Monday, June 20, 2011

Do Jews hate pie?

I've just begun the second season of "Twin Peaks," which I'd somehow missed when it was new, apparently because it was on the same time as "Cheers," which either I or those who controlled the television when I was a young child preferred. After a touch of disorientation during the pilot (what are Mr. and Mrs. Ross, Susan's parents, doing in the woods?) I've really gotten into it.

So I was struck by the arrival of forensics expert and "city slicker" named Albert Rosenfield, whose job is to help fellow "city slicker" FBI agent Dale Cooper (played by a youngish Kyle MacLachlan, sigh) solve a small-town Washington State murder. Brash, rude, and, if we're going to go by the Sheldon-of-"Big-Bang-Theory" school of mental diagnoses of television characters, somewhere on a spectrum, Albert's favorite thing in the world is telling the good folks of Twin Peaks that they're inept morons, at times comparing them to non-human animals. Dale, meanwhile, has fallen for the town, for its rustic, don't-make-'em-like-they-used-to charms. This, despite the fact that the town's a sordid place, far more violence per capita than a big city, I'd bet, but I suppose this is the whole Lynch/MacLachlan thing where the dark underside adds to the charm. Dale especially likes the town's coffee and pie, which seems reasonable, and no, I'm not being sarcastic.

Anyway, whereas both Dale and Albert are outsiders in Twin Peaks, Albert's the outsider. We certainly can't fault the locals for despising him, given that his attitude towards them is a bit like Benedikt's husband's towards Jews who have not sworn eternal anti-Zionism.* They don't hate him because his name is Rosenfield. They hate him because he's being an ass.

What we can look at critically is the choice to give a Jewish-sounding name to the urbanite who just doesn't get Real America, never has, never will. My question, then, is not whether the show is anti-Semitic, but whether this perhaps tells us something about the extent to which Jews are viewed, in contemporary America (the 1990s weren't that long ago), as the very epitome of Unwholesome America. (Last discussed in the comments here.) It's not that any number of other groups - yuppies, gays, etc. - don't exist in big cities and or not associated with big cities. It's that Jews are shorthand for "big cities" in a way that these other groups are not. Thus explaining why Jews might hear a dog-whistle operating when Palin, etc., hold forth on the Real America.

Granted, "Twin Peaks" is just one show, and a not-so-recent one at that. Nothing has been proven once and for all. Although I will say that my first thought re: the "Seinfeld" connection was that Susan's parents were cast from "Twin Peaks" precisely because they would, for 1990s viewers, have represented precisely the Wholesome America that George's parents, the Costanzas, did not. Oh, and the whole "log cabin" situation.

*See, I told you Benedikt's essay had a Chua-like staying power!

31 comments:

Withywindle said...

But it's a TV show, and TV Writers are not remotely unvarnished windows into the Mind of Real America. (I think I've made a similar comment on a similar post in the past.) This is evidence that needs a whole lots of asterisks and qualifiers.

Phoebe said...

Withywindle,

Several points:

-This post included a disclaimer about this being a TV show, and not a recent one at that.

-That said, the show's creator had what Wikipedia tells me was a pretty Real American upbringing. Montana! Idaho! Washington! Perhaps we might give David Lynch the benefit of the doubt in terms of understanding how a "Rosenfield" would be perceived in a small town in the Northwest. Nothing - not TV, not literature, not even memoir - is "unvarnished," but there's less varnish here than if, say, you or I had up and speculated on this.

-But let's say you want to be super-skeptical. Surely others were involved with the show's creation, plus it had to sell as a TV show, etc. But what possible motivation would the show's creators have had for making Albert a "Rosenfield"? It's never spelled out that this character's supposed to be Jewish. The character is not one whom "coastal elite" TV-show creators would identify with. And, again, the town residents are in no way portrayed as anti-Semitic (which one might expect they'd be, if we're going along with the 'this is just the imagination of coastal elites, who imagine Real America to be filled with neo-Nazis). It's much more subtle than that - it's about Jews as incapable of meshing with one version of America, not about slurs, etc.

