About The Schmooze

In Amazon’s ‘Hunters’, Al Pacino Finds His Yiddishkeit

“This is not murder,” croons a be-whiskered, be-Yiddish-accented Al Pacino, glaring ominously at a cork-board tacked with photographs of men in totalitarian-chic uniforms. “This is mitzvah.”

It’s official: in Amazon Prime’s upcoming drama “Hunters”, Pacino will play the Nazi-killing Jewish grandfather you never knew you needed.

Slated for release in 2020, “Hunters” seems like a jazzed-up recreation of actual efforts to find and prosecute Nazis in the decades after World War II. But real-life Simon Wiesenthals would recognize almost nothing in the show’s invented premise: In 1977 New York, young Jonah Heidelbaum discovers that hundreds of Nazis have infiltrated the city after they brutally murder his Holocaust survivor grandmother. To halt the rise of a “Fourth Reich,” he joins a group of knife-wielding Nazi hunters led by Pacino - or, as the Schmooze shall know him forever more, Meyer Offerman.

An enviable lineup of Jewish and gentile luminaries have signed onto the project. It-man Jordan Peele is producing the series through his company Monkeypaw Productions, while Logan Lerman (veteran of the “Percy Jackson” fantasy franchise and secret crush of anyone who was a teenage dork in the mid-2000s) will play Jonah. Carol Kane of “Princess Bride” fame and Saul Rubinek, actor and son of Holocaust survivors, have signed on for smaller roles. Pacino himself is no stranger to portraying members of the tribe, having portrayed Shylock in the 2004 film adaptation of “The Merchant of Venice” and movie macher Marvin Schwarz in last year’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”.

“Hunters” promises a bit of post-Holocaust magical thinking. Yes, the Nazis really are coming for your grandmother — but not to worry! No Reich is a match for the walking incarnation of gangster cool. The show makes fighting bigotry look a lot more straightforward than it will ever be, but is the Schmooze too good to watch it? You’d better believe we’re doing ourselves a mitzvah and renewing our Amazon Prime.

“Hunters” will premiere in 2020. You can watch the trailer here:

Irene Katz Connelly is an intern at the Forward. You can contact her at connelly@forward.com.

How Jewish Teens Are Using TikTok, The Viral Short Video Platform

It took me just five minutes of TikTok streaming to come upon a video of a teenager dressed as “Harry Potter” spinoff character Newt Scamander doing American Sign Language over a recording of comedian John Mulaney riffing on Jewish women.

Further down the page — an eye-rolling girl gave a tour of her parents’ mezuza collection, a boy in a hoodie reenacted the ancient conquests of Jerusalem with reality TV dialogue, and a girl and her mom bickered over an Israeli soap opera they call “Schnitzel.”

TikTok — the viral video app for teens that has been downloaded over one billion times — is an accelerated, exaggerated version of the rest of the internet. Accordingly, it is as warm and inviting a host for white supremacy as a shower curtain is for mold. You don’t have to search #heil to find the hate (but you can.) Calls for genocide are scattered in between dance challenges. Mostly, there’s the teen proclivity to despise seriousness, mixed with latent cultural anti-Semitism that gives much of the internet its distinct flavor.

But elsewhere on the explosively popular app, Jewish ritual, culture, and people are in good, though often prepubescent, hands. Sure, the hashtag “Anne Frank” has more views than the hashtag “Jewish.” But plenty of young Jews are using TikTok to connect with other diaspora Jews, to serve as ambassadors for their people, to explain themselves to themselves.

If you don’t know TikTok, congratulations — you’ve got one foot in the grave. TikTok was launched in 2017 under the name Musical.ly, then bought in 2018 by the Chinese company ByteDance — last week Reuters reported that the US Committee on Foreign Investment is investigating ByteDance for potential censorship and misuse of user data. This feels unlikely to put a dent in TikTok’s popularity.

The app helps users produce snippets of viral content — popular TikTok genres are choreographed dances, lip-syncs to random cultural touchstones, memes, and challenges: for example. It’s a kind of teen-friendly Reddit that you can mainline, a Never-Neverland for people born after 9/11. Can Jews find a home on TikTok? They have, and it’s weird.

