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Mary Tyler Moore, the Hollywood Reds, and the Rise of Social Television

Feb6

by: Paul Buhle on February 6th, 2017 | 2 Comments »

Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke looking to the left. I was not watching much television at the high point of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but I should have suspected something when some of my good friends, TV watchers and veterans of the Women’s Liberation Movement, mourned its passing in 1977 and perhaps even more, the early cancellation of the spin-off, Rhoda, a seemingly Jewish career woman’s saga, a year later. As recalled in the last few days by the death of the MTM star, the show and the persona obviously bolstered the vision of millions of women entering the job market determined to achieve and not to be treated as mere subordinates.

By sheer coincidence, in the early 1990s, I found myself getting the story of the Hollywood Blacklistees (most of them writers, and a large majority of them Jewish) through personal interviews of old timers, an effort filled out by looking at their work, film and television, as much as I could. Lots of surprises met me, like the lead co-writer of the best Abbott and Costello films ending up a valued scriptwriter for Lassie,Flipper, and Daktari, or another blacklisted writer who had few credits in film but more in radio and then television, shaping The Danny Thomas Show behind assorted fictional names. Or what I now think of as non-surprises, learning that my two favorite shows, as a kid, You Are There and The Adventures of Robin Hood respectively, had been largely written by mostly Jewish Reds on the run from the FBI and the blacklisters. The Mary Tyler Moore Show turns out to be a curiously connected story, destined to be central to a large phase of television history.

Things were happening, which is to say another generation of TV viewers had come to be seen as the new consumers, by 1960. As the Kennedy Era opened, there was a growing sense that social themes largely vanished after TV production had moved from New York to Los Angeles – and shifted in theme from live drama to omnipresent Westerns – were going to be more popular again. Sharp constraints on many topical themes remained firm, but a very few interracial dramas now crept in, along with the occasional dramatic shows starring women. These efforts made little headway. Then came The Dick Van Dyke Show or rather, Head of the Family, opening to small viewership in the Summer 1960 season.

Here’s the backstory: seasoned comedian Carl Reiner, who later titled his memoir Paul Robeson Saved My Life, was called in by producer Sheldon Leonard, another friend in the vicinity of the Hollywood Old Left in film and radio during the salad days of the 1940s. Reiner had written a somewhat successful Broadway play (later a small film) about the life of a television scriptwriter, based loosely upon his own life, and recast the material once more for television, offering audiences something uniquely urban and Jewish-inflected. Head of the Family, as a sort of insiders’ comedy, attracted interest among the critics, but was no hit. Now comes the decisive turn.

Sheldon Leonard, then best remembered for playing film mobsters, set up a new production company, with partners Reiner, Danny Thomas, and TV personality Dick Van Dyke, for a show closer to the tested-and-tried, stage-and-film Neil Simon formula (status anxiety, big city daily life, etc.) than anything tried so far on the small screen. The lead would be Dick Van Dyke and established television comedienne Mary Tyler Moore, with the veteran Jewish comedian Morey Amsterdam now as a supporting or rather, shpritzing scriptwriter.

Reiner and Leonard needed a new head writer. They called in an old and trusted friend: blacklistee Frank Tarloff, my (much later) interviewee, who had abandoned Danny Thomas and television at large for a breather, writing films in Britain. It was a marriage made in heaven, arguably even better than fictional Robbie and Laura. The Dick Van Dyke Show, whose stars had matching JFK and Jackie-style hairdos,added to the emerging sitcom formula innovative camera techniques, giving even the live studio audience the feel of watching something like a movie being made in front of them. It was a movie of the bright and funny, complicated personalities, somehow “Jewish” even when genetically Gentile, in the entertainment-writing world. Walter Bernstein, one of those writers on other shows, captured it perfectly again in The Front, a film made possible by Woody Allen, a youngster who knew the aging crowd of Jewish funny men very well. The ambience of The Dick Van Dyke Show was so charming, TV critic-historian David Marc quipped, rewriting the famous mordant phrase of Theodor Adorno,that “If there can be no poetry after Auschwitz, at least there can be New Rochelle,” the not-quite-Manhattan locus.

The magnetism of the stars and supporting cast also had another side that began to fulfill one of the blacklisted-and-persecuted Hollywood Old Left’s long-standing aspirations. Office, elevator and crowd scenes had African American actors, seen not in the standard TV menial roles like maids or butlers or performers in variety show acts,but as one more anonymous set of office-going professionals. Otherwise on the show, “Social Rules” as understood in 1950s American life were to be kidded continuously and in settings unfamiliar in various ways – without ever going too far. Dick Van Dyke got bar mitzvah lessons in one episode; in another, the happy couple, awarded at a banquet for their contributions to interracial progress, accidentally dip their hands in black dye and confront monumental embarrassment before the crowd of over-earnest, interracial liberals.