Anyway, if you absolutely refuse to consider the possibility that a TV show could shed light on this issue, have a look at this recent bloggy exchange between two real people (one of whom I especially know is real, as we went to college together).

Withywindle said...

I had thought the disclaimer had been that Twin Peaks was just one show, not that it was a show at all ...

And your compare-and-contrast thoughts on My Cousin Vinny?

It's true that it's a little odd that no-one in The Room said anything about the name Rosenfield. Perhaps The Members of the Room empathized with looking down on small-town life, and so didn't dislike the character? But that's idle & baseless speculation; all I can really say is, ayup, that's a little odd.

I didn't say a TV show says nothing; but I'd be hesitant about drawing strong conclusions.

I think if I commented on that blog exchange, I open myself to commenting about individual people in ways that lend themselves toward me being (more than usually) jerky. May I ask your analysis of the relevant parts of the blog exchange?

Nicholas said...

I'm prepared to disagree with you on your interpretation of Albert and his significance in the series (including his status as an outsider and what that means for the plot), but I'm not sure how far you are through season 2. Spoilers are probably necessary to make the case.

Withywindle said...

Oh, yeah: I never saw the show. So I'm just going on what you say about it.

Phoebe said...

Withywindle,

"I had thought the disclaimer had been that Twin Peaks was just one show, not that it was a show at all ..."

Technically yes, I suppose you're right, but I'd think it was implied that neither I nor anyone else sensible would think it possible to determine precisely how Jews are seen in Real America (or to figure out any other social issue) on the basis even of a whole bunch of TV shows.

Nicholas,

I've gotten to the part where he declares himself a pacifist, and the rest are all, 'that was weird,' and then they move on to something else. I'm curious to see what could possibly happen later that would negate the choice to make the most outsidery urban outsider "Rosenfield," but I'll have to wait and see!

Nicholas said...

Yeah, his monologue was part of what I had in mind. As you say, Twin Peaks is a pretty sordid place, and a violent place. Albert's certainly an outsider, I'm just not sure being an outsider is meant to be read as bad in this instance.

Phoebe said...

Oh, also, Withywindle,

Never saw "My Cousin Vinny," so no thoughts on that, compare or contrast.

Re: the blog exchange, some of it seems very personal, and as a college classmate of one and a perfect stranger to the other, some is going over my head. If I understand correctly, it's the blog of two writing-grad-school acquaintances who don't quite like each other - "frenemies" - but don't quite get the dynamic (frenemies, yes, but how they'd come to agree to have a blog about this, not as much), nor have I read enough to quite get where the one of the two I've never met is coming from demographically, since there seems to be a conflict stemming in part from type of upbringing, cultural background, etc.

My sense of this particular exchange was that a city-mouse-country-mouse conflict was playing itself out in terms of one being Jewish and (according to the other) too outspokenly so, and the other not. The two went on vacation together to a small town in the Midwest, and are now analyzing the conflict as it played out on their trip.

Sheera, if you're reading this, by all means weigh in!

Nicholas,

"I'm just not sure being an outsider is meant to be read as bad in this instance."

True enough, and this is part of why I explicitly didn't pose the question in terms of anti-Semitism. The question's not whether we're meant to think that Twin Peaks is wholesome and delightful (quite obviously not!), but whether the show uses "Jew" as shorthand for "city mouse."

Andrew Stevens said...

Lynch's background as a very young child is itinerant. It is unlikely he remembers very much of Idaho or Washington and nothing at all of Montana (which is simply where he was born). Lynch's real formative years were spent just outside D.C. and in Philadelphia. Moreover, David Lynch isn't representative of anybody. The man is sui generis. Mark Frost, the other writer, was born in NYC and grew up in LA and, based on what I know of both men's writing, I would guess that Albert is his character, not Lynch's, though Lynch certainly could have named him, regardless, since they wrote the script together.

The writers were clearly quite fond of Albert - he got all the best lines. For what it's worth, although now that you point it out the name does make it obvious, it never really occurred to me that Albert was meant to be Jewish and I've seen Twin Peaks half a dozen times over the years. This is probably because he's played by Miguel Ferrer.

Flavia said...

