Posted by Danielle Berrin
The rabbi is a book lover. So it was an innocent question when he asked his congregant what she was reading, tucked ever-so-discreetly between her palms, as she sat in a chair in a synagogue hallway. Was that a bead of sweat trickling down her brow? Was she trying to hide the cover? Was she — no, she couldn’t be — blushing?
The last thing he expected was to discover erotica. What a choice of literature! And to indulge as she waited to collect her children from school? Nevertheless, she pushed aside her shame, looked up at him with knowing eyes and slipped him the book. She felt liberated.
At a cafe — a kosher cafe — in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, a group of young, mostly Modern Orthodox couples gathered one night. At one end of the table, the men chatted laconically about wine and sports. And at the other, the women talked excitedly — and in delicious detail — about their favorite parts of the book. “I want my husband to read it,” one of the women declared.
At a Coffee Bean in Beverly Hills, a table of Sephardic women gathered mid-morning to plan a sisterhood event. A copy of the book sat on the table. “I can’t put it down,” its owner gushed. Leaning in to whisper, she confessed, “It’s the most exciting thing I’ve read in years.” “I just ordered the whole trilogy online,” another said. Breathless with intrigue, a third woman lifted the slender volume off the table. She eyed it intently. The cover reveals only a tie, tinged in blue.
Or is it ... gray?
The British writer and philosopher G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “Grey is a colour that always seems on the eve of changing to some other colour.” Perhaps that’s why British author E.L. James decided to title her first novel, “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
What started as postings to a fan fiction Web site — appropriating the already popular characters Bella and Edward from the “Twilight” series (but with way more concupiscence) — has become an international phenomenon. The book has sold 40 million copies worldwide in the five months since its publication last April. By comparison, as National Public Radio pointed out, it took Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” nearly four years to reach half that number. Naturally, it sparked a bidding war in Hollywood, and James, the pen name of former TV executive Erika Leonard, flew to Los Angeles for a week where she was wined, dined and wooed by producers, among them the Israeli tycoon Arnon Milchan, who reportedly offered the author $9 million for the title. Instead, she ended the frenzied pursuit when she signed a reported $4-million deal with Focus Features.
The buzz continued last month when British media reported that “Fifty Shades” has become the bestselling novel in U.K. history, topping “Harry Potter” and “The DaVinci Code.” And last week, a phone call to the Los Angeles Public Library downtown revealed that a stunning 1,997 names were on a waiting list for the system’s 204 copies.
Such unbridled lust for a book about lust! The Marquis De Sade would be so pleased.
But really, he wouldn’t. “Fifty Shades,” the soft-core erotic novel about a young, lustful billionaire who lures an even younger lustful college graduate into a sadomasochistic relationship, contains only elementary descriptions of sex, and its overhyped scenes of sexual violence are about as treacherous as vanilla ice cream. Oh, come on, didn’t your mother ever spank you?
The book pales by comparison to the 1954 French novel “Story of O,” which is so saturated in the sexual unthinkable that its protagonist’s aim was characterized as the annihilation of her personality. Or, as the late Susan Sontag, a major 20th century Jewish intellectual, described it, “the voluptuous yearning for the extinction of one’s consciousness.” By contrast, after skimming through the first sex scene in “Fifty Shades,” I was reminded of the tart line Jim Carrey blurts out to his bedmate in the movie “Liar Liar”: “I’ve had better.”
“Fifty Shades” has been maligned for lacking sophistication even as its popularity indicates that it is either fulfilling or shaping many women’s fantasy lives. It tells the story of Christian Grey, a witless, Adonis-like business mogul whose idea of a compliment is, “You get an A in oral skills,” and 22-year-old Anastasia Steele, whom he persuades to enter into a sex-only relationship. For this he drafts an official contract in which he assumes the role of “the dominant” and she “the submissive.” Not, however, that he can do whatever he wants. There are “hard limits” (no acts involving fire play, urination, defecation, needles or knives) and “soft limits” (let’s just say those have to do with which orifices are at his disposal).
Anastasia, a giddy, guileless girl, whose exasperation at almost everything gets expressed by squealing “Holy crap” every other sentence, is so ensorcelled by his beauty and billions, she signs up. They have a lot of sex. Sometimes he spanks her. Sometimes she likes it. But, mostly, their relationship is a confusing mess of impulse and emotion, which at times lends itself to darker shades of degradation, and other amorous behavior that is noncommittal and turbulent. If you can call it love, which is clearly the direction the author wants to take this, it’s love of a very immature sort.
So why has a retrograde fantasy that exemplifies traditional gender roles and undercuts romantic complexity risen to cultural apotheosis? If there’s anything to get all hot and bothered about, it’s this: We want sex. Hot, panting, sweaty, dirty, even depraved sex. Even badly written sex (perhaps especially badly written sex). We want to be flustered, filled and inflamed. We are at the core, animals, and we have animal needs. Since most of us will never see a battlefield or have to survive a shipwreck, sex becomes our theater of discovery. (As poet Dylan Thomas wrote in “Under Milk Wood,” “Let me shipwreck in your thighs.”) It is the most primal way through which we come to know who we are — how courageous, how giving, how loving we have the potential to be. Sex sensitizes us. It reminds us that we’re mortal. Sex is our answer to the poverty of mundane existence.