The Dick Van Dyke Show was a monumental hit (1961-66) and the spin-offs destined to be yet more memorable. The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1971-77), yet stronger in character-driven humor, notoriously offered Mary as the independent career woman seeking something more important to her than catching a man, although definitely still given to embarrassing laugh-moments. As the associate producer of a television station in Minneapolis, she counted. Her bosom-buddy Rhoda, most definitely Jewish and at least as independent-minded, got her own show, albeit short-lived. And something else happened.

Lou Grant (1977-82), with lefty Ed Asner reprising his role as Mary’s boss but in the toughened status as journalistic muckraker and all-too-obviously Jewish radical, was arguably the first dramatic show to take on America’s imperial crimes, along other calculated crimes and disorders in high places. Red-baited continuously, Asner was as much as chased from the air, although he had his revenge in leading the Screen Actors Guild and serving as a burr in the saddle of the CIA-linked AFL-CIO leadership of the age. By that time, M*A*S*H, had long since spun off from a film co-written by Ring Lardner, Jr., one of the most famous of the blacklisted screenwriters, and was well on its way to becoming both the most watched (through residuals) and most peacenik series in television history. For that matter, Norman Lear’s comedies, All in the Family, the definitely Jewish Maud, and others – made possible by the quiet participation of blacklisted writers and their friends, had firmly established what might be called “social television” if never “socialist television,” once and for all. No surprise, Lear himself also had a long history with the Hollywood (Jewish) Left. Hello Roseanne and The Simpsons among many others to come, and for that matter Saturday Night Live, a while back: there was an audience for this stuff.

Mary Tyler Moore, the actress, had done her work. After MTM, she receded gradually from public life, despite films, television, and a campaign for public health attention to diabetes (from which she herself suffered, for decades). The big moment had passed for the creative team of writers and producers who had come of age just before or during the Second World War, with the vitality of the Popular Front all around them. Like the blacklisted screenwriters and directors, active in dozens of more and less memorable films under the blacklist and after, the aging stars who had known them so well continued on where they could, as long as they could.

Critics who snarled at television have always dismissed these social moments in popular entertainment as irrelevant or worse, good-tasting lures to the unwary liberal viewer. One of the stranger Cold War liberal tropes, familiar in the writings of Arthur Schlesinger Jr., among others, merged the alleged Communist conspiracy with the commercial-culture conspiracy, perhaps conspiring together to poison the prospects for “real culture” among the masses, as rock music allegedly ruined the taste for classical music. We hear less from the Snob Party these days, but they are always likely to return, generally reaffirming the virtues of liberal democracy American-style, also hawkish and empire-style, in a world of barbarisms. Those of us who have always enjoyed “a good show,” meanwhile, nurture warm memories about Mary Tyler Moore and the shifts in mass media that her work helped bring about.

Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner’s Hide in Plain Sight, a sequel to their Radical Hollywood, offers the details on the saga of the blacklisted Hollywood Left after 1950.

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Paul Buhle, the thirteen-year-old of 1957 who wanted to be a science fiction writer when he grew up, but became a historian and comics editor instead.

The Holocaust, Israel, and Trump’s Jewish Myopia

Feb6

by: Matt Sienkiewicz on February 6th, 2017 | 1 Comment »

Sean Spicer standing behind a White House podium.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer

After a weekend of controversy, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was no doubt well-prepared on Monday to explain why the President had removed any mention of anti-Semitism in his statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Spicer began by reiterating the counter-intuitive notion that by ignoring the near annihilation of European Jewry, President Trump’s team, likely lead by Steve Bannon, was somehow being inclusive. The logic behind this idea is impenetrable, unless one assumes that Presidential statements have 140 character limits, making it impossible to affirm the centrality of anti-Semitism to the Nazi worldview while also acknowledging the broad range of people targeted by their hate. Just as bad, however, was Spicer’s pivot. American Jews, he suggested, have no right to be offended by the Holocaust statement for a simple, single, and seemingly unrelated reason: Israel.

Trump, Spicer articulated, is a perfect friend to both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the state he represents. That being the (much debatable) case, how could Jews possibly interpret anti-Semitism in anything Trump does? Aren’t Jews and Israelis always of the same mind? The answer, of course, is that not all Jewish people care singularly, or even primarily, about Israel. Furthermore, there’s plenty of room in contemporary white nationalism, with its fundamental commitment to racial separation, to support a nation way over yonder in which Jews wear their funny hats, eat their funny food, and mind their own business. And if this all comes at the expense of a bunch of Muslims, well, even better. It’s an ugly, unfair view of Israel, but it’s one that the alt-right can easily get behind.

