PRINT March 1993

Glamour Wounds

The Jew Beat, Again

The universe is real for us all and dissimilar to each one of us.
—Marcel Proust

THE PREEMINENCE OF SOUTH BEACH at the forefront of fashion has been unequivocally confirmed by Versace’s current cruise collection for men, which features the words “South Beach” and “Miami” on shirts and vests printed in the bold, assertive palette of citrus fruit. For me South Beach always evoked the imagery of elderly Hebrews, so its new “face” as a kind of beachfront SoHo produced in me a poignant associative dissonance. Given that we are not unified personalities but rather multiple, dying little organisms, regenerating over time yet keeping the old skins part ingested, unlike snakes, in our own bodily fibers, one’s return to a place is necessarily flavored with the weird taste of one’s own half-eaten world views reerupting and remetabolizing into a new intrasubjective meal. Thus, in Miami Beach, the sea-spray air was addled for me with images of supermodels and old Jews enveloped into themselves on beach chairs, each part of a nonintersecting universe surviving separately in the humid sunlight against attractive Art Deco architecture. Death was all around: the fabulous undeath of the supermodel image, inspiring us as it does to not eat and to become Objects, evoked a strange resonance with the actual near-death situation of the senior citizen. Who knew? Happily, for a moment, the two worlds combined when I checked out the geriatric Jewish hip-hop scene, combining as it did both glamour and geezer.

Fear of a Jewish Planet
While everyone knows that the international Jewish conspiracy controls pop culture (only kidding!), Jewish ethnicity has rarely found expression in rap music. While I heard that the Beastie Boys are Jewish, they don’t sing about it all the time. Imagine my delight when I first discovered 2 Live Jews: Kosher as They Wanna Be at my local record store. As 2 Live Jews, Easy Irving and MC Moisha do rap style “kosher cuts,” challenging cultural presumptions that Jews may have a lot of chutzpah but little rhythm. Jewish rap struck me as a healing moment, one of many beautiful relationships possible between the various hues of our multicultural rainbow. In “Shake Your Tuchas,” we receive a basic lesson in Yiddish anatomy to the strains of “Shake your Booty.” While “Beggin’; for a Bargain” is rich in masterful kvetching, “Jap Rap” is truly rousing, making me want to both whine and shop at once. These hip-hop Hebrews are so convincing I just had to check them out when I was in Miami. Completely sucked in, I imagined two naturally obnoxious retirees who latched onto rap as a natural outlet for their obnoxiousness. Hangin’ with the live Jews at Wolfie’s—my Miami fantasia would be replete!

Not having been to Wolfie’s deli since I was a child, I thought it would evoke Proustian memories involving cold cuts or at least be photogenic. When I suggested the place to Easy Irving he said “Ugh! What do you want to go there [sic] the food’s lousy!” He shows up alone, so where’s the other live Jew? “I don’t want to say anything bad about anyone. . .” he whispers delicately, and proceeds to tell the saga of Moisha and Irving for two hours nonstop—a human drama out of the Sunshine Boys . . . kvetch kvetch. In short, his original partner is now replaced by Moisha #2. Easy Irving appeared out of character as himself, Joe Stone, a well-preserved thirty-something with a foofy blond coiffure, a discreet hoop earring, and the uncanny capacity to transform himself instantly into an annoying old geezer who is both deaf and meddlesome, fully capturing the nightmare of living with the hard of hearing. I was fascinated by this cultivation of demonic possession by one’s body-function-fixated grandparental imago as a form of esthetic release—like a rude yet inevitable seizure, the return of the repressed ending the suspense already. For my microgeneration, this could be the essence of going to Miami—reclaiming a cultural moment that we oedipally spewed out, perversely simulating early retirement from the agon against parental tastes by anticipating our own dotage. Isaac Bashevis Singer noticed that people in Miami tend to dress like fugitives from their age group: “That’s the style. . . . You know the most peculiar thing is that they all try to be very young. . . . Perhaps they try to convince themselves that here is the Fountain of Youth, that death will be confused by their clothes.” Like all eruptions of the repressed, the acting out of this truth is grotesque—but in an art context, strangely reassuring.

By acting like old people acting young, 2 Live Jews mix the sexiness of rap with down-and-dirty geriatric humor. You immediately start thinking about geezer sexuality. Oy. Stone’s musical charisma erupted early in life when he “took over” the band at his older sister’s bat mitzvah. I’m sure she appreciated that! Ever since, he has been a total rap maven who also produces other talent, including the flawless L-Trimm and the club sensation D.S.K. Everybody loves the 2 Live Jews except Dick Cavett—who criticized them backstage at the Regis and Kathie Lee Show for capitalizing on stereotypes of “defamation.” Ever quick and “deaf,” Easy Irving picked up: “Who’s talking defecation here?” which put Cavett in his place, or at least cracked up the crew, according to Stone.

Despite our thriving multicultural moment, when ethnic difference is finally being selectively reproduced in institutional contexts, few people are working the Jew thing in the art world. While much of the art world is or seems Jewish, and Jewish names abound, you don’t see much Jewish ethnicity coming out into the work; yet “Jewishness” is in the air, relegated to a frontier zone somewhere between perception and consciousness, the place where censorship kicks in, according to Freud, and everything happens. The Jew thing inhabits this trauma zone, this site of failed articulation, this reality. If we focus on it, it becomes dangerously uncanny and disappears into the white noise of repression, like some kind of ambient medium for “high” cultural production in general. We swerve back to Jewish stereotypes, the essential nonidentity of the Jew traditionally characterized as the oxymoronic capitalist-socialist, the rootless cosmopolitan, the expert shopper, etc. Working the Jew thing is esthetically chutzpandik. In Deborah Kass’ “Jewish Jackie” series, the essential nonidentity of “Jewishness” emerges in portraits of Barbra Streisand as the “Jewish Jackie;” in esthetic Jewish drag as Warhol, Kass simulates the simulacrum whose ambition was to “look in a mirror and see nothing.” She does Yentl too (oy!), another Jewish drag moment circling around cultural production in which Streisand plays a girl playing a boy so she can study Talmud. Another Jew thing appeared this season in the “Fake Chanel Show” at Stux: high school—type banners by Cary S. Leibowitz rooted alternately for “Chanel” and for “House of Leibowitz.” The Candyass yarmulkes, also by Leibowitz, particularly irked the Chanel corporation, despite the fact that they didn’t say Chanel on them. Each decorated by a dangly earring, the yarmulkes associated Jewishness with Style, grafting back onto glamour the explicit references to ethnic “taste” that it supposedly allows everyone to “transcend.” Just as the real always returns to the same place, Miami led me back to the Jews of SoHo, where Yentl might have wound up after the end of the film, when she got off the boat to New York, and became a liberated lady.

Rhonda Lieberman teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.