I took to my TikTok research with the same blind determination of a dad interrogating his teenage kids about whether they do the new drug he heard about on NPR. TikTok isn’t built for people who lived during the Clinton administration; the search bar couldn’t identify the tag for “Jewish” even though I could see it was a tag on many videos — I don’t know if that’s because of a sinister TikTok conspiracy or because I’m incompetent.

I seared my eyeballs in their own socket juices by the blue light of my smartphone, attempting to watch as many #Jewish and #Judaism TikTok videos as possible. The videos were laugh-out-loud funny, offensive, troubling, self-hating, and self-loving. Let’s break down Jewish TikTok into the most popular categories and types of videos so we can understand them, even if it makes us seem unbelievably old.

This is the state of Jewish TikTok:

‘Jewish check!’

The most common Jewish TikTok genre calls for a “Jewish check.” This is a riff on other popular “check” videos — “Strict Parent Checks” film nanny cams and lists of rules, while “Rich Boy Checks” show off expensive Apple products and sports cars. Most “Jewish check” videos go like this one made by user “Sooopphhhhh,” which has over 120,000 views — Hava Nagilah plays as the camera pans to kippot and an array of the latest iPhones. It moves to a boy’s profile, zooming in on his nose. Then to a mezuzah, girls doing a Hora, and a chai necklace.

Shana Cohen’s version features a boy showing off a handful of splayed twenty dollar bills — but also, a girl putting money into a tzedakah box, and a pair of teens studying Talmud. In many “Jewish check” videos, like the one with over 118,000 views made by students at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Pennsylvania, the camera zooms in on one teenager’s nose, which is stroked for emphasis. It’s hard not to imagine how that selection process goes.

‘I’m a sucker for Jews’

Cleanse your pallet after the stress of watching Jewish teenagers accept Nazi standards of beauty with this format, which is straightforward praise of famous Jews. “Have all my celebrity crushes been Jewish THIS WHOLE TIME” one user commented on the worshipful video above. (Yes, Jacky, they have.) Most of these videos are about male heart throbs; in others Jewish women get well-deserved praise, too.

Days of Awe(some content)

Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah are incredibly fecund times for TikTok teens, presumably because they are locked together in Jewish spaces for many hours at a time, with access to great props (say, antelope horns.) Witness: A graphic song about STD symptoms becomes the scaffolding for a parody of High Holiday prayer services. Just outside of the sanctuary, two girls dance to a live cantor’s rendition of “Kol Nidre,” filtering through the door. A particularly young-looking TikToker does a darkly comic bit about fasting on Yom Kippur while in recovery from an eating disorder. (“not Jewish but a friend of mine is and theyve always said if yr chronically ill its a mitzvah to not fast?” one user commented.) Later in the season, a boy gave a dressing-down to his etrog.

‘We’re the Jews, we’re the Jews, we’re the Jews…’

The “We’re the Jews” meme format is based on “We’re the girls,” in which three girls march in a circle, chanting “We’re the girls” in between uttering embarrassing truths about themselves. “The past three consecutive years on the High Holidays, my rabbi has made a sermon about The Beatles,” says TikTok user “Binch.Boi,” above, barely containing her mirth. “If I get a tattoo I won’t be buried with the rest of my family!” exclaims a middle school-aged girl in Noah Shapiro’s “We’re the Jews” video.

Lizzo & Lin Manuel

“I just took a DNA test, turns out, I’m 100 percent that b***h,” Lizzo sings in her chart topper “Truth Hurts.” In Lin Manuel Miranda’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical “In The Heights,” a teen girl sings, “My mom is Dominican-Cuban/My dad is from Chile and P.R. which means/I’m Chile-Dominicurican/But I always say I’m from Queens!” Teens used these snatches from both songs to riff on their heritage, including Jews, who found themselves to be “100% Ashkenazi,” “100% Persian,” and observed “I look like Anne Frank.” One Reform teen’s version goes, “My mom is…ethnically Jewish/My dad is…the child of two Holocaust survivors/Which means I’m…a miracle not to have a mental illness yet/But I always say…I’m in denial.”

