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August 12, 2011

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HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, AUGUST 12, 2011 By Michael Elkin Jewish Exponent Why are TV's Jews so... obnoxious? There they are, primed to offend on prime time TV: A rogue's gallery of mouths that roar and rub people the wrong way. Yoo-hoo. Mrs. Bloom! When did the nice Jews leave the TV neighborhood? Molly Goldberg would drop her brisket if she ever encoUn- tered Larry David of "Curb Your Enthusiasm." But then. would David's irritatingwhine over a wine glass placed on wood be as noxious if he weren't Jewish? It's not just TV; it's HBO: Could Ari Gold tarnish the Jewish imagewith his money- grabbing schemes and gut- tersnipe snipes at underlings (Lloyd) enslaved as his agency "Entourage"? These not so immacu- late conceptions cross the By Rabbi Rachel Esserman The (Vestal, N.Y.) Reporter What makes a calendar Jewish? There's no easy answer to this question, since Jewish calendars have changed greatly through- out the centuries. Currently, most pub- lished are formatted by the secular month, rather than the Hebrew one. This arrangement square boxes listing the secular and Hebrew dates was not the original design of these calendars. In her "Palaces of Time: Jewish Calendar and Culture in Early Modern Times" (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press), Elisheva Carlebach explores the cultural history of Jewish calendars as they evolved fi*om medieval times to the early modern period. To place their development in historical context, the author also discusses the cultural connections be- tween Jews and Christians, which greatly affected not only the calendars' design, but their content. The Jewish calendar is a solar-lunar one. While the Jewish months follow the phases of the moon (the new moon is the first day of the month), the Jewish year follows the solar cal- endar, since many Jewigla holidays are connected to the seas0n~, l~'or example, harvest festivals such as Shavuot and Sukkot must be celebrated at their ap- propriate time, something. not possible if using a purely lunar calendar. In order to adjust the calendar, a leap month is periodically added. The cal- oulations used to arrange the calendar including which years to add a month and whether or not a par- ticular month should have 28 or 29 days " were once kept secret. It was only in the .16th century that books (known as ibburim) explaining these calcula- tions were published. Car- lebach writes of the debates lfhat took place during this development, noting that different communities fol- Curb your.., obnoxiousness? Not that there's anything wrong with that. Or is there? Better question to ask: Is it good for the Jews? As Garry Shandling's Larry Sanders character--who had not so much a chip as a boulder on his shoulder--said: "It may not be good for anybody." I first started writing on the topic in 1980; back then, Jewish characters on TVwere more second bananas than top-billed characters. And even when they were in the main spotlight? Really, would "Barney Miller," the Tevye of TV top cops who left the precinct in 1982, ever have toldWojo to go backto Poland, or asked Sgt. Yemana for the recommendation of a good Chinese restaurant? Would cabbie Alex Rieger ever have given this trip of a tip to a fare: Drop dead, you #&*%! ~ure, there have been aberrations where braying Atlantic. too. In the latest case and craze of Jewish rites/wrongs of imagery, meet the Goodmans of BBC America's "Friday Night Din- ner," whose Shabbat meals are minced with more sour grapes than a bottle of kosher concord left open to breathe too long. Take a breath. TV Jews. Or as Shylock said: "If you tickle us, do we not laugh?" Yes, he actually said it. You can look it up. But has the tickle feath- ered animus in non-Jewish viewers? And then, of course, there was "Seinfeld," whose preen- ing cocky contempt for finder- dogs and overachievers led to a jail term. Surely, he never got of f early for good behavior. "Seinfeld" may have per- petuated the urban miff that New Yorkers--or, as Midwesterners called them, "Jews'--are rude, crude and, at times, lewd. Jewish time and brash characters" have been portrayed lovingly: Fran Drescher, after all, made "The Nanny" a welcome Jewish in- terloper into American homes from 1993 to1999, lowering the boom on her boss while raising his children. But raising hell? The new millennium seems to have milked the human kindness out of the brash "big Jew" (as David would call the ar- chetype). But maybe it's not all that bad; maybe, after all these as- similated years, Jews of today just no longer fear coming out of the closet, shelving the timid types as they had once been portrayed. And if the pendulum has swung so far to the other side? Eventually, images, likewater, seek their own level even if that level may seem a bit too carbonated with crassness currently. What ya gonna do, call the ADL? Well, yes, that.s what I lowed different calendar customs, something that created controversy when calendars were being stan- dardized. The first printed calen- dars (luchot) looked very different from contempo- rary calendars. Instead of being arranged in block format, information was printed in columns, which offered not only the Hebrew date, but other data, includ- ing tables listing sunsets and sunrises, blessings for the new moon and, in at least one case, "instruc- tions for koshering meat." These calendars also fea- tured the dates of Christian holidays~ and the market fairs held in different EuL ropean cities. Carlebach notes how "Jews could not afford to be ignorant of [Christian religious and economic cycles]; their livelihoods and sometimes their ve,ry lives depended on knowing where they could venture to trade, and when it was safe to appear." For example, Jews were