Jewish Journal


November 30, 2006

Michael Richards:  Still not a Jew


There's a civil war brewing in Lebanon, missiles sizzle on their launch pads in Gaza; death and doom stalk Iraq; the earth's climate speeds toward collapse; and Iran is five days closer to going nuclear than it was before my Thanksgiving holiday began.

And when I return to work, what does the whole world seem to be wondering? Hey, is Michael Richards Jewish?

Richards is the former "Seinfeld" star who was videotaped at the Laugh Factory in West Hollywood lashing out at hecklers using the N-word.

He's been making the usual Stations of the Media Cross, apologizing ever since. And from the beginning, somehow Richards' Jewishness, or lack of it, became an issue.

Comedian Paul Rodriguez held a press conference at the Laugh Factory, saying that Richards should know better, because the Hollywood community defended Jews against actor Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic tirades.

The implication was that Richards, a Jew, should not be launching racist attacks.

Black leaders, self-proclaimed and otherwise, told journalists that they'd be watching to see whether Hollywood reacted as strongly to Richards' racist outburst as they did to Gibson.

How proud Mel must be that the intensity of Hollywood hate speech is now measured in Gibsons.

But if Gibson himself set the standard at 10 Gibsons, Richards is probably closer to a 5. He never made a full-length feature film shot through with vicious stereotypes. He never stood by a kooky Holocaust denier. And when he vented, he vented onstage in the course of an act.

I happened to catch Richards' act at the Improv back in September. Richards showed up unbilled and stole the evening. He didn't have punch lines -- he had riffs, rants and characters -- and he wasn't close to offensive. At one point, he channeled the conversation of two dogs barking to each other across a suburban neighborhood. You needed to be there, and maybe you needed a drink in you, but it was hysterical. But channeling a racist without sounding like one is a much taller order, and best left to someone not as untethered as Richards.

That said, there's also just a touch of hypocrisy in roasting a guy for using a word that a great many black comedians from Chris Rock on down use like ... a noun. He may have gone too far, in character or not, but he certainly went where other comedians, not to mention hip hop artists, have gone before. How ethnic groups speak among themselves is one thing. But to maintain that the N-word is okay only when black comedians say it in public is a perverse kind of racism of lower expectations, as if they can't help it but we should know better.

A lot of people in this affair should know better. How goofy is it that Richards must genuflect in apology to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who, for all his good works, is hardly pure in these matters? Evidently, people who live in glass houses can throw stones, so long as the houses are outside "Hymietown."

And how obscene that attorney Gloria Allred immediately tried to shake Richards down for money on behalf of her clients, the hecklers. How inspiring to see the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement looting the headlines for ratings and cash.

But what interests me about Richardsgate is not black hypocrisy, but Jewish pathology. What tribal chain of ours is yanked the moment someone of indeterminate ethnicity hits the headlines?

The second the brouhaha erupted, there was an atavistic rush to get to the bottom of Richards' identity. On Nov. 20, The Journal posted a story at reporting that Richards, contrary to the intimations of Rodriguez and others, is not Jewish.

By Tuesday night we had tens of thousands of hits from around the world.

By the following Monday, after a period of Thanksgiving reflection led people to realize what really matters most in life, our Web site had hundreds of thousands of hits, and the piece had been picked up and echoed and blogged on ad infinitum.

Monday morning I had several phones messages and two dozen e-mails demanding confirmation that Richard is not, in fact, Jewish.

What happened is that over the holiday, two more aggrieved audience members came forward and accused Richards of launching into an anti-Semitic rant on the Laugh Factory stage April 22.

Richards' New York publicist Howard Rubenstein tried setting the record straight. It was preposterous to accuse Richards of anti-Semitism because, Rubenstein told Yahoo News last week, "He's Jewish. He's not anti-Semitic at all. He was role-playing, he was playing a part. He did use inappropriate language, but he doesn't have any anti-Semitic feelings whatsoever."

That quote was good for another tens of thousands of Web hits. Thanks to Rubenstein's one man beit din, our original story was under attack.

But our sources were entertainment industry people who'd known the actor his entire professional life.

"Not a Jew. Never was. Take him off the list for a minyan," e-mailed one comedy writer by way of reassurance. "Rubenstein should be wasting his time on real Jews, like David Beckham."

(For many in Hollywood, what matters is that Richards' outburst doesn't cripple the "Seinfeld" franchise. There are tens of millions of dollars to be lost if fans can't separate Michael Richards from Cosmo Kramer.)

Hollywood Jews may not know much Mishna or give to Hadassah, but at the tribal level they are sharper than Abe Foxman at knowing who's in and who's out.