And therein lies the rub!
Religion has always seemed to caution against sex. We are taught that sex is dangerous. It is transgressive. It is completely consuming and therefore a terrible threat to higher functioning. “The thing about pleasure,” the erudite Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic, told me, “is that it knows nothing else but itself, and all it wants is more of itself.” Jewish sages were too smart to let the pursuit of sex go unchecked. The ancient rabbis realized that, without regulation, the body’s appetites would detract from the stabilizing forces of the tradition — procreation of Jews, foremost, but also the bonds of family, community and social responsibility. So while Judaism has never denied the needs of the body, as Christianity has, it instead established modesty and purity laws that would, at the very least, cover up the body.
All it takes to splinter our strictures is a silly little erotic book with its pre-feminist, pre-marital, pre-childrearing tropes, and a timeless Jewish dissonance has been brought to the fore: the tension between the tradition’s attempts to regulate erotic impulses and our unceasing desire to fulfill them, especially when we live in a wildly immodest culture, where rampant sexual freedom is the norm, and innuendo, nudity and pornography are ubiquitous and encouraged. What’s a dutiful modern Jew to do?
“Fifty Shades” posits a world where there is little room for anything but the pursuit of pleasure. Professional lives serve merely as erotic barriers, and notions of family, spirituality and God barely figure in (unless “Holy crap” counts). It is the opposite of what Jewish life asks of us, an existence that focuses exclusively on the delights of the body, bereft of any acknowledgment of intellect or soul. Where religion is concerned, the body is a blunt reminder that physicality is, in fact, what separates man from God. And it recalls that the most fundamental theological problem that exists is the question of how matter emanated from an immaterial God. How can we be more like God if we are trapped by our corporeality, the one thing, despite being crafted in God’s image, God most definitely does not have?
Despair not. While Judaism offers various and conflicting views on sexual conduct, there is more to the tradition’s understanding of sex than restraint and control (thank God). Judaism, in fact, likes sex. And quite a bit. The Book of Proverbs, for example, counts “the way of a man with a woman” as one of the wonders of the world. “Song of Songs” is so erotic and sexual that its true meaning has long been suppressed. Jewish reverence for ecstasy has been coopted by Chasidic prayer and Jewish mystical texts. The list goes on and on. Beyond simply regulating behavior, Judaism has sought to elevate, enable and ennoble sexual theater by exalting the wanton body by compounding it with a soul. Human beings are embodied spirits. And in this form, erotic life becomes of paramount importance to a fully realized existence. It may, in fact, be the highest form of existence, a way of seeking to feel what the mystics called the full infinity of every moment.
“There is no word for ‘sex’ in the Bible,” Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, author of several books on Jewish attitudes toward sex including “Kosher Sex” and “The Kosher Sutra,” explained. “The word the Torah uses is ‘knowledge,’ which connotes that carnal knowledge is the highest form of knowledge. That’s an amazing idea: Judaism believes that a man and a woman will love each other more deeply, more intimately, more thoroughly, through the friction caused by two bodies than even a deep philosophical conversation, or even a spiritual conversation.”
But even in the Bible, sex isn’t always idealized. It can be messy and complicated and used as manipulation. In Genesis, Jacob spots Rachel, and is instantly besotted. He wants her. But, absent a dowry, he must promise her father seven years — seven years! — of labor, before he is permitted to marry and “consort” with her. He obliges. But as if that were not a heavy enough load, Rachel’s father, Laban, deceives Jacob on his wedding night, placing the veiled Leah, Laban’s eldest daughter, in Jacob’s marital bed, thus forcing Jacob to indenture himself another seven years to win his beloved. Imagine his pent up ... frustrations.
Another lurid, illicit seduction occurs in the Second Book of Samuel, when King David spies Bathsheba bathing naked on a rooftop. He watches like a hawk as she removes her garments and washes. Instantly, he falls in love, beds her that same afternoon, and then seeks to destroy her marriage by sending her hapless husband off to be killed in battle. Our ancestors, it turns out, were as vulnerable to erotic desire as we are.
Who better understood the power of human sex drives than a certain Jewish psychologist named Sigmund Freud? Freud venerated the behavioral primacy of sex, but he also recognized its power to destroy social arrangements. He viewed unconscious impulses and instincts as sensually unruly and essentially self-serving, and he argued that little sense could be made of human life without understanding them. “Freud made the point that civilization is, to a large extent, based on repression, and that repression is therefore a positive thing,” Wieseltier said. “Because if one is in the throes of pleasure or pleasure seeking, that’s all there is. And that’s dangerous, because when it’s over, you want to have it again.”
Sexual desire can be so intense it registers as an affliction, a kind of illness or madness that can drive even the most pious among us to desperation. Sontag encapsulated this best in her 1967 essay “The Pornographic Imagination” when she described sexuality as “something beyond good and evil, beyond love, beyond sanity.”