Trump’s team, via Spicer, was offering American Jews a deal: Give up that part of your identity that’s so concerned with the Holocaust and accept one in which Israeli strength, just or unjust, defines what it means to be who you are. Some Jews, of course, tend to agree. Perhaps, they argue, Jewish fascination with victimization is past its expiration date. This would be true, were it not for the obvious fact that many Jews in America and beyond understand the Holocaust not merely as a defining trauma, but also as a call to action. Holocaust remembrance motivates Jews to care about the long-term security of the Jewish people, certainly. It also, however, causes Jews throughout the world to identify Jewishness with the ability to look beyond their own tribe and towards mankind. It convinces millions of Jews to donate to Jewish charities that offer their services to all in need, regardless of religion. It makes Senator Chuck Schumer, a man whose great-grandmother was murdered for being Jewish, cry when he thinks about Iraqi refugees being turned away at JFK. It helps Jews understand that a strong identity need not preclude a commitment to mankind.

The people who prepped Spicer’s response are not terribly interested in mankind or, for that matter, Jews. Sure, they can find a way to make use of them. If the Jewish people can be reduced to an ethnic clan locked in a bitter, eternal struggle with Arabs and Islam, then they fit right in. If their commitment to Israel’s Jewishness makes claims of America’s Christian Soul more plausible, that’s great. If their need to understand and accept Israeli security measures makes building a Mexican border wall appear more morally palatable then, by all means, be as Jewish as you want. But if being Jewish means looking back at events such as the Holocaust and using them as inspiration to protest the wall, fight the ban, and #resist, then they’d just as soon see that line deleted.

In a multicultural democracy, minority groups make compromises. It’s simple math. Politicians, seeking their majorities, never take the time to really understand what makes a subculture tick. Filmmakers and TV producers, aiming for a wider audience, boil their representations down, simplifying the complexity of minority life and, at times, drifting into stereotypes. This reality is unfortunate, but if it comes with a sense of progress towards respect and security, the price may be worth paying.

Bannon, Trump, et al., however, are asking for far too much and giving far too little in return. By deleting Auschwitz and offering Israeli settlements, they are asking Jews to give up the messy history and psychology that is so central to contemporary Jewish identity. Particularly in America, Jews often live in a state of constant contradiction, striving to be both tribal and universal, feeling both empowered and in a state of potential victimhood. In exchange for this difficult but very meaningful struggle, the President is asking Jews to embrace a static, one note, identity-based ethno-religious fervor for Israel. It’s a bad, bad deal. I hope we turn them down.

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Matt Sienkiewicz is a Modern Orthodox Jewish American who researches and teaches global media at Boston College. His documentary Live From Bethlehem is available from the Media Education Foundation and he can be followed on Twitter.

A New King: Inaugurating Resistance Along with a President

Feb3

by: David Seidenberg on February 3rd, 2017 | 2 Comments »

Who is wise? Someone one who learns from every person.

I. We have three Pharaohs in our Torah. The first Pharaoh, less memorable, receives Abraham and Sarah and then sends them away. The second, the good Pharaoh, is the one who raises Joseph from imprisoned slave to ruler over all Egypt. Only the third one, who did not know Joseph, is called “melekh chadash,” “a new king” – new because he inaugurated a radically new political order.

The new Pharaoh’s first policy, based on fear of foreigners, was to cast the entire Hebrew people into slavery. His next policy was to kill the Hebrew male babies, bringing God’s judgment upon himself and his nation. We began his story when we began the book of Exodus, the day after Trump’s inauguration. Interwoven with his story is the story of Shifra and Puah, the Hebrews’ midwives, who inaugurate resistance to the Pharaoh of the Exodus when they refuse to implement his policy of male infanticide.

How different is the story of the second Pharaoh, Joseph’s Pharaoh, that comes at the end of Genesis? He essentially becomes a pupil at Joseph’s feet, handing over to Joseph the reins of power. We need to understand what Joseph did with that power if we want to understand how Egypt became a fascist state under the Pharaoh who never knew Joseph. In the same way, we need to understand how the use of power by progressive forces in the U.S. has helped set up the world of pain our country is now entering.

II. The story of Joseph’s Pharaoh is a story about a world turned upside down, first by Nature, then by Joseph himself. Seven years of extravagant abundance, swallowed up by seven years of deadly famine. And a young man, a Hebrew slave, who saved the world. Joseph gathered up enough grain during the seven fat years to supply the seven lean ones.


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Love and Prayer as Resistance: Interfaith Action at Standing Rock

Jan23

by: Paige Foreman on January 23rd, 2017 | 3 Comments »

Seminary students huddle around a table with bright red ministerial stoles in an intimate, round chapel at Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California. The students were supposed to leave at 3:00 PM, but about twenty people from the  Starr King community want to bless them before they leave. The room is packed with parents, professors, students, friends. Together they pray, singing hymns about water. Many cry, moved by what they know is happening at Standing Rock and the show of support around them. Even though they are not ordained, the group insists the students have the red stoles.

“In the Episcopal tradition, the color red is the color of witnessing,” said Rev. Deb Hansen, an interfaith minister and Starr King student.

Immediately after the service, the eight students piled into two cars and drove for 30 hours to respond to North Dakota Episcopal priest John Floberg’s clergy call for solidarity in early November. A ninth student from Virginia would meet the group in North Dakota. A week ago, 140 protesters were arrested there after a violent confrontation with the police.

They drove together through the snowy Donner Pass, stopped at a diner in Reno, watched the sun rise over brilliant red sandstone in Utah, and gazed at the deer that lined the roads in Wyoming. They drove past oil wells and wind farms. In Wyoming they saw an armory—a giant, two-story grey block surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with razor wire. And about two hours later, one of the cars — in which the passengers were two women, a gay man, and black man — was stopped for speeding by a state trooper.


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“Worst Campuses for Jewish Students”: A Laughable List

Jan18

by: Paul Von Blum on January 18th, 2017 | Comments Off

View of Royce HallRecently, the Jewish newspaper, The Algemeiner, released its list of the “40 Worst Campuses for Jewish Students in the United States and Canada.” Included in this list of infamy were such internationally known institutions as Columbia University (#1 for hostility against Jewish students), the University of Chicago, the University of Toronto, McGill University, the University of Washington, Vassar College, New York University, and many others. UCLA, where I have taught for almost four decades, came in at number 6. The Algemiener list is scarcely the only one of its kind. UCLA also makes the cut from the notorious David Horowitz, who is always on guard for any sentiments, especially on college and university campuses, that offend his right-wing agenda.

The rap against UCLA often stems from an unfortunate incident on February 10, 2015. A young Jewish woman student, Rachel Beyda, was nominated for a position on the student Judicial Board. When she appeared before the Student Council, she was questioned about her religion and her ability to serve impartially: “Given that you are a Jewish student and very active in the Jewish community, how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?”

Later, Ms. Beyda was voted in unanimously and the four council members who initially voted against her apologized. This incident was unambiguously anti-Semitic and was roundly condemned throughout the campus community and through the national media. I took every opportunity personally, in class and in private conversations, to condemn the original student council action and the odious questions to Rachel Beyda. As a second generation Holocaust survivor, I am acutely sensitive to all forms of racism and anti-Semitism (and sexism and homophobia) and I always speak out wherever and whenever I encounter them.

But this regrettable incident also needs proper perspective. In various social gatherings for the past two years, I have been asked, even confronted, about the allegedly dangerous atmosphere that Jews face at UCLA. Inevitably, the first example I hear is the story of the Rachel Beyda affair. This incident was a matter of juvenile ignorance rather than evidence of systemic anti-Jewish bias on campus. University students sometimes do dumb things; this was one of the dumber things I have seen in my many years of university teaching.


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Can a Two-State Solution Survive?

Jan18

by: Joel Beinin on January 18th, 2017 | Comments Off

French foreign minister in front of officerFrench Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault hosted the foreign ministers of some 70 countries on January 15 at a Paris conference to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and “re-launch” the peace process. Mr. Ayrault hoped that the meeting would “reaffirm the necessity of having two states.” France supports “a viable and democratic independent Palestinian State, living in peace and security alongside Israel.” Jerusalem would be the capital of both states. The border between them would be based on the ceasefire lines prior to the Arab-Israeli War of June 1967, with mutually agreed modifications and equivalent land swaps.

Since the 1980 Venice Declaration of the European Union (then called the European Economic Community), international opinion has gradually reached near unanimity that something like this is the only viable resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But the French initiative, like many other well-intentioned efforts, produced no concrete results. Indeed, there was no reason to expect it would.

On April 18, 2013, as Secretary of State John Kerry was launching his effort to restart Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, he told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that, “the window for a two-state solution is shutting…I think we have some period of time – a year to year-and-a-half to two years, or it’s over.” If Secretary Kerry’s words have any meaning, the two-state solution has been clinically dead for nearly two years. Nonetheless, international diplomatic activity aimed at keeping it on life support continues zealously.