Rubenstein knows, too, of course. The man Inc. magazine called "PR's top dog" started his career servicing the Menorah Home and Hospital for the Aged and Infirm in Brooklyn and got his first Manhattan real estate tycoon publicity by arranging for him to sing to little Jewish orphans on Jewish holidays. So I called him and asked how, suddenly, Michael Richards is a Jew.

"Well, he wasn't born with Jewish blood," Rubenstein tells me in a voice that is silky, deep and confidential -- with just a shmear of Flatbush. "It wasn't an inherited religion. But after studying some of the other religions, he believes in Judaism, and that's what he's adopted for himself." "So he converted?"

"No, he didn't convert. He just identifies strongly with Judaism and the Jewish people."

So Rubenstein, well, fibbed. A Jew is someone who is born of a Jewish mother (or father, according to some denominations or the Nazis) or who converts. By this definition, Richards is Jewish like I'm James Bond -- I love the philosophy and way of life, I just don't want to do what it takes to be an international secret agent in service to the Crown.

Or, to be blunt, Richards is Jewish like many American Jews are Israeli. They know all about Israel and identify fiercely with it, they just wouldn't dream of actually becoming Israeli.

And this is where the whole "Is Michael Richards a Jew?" thing gets interesting to me.

Because it doesn't matter.

It doesn't matter.

Whatever his transgressions, and whatever his faith or heritage, he's one guy who screwed up big time, and he needs to make amends and the world needs to move on. End of story. Hasal seder Pesach.

What matters to me is not Richards' religion, adopted, purported or real, but our dogged interest in it.

On the plus side, we're justifiably embarrassed any time a member of "the family" misbehaves. Our limitless personal guilt extends -- healthily, I believe -- even beyond our own personal limits. I am my brother's guilt complex. By discovering how Jewish Richards is, we know just how badly to feel.

But there is something negative and puerile in our interest as well. For too many of us, tribal identity is all we have. We have reduced Judaism to little more than an inchoate mixture of pride and vulnerability, so we only spring into action when we can Google a newsmaker's name and the word "Jewish."

"The identity is so gutted away that all that is left of the identity is the pride of being Jewish," said Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of CLAL: The Center for Leadership and Learning.

I spoke by phone to Kula, the author of "Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life" (Hyperion), because I knew he'd be as dismayed as I was by the number of hits our Richards story received: "My completely anecdotal idea about those hits is it's a pathology of a victim. Jews are completely and fully integrated into society. You are powerful, you are integrated. But the fact that some crazy Jew has an N-word obsession causes you more agony than anything else that day. You think, they're going to think all Jews are like that."

I mentioned to Kula that if Richards had done something wonderful, like walked on the moon or invented TiVo, we'd have rushed to claim him despite his tenuous claim to Rubensteinian Judaism. In other words, we'll take Madeleine Albright, but you can keep George Allen.

"Absolutely," Kula said. "The pride is as sick as the fear. To take pride over blood is ridiculous. These are the shadow sides of each other: the unsubstantiated pride and the unexamined fear."

The fact that The Journal's small story on Richards prompted thousands of reactions and our huge cover story the same week on impoverished Holocaust survivors living in Los Angeles without adequate assistance netted exactly one outraged letter only buttressed Kula's point. We can use the Holocaust to raise money and score political points, but we reserve our real excitement for what? The shallow game show of who's-a-Jew.

As Jews the world over were frantically trying to establish that Richards wasn't one of us, Richards himself was claiming membership. Kula relished the idea.

"It's perfect," he said. "They're hand in hand. At the same time that thousands of Jews are concerned out of their insecurity whether a racist or Anger Management Problem person identifies with the Jewish people, the racist or Anger Management Problem person identifies with the Jewish people because it makes him feel secure against the charge of racism or anti-Semitism."

And, my bet is that Richards' allegiance to Judaism only disturbed Jews more. If what his publicist told me is true -- and why would anyone doubt a publicist who one week ago took it upon himself to redefine 4,000 years of Jewish law without telling anyone? -- Richards has actually studied Judaism inspired and instructed by "two significant Jewish mentors in his life."

"Why not?" Kula said. "Judaism is actually quite interesting."

Non-Jews who study it often come to the faith without the same baggage of fear and pride.

"There's no doubt Madonna has a deeper sense of Jewish wisdom than most born Jews," Kula said, "and that's why they resent her."

So Michael Richards is not Jewish, but his saga became a Jewish story -- a story that tells us something unpleasant about our priorities. And to paraphrase Seinfeld -- and you knew I would -- maybe there is something wrong about that.

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