The power of the emotions formed by sex can make us crazy. Jewish law guarded against this problem with regulations to stem the salacious. To preserve the holiness of sex (and the sexes), the rabbis implemented a host of modesty and purity laws: Both men and women should dress so as not to attract sexual attention (covering much of the skin and hair), and married couples are prohibited from having sex while a woman is menstruating. This mandated period of separation, which concludes with a purifying ritual bath, is, on the one hand, a form of control. But viewed another way, it is a time of spiritually sanctioned erotic buildup, during which the proscription of sex — naturally — entreats one to want it more.
Here is where Orthodox Judaism and “Fifty Shades of Grey” have something in common. Sex in “Fifty Shades” is safe. It is carefully channeled around a set of rules and hardly the white-hot, unbridled licentiousness common in porn books. There are boundaries around desire, quite literally. The lovers are contractually bound; every detail of their erotic encounter is agreed upon: They will be monogamous, they will use birth control; diet, exercise and dress code are part of the deal. Can’t take the pain? Just say so. The portrait of their pleasure is thus carefully guarded, fenced in by rules of conduct.
Sex is also private. It is reserved for the secret sphere of the bedroom, or even better, Christian’s “Red Room of Pain,” which plainly possesses its own dangers — whips, clamps, riding crops, to name just a few choice items — but remains secluded from the rest of life, its own sacred space. It is a holy shrine to carnal pleasure, and it is cordoned off.
This containment could be seen as parallel to Judaism’s channeling of the erotic. There are sentries for seduction, defenses against unruliness. Which is an apt metaphor for the act of reading erotica itself: Getting sex in a book is safe, exempt from physical, moral and spiritual hazards. In literature, we are free to fantasize and to feel without sex complicating our lives.
In her essay on pornography, Sontag suggested that the era’s “mounting output of dirty books [could be] attributed to a festering legacy of Christian sexual repression.” Because we want that which we cannot have. For some, religion itself has evolved into a kind of ecstatic substitute for sex, which can be seen in Chasidic prayer practices and Jewish mysticism. “Jewish mystical texts are so very, very sexual,” said Rabbi Naomi Levy, author and founder of the spiritual community Nashuva. “Rambam spoke of this — and it is constantly repeated — that your relationship to God ultimately needs to be a relationship of someone who is lovesick. It should be that kind of desperate feeling, where everywhere you are thinking of them, everywhere you feel that feeling.”
In erotic literature’s long and rich history, which extends as far back as Greek and Roman antiquity and even further, to the Bible, nowhere is the spirit of lovesickness better expressed than in Song of Songs, which appears in the Tanakh. It is widely considered the most erotic text in the Jewish tradition. “It’s a really sexy book,” said Valley Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Ed Feinstein. “Have you ever read it? Get a bottle of wine, and a couple of candles, and someone you really like, and just read it to each other. It’s ... whew!”
So, take a deep breath, and imagine you and your lover in the following scene; a verse in Chapter Five, as translated by Levy:
I am asleep, but my heart is awake
the voice of my beloved is knocking
Open up for me my sister, my love,
my dove, my pure one
My head is wet with dew
my curls are dripping with the night
I’ve already taken off my robe
how can I put it on?
I’ve already washed my feet
how can I dirty them?
My beloved took his hand off the latch
and my heart longed for him
I rose to open up for my beloved
my hands were dripping with myrrh
my fingers were flowing myrrh on the
handle of the lock…
Wet. Dripping. Dirty. Beloved. And, according to Rabbi Akiva, this is the holiest book in the Bible. Though the poem is most often read allegorically to reflect the relationship between God and Israel, the original Hebrew text portrays a strikingly different picture. It contains no mention whatsoever of God. A thoroughly secular text, it is very specifically about lovers, desperately searching for each other, consumed by their senses, proclaiming their love in poetry. Scholars Ariel and Chana Bloch, whose book “The Song of Songs” sought to reclaim the original intent of the poem, noted in their translation: “Its theme is the wonder of a woman with a man — an unmarried woman, with no concern about perpetuating the family line and no motive but pleasure.”
“It is clearly a celebration of a very intense, sexual, erotic relationship,” said Michal Lemberger, who teaches Bible at American Jewish University and UCLA Extension. Some read it as the sexual awakening of a young woman, as she and her lover become assimilated into a voluptuously sensuous world, where the eroticism of the earth fuels and harmonizes the eroticism of their bodies. The landscapes of hills and mounds become metaphors for the body. The lovers take on animal qualities, exhibiting a primal wanting, proclaiming their love in public. But to preserve the sanctity of their connection, they reserve their fantasy of union for the privacy of night and the seclusion of vineyards.
The song’s countenancing of sexual love beyond the bounds of marriage is the source of its subversion, surely one reason it was redacted, retranslated and reinterpreted for the canon. But it hardly endorses rampant promiscuity. Such exquisite unity between two souls depends on exclusivity; this kind of desire cannot be diluted among many partners. It is too concentrated, too obsessive, too fixed on its intended object. The poem affirms the sacredness of monogamy. There can only be one beloved.
“My beloved is mine, he fills all my needs and I seek from him and none other ... For strong til the death is my love.”
“The other kind of wonderful thing about it,” Lemberger said, “is how reciprocal it is. The female lover is just as active as the male lover — she goes out looking for him in the city. And if you look at other books in the Bible, a woman who goes out into the streets to look for a man is a harlot. Not here.”