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Neither Jewish nor Democratic

Jan17

by: Shaiya Rothberg on January 17th, 2017 | 1 Comment »

It’s game over for the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in Israel’s Negev region. Government bulldozers may begin crushing the homes of the roughly 500 residents at any time. On the rubble will be built a new town called Hiran, complete with a synagogue and Jewish ritual bath. A group of religious Jews are living nearby, ready to move in.

The violent fate of Umm al-Hiran is a fitting end to 60 years of neglect and discrimination. The village was established in its present location by an official order of the IDF military governor in 1956.  Even though settled in this spot by the state, they were still “unrecognized” and thus denied the basic services necessary for dignified life, such as electricity, water, roads, and sewage. They were also denied building permits so that their homes are “illegal.” The Jews who will replace them will live in “legal” homes with all the necessary services.


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Social Action Education as Spiritual Practice – Lessons from Standing Rock

Dec30

by: Rabbi Rain Zohav on December 30th, 2016 | 3 Comments »

Every time we take action, we are also educating. If we are lobbying, we are educating our legislators. If we are protesting, we are educating the public and the “powers that be”. And we are educating ourselves in how to be effective and live our values.

In this moment, the Water Protectors at Standing Rock are a strong example of the intertwining of education, action, and spiritual practice. I was privileged to be able to answer the call of Chief Looking Horse for clergy to come to Standing Rock to pray and be in solidarity with the water protectors on Sunday, Dec. 4. This is perhaps the first lesson for allies to any cause: Listen and wait to be invited if you are supporting groups whose oppression you do not share. In the Jewish tradition, our central prayer, the Sh’ma, is all about listening. Listening to the Divine who is One: transcendent, immanent and reflected in the face of every human being.


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Accountability, Love, Shame, and Working for Transformation

Dec22

by: on December 22nd, 2016 | Comments Off

“All through history, and for many of us in our own experience, there are deeds done, causes furthered, and values proclaimed, that must be regarded as destructive, motivated by hate or greed, harmful to humanity on whatever scale, local or world-wide. These things may all be ‘good’ in the eyes of those who do them, but what of us? What do we really see, or think, or say and do? Are we justified in doing anything to stop harm being done? Are we even justified in speaking about it?” (from a reader, in response to an earlier post)

It happens regularly: I speak of love, understanding, compassion, and working to transcend separation, and in response, people raise the question of what to do in the face of harm done. As if accountability must be punitive, shaming, or harsh, while love would mean not confronting people about their actions.

For me, the path into the freedom and transformation I seek includes going beyond any divide between love and accountability, acceptance and action, nonviolence and the strength to speak up and work for change. It’s all about how we do accountability; what kind of action we take and with what motivation; and what our movements for change will look like.

This is where my many years of practice with Nonviolent Communication, deeply informed by my engagement with the legacy of Gandhian nonviolence, has supported me so much in seeing freshly.

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Don’t Make A Mystic into a Martyr: Fethullah Gülen as Peacebuilder

Dec21

by: Jon Pahl on December 21st, 2016 | 2 Comments »

Editor’s Note: The following essay was originally published in July by the University of California Press blog, but given the known business connections that raise conflict-of-interest questions between the U.S. President-elect and the Turkish regime, among others, and given the increasing pressure by the Turkish regime to extradite Fethullah Gulen from Pennsylvania, the argument remains pertinent:    

A man sipping from a teacupI can’t speak to the causes of the recent failed military coup in Turkey—although there is certainly precedent for coups in the history of the Turkish Republic (1960, 1971, 1980). But I can speak to the accusations by journalist Mustafa Akyol and the Turkish government that an imam living an ascetic life of prayer and teaching in a Pennsylvania retreat center was somehow “behind” the most recent military uprising: they’re preposterous.

For the past four years, I’ve been researching a biography that focuses on Fethullah Gülen’s life and theology. I’ve been to the impoverished rural village in Northeastern Turkey where he was born. I’ve visited the mosques across Turkey where he preached and taught—in Edirne, Izmir, and Istanbul. I’ve spoken with hundreds of people inspired by him, and some who simply hate him. And I’ve read nearly everything he’s written that’s been translated into English (over two dozen books, and countless sermons), and I know the vast literature for and against him.

My conclusion? He’s a mystic in the Sufi tradition of Islam. And like other famous mystics in history—notably Gandhi, or Rumi—from whom Gülen draws deeply, Fethullah Gülen is a peacebuilder. And history teaches us that peacebuilders are likely to be misunderstood, vilified, and targeted. It would be tragic if once again historical forces conspire to turn a mystic into a martyr.


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