forbid- den to conduct business on Christian holy days, with a fine being the least of the punishments offered. The weeks before Passover and Easter were a particu- larly dangerous time since "Christians would accuse Jews of ritually murder- ing Christian childre~n, of needing Christian blood to bake their matzah, or of desecrating the sacred Host .and causing it to suffer and bleed." Carlebach ghows how the Jewish world and the Christian world overlapped more than one might have expected, even though some would have preferred the two groups to remain completely separate. For example, clergy from both~ sides--Christian and Jew- ish--sought to keep the members of their Congre- gations from having any type of relationship, be it business or social. The rab- bis passed laws forbidding Jews from doing business with pagans, and then Christians, not only on the day of a festival, but several days before, in case. their did. And Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL. had his own thoughts on the topic. "I don't think the por- trayal of Jewish characters has changed all that much over the last three decades," he contends. "What has changed is the level of acceptability for crude satire and irrever- ence," he adds, citing "Curb" as an example which, "when it comes to stereotypes, is an equal- opportunity offender." Should Jews be playing defense? "We may feel un- comfortable at times with their sense of humor and their invoking of stereotypes for laughs," says Foxman. "but for the most part we hope that the audience understands where they are coming from, and is in on the joke." No need to kick David to the curb: "We know that David's character sees no need for social graces, has no filter, and the situations he's put into are completely over the top." All alone at the top? He's got company after all. "His come@," adds the ADL's top exec, "is in the tradition of Mel Brooks. Lenny Bruce and Woo@ Allen, but also takes it far beyond where they might have been willing to go. "Then. every once and a while, as inevitably happens. we do express our concern and raise the flag of sensitivity." Star-spangled banter that goes too far? "It sometimes isn't funny. It is j ust offensive." "Seinfeld" never went as far as David did in this season's third episode of "Curb" when he was torn between two lovers--the, physically phe- nomenal Pales.tinian woman/ chicken restaurateur whose fearsome foreplay shout-outs called for Israel's destruction; and his Jewish friends on the picket line deriding the es: tablishment of her restaurant next door to a Jewish dell. wares would be used during worship. Christian clergy disliked having Jews attend "fairs (which were usually cel- ebrated on Christian holy days and saints' days), fear- ing that Jewish Participation would profane the holidays. However, secular authori- ties welcomed not only the products Jewish merchants sold, but the taxes charged on Jewish attendees. behind these choices, in addition to showing how illustrations used included not only those with serious meanings (such as portray- als of the gates to heaven), but humorous ones (a man mooning viewers). "Palaces of Time" serves as an excellent overview of awide variety of topics con- nected to the development of the Jewish calendar. While at times it can be difficult to Carlebach's work includes grasp how different parts descriptions of the many drawings and illustrations found in printed calendars and calendar manuscripts. (It also offer's numerous examples of these for those unable to visualize how this material looked.) For example, the changes of season (known as tequf0t) feature drawings based on biblical and rabbinical stories: Abraham holding a knife to sacrifice Isaac (fall), Jephthah sacrificing his daughter (winter), Moses and Aa.ron turning the Nile to blood (spring) and blood flowing from a rock hit by Moses (summer). The author discusses the symbolism of the material relate to each other, this is a minor quibble for a book that accomplishes so much. In fact, the sec- tions discussing European culture and the Jewish place within it make fascinating reading in their own right, even for those not interested in the Jewish calendar. That material had the greatest impact on this reader and makes "Palaces of Time" perfect for those interested in Jewish medieval and early modern history. Rabbi Rachel Esserman is the executive editor of The Reporter Group. She can be reached at rachel@ PAGE 13A Not that I'm picking on David; I consider the writer/ actor/producer's "Curb" bril- liant TV performance art that pricks stereotypes even if it's a fictional schmuck--the character Larry David, not the genuine genius who is his alter ego--who appears to encourage them. Not for nothing--well, he did co-create "Seinfeld"--is David rightfully applauded at once as both comedy icon and iconoclast. But maybe I've got it all wrong if one is to believe David's position: "I don't think the show is for Jews, just as I don't think 'Sein- feld' was for Jews. 1 don't feel that it's a Jewish show at all," stated before me and other TV critics gathered in Los Angeles. He'd probably get along fine with Ari Gold (played by Jer- emy Pivens), the vituperative and vindictive Jewish snake- in-the-broken glass whose "Entourage" is a proper c~us- tic companion to "Curb" on HBO's Sunday-night schedule ofl~et-the-hell-out-of-my-way ogres. Sign me up as a judge if the two ever have a hissing contest. But. then, their clownish behavior has some good com- pany to bark about under the big tent housing atl: Krusty the Clown. the overdrawn Jewish schpritz of a comic who big-foots his way into everybody's business on Fox's "The Simpsons," is simply sensational, too, joining the other pie-in-your-face comic cretins. On the one hand, he's a cartoon. But, on the other hand: Aren't they all? 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