The song was, perhaps, ahead of its time in granting sexual equality to its subjects, though it is not entirely clear whether the lovers actually meet. It is a poem of lust and longing, and much of its erotic intensity stems from the mystery surrounding consummation. The two are always seeking, calling to one another. And the poem’s beauty is its lack of explicitness. It is the opposite of pornography. Everything is sensation, every scent woven in metaphor. And it is the imprecise, unattainable air swirling through the story that intensifies the lovers’ yearning.
“Eroticism exists specifically in the shadows,” Boteach said. “Sexuality is about proximity; eroticism is about distance. It is about unavailability; it is about frustrating desire.”
The poem functions as a unique counterpoint to the rest of the Bible. It’s a luscious sexual loophole, so long as we are fully devoted to the relationship formed by sex. Elsewhere, there is erotic flexibility in marriage, but none whatsoever outside of it. So it’s almost as though Song of Songs is rebelling against the notion that holy sex can happen in marriage only, by presenting an idealized portrait of sacred romantic love that is so intoxicating, so infinite, so ethereal, it becomes metaphysical. “The basic idea is that anything that takes you to your limits, any experience of transcendence can be described as a religious experience,” Wieseltier said.
“Fifty Shades” is spiritless in comparison. Its women have no agency in their fantasies; loving sex (which is to say, sex driven by emotional intimacy) or “vanilla sex,” which Christian Grey disdains, is unworthy in the face of violent sex. Men are the stewards of power. Women are submissive, saying yes when they mean no.
“One might argue,” said Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, “that women’s fantasies are conditioned by the reality of a world in which there isn’t real reciprocity and equality between the sexes — so we can’t even imagine what a woman’s sexual fantasies might really be.” Instead, we are left with cute sex, pornographically described, leaving precious little room for the imagination to soar. Fifty shades of gray, indeed.
What makes it even the least bit tolerable is that violence animates their intimacy. Anastasia submits herself to her lover’s assault because it is the only way she can hope to know him. And Christian inflicts his sadistic urges to purge himself of childhood pain. As the Czech writer Milan Kundera observed, “There are things that can be accomplished only by violence. Physical love is unthinkable without violence.”
Jewish tradition is ambivalent on this point. How far can a couple go in their efforts to please one another? In the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides writes, “a man is permitted to his wife,” but goes on to say that excessive sex — which, in Torah terms is a man who “frequents his wife like a rooster” — is disagreeable. Yet, a story in the Talmud tells of a woman who complains to Rabbi Judah HaNasi of her husband’s unorthodox desires. Judah the Prince replies: “What can I do my daughter that the Torah hath permitted him to you and you to him?”
Sometimes, a violent fantasy that causes pain feels like the only thing that can keep us awake. “Central to the area of sexuality is the idea of surrender, for men and for women,” Doreen Seidler-Feller, sex therapist and associate professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, said. “The whole idea behind sexual release is to get out of your head, to let go of your consciousness, to put yourself in a state of oblivion.”
But Judaism also sets limits between desire and dignity. “Judaism contains the notion that a sexual relationship has to have dignity, and that it is not acceptable to abuse, dehumanize or objectify another human being,” Feinstein pointed out. “The way I like to put it is: We have a body, and we have the power to be good or evil, depending on how we use it. And we have soul, a sense of self. So the simple rubric is: The most intimate expression of body-to-body should be reserved for those circumstances in which we have the most intimate and powerful expressions of soul to soul.”
Sex has the power to bring us to heights so intense and wild, it feels transcendent. It feels like magic. A supreme spiritual act. That’s why the erotic love depicted in Song of Songs was sublimated into a metaphor for love of God; because, if the ultimate human expression is that burning “fever of love” then how could we love God any less?
Of course, human relationships are more complicated than they appear in poetry. Human love is difficult and full of friction, perhaps more “Fifty Shades” than “Song of Songs.” It’s why we prefer to believe that the lovers in Song of Songs never find each other; we know that the most intimate relationships require an endless process of knowing, of searching, seeking, coming close and being torn apart. Human frailty is what moved the sages to declare that the only pure love is love of God. But the Talmud tells us, “God wants the heart.” Because every heart is possessed by the potency of human experience, filled with brokenness, with fragments, joy mixed in with loss and endless, agonized, longing. There will never be a perfect love. There is only what we have, and God wants.
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August 22, 2012 | 12:32 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
In the ever-unwinnable image war, maybe what Israel needs is a Cover Girl.
I’m thinking someone tall, curvy and striking, who boasts a record number of appearances in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue (say, 13, with three covers), a role-model type who has created a billion-dollar company, someone wholesome and spiritual, with solid family values (like a doctor husband and three kids) — someone like Kathy Ireland.
More than a former supermodel, Ireland is CEO of kathy ireland Worldwide, an international branding company that has grown into a billion-dollar empire and earned her the venerable title Super Mogul. She is also a furnishings designer, a committed mother, philanthropist and, lately, a passionate and public advocate for Israel.
She first traveled to the country in 2007, on a church mission with her mother. She told me she was instantly besotted: “It’s such a beautiful place, just breathtaking,” she recalled. “I was really surprised by the beauty and just how magnificently it’s preserved. And the people are incredible, and the landscape so diverse. There’s no place like it.”
