Tearing down the stereotypes via film, art
Take Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Borat,” a new screen comedy that makes liberal use of extreme anti-Jewish imagery. Cohen plays Borat, a fictional TV journalist from Kazakhstan, crisscrossing America. Along the way he reveals his favorite hometown customs, like “The Running of the Jew,” during which Borat encourages a mob to “kill the Jew chick before it hatches.” This is the same Borat from Cohen’s MTV hit “The Ali G. Show,” who once led a real-life country honky-tonk audience in a sing-along of “Throw the Jew Down the Well.”
Crass and uncomfortable, sure. But as our cover story notes, j.’s panel of three Bay Area Jews – a rabbi, a movie critic and a community professional – have seen the film and did not find it anti-Semitic at all. That’s because they understood “Borat” is not about laughing at Jews. It’s about ridiculing anti-Semites. Cohen is an agile guerilla satirist who turns the worst anti-Jewish stereotypes on their head. Just as Cohen rips those anti-Semitic canards by stretching them to absurd limits, a new local art exhibition at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum challenges other preconceived notions about what it means to be Jewish.
“The Jewish Identity Project,” now running through February, is comprised of photography and multimedia displays, each in their own way addressing that perennial question: Who is a Jew? Some of the photos depict fervently religious Orthodox Jews in counterintuitive settings in the rural Midwest. Some show black Jews, Asian Jews and Hispanic “conversos” (those raised Catholic in Latin America who later discover Jewish roots and return to the fold). “Jewish Identity Project” astonishes, not only with its aesthetic beauty, but also its challenging point of view. Collectively the photos explore a diversity many in our community may not have known existed. Clearly, not every Jew in America looks or acts “Jewish.”
What this exhibition does in a positive artistic way, Cohen does in a more cynically comic way. Both dangle and dismiss Jewish stereotypes, and do so with unyielding chutzpah. Not everyone will laugh at the misadventures of Borat. Not everyone will connect with the “Jewish Identity Project.” But both prove the Jewish community will always find new ways of seeing itself, and of blasting those who refuse to grant us our humanity. “Borat” may not be your cup of tea. But Cohen’s fearless Jewish pride, as well as the Jewish Identity Project’s piercing perspective, has something important to offer.