December 9, 2009
Stern… Seigelman… Seagal
Howard tipped off listeners to a trainwreckishly delightful new reality show: “Steven Seagal: Lawman.” I watched it the same way I used to watch the alley cats mating outside my window in Jerusalem: it’s noisy and gross but, hey, it’s also part of God’s world.
In “Lawman,” former action star Seagal goes on patrol with the Jefferson Parish Louisiana Sheriff’s department as a reserve deputy sheriff. Two things surprised me right off: 1. Seagal is a cop who physically cannot run, and 2. He is not even the heaviest member of the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Department. What is the motto down there— “To Protect and To Serve Ourselves Huge Portions of Jambalaya”?
I’m fairly sure Seagal knows how to shoot. I watched a scene where he instructs another cop how to hit a target from what looks like seven feet away. Seagal tells the cop, “I’m going to shoot a hole in the target. Then I want you to put your bullet through that hole.” Seagal then proceeds to do that, because, as he explains a half dozen times in the first episode, he is a trained martial arts master, and his years of Eastern discipline have taught him how to shoot, how to fight, how to stay calm, how to see things no one else sees—it seems, in fact, his years of martial arts discipline have taught him everything except how to say no to dessert.
But poking fun at Seagal is as easy for me as shooting a bullet through a bullet hole is for him. For all I know he may be in the joke—making him one of the most brilliant self-parodists since Mae West. But I doubt it.
What I loved about “Lawman” was watching how Seagal has so completely transformed his persona from the circumstances of his birth, to whatever he is now.
Because, really, Steven Seagal is a Jew.
I mean, he’s a Jew from Lansing, Michigan, the son of Samuel Steven Seagal (1928-1991), a high school math teacher. His father’s parents were Russian Jews, Nathan Siegelman - later changed to Seagal - (1892-1973) and Dora Goldstein (1894-1989). Seagal’s mother is of Irish ancestry (Jewish? Catholic?) but according to Reform Jewish law, the man is a Jew.
But Seagal, like many Jews of his generation, sought enlightenment and cultural attachment elsewhere. His family moved from Lansing to Fullerton, CA when Seagal was 5 years old, and Seagal grew up in the Southern California suburbs. (Which makes his attempt at a bayou accent in “Lawmen” all the more puzzling. I’ve been to Fullerton and they just don’t speak like that there.). He found meaning and spiritual succor in the Eastern martial arts—again, a very Jewish thing. The leading karate teacher in LA is an Israeli. Jews, especially of Seagal’s generation, were turned off by what Judaism had become—a pale copycat of Protestant propriety, with rote Hebrew school learning, mumbled, meaningless prayers, and bar mitzvahs that amounted to little more than a punch line. This is the Jewish world Howard Stern—who is just two years younger than Seagal—mocks often on his show, and it’s funny ‘cause it’s true. Jews growing up in the 50’s, 60s and early 70s got the assimilated version of Judaism, castrated of its spiritual power.
So it’s hardly surprising Stern has a running gag about being “half Jewish,” even though he’s as full-on Jew as Golda Meir. In fact, it’s telling: in Stern’s generation, American Judaism was practiced in a half-assed way, at half-strength, half-heartedly.
And it’s also hardly surprising that Stern turned away from Judaism and toward the Eastern practice of Transcendental meditation, of which he is a big proponent and practitioner. And that Seagal turned to Zen and aikido and karate and Tibetan Buddhism and etc. Just because it’s hard to take Seagal’s seriousness seriously, it’s easy to mock a 400 pound Zen master with the world’s worst hair weave, the face of a Pinsk peddlar, and a Bayou accent that sounds like he learned it by listening to Dennis Quaid in “The Big Easy.” But he did do what at least a generation of Jews did: leave what he saw as a stale religion and culture behind and seek meaning, connection and enlightenment elsewhere.