By the time she returned with her children in 2010, she had already been named an international ambassador for the Friends of Sheba Medical Center. In 2011, she was honored by the Anti-Defamation League, and last March, she earned the distinction of appearing as a keynote speaker at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) annual policy conference in Washington, D.C. There, she was given a precious 14 minutes to speak to the conference’s full 13,000 attendees. Her speech was a hit, covering all the major talking points — an Israel imperiled, an isolated democracy, an international pariah state — and affirmed her public commitment. “It is my personal promise to stand with Israel for the rest of my life,” she told AIPAC.
On Sept. 6, Ireland will be honored in Los Angeles by the Jewish National Fund, further cementing her role as Israel’s new post-fashion-career poster girl.
Raised in a secular household, Ireland didn’t find religion until her late teens. “The way I found my faith was out of jet lag and boredom and loneliness,” she said. She was 18, staying at a stranger’s house in Paris before a fashion shoot when, one night, she felt incredibly restless. “I couldn’t sleep; there were no cell phones and no Internet, and it was the middle of the night,” she recalled. “My mom had just become Christian, and without telling me, she slipped a Bible in my suitcase. Out of boredom, I picked it up. I knew that what I was holding was the truth.”
Coming to God, or “The Word,” as Ireland puts it, was a strange feat for a fashion model. The industry was notoriously decadent and even harmful to its denizens, steeped in a culture of illicit drugs, outrageous parties and damaging diets. Not exactly the values-based milieu to which Ireland aspired. “I was such a rebellious teenager that had I been in a healthier industry, I might have rebelled against good things. But my faith allowed me to rebel against unhealthy things,” she said. “Jesus became my Lord, my Savior, my best friend. And one thing I loved is that he was this Jewish rebel; and I loved how he treated women. Here I was, a young woman in a world that felt dominated by men who were of questionable character, and he honored women.”
Though she eschews the term “religious” (too “man-made”), faith is what brought her to the Holy Land. It undergirds her intense passion for the country: “Israel is a global minority and the hostility and venom thrust upon this great nation is just unbelievable,” she said. But she insists that it is not faith alone, but also her belief in Israel’s humanitarian spirit that binds her to the country. “Israel is not strictly a Christian value or an American value; it is a value of humanity.”
On the topic, Ireland can sound dogmatic. Alternating between lavish praise and fiery defense, she is so on-point with her historical and political claims, it sometimes sounds as if she’s reading from a pamphlet. And her advocacy, to be sure, has deep strains of Arab distrust.
“I see bullying. I see a lot of revisionist history,” she said, earnestly. “All one has to do is look at the PLO and their own documents. This is not about land; the Arab League has 22 separate Islamic states spanning an area of 5 million square miles. Israel is 9,000 square miles! It’s not about the land, which is one sixth of one percent of the entire Middle East — it’s about a hatred that is so vile and so deep that it seeks to eradicate a people.”
To skeptics, the intensity of her conviction can come off as surprising, or even suspect. But Ireland said she worked hard to educate herself about the issues, and that she is more than a dutiful mouthpiece for mainstream Jewish groups. “As someone whose former job description was ‘shut up and pose,’ I’m very concerned with people wanting to put words in my mouth,” she said. “People know one thing about me and assume that’s all there is to know.”
She utterly dismisses the notion that beneath her pro-Israel punditry is really an exploitative theology that sees Jews in Israel as a means to a triumphant Christian end. “I am extremely disturbed that so many Christian churches have adopted this replacement theology. It is absolutely horrific and it’s not biblical,” she declared. “All one has to do is read the Old Testament to see how God feels about Israel and his chosen people. His Abrahamic covenant is forever; it’s unconditional.”
August 22, 2012 | 12:27 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
L.A. Times columnist Patrick Goldstein announced yesterday that he had penned his final column after 12 years at the newspaper. His departure will leave the Times impoverished, for as the title of his last column implies, “Wanted: a few good mavericks,” Goldstein is one of those.
Never one to cave to the ceaseless stream of Internet news noise, Goldstein cared about ideas and took time to think about what he wanted to say. His strength was also, unfortunately, his tragic flaw, since much of today’s journalism environment values minute-by-minute scoops over what any of it means.
“I see my job as connecting the dots, digging past the superficial headlines of the day to get at deeper issues,” he wrote in the column. “If you’ve read me, you know I admire outsiders, not just because they’re great copy, but because mavericks — be it Lee, Mark Cuban or Billy Beane of ‘Moneyball’ fame — inspire innovation. They take more risks than any corporate behemoth[.]” But to his frustration, those mavericks are rare breeds. “The entire business model for today’s movie business is rooted in an aversion to originality,” Goldstein wrote.
Likewise, when it comes to entertainment reporting, Goldstein is part of an endangered breed who care not just about what is “news”, but why it is significant. He wasn’t trying to be a one-stop shop for Hollywood reportage, emailing hundreds of “exclusives” and “breaking” announcements each week; he saw beyond current events and topical issues to get at deeper trends, personalities and projects that might matter to the wider culture. He never pandered to salacious scandal stories but wrote about what mattered to him most. He wasn’t afraid to voice his opinions and challenge the industry to do better.
