Saturday, November 22, 2008

Playing with Stereotypes -- Brokeback Dreidel

In addition to this Jewish Heritage blog, I maintain a blog on the Imaginary Wild West.

This video -- "Brokeback Dreidel" -- encompasses both:

"Brokeback Dreidel" is a delight -- as Ari Davidow said on his Klezmer Shack blog, it raises the bar on funny Hanukkah videos. It also shows how stereotypes (gay, Jewish, cowboy and otherwise) can have different meanings (and elicit different responses) in different contexts. (I love how the line dancing turns into a hora...)

If you look closely, you will see one (or maybe more) of the singers in the video wearing a (kosher) cowboy hat with fake sidelocks that is remarkably similar to the hats with fake sidelocks provided at the Golden Rose "Jewish" cafe in L'viv for patrons to try on and joke with.

Sam Gruber has written a thoughtful (and angry) blog post about the selling of Jews and Jewish symbols. He writes:

Its one thing when Gene Wilder plays a rabbi and dons payes in The Frisco Kid – a funny film that actually is both an affirmation of Judaism and a historic corrective – since there were plenty of Jews who helped shape the American West. And the case can be made for Barbara Streisand dressing up as Yentl. But it is quite another thing when an Ukrainian café owner encourages customers to dress up as Hasids to laugh and eat and drink on the very site the Lviv’s destroyed Beth Midrash, in the shadow of the ruined Golden Rose Synagogue, whose worshipers were rounded up an murdered. No matter what one thinks of the strictures of the Hasidim, the place of their death is no place for caricature. There is no one to answer back.

I wrote about how Jewish stereotypes and Jewish jokes mean different things in different contexts in an essay published in 2005 (in German translation) in the book Gerüchete über die Juden. Antisemitismus, Philosemitismus und aktuelle Verschwörungstheorien (Essen: Klartext Verlag) edited by Hanno Lowy, the director of the Jewish Museum in Hohenems, Austria.

In the essay, I described how I own several miniature figurines of Jews -- two marzipan "Yeshiva bochers" that I bought at a kosher pastry shop in Budapest, and a tiny "Jew" clutching a coin that was given out as a sort of party favor to guests at the "Jewish style" Anatewka restaurant in Lodz, Poland. The figures all are caricaturish, but the bochers were destined for an internal (Jewish) market, and the little Jewish man was destined for mainly non-Jewish (Polish) consumers.
Boundaries between insider and outsider, believer and non-believer, devotee and ironic observer can sharply delineate the differences between kitsch and caricature, art and artifice, stereotype and homage. But perspectives shift, and the boundaries often blur. The images and their meaning are often decidedly in the eye of the beholder. And they are frequently dictated by changing religious realities, philo-Semitic, often engineered nostalgia, and the powerful exigencies of the marketplace.

Many of the markers identified with Jewishness have religious overtones that have long laid the basis for both anti-Semitic stereotypes and nostalgic yearning for the "authentic" Jewish experience of the East European shtetl.

Signs and symbols of Jewish holidays and domestic observance, and the beards, side curls, black hats, yarmulkas, fringes and other outward trappings of the traditional orthodox or Chasidic Jew spell "Jewish" -- even to Jews -- in a way that, for example, the physical attributes of Jews such as the actress Natalie Portman or the actor Kirk Douglas do not. A case in point is a T-shirt sold online at the web site. It features the slogan "Don't Worry, Be Jewish" under a big yellow "smiley face" that is topped by a kippah and long, dangling earlocks. The image, the web site states "shows off Jewish pride." Likewise, I was told recently by a friend that when the Chabad Lubavitch Chasidic movement set up a stand at Budapest's huge annual "Sziget" music festival a couple years ago, its display included a life-sized figure of a Chasid, with a hole cut where the face should be. Visitors could insert their own faces into the image and have themselves photographed in full Chasidic regalia, that is, as a "Jew."

Read the Full Essay

Where does "Brokeback Dreidel" fit in? It's a gay, wild west parody of a Jewish song, loaded with layer upon layer of pop-culture Brokeback Mountain and beyond. The audience is clearly not all Jewish -- nor it is all gay. But they are all clearly "in the know." (The group also parodies other songs, including "Jingle Bells" and 1980s ABBA hits...). The parody is American, in an American pop culture scene where -- as Sam put it -- there is so much real Judaism, and so much reliable information about Jews is available. But it's also an American scene where parody, gay, Jewish, self- or otherwise, is something of a way of life.


  1. Abadani posted this comment, which I inadvertently deleted:

    "I think they did a very nice job with it.I saw the video in many other blogs. There are many other better songs. But thanks for posting this."

  2. thanks for sharing.