Ha ha Holocaust

References to the Holocaust are abundant on TikTok, and Jewish TikTok is not an exception. Comedy — and in pursuit of it, risk taking — is the currency of TikTok. Nothing’s off limits, including the Holocaust, plenty of Jews on the app argue, with a caveat from some: The people joking about the Holocaust should be Jewish. TikTok offers a venue for teens to rant and rave about being different, and learning about World War II and the Holocaust makes Jewish kids feel different, as expressed in video after video after video.

‘I can’t wait for Christmas’

If much of Jewish TikTok is a confused, defiant blend of joy and shame around being Jewish, all of that goes away during Hanukkah. Come Kislev, Jewish TikTok-ers ditch the nose-themed videos and focus on uproarious celebrations of Hanukkah, with surprisingly little Christmas-envy.

And finally, the Jewish dorks:

Standing alone in his bedroom, a teenager dances to a remix of a pop song to demonstrate that there is no good reason to be anti-Semitic. A girl in a headscarf lip-syncs to rap in homage to the Jews who were blamed for the Black Death (“The f**k goin’ on?” she asks, giving voice to the Medieval Jews.) “OyGay,” a trans teen TikTok-er who makes Jewish content, lip-sync-raps to Killumantii, imitating the manic, furious God of the Torah.

Plenty of these micro-videographers and part-time comics are the only Jews at their school, the only Jews in their neighborhood, the only Jews they know. But on TikTok — busting Jewish stereotypes, comparing noses, dirty dancing to the sounds of Shacharit — they’re not alone.

Jenny Singer is the deputy life/features editor for the Forward. You can reach her at Singer@forward.com or on Twitter @jeanvaljenny

It’s Not Your Bubbe’s Drag Show

It’s after midnight — long past the bedtime hour for most bubbes — when Josephine steps onstage with her guitar. Her slightly disheveled red jumpsuit looks like it once belonged to an Elvis impersonator. But the feathered curls she sports are reminiscent of a woman of a certain age, the kind who never misses Shabbos prayers and never fails to bring a kugel for the oneg.

“Your father loved this song,” she says in a thick Bronx accent, eyeing the audience mischievously. But when the crowd giggles, she shakes her head in knowing resignation. “You think he was such an angel? Think again.”

The drag frontwoman of the eponymous band The Josephine Network, Josephine is closing out the night at LQQK, a showcase of queer artists in Brooklyn. After three hours of performances, the crowd is flagging, but heads pop up when Josephine launches into her set. She’s coined the term “soul-gum” to describe her signature sound, a blend of upbeat bubblegum pop instrument with emotive soul melodies. Crooning the first chorus, she stares dreamily into the distance, as if searching out a nice Jewish boy for her granddaughter.

“I used to slow dance to this in the 70s,” she breathes as the last chords die away.

The Josephine Network is a new creation, first performing in early 2019. But Josephine’s daytime alter-ego, Brooklyn-based musician Joey Farber, is no stranger to the music world. Their father coached them through their first chords - the opening bars to the Isley Brothers’ “Shout!” - at the age of twelve. As a teenager, Farber and their friends employed what must have been some considerable chutzpah to charm their way into Brooklyn bars and open-mic nights. In their early twenties, Farber played guitar in the glam band Velveteen Rabbit. Now, they’re preparing to embark on a European tour with another rock group, Brower.

Still, even while they flourished as a musician, something was missing. “I would struggle - or just get bored - with being a guy onstage,” they said. “That’s not fully me, anyway.” With the help of other performance artists they conceptualized Josephine, a grandmotherly drag character who intersperses eclectic ballads with tiny sketches of Jewish life just as she mixes sequined jumpsuits and leopard print with prim kitten heels and brunette locks.

Josephine’s character is rooted in Farber’s Westchester childhood home, where their parents “casually dropped Yiddish all the time.” Their upbringing shines through in the Yiddishisms Josephine herself drops between songs, which can make even the most diligent bat mitzvah student feel clueless. No passe jokes about kvetching or kvelling spring from Josephine’s lips; instead, she educates her audience (and this reporter) on the difference between shpilkes, immediate worries, and tsures, existential ones.