Though it has powerful potential, Hollywood entertainment does not come pre-packaged with meaning. It is writers like Goldstein that make it meaningful, filtering its content through a prism of context and creativity.
I’m personally sad to see him go, because I’ve known him for years and as I’ve noted before, he was an unwitting mentor. When I first began this blog, he suggested that I approach it with “opinion and attitude” so as to set it apart from the stream of information from which Internet users have a choice to read. And it remains one of my proudest accomplishments that Goldstein even thought Hollywood Jew worthy to write about.
His voice will be missed and I hope he’s not silent for long.
August 10, 2012 | 2:33 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
“The life of almost any man possessing great gifts, would be a sad book to himself,” Charles Dickens wrote in the essay “Landor’s Life” in 1869.
Dickens was addressing what almost any person of talent, fame or accomplishment must confront in themselves: How much of their life, their self, their soul is sacrificed to their art, their public, their pursuit of excellence.
Dickens was a complicated man, a protean personality, who developed almost a compulsive need for the spotlight, as countless Dickens biographers have attested. In Claire Tomalin’s biography, “Charles Dickens: A Life” she recounts him as someone with an almost pathological ability to reinvent himself. Dickens, by her account, had more than multiple personalities. He was, “The child-victim, the irrepressibly ambitious young man, the reporter, the demonic worker, the tireless walker. The radical, the protector of orphans, helper of the needy, man of good works, the republican. The hater and the lover of America. The giver of parties, the magician, the traveler. The satirist, the surrealist, the mesmerist. The angry son, the good friend, the bad husband, the quarreler, the sentimentalist, the secret lover, the despairing father.”
It was upon his visit to America, however, that Dickens’ craving for public attention and adoration crested within him, compromising his ability live a healthy life. As Joyce Carol Oates writes in her review of Tomalin’s biography in the New York Review of Books, Dickens possessed “a curious admixture of innocent authorly vanity, a shrewd desire to make as much money as possible, and what comes to seem to the reader a malignant, ever-metastasizing desire for self-destruction.”
In other words, the more attention he got from his public, the more attention he needed.
“Dicken’s delight in his large and uncritical audiences shifts by degrees to an addiction to public performing,” writes Carol Oates. “[L]ike Mark Twain, he quickly came to see that public performing paid more than writing, and was much easier, at least in the short run. Dickens’s need for the immediate gratification of public performing is both tonic and masochistic; consumed by vanity, the celebrated writer is consuming his very self.”
In a culture where the aspiration for fame and fortune is ubiquitous and unrelenting, best to note the consequences on the other side of celebrity. Dickens had a horrible marriage, sometimes hated his ten children and wound up abandoning his wife, whom Carol Oates describes as the “plain, placid, passive woman” Catherine Hogarth, for his mistress, the ex-actress Ellen (Nelly) Ternan.
No, indeed, not all great achievements are born of a balanced life. But there are terrors in greatness that augur an end in which the difference between the warmth of loving arms and self-annihilation is indistinguishable. With Dickens we admire the word more than the man.
August 10, 2012 | 1:25 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
When the wholesale giant Cosco refused to stock Joan Rivers’ new book, “I Hate Everyone ... Starting With Me,” citing book-jacket profanity, Rivers decided to create a stir.
In an attempt to start a protest, she camped outside a Cosco in Burbank and invited news crews to join her. With her usual hyperbole, she told KTLA news, “People should have the right to have the literature they want. This is the beginning of Nazi Germany.”
The Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman responded in turn with his usual rejoinder: “Such comparisons only serve to trivialize the Holocaust and are deeply offensive,” he said.
Rivers basically told him to shut up.
“Don’t talk to me about the holocaust,” she snapped, pointing out that her deceased husband, Edgar Rosenberg had lost most of his family at Auschwitz. “The ADL should worry more about the world’s attitude toward Israel than waste their time and energy on me,” she told TheWrap.com.
How smart. How true. Go Joan.
“Banning books anywhere is a bad portent,” she added.
Foxman would do well to heed Rivers’ point. A society’s treatment of books tends to be suggestive of their values; it’s right there at the entrance to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial museum, a warning by the poet Heinrich Heine: “Where books are burned, human beings are also destined to be burned.”
August 9, 2012 | 3:58 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
In her acclaimed book examining journalistic ethics, The Journalist and the Murderer Janet Malcolm coined the notorious phrase “confidence man” for a journalist. It wasn’t meant as flattery, of course; it was an indictment.
A journalist “is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse,” Malcolm wrote.
While it isn’t always fit to generalize, it is true that all journalists are in the business of trust. They must earn the trust of their subjects and their audience in order to do their job. But the quest for “truth” can be a subjective matter, especially since a writer decides the story they want to tell and how to tell it. In this they often contour the boundaries of their morality to accommodate their goal.
But the real trouble with a writer is that everything is fodder. Just ask Aaron Sorkin.
After introducing a new character in the form of gossip columnist Nina Howard (played by Hope Davis) on episode four of his HBO show “Newsroom,” Sorkin tells HBO’s behind-the-scenes cameras that the character was inspired by a woman he knew. Never naming her, he reveals only that she worked as a gossip columnist for The New York Post. One night she educated him about something called a “takedown piece”—apparently industry lingo for a humiliating tell-all profile. Rather amused, Sorkin then appropriated the conversation—and the character—for “Newsroom.” It was not a flattering portrait of gossip columnists; it was an indictment.