To add another possible data point:

As I recall, the Big City outsider in Northern Exposure (another early '90s show shot--although this time not set--in my home state!) was also at least implicitly Jewish: Dr. Joel Fleischman, from New York City.

Andrew Stevens said...

Joel was explicitly Jewish. It was prominently mentioned in many episodes. But so was the actor playing him. Not clear if they cast the actor because the character was Jewish or made the character Jewish for the actor. Both writers of Northern Exposure are big city guys (NYC and New Haven), though I don't think either of them are Jewish themselves.

Andrew Stevens said...

Read that exchange you pointed out. Saw that Emily was worried about being murdered by militia and immediately questioned her "country mouse"-ness. (This is not the sort of thing that concerns people who grew up in the area.) Turns out she was born in LA and raised in California and British Columbia. Don't know how big the cities she was raised in were, but it's highly unlikely she is a "country mouse."

So I think we do have one common thread - it is very common for people from big cities and the coasts to think that small town America is a hotbed of racism and anti-Semitism.

Phoebe said...

Let me attempt to steer this more in the direction I'd hoped:

The issue at hand is not anti-Semitism. I'm asking to what extent Jews are used as shorthand for "urban." No value judgement implied. (Indeed, with the case of Twin Peaks, as Nicholas points out, Real America does not always = wholesome. Real America as wholesome and urban America as a beacon of tolerance are both clichés. Although perhaps some urbanites who grew up gay in small towns would beg to differ re: the latter.)

Where anti-Semitism can enter into it is when someone like Palin decides to hold forth on the superiority of small-town America or the non-coastal regions. When doubt is cast on the possibility to raise a family right in huge swaths of the country. If, in the popular imagination, the cityfolk outsider is a Jew, then yes, it makes sense that Jews might be uncomfortable with Real America talk, and might not respond with, 'hey, it's OK, why there's this one Jew in Idaho, so obviously what's meant isn't Jews, per se.'

Phoebe said...

Andrew,

Lynch was born in what we agree is "country" and later lived in more urban environments, so to you he's city. Blogger Emily was born in L.A. and later lived in what could well have been small towns, if coastal-ish, and she, too, is city. (A friend of mine from small-town Nebraska has told me of experiences similar to the militia-fear one Emily recounts. Same as people from cities can, while in cities, fear urban violence.) How much of a burden of proof is there for someone to count as a "country mouse"?

In terms of Twin Peaks more specifically, it strikes me that many Americans - including plenty of New Yorkers! - grow tired of shows always being set in NY. But if - and this is the impression I get from you as well as Withywindle - TV shows are inherently suspect in their treatment of non-NYC America, if by definition anyone who creates a show is "coastal," whatever their background, what answer could possibly be satisfactory? It strikes me that a show that was at least directed/co-created by someone who has some experience of a bunch of not-at-all-NY places, choosing to hone in on one of them, is as good as it's going to get, and is a whole lot better than yet another show like "Rules of Engagement," about a group of yuppies who do not in a million years seem like they live in NY, yet in NY it must be set, because: sitcom!

Andrew Stevens said...

My main point about Emily was that she didn't seem to know the area the two were in any better than her vacation partner. Her opinion of what they might think about being too loud about one's Jewishness doesn't seem like it's worth much. I might very well be interested in her opinion on anti-Semitism in British Columbia.

Lynch may very well acquaint Jewishness with city, because he came from small towns and didn't know any Jews and then moved to cities where (I'm guessing) he met lots of them. I doubt that this is much evidence in favor of the proposition that small town people generally think city = Jews. (By the by, if you were making the claim that Palin's message was coded anti-black racism, I'd actually be pretty sympathetic. I have met people who think city = urban crime = blacks.) And I imagine there are very few genuinely small town or rural folks who write TV shows. Even the ones who are from small town or rural areas are almost always going to come from that minority of small town/rural folks who hate the place they grew up in and dream about escaping and writing for a TV show some day.

I believe that Sarah Palin's "real America" comment was terribly bigoted and offensive (what could be more American than New York?), not against Jews or blacks specifically, but against urban dwellers generally. I find the entire dialogue in the U.S. about city/rural to be terribly bigoted and offensive on both sides. At least part of the reason why Sarah Palin's bigotry against urban folks is so popular is because small town/rural folks have been watching bigotry against them from Hollywood, television, and the major news outlets for at least the last sixty years.

