Sammy’s Menorah Doesn’t Sell, and, Do Jews Rock?

Two new stories in The Jewish Week: One on the auction of Sammy Davis Jr.’s menorah, which didn’t sell. Too bad, it’s a nice one, but now it goes back to the electrical contractor who owns it.
And a story about revisionism in Jewish punk rock history. The Jewish punk rockers on a panel last week at YIVO–Tommy Ramone, Lenny Kaye, Handsome Dick Manitoba (ne Richard Blum), and Chris Stein of Blondie–couldn’t agree on whether their Jewishness influenced their music. Much to Steven Lee Beeber’s chagrin, author of “The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGBs: A Secret History of Jewish Punk.”

Louise Gluck Poses a Problem

I read this poem a couple days ago, new on Slate, by Louise Gluck, a former U.S. Poet Laureate. I love her stuff, but this one’s stayed with me a while, more so than usual. I read it again today and thought I’d share it. (Here’s the link.) It’s more than Gluck’s usual deeply probing poems, written in her straightforward, unfussy style. It also poses, I think, a real challenge to our society’s focus on “the self.” Here’s what I mean:

The unnamed friend in the poem seems to live a happy existence. With each new love of his, he fully inhabits that person’s mind, learning to think, act and feel exactly as she would. But the flip-side (not necessarily a down-side, based on my reading) is that he loses any ability to develop his own personality, his own sense of self. When he moves on to another lover, he simply becomes someone else.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that he’s somehow “fake” or disingenious; not at all. He’s just mastered the skill we all more or less sharpen when we love someone, romanticly, or as friends, family, or otherwise. He’s gone beyond empathy, beyond sympathy even, and reached an utterly un-self-conscious kind of understanding. A real transcending of the self, and all the crap that comes with it — pride, temerity, caution, selfishness. He no longer views the person he’s with objectively either, and thinks entirely as she would. To his lover, this could make him unreliable of course, being of no use when she asks for honest advice. But he is happy, always discovering something new.

One challenge this kind of person poses is that he leaves no trace on his peers. When his former girlfriend’s brag to their new boyfriends about this old flame, Gluck writes, the new boyfriends “tolerate this, they even smile. / … they know this man doesn’t exist.” He embodies no qualities that his peers can look up to (or be jealous of), that they really admire about him. That is besides, of course, the happiness he’s learned to acquire through constant transformation.

Would you want to be him? Or, if you’re less enthused, do you even like him?

Just a thought.

The Rh Factor, I.B. Singer with Puppets, and a Feud Between Freud and Jung

Some recent work from The Jewish Week: A theater festival of Jewish ideas in New York, and What Orwell Would Say about plays like “My Name is Rachel Corrie,” “Seven Jewish Children” and “Wall.”

A Good Experience: Notes on Soderbergh’s “The Girlfriend Experience”

It’s too bad Soderbergh kept his new film so short, just 77 minutes, because the story he’s begun to tell is so remarkably primed for the plumbing. Chelsea, a prostitute played by the real-life porn star Sasha Grey, sells her product to various Wall Street-types–often filmed yucking it up in the cabin of a private jet–while her boyfriend Chris, a trainer, tries to make their relationship work. It all goes swimmingly until Chelsea falls for one of her clients.

But the plot isn’t why it’s so good. What Soderbergh (“Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” “Che,” all “Ocean’s Eleven through Thirteen”) has done is create a snapshot of our gilded age–its fragility, uncertainty and systemic collusion. We are all bit players, Soderbergh seems to say, in an economy whose underlying motive isn’t real wealth, but the mere appearance of it. Bankers have deluded themselves into thinking that they can buy “the girlfriend experience,” while the seedy petit bourgeois–escorts, trainers–believe money will set them free.

The strength of Soderbergh’s film is that these comparisons aren’t made explicit, though they eventually become clear, thus saving it from dumbed-down fare. The subtle force behind its power is Soderbergh’s technique. He uses a hand-held digital camera, with even the audio muffled out at times by the background clatter of clinging glassware and scraped plates at New York new wealth’s favorite haunts (Craftsteak, Public). Reality TV only hopes to reach this kind of realism.

The film also gets a boost from the spot-on acting of the mostly non-professional cast. Few of the films main conceits–how insecure the wealthy are about the foundations of their wealth, say, or how supremely rational a prostitute must be to keep sex and love in two separate spheres–come through in the dialogue alone. It’s the actors’ inflection, their way of talking around subjects, the negation of what’s been said by an anxious little laugh, that makes their message clear.

Perhaps Soderbergh was exhausted after making his 4-hour “Che” epic, released earlier this year, but the films only flaw may be its hurried rush. Cut, cut, cut to the next scene–you can almost feel director fidgeting at the editing room desk. In any event, not since Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street”–or perhaps ever–has a filmmaker captured the grand delusions of a society drunk on expensive champagne, over-priced to begin with, and air.