Next, the NYPost reporter Sorkin never named published a tell-all takedown piece on the Website xojane.com (which, I’m not kidding, touts itself as a place “where women go when they are being selfish, and where their selfishness is applauded”). The reporter, Mandy Stadtmiller, writes that she and Sorkin dated, and on one of these dates they had a conversation that became a “Newsroom” scene.
In the telling of her story, Stadtmiller includes a photograph of herself, photographs of her iphone displaying messages from “Aaron Sorkin”, and a picture of a bouquet Sorkin sent her on her 36th birthday along with the accompanying (and quite charming) note.
After exposing all these details, she muses, “if someone uses me in his writing, doesn’t it seem fair that I use him in my own?”
Good question. Stadtmiller reported a lived experience and backed it up with documentation. Sorkin also wrote a lived experience, not so much fictionalizing the situation as disguising it. The actual writing is not so different, but the moral impulses guiding the writing are poles apart. Sorkin told Stadtmiller he was modeling a character on her and protected her privacy; Stadtmiller watched the Hollywood version of herself and out of anger or offense retaliated by disregarding his. What she did wasn’t very nice (I doubt he’ll ask her on another date) but was it immoral? And wasn’t he foolish for trusting her?
A few years ago I did something similar to Sorkin. When I had trouble getting an interview with him, I turned my failed pursuit of him into a story for our Oscar issue. That was the year “The Social Network” was up for almost every major award and Sorkin was the story of the year. If I couldn’t get to him, I still had copy to file, so instead of an actual interview I turned my lived experience into a report. I used emails I had exchanged with Sorkin to support the story and couched it all in the flattering light of courtship: “Desperately Seeking Sorkin” was one headline; “My Fantasy Interview” was another. I had nothing personal to reveal about Sorkin because there was nothing personal about our exchange. I had never even met him.
But what if I had?
As someone who feels they have to write in order to stay sane, and has never written a work of fiction in her life, I know there are life experiences I will one day put to words that people who shared in them might prefer never to be published. Is that immoral? I’m not sure. But it’s life.
After Nora Ephron’s second husband cheated on her while she was pregnant, she wrote the novel “Heartburn.” “Proof that writing well is the best revenge,” reads the book’s cover quote, attributed to the Chicago Tribune. Though Ephron penned it in the first person, she changed her name to Rachel and her husband’s to Mark, but the real-life characters were both too famous to disguise. Carl Bernstein was disgraced; Ephron got a movie starring Meryl Streep.
So let me refer back to the opening Malcolm quote, which warns of the dangers of reporters, and end with the following quote by A.S. Byatt, a Booker Prize-winning writer of fiction:
“I know at least one suicide and one attempted suicide caused by people having been put into novels. I know writers to whom I don’t tell personal things – which is hard, as these writers are always the most interested in what one has to tell. All writing is an exercise of power and special pleading – telling something your own way, in a version that satisfies you. Others must see it differently. As I get older I increasingly understand that the liveliest characters – made up with the most freedom – are combinations of many, many people, real and fictive, alive and dead, known and unknown. I really don’t like the idea of ‘basing’ a character on someone, and these days I don’t like the idea of going into the mind of the real unknown dead. I am also afraid of the increasing appearance of ‘faction’ — mixtures of biography and fiction, journalism and invention. It feels like the appropriation of others’ lives and privacy.”
Of course, it’s worth noting that Byatt wrote a novel called “The Game” about the dynamics between two sisters. Byatt and her sister, Dame Margaret Drabble, also a writer, do not speak. After Drabble read “The Game,” she told The Telegraph that their feud was “beyond repair.” Of Byatt, she said, “She may not have known what she had done until she had written it. Writers are like that. But it’s a mean-spirited book about sibling rivalry and she sent it to me with a note signed ‘With love,’ saying ‘I think I owe you an apology’.”
August 8, 2012 | 12:25 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Too often these days we hear the tireless phrase “They just don’t make ’em like they used to” when it comes to the movies.
Film historian David Spaner blames the blacklist.
In his new book, “Shoot It! Hollywood Inc. and the Rising of Independent Film,” Spaner makes the case that the corporate values underpinning Hollywood’s political perfidy in the 1950s are to blame for a sustained assault on creative freedom — and perhaps, freedom in general — in the movie business.
Spaner argues that the studios’ willingness to enforce a creative exodus among the industry’s lefty best and brightest indeed left it irrevocably impoverished.
“The blacklist had a huge effect on the quality of Hollywood filmmaking for decades, and Hollywood filmmaking has never entirely recovered,” he said recently over lunch at Nate ’n Al of Beverly Hills.
On any old weekend, a visit to the multiplex makes a convincing case that Spaner might be right. Almost everything the studios generate is commercialized and homogenized for a global audience. Movies are mostly either a remake (“Total Recall”), a franchise (“Batman,” “Twilight” “Harry Potter”) or a formulaic genre film that is so hackneyed and unoriginal it is as unwatchable as “The Watch.”