Britta said...

Phoebe-
What about Roseanne? That show is about as Middle America as TV shows can get--small town Illinois, working class family, beer, football, etc. and Roseanne Barr is Jewish, as is her character. It's not really made a big deal of in the show (and they do celebrate Christmas, but no Jewish holidays), though she does bring it up in passing in the show at one point.

Phoebe said...

Andrew,

"My main point about Emily was that she didn't seem to know the area the two were in any better than her vacation partner."

Right. Because being from one small town doesn't mean automatically 'getting' another, perhaps in a region very different from your own.

"I have met people who think city = urban crime = blacks."

I don't think these things are mutually exclusive. As I understood "Real America," it was something that, among other things, sounded like affirmation of whichever prejudices her listeners might have, whatever they were most anxious about, whether the issue for them happened to be blacks, gays, etc.

But! But! As you wrote: "At least part of the reason why Sarah Palin's bigotry against urban folks is so popular is because small town/rural folks have been watching bigotry against them from Hollywood, television, and the major news outlets for at least the last sixty years." And which demographic, might I ask, is associated with Hollywood and the news media? Who are the 'media elites'? Not blacks. While I'd be the first to agree that racism against blacks in the U.S. still is and always has been incomparably more of an issue than anti-Semitism, in this case, resentment is about, if not Jews specifically, a bunch of code words that add up to as much.

" Even the ones who are from small town or rural areas are almost always going to come from that minority of small town/rural folks who hate the place they grew up in and dream about escaping and writing for a TV show some day."

Well, yes, which is what I was getting at when I was asking under what circumstances you or Withywindle would consider a TV show acceptable, if they all either promote "coastal elites" or are stories told with a convert's zeal by the ex-rural.

Britta,

I knew Roseanne the actress was Jewish, but don't remember this about her character. I've watched a good amount of the show, not all episodes by any means, and do remember thinking (probably b/c Christmas) Roseanne the character was Christian. Google gives her (the character, that is) a Jewish father and Lutheran mother. Because the U.S. tends not to operate on the one-drop system when it comes to Jews, if there's no Jewish last name and no cultural or religious Judaism (that is, if you're not Ben Stiller), Roseanne-the-character is basically just white.

Anyway, this discussion's making me think of the non-NY (and also non-Brit) show I've watched the most, namely "Designing Women." The creator seems to meet my commenters' authenticity test, and, while I can't of course say how those from the South would find it, it wasn't at all a show about a place one had the sense the show's creator was happy to have escaped from. (From Wikipedia: "Bloodworth-Thomason founded The Claudia Foundation in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, in the Bloodworth House. The organization supports young people, particularly young women, with scholarships and with opportunities for community services and positions in the arts industry." Not exactly running off and forgetting where she came from.)

Withywindle said...

Phoebe: My Cousin Vinny is about an urban Italian-American in small-town America. It would be interesting to see what you thought about the similarities and differences.

My larger points would be relatively banal: 1) that the persistence of an image in a literary genre has no necessary correlation with sociology; 2) indeed, that the strength of a literary image argues against it being taken as sociology; 3) that ambiguity and multiple-meaning are ubiquitous; and 4) reader reception is difficult to determine. Following these strictures, of course, leads one to be dull and to avoid the truths of simplification; still, I do think you might genuflect a little bit more toward these banalities.

So if you’re Jewish and suburban, are you city mouse or country mouse?

Andrew: There are, or were, enough migrants from small towns to cities that I imagine they actually make a large demographic, as many of whom wish to be comforted in their exile as wish to be comforted with sentimental portrayals of their home. Though have I mentioned watching a few years ago a Three’s Company episode where they go to visit the farm of one of the blonde’s uncles? What struck me was that ca. 1980 it was reasonable that a random city person might have an uncle with a farm; I suspect the numbers by now are much larger, that the stereotypes of country living have a far more attenuated dollop of personal experience.

Withywindle said...

Numbers by now are much smaller. And blondes', not blonde's.

sheera said...

Hey Phoebe,

I did indeed quickly just catch up re: what's going on here. I'm still a bit sore from the trip/that particular comment/everything to weigh in on the broader issue in a meaningful manner, but I'll say what I know. First, the whole "watch your Jewish back" business is something that my father, and only my father, in a very old world paranoid display has the right to say to me. That's not a comment that a friend or enemy or frenemy should make, and it particularly bothers me because it treats my Jewishness as both immutable and, well, problematic. It also unrelatedly pisses me off because the implicit suggestion is that I, city gal that I am, have no idea what I'm doing when I'm outside my comfort zone. In fact, if any militiamen had had the courtesy to ask, I welcomed murder.

I can also clarify that I have no idea how it started, except that our mutual hatred ebbed a year or two post-MFA. Emily sent me messages, we caught up, and it was all sort of not unpleasant. Then I made mention of a blog idea of the same name where I explain my notion of friendship dealbreakers as well as personal flaws that prevent others from befriending me. So the blog was not something either of us conceived of 'all along,' but rather something that just sort of happened. Perhaps we should say more in the "about" section.

And finally, though I've never seen Twin Peaks [despite how it excites the devotion of a few actual (I have those) friends], I can say that people at UChicago always assumed I was from New York. Unfailingly. I grew up in Houston.

My friend Joe, on the other hand, is Jewish, grew up in a small town, and thinks its inhabitants largely anti-Semitic. But these anti-Semites exist in cities too, I bet, and anyway, nobody happened to lynch me in the Upper Peninsula.

---

Withywindle,

I hope I'm not the individual who inspires your (feelings of) jerkiness. Alas, the blog is all touchy and irritating to its authors too. Some days I just want to post a stream of obscenities.

Feel free to comment. Creative writers are used to rejection. Creative writers from UChicago are really used to rejection.

-st

Withywindle said...

All personal comment is invidious. I'll sharpen my claws elsewhere.

How do you feel about Kinky Friedman?

sheera said...

Personal comment, impersonal comment, constructive criticism, or, as my mom likes to put forth, "nonjudgmental concerns."

I feel his name is absurd, but I suppose you might be looking for something else. The Jewish Texan thing? I feel no connection to Texas -- I grew up there, but my parents are Israeli. 'Worst of every world'=joke in heavy rotation.

-st

Withywindle said...

Texas-Israeli? I have your summer light reading.

Phoebe said...

Before responding, I think now's as good a time as any to mention in this thread that my sense of how Jews are understood in various parts of the country isn't entirely theoretical. I have indeed left NY on occasion, and I met folks from all over in college, and without prompting, I often got an earful. One of the more memorable earfuls - one that specifically brought up my being from New York, hint hint, the 'hint hint' from the phrasing and tone of my interlocutor - came from a classmate from a town that in size and location would have had something in common with fictional Twin Peaks. More anecdotes I won't go into because they'd require too much background detail of an overshare or just plain boring nature. But the point is, this wasn't (necessarily) about negativity towards Jews, just about an expectation that we'd all be some cross between Woody Allen, Einstein, and a belly dancer.

Withywindle,

"My larger points would be relatively banal: 1) that the persistence of an image in a literary genre has no necessary correlation with sociology [...] still, I do think you might genuflect a little bit more toward these banalities."

And I wish that you, in turn, would give the blogger the benefit of the doubt, when it comes to things in the realm of the obvious. As in, obviously I don't think one can figure out once and for all how Jews are viewed in small-town America by one or even all television shows, and obviously I don't believe "the persistance of an image in a literary genre should be taken as proof of on-the-ground, sociological realities. If I were really of the Kay Hymowitz, it happened on Sex and the City so it must be true, school, I suspect you wouldn't be commenting in the first place.

That established... I would not agree with you that there's no relationship between, for example, what a Jew represents on "Twin Peaks"/in Twin Peaks and how Jews are perceived in small towns in America. There are limits to what can be learned via representations alone, and if I were systematically researching even just those representations, I'd also want to have, as background, some other data - surveys, interviews, rates of anti-Jewish crime, rates of intermarriage, etc. But the fact remains that clichés both repeat what people already think and act themselves to perpetuate notions the reader/viewer might not have already had. They don't operate, as you suggest, in a sphere entirely removed from what people actually believe/experience.

Re: "Twin Peaks" specifically, as I responded to Andrew, we have no reason to think the choice of "Rosenfield" was for anything but realism. He's portrayed in a way that makes neither the creators nor the town's residents seem anti-Semitic, nor is he in some way celebrated, as if to say, look at the tolerance in a small town. The salient things about him are: big-city, rough-around-the-edges.

Phoebe said...

Sheera,

"people at UChicago always assumed I was from New York. Unfailingly. I grew up in Houston."

Other readers, I promise Sheera is not a character on a TV show. Can we count this as a piece of evidence? I'll also toss in that I once managed to surprise someone at UChicago by not being from the expected neighborhood in NY.

"That's not a comment that a friend or enemy or frenemy should make, and it particularly bothers me because it treats my Jewishness as both immutable and, well, problematic. It also unrelatedly pisses me off because the implicit suggestion is that I, city gal that I am, have no idea what I'm doing when I'm outside my comfort zone."

See, I don't see these two things as unrelated. To get back to Withywindle's question re: whether a suburban Jew is city or country, I believe the way it works is, a suburban Jew is "city," even if that suburb is not in a coastal state. Meanwhile, (white) non-Jews have far more leeway in terms of self-definition, and can come from virtually anywhere other than NYC and claim folksiness, and, whatever it is they claim, will not get people randomly telling them they're from New York.

Anyway, thanks for the clarification re: your blog. It's certainly an interesting concept.

sheera said...

Phoebe,

I see where you're coming from, though my point was that the patronizing element was two-fold and not necessarily linked by frenemy.

Also, if indeed your 'evidence' is anecdotal, there's much more where that came from. The Jew as Intellectual prototype certainly overwhelms the Jew as Farmer, each in its most obvious setting.

In any case, hope you're doing well and congratulations on recent marital status change on Facebook!

Withywindle,

Ha. And: "2 parts Mad Max + 1 part Yom Kippur War."

Everyone else,

I am not a character on a TV show. If I were, I'd like to be on Parks and Recreation, as the lone Indiana Jew.

Withywindle said...

Phoebe: "no necessary correlation" is not the same as "no relationship."

I don't think of you as ignoring the banalities, but still as consistently more Hymowitzian (to use your referent) than makes me comfortable with or persuaded by your arguments. The critique is "on a scale of 1 to 100, I think you might shift from 45 to 55"; not "you have been Off; you must switch On." I speak for the -t-r-e-e-s- the silent majority of peer reviewers, so I conjure you to beware my opinion, for, truly, it is Representative.

Phoebe said...

Withywindle,

"I speak for the -t-r-e-e-s- the silent majority of peer reviewers, so I conjure you to beware my opinion, for, truly, it is Representative."

Not sure where you're going with this. No way in a million years would I submit something along the lines of this blog post - speculation on the basis of one TV show from 1990 - to a journal. (Which is, maybe, where you're going with this?) Remember the bit where I mention all the other angles one would have to cover if fully dealing with the questions my post brings up?

Withywindle said...

A jeu d'esprit.

Phoebe said...

Withywindle,

Fair enough.

Sheera,

Thanks for the congrats! All is well, but will be better still (and no doubt less bloggy) when my husband and I are on the same continent.

PG said...

First, the whole "watch your Jewish back" business is something that my father, and only my father, in a very old world paranoid display has the right to say to me.

My father is intensely Republican and thinks Muslims in America are getting off relatively easily for what their co-religionists do, so I still feel surprised on the rare occasions when he indicates there's racism or religious bigotry in my hometown. I knew there was, because I'd had to be a kid of Very Tiny Minority status in that town, but it's startling and kind of scary -- in that "my father used to lift me way up over his head and therefore he ought to be invulnerable" way -- when he casually acknowledges that some of his colleagues were racist toward him. Then there's the black humor (pun unintended) about how towns in this area used to have signs for the out-of-town Negroes to "be gone before sunset."