Warren Buffett’s Just Lucky

Maybe, if you go by Sue Halpern’s incisive reading–and trashing–of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers: The Story of Success.” Now I’m not one to jump on the Gladwell-bashing bandwagon that’s met the poor man since “The Tipping Point,” and guaranteed him best-seller status since. And I’m not sure Halpern is either (there’s not much vitriol here, just ruthless argumentation). Nonetheless, her New York Review essay slices through him quick.

It’s luck, Gladwell says, being born to the right people at the right time. Nonsense, says Sue. What about Warren Buffett?, the grandchild of a grocery store clerk and a mentally-ill grandma. (In Omaha, no less.) Culture? Nah. Contrary to what Gladwell might say about Asians and math (centuries of wet-rice cultivation demands hard-work and mental skill, he writes, which is helpful for those persnickety algorithms), other people’s similar history hasn’t seemed to help. A culture of tobacco farming should’ve helped folks from Kentucky, Tennessee and Tar Heels country to similar SAT scores, but it hasn’t.

And what about hard-work? Yes. Absolutely. You need it. But don’t let the critical fact that perfect practice makes good, not simply repeating crappy habits. That’s the argument of Geoff Colvin in “Talent Is Overrated,” which Halpern uses as foil to Gladwell. Anyway, read her piece. Who knew that Buffett had an affair with The WaPo’s Katharine Graham (maybe)? That Berkshire Hathaway owns a maker of vacuum-cleaners and prison uniforms?–and that those investments helped his stock weather some recent dumber ones, like buying huge chunks of the oil industry at its peak, and now watching his stock value fall?

Oh, and did I say there’s no Gladwell-bashing? I meant, not much. Here’s her on Gladwell: the “clever master of the anecdote” who “repurpose[s] scraps of academic research into slinky intellectual lamé.”

Stephen Petronio, Lost At Sea

All this week, Stephen Petronio’s company has been anchored at The Joyce. It’s a special occasion, too: his company celebrates its 25th year, and the star choreographer wants to party. So what’s he done? Invited hot tickets like Nico Muhly to do the score and Cindy Sherman to design the outfits for an evening length work called “I Drink In The Air Before Me.” The title comes from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and the whole work evokes a maiden voyage gone awry. When I say something also ambiguously judgmental, like that it feels like a vivant tableaux of a shipwreck, I don’t mean that entirely in a bad way, either. Gericault would rejoice, and audiences might too. But, alas, only for awhile.

The fact is, Petronio let his collaborators steal his show. Muhly’s icy score, full of creaky pipe sounds, synthesized organs and a well-woven live wind-and-string ensemble, is remarkable. Muhly apparently met Petronio at a gym–they said this after last night’s talk-back session–and Petronio wanted to do something nautical. So Muhly created a very loosely structured score that emulates a weather pattern; a quiet interlude followed by a rapturous stormy center, which is then washed out by an iridescent choir-sung coda.

It’s a beautiful piece of work, and it’s obvious that the gauntlet Muhly threw down was a bit much for Petronio to handle. His stock-and-trade moves–darting swirls, rapid juts and jams of elbows, hips and hands–are just fine. But they can’t sustain an hour-length work like Muhly’s. You can tell he has a wider vocabulary, particularly in the rare instances when a pas de deux mingles in balletic poses. There are hints of grace and elegance elsewhere, too, and one only wishes he’d match more of it to the more tender sections of Muhly’s score. But he didn’t, and instead we get bored.

A few things keep us watching, though, like Sherman’s simple and soft, if sometimes ill-thought outfits. In one scene, the powder blue pajamas look great, but you can’t appreciate a dancer’s stallion torso or craning limbs in such suits. One guy just says the hell with it, takes his top off, and lets gawker’s gawk. Her thick navy-and-white stripe spandex pieces, in another scene, were a better choice. Now I don’t want to say that Petronio got intimidated by his guests, so I’ll just wonder out loud. Whatever the reason he got outshone, there’s no reason for it. Twenty-fears years means you’re good. You’ve built it, people want to come. Plus, he’s got more on his resume to prove his worth, all those years with Trisha Brown, collaborations with William Forsythe, and truckloads more with opera and ballet companies the world over. Now it’s his turn to sit down his dream team of collaborators, and say, Listen, I run the show.

Steph-o, if you’re listening, here’s wishing you a happy 25th, and hoping for a better party next year.

The Best Israeli Novelist You’ve Never Heard Of

My story from last week. It’s about one of Israeli’s most esteemed writers, Meir Shalev, who’s in town this week for the PEN World Voices Festival. Read my article. Or, better yet, read his books.