Films with a distinct sense of the local culture are becoming increasingly rare — think Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” — and, because art is ever beholden to box office, filmmakers who actually innovate like Allen and the Texas-born Wes Anderson now prefer to work in Europe.
Universal Studios chief Ron Meyer has acknowledged corporate Hollywood’s shame: “We make a lot of shitty movies,” he confessed to a Savannah Film Festival audience last November. “Every one of them breaks my heart.”
Meyer is frank about Hollywood’s fidelity to fortune. “It’s great to win awards and make films that you’re proud of,” he told the Guardian. “But your first obligation is to make money and then worry about being proud of what you do.”
The nonagenarian Norma Barzman would puke. The New York-born author and screenwriter is a self-described Commie who was blacklisted along with her husband, Ben Barzman, during the Red Scare. What was supposed to be a two-week vacation in Paris turned into a 30-year exile for the couple after they received a call from a friend warning, “Don’t come back. Don’t come back under any circumstances,” Barzman recalled.
Barzman was proud of her politics, which she had inherited from her father, a well-to-do textile importer who supported progressive causes.
“It permeated every part of my life,” she said. “What I wrote, the way I lived, my marriage, the way I brought up my children. Everything I did was political. I wanted to make a better world and I really believed one could.”
But in those days, that universal (and especially Jewish) value had Hollywood Jews deeply divided over the means to achieve it.
“A lot of people know that the Hollywood studio system was largely invented by Jews but not so many people know that the resistance to the Hollywood studio system was also largely invented by Jews,” Spaner said of the radical Hollywood left. “To me the Hollywood blacklist of the ’40s and ’50s was Jew-on-Jew violence.”
Spaner writes: “[The House Un-American Activities Committee’s] witch-hunters were bothered that so much studio talent was so New York, so intellectual, so smart-alecky, so left-wing ... so Jewish — un-American” —and who HUAC spokesman John Rankin plainly called “enemies of Christianity” — “the frightened, essentially conservative studio heads, who were almost entirely Jewish, were at pains to distance themselves from their left-wing Jewish employees, and to prove they were first and foremost American, [so] they enforced the blacklist.”
After all, it was those leftist Jewish artists from New York who helped establish the guilds and labor unions that went toe-to-toe with the studios in order to enact fair industry practices. “The moguls stayed quiet during the organizing,” Barzman recalled. “The blacklist was Hollywood’s revenge.”
But if the moguls’ aim was to weaken the unions, they failed; and if sacrificing creativity was the means, how stupidly self-negating. What the blacklist era did accomplish, however, was institutionalizing self-interest at the expense of creative risk-taking and banishing radical politics that might tie Hollywood pictures to distinct social ideals.
Today Hollywood “liberalism” is mostly idle politics, Spaner said. “Before the blacklist, the activism of the ’30s and ’40s was an activism that had an actual critique of the capitalist system. That was driven out. So the activism that exists now is not an overall critique, it’s more around specific issues and specific candidates and a lot of it tends to involve fundraising by big-name, fairly liberal Hollywood stars.”
But Barzman has no regrets. During the seven years the U.S. government rescinded her passport, she took her seven kids to the south of France where they lived next door to Picasso, who became a friend. Her husband, whose U.S. citizenship was denaturalized, made a slew of movies all over Europe, and anonymously penned the script for “El Cid.”
After living the good life, I asked her why they returned to Los Angeles in the late ’70s. “My husband had the idea in his head he wanted to make it big in Hollywood,” she said wistfully.
Even after the business had broken his heart, he responded with love.
August 3, 2012 | 1:38 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
I’m at work on a story about Jews and erotica, and in the course of my research came across this very cheeky video blog in which famed Jewish sex-therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer discusses Fifty Shades of Grey.
“I do believe every woman should read it,” Dr. Ruth instructs her viewers. “Women need to be aroused, and here we can prove that literature or reading will help women to get aroused.” But, she adds, the steamy story isn’t only a value for women: “I would like men to read that book too.”
Dr. Ruth compared the impact of the international bestseller Fifty Shades with a category of world famous erotica that includes D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying. Be warned, though, the latter examples are far more deft at seducing with sexy sentences than Fifty Shades which depends entirely on story.
Though it has sold upwards of 20 million copies, even Dr. Ruth is hesitant to canonize the trilogy: “I don’t know how long it’s going to be so famous,” she says. “But it’s certainly a good read.” Still, she advises couples to skip to the good parts and fast-track their own salacious scene. “You don’t have to read the three volumes; you read a little bit of each and then you put the book away and have some very good sex.”
Of course, you might want to find a worthy partner first. Say, a gorgeous young billionaire like Christian Grey.
“If this guy described here, if he were available and I would be much, much younger and not married,” Dr. Ruth confesses, “I would also go for a night with him.”
“Not because of the sadistic elements—that’s not for me. But because he has a plane; he has a helicopter; he knows how to deal with women and he knows how to make love.”
In other words, Grey is a man. He is, as Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield describes in his book “Manliness,” someone who “seeks and welcomes drama and prefers times of war, conflict, and risk.”
All these primal forces have their day in the dark of the bedroom. Where else is the measure of a man so plain to see?
Watch the full video here: