much of their Jewish identity on fighting it, or just being offended by it. So, if we suffered some kind of minor mishap (the mail was late, my brother couldn't find his left shoe, etc.), and complained, the answer to our childish "Why?" was a smirky "anti-Semitism." I still tell this joke to TH and close friends today.

I think that anti-Semitism was, and still is, both over- and underestimated. On over-estimating, see everything related to the ADL. I am not saying that anti-Semitism is gone, but its prevalence and power depend a lot on context, which is a pretty post-1950 phenomenon. If that American coke fiend Charlie Sheen wants to make anti-Semitic comments about his boss's name change (never mind that Sheen was born with the last name "Estevez"), who cares? He said he was a warlock, so obviously he is not exactly in his right mind. Muammar Gaddafi in Libya is a much bigger problem because he has all those weapons and not a lot to lose right now. But both of them were using anti-Semitic speech to attempt to distract others from their actual problems, as is often the case with anti-Semitic speech, and the Jews are the least of those problems. If Gaddafi is going to use those weapons on anyone, it's not going to be the Jews, at least not initially. The anti-Semitism of Hamas and Hezbollah and the publication of works in the Arab world that perpetuate the blood libel are almost unspeakably bad.

The distinction between these different kinds of anti-Semitism may be the hardest to draw in the US precisely BECAUSE this is such a safe country for Jews. What pisses me off about this, though, is that all of the political correctness and anti-Semitic-speech-watching pervading American media today (if I have to hear one more word about that freak British designer and HIS rant, I may scream), is that people can no longer tell the difference between real anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic speech by cokehead lunatics. I'm not saying that the latter can never be a problem, but it's obviously not as big a problem as serious anti-Semitism, or even the casual purveying of old anti-Semitic stereotypes that still have real salience for some people, especially outside the US, and especially in the Arab world.

This brings me to The Merchant of Venice. As you know, faithful readers, unless you have been living under a rock, the play was revived this summer to rave reviews, first as part of NYC's free Shakespeare in the park, and then on Broadway. Al Pacino played Shlock. A mere week or two after the Pacino Merchant closed, a new one opened off-Broadway, starring F. Murray Abraham. TH asked if I wanted to go to the off-Broadway version, since we were willing neither to sleep overnight in Central Park nor to pay hundreds and hundreds of dollars for the Broadway version.

I said no. Why?

Well, The Merchant of Venice is one of the most anti-Semitic plays ever written. It is, by a factor of a lot, the most anti-Semitic work of literature that is still read and interpreted seriously in the Western world. AND NOBODY SEEMS TO KNOW IT. One need look no further for evidence of this ignorance than the New York Times's review of the off-Broadway/F. Murray Abraham Merchant of Venice. Under a picture of FMA in an expensive suit, holding a dagger over a captive blond personifying WASP-hood (how many of those do you think there were in Renaissance Venice, btw?), Charles Isherwood chatters on blithely about how the play captures the conflicting forces of good and evil that vie for dominance in every human heart. Never mind that earlier in the article, Isherwood said that the play's "modern dress" is "evoking the bottom-line-obsessed world of today's Wall Street."

So, let me get this straight, Mr. Isherwood. A play by William Shakespeare, who did not exactly live in the heyday of the tolerance of Jews, in which the main character is an evil Jewish moneylender, is being revived on the New York stage with a Jewish actor dressed like a Wall Street trader demanding a pound of flesh from a non-Jew, and I am supposed to focus on its universal themes? We are not very far away from the economic crisis and the calls on Main Street, U.S.A., for the heads of the bankers, especially from Goldman Sachs. (I don't care what you think; I still maintain that Matt Taibi's widely-read Rolling Stone article, then book, on the subject was anti-Semitic). Where are we in the Jewish community when we can scream our heads off about Charlie Sheen and then skip off to our Jew-sploitation theater performance when we're done? I, personally, am comforted to know that there are no mosques within ten blocks of the theater. Because that could be problematic.


Anonymous said...

The phrase - "Merchant of Venice" anti-semitism - gets 82,300 google hits (with another 20, 400 for "Merchant of Venice" anti-semitic). You're hardly the first person to raise this concern. Part of the reason why people "chatter on blithely" about other themes is because they're attempting to say something about the play that ISN'T about anti-Semitism.

Also: I haven't heard about the new off-B adaptation, but in general, there are many more nuanced ways of reading the play than you present here.

Anonymous said...

You may, of course, disagree with those readings. But at least you'd be engaging the play, as opposed to dazzling us with the amazing hiddush that MoV is problematic.

katrina said...

@Anonymous (or Anonymi?): My point was not that MoV is problematic. I know that it is, and that other Jews realize that it is; hence the lack of claim to hidush. My point was that in the general non-Jewish world, there are claims (by NYT reviewers, by Shakespeare scholars) that whether MoV is anti-Semitic is a tough question with valid arguments on both sides. I think that some Jews, the ones who "chatter on blithely" have bought into that "maybe MoV isn't really anti-Semitic, or is open to interpretation re: whether it's anti-Semitic," and I think they should know better.