But - like the good grandchild they are - Farber reserves most of the credit for their bubbe. A painter of “deep, emotive pastel portraits,” Farber’s grandmother was also “very much a social butterfly wanting to know everyone’s gossip.” Her insistence on valuing seemingly contradictory aspects of her personality showed Farber they could be both a “serious” songwriter and an unapologetically kitschy, fun-loving performer.

Now, Josephine is gaining traction, performing at occasions from drag shows to weddings. Her first album is set for release on no less holy a date than the eighth night of Hanukkah. “There’s a force propelling Josephine beyond my control,” says Farber, adding that it feels like a fitting time to bring such a glitzy, glamorous act to the music scene. “It’s about to be the roaring twenties again,” they point out.

Josephine’s act plays on tropes of Jewish women: the martyred balabusta, the busybody safta. But her appeal reflects a cultural moment in which older women are claiming space for themselves - and their mannerisms - in the public sphere. Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dry competence has spawned untold quantities of online memes, while style guru Iris Apfel signed her first modeling contract at the age of ninety-seven. Finally, acting like a safta can add to your cool factor.

Or as Josephine puts it, “A character is a cliche. But if you fuck with the character, it becomes interesting.”

You’re Invited To ‘Butt Mitzvah,’ A Queer Jewish Joy Disco

To life, to health, to great friends, and to butts: l’chaim.

Fat-bottomed girls, Miss New Booty, and all the honky tonk badonkadonks of the tri-state area will be joyfully grinding to the nusach of the Thong Song this Saturday in Williamsburg at Butt Mitzvah, a queer Jewish nightclub event.

A “cumming of age ceremony” (their words, not ours) inspired by the ancient tradition of the bar mitzvah, Butt Mitzvah is an immersive nightclub event developed by Brit Josh Cole. The evening, which has seen up to 1,000 guests a night in its twice-yearly London iteration, celebrates and subverts the Jewish lifecycle staple, making it adults-only, queer, and sparkly. “In terms of bar and bat mitzvahs, all LGBT Jews can relate to a sense of isolation at this age and being at those functions and not feeling like you necessarily belong,” Cole says. Butt Mitzvah seeks to reverse that, welcoming “all genders, all races, all sexualities, all religions” to one big party.

Expect klezmer music, chair-lifting, abundant snacks, and that classic round-and-round spiralized dancing, at the “Challahween”-themed party. Expect also: drag queens, a butt mitzvah girl chosen for her salacious last name, and unmitigated, uncompromising joy. “Butt Mitzvah is for Jews and non-Jews, you don’t need to know the Torah to be part of Butt Mitzvah,” Cole said. “There’s no implicit knowledge required.” He said he hopes people who don’t always have an “obvious” place in the Jewish community — people with just one Jewish parent or grandparent — will feel at home.

If the whole thing seems a little vulgar or over-sexualized to you, think of it this way — queer Jews grow up hearing the Leviticus 18 verse, “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence.” Butt Mitzvah is about radical acceptance, seeing yourself in the eyes of your community not as an abhorrence but as a reason for rejoicing. “I think having some reference to vulgar wordplay makes it overtly gay and unashamedly sexual,” Cole says. “The night itself is not sexual,” he adds, but like its title, it is “identifiably gay and queer, and overtly Jewish.”

So take them baggy sweat pants and the Reebok’s with the straps (the straps) down to 3 Dollar Bill this Saturday, and celebrate becoming a member of the covenant of pride in your own existence. “New York feels like a sort of homeland for Jews, and it feels like a spiritual homeland for Butt Mitzvah,” Cole said. “Obviously,” he added, “Israel is a nation for Jews. But New York is the place for the Butt Mitzvah.”

Butt Mitzvah is on Saturday, November 2 at Three Dollar Bill in East Williamsburg. Get your tickets here Moms get in free.

Jenny Singer is the deputy life/features editor for the Forward. You can reach her at Singer@forward.com or on Twitter @jeanvaljenny

A Documentary Film On Female Pleasure Misses The Spot

In an advertisement for Italian fashion house Dolce and Gabbana’s summer 2007 collection, a well-oiled model sprawls across the screen, her face evincing well-lipsticked resignation as a group of equally well-oiled men pin her skeletal, stilettoed body to the ground. If the designers had set out to create an illustration for a thought piece on the male gaze, they couldn’t have done better. Critics said the ad simulated a gang rape, and the brand eventually pulled it from most publications.

Now the shot features in the opening of #FemalePleasure, a documentary which poses a compelling (if not exactly original) question: Why is female sexuality so rarely celebrated and so frequently exploited and stigmatized?

The film, which premiered in Europe in 2018 and made its New York debut in October, follows five women who are either breaking away from patriarchal communities or returning as activists to reform them. Psychotherapist Leila Hussain fights female genital mutilation (FGM) in Britain and her native Somalia, Indian activist Vithika Yadav pioneers progressive sex education programs, former nun Doris Wagner writes a book about the sexual abuse she endured within the German Catholic church.

In perhaps the film’s funniest and most absurd storyline, Japanese artist Rokudenashiko faces trial for obscenity after making a 3D model of her own genitalia and using it to construct - among other things - a vagina-shaped sculpture of the Fukushima nuclear disaster and a vagina-shaped canoe. Witnessing Rokudenashiko’s hard-nosed lawyers conduct a press conference with several of her vagina-shaped finger puppets lined up in front of the microphones was in itself enough to justify the ticket.

But the speaker most recognizable to Forward readers is probably Deborah Feldman, a writer who grew up in Brooklyn’s Satmar Hasidic community and has subsequently written two memoirs, “Unorthodox” and “Exodus”, about her decision to build a new life in the secular world. In measured tones, Feldman relates the shame and anxiety she endured as a teenage bride facing her first sexual experiences with almost no understanding of her own body. More broadly, she takes aim at serious issues within the Hasidic community, from stigma surrounding menstruation to the plight of women who lose their children after leaving the fold, because courts often require them to observe religious law in order to maintain custody.

But Feldman sometimes strays from making compelling critiques to demeaning Hasidic Jews. Currently living in Berlin, she returns to Williamsburg with her ten-year-old son and cruises through her erstwhile neighborhood. “What do you think?” she asks, explaining to him that she used to dress just like the people he sees on the sidewalks.

“Oh my God,” says the boy, looking out the window. “They’re so weird.” It’s an understandable response from a kid venturing out of his comfort zone, but hardly a nuanced stance for an adult trying to make sense of a complex, flawed community.

Feldman, who later claims that there is no word for “tenderness” in the Yiddish dialect with which she grew up, is not alone in characterizing conservative societies as lacking the most basic human values and in tarring all religious people with the same patriarchal brush. In another scene, Yadav states that “the concept of love does not exist in India.” Later, the film shows Hussein, who sometimes wears a head covering, riding a London bus; as she explains that women’s sexual freedom is a radical idea in many traditional societies, the camera shifts to focus on a nearby woman wearing a hijab, evidently unaware of her new status as poster-girl for oppression.

The fight for gender equality is complex precisely because it requires women to critique cultures, institutions, and relationships in which they are deeply enmeshed and which they may value. As religious women gain more visibility, other works - such as Goldie Goldbloom’s novel On Division - explore what it means to be both deeply invested in a religious community and deeply unsatisfied with the sexism embedded within it.Yet by portraying Hasidic and other conservative societies as fundamentally dystopic, the documentary ultimately trivializes the work of reform and the difficult decisions faced by those who choose to leave.

This approach also gives short shrift to misogyny in the secular world. As the Dolce and Gabbana ad proves, you don’t need religion to exploit women. And even as the classically sexist advertising of the 2000s has given way to campaigns centered around half-hearted notions of female empowerment, many ostensibly progressive societies have yet to eradicate stigma around female sexuality. #FemalePleasure encourages secular viewers to lay all the blame with organized religion — rather than examining the discomforting reality of life in their own communities.

As the documentary draws to a close, Feldman participates in a photoshoot intended to challenge stereotypical depictions of Hasidic women. Disrobing next to a German lake, she wraps herself in a tallis, a garment whose use (within the Hasidic community) is restricted to men and wades into the water, gazing over her shoulder at the camera. It’s a strikingly muddy ending note for a film that began by pointing out the superfluity of men taking photos of naked women. Is this problem best solved by more men taking more photos of more naked women?

Irene Connelly is an intern at the Forward.

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