A recent piece in the Forward made me annoyed, no angry, actually, really angry. Nu? The world is filled with gut wrenching, heart-breaking stories of injustice and loss. Only a soulless person wouldn’t get angry, you might be thinking. However, I am a bit bashful to admit that it was a story on the latest blockbuster animated film, Hotel Transylvania 2 – gay vays.
First of all, the article itself falls into the kind of vacuous, borderline tabloid reporting that is increasingly seeping into the Jewish press with the most “Where’s Waldo-like” tangential connections that it becomes a kind of “spot the Jew” exercise. The story has a Jewish character in it, somewhere, then it’s a Jewish story – so it goes. It’s the kind of thinking that brings you headlines about American Idol’s bitter Brit Simon Cowell shtupping a Jewish lady, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West heading to Israel, and a long forgotten actress from the TV show My So-Called Life marrying into the English nobility. Why should we care? A-ha, she’s Jewish, of course!
But, OK, you’ve got me – I read all those stories and hated myself a bit for doing it. These pieces continue to be cranked out with increasingly tenuous links to the Jewish experience; because, there must be others like me, who are scrolling through a Jewish site while dozing off at night or while taking a little “brain break” from work, and just want to read about Drake’s latest Jew-y shtuyot, not about the anti-Semitic graffiti on a shul somewhere or the housing crisis in Israel. (p.s. – Drake opened a nightclub in Toronto named after his bubbie and zaide. Awwww.)
This story, though, about the young boy who lands the role as the lead voiceover in a new Sony Pictures animated feature and comes from an Orthodox family has actual Jewish substance. Or at least it could have, if it had not presented an uncritical parade of Jewish distress and anti-Jewish oppression while placing more ogling emphasis on the hubbub life of a stage mom than on the real Jewish issues at the heart of the story.
The article’s set up is rather benign. We hear about young Asher Blinkoff being brought to audition for the role of Dennis by his dad, Saul, who “just so happens” to be in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles. A little more Jew-dropping about how Asher had to leave Adam Sandler’s Chanukah party early to make his bedtime. Cute. Jew-ish.
Shortly we are presented by the most embarrassing misheggas for all parties passed off as a delightful, little feel good anecdote. Asher’s parents consult their calendar and, oh no, the film’s opening, cast party, and friends and family screening are all on Shabbat. They’re pretty upset, right? They’re disappointed in the studio execs who have come to know their son and their family, right? They become furious that such execs who are not exactly strangers to Jewish practice wouldn’t be more thoughtful in scheduling the opening so that the boy who gives the film its heart could attend. Right? Alas no. “Nothing but positive all the way,” Asher’s mother says of their experience with Sony, praising how the studio gave them a private screening room in lieu of attending the opening because that would conflict with their family’s religious observance. Frankly, it seems more like a bribe than an accommodation or consolation.
This young boy is going to help make Sony millions of dollars and those behind the production cannot figure out how not to open the film on Shabbat, even though a star of the movie is an observant Jew? Last I checked the week was filled with a whole assortment of days.
And according to the continued congratulatory tone of the original article, we are meant to jump for joy that the studio provided him with kosher food like its some great miracle and not just basic on the job accommodation for religious reasons. If a practicing Hindu were provided with a vegetarian meal, would this be seen as a monumental gesture? For goodness sake, we are talking about Hollywood after all, not a remote corner of globe untouched by Jewish involvement. In fact, this story reveals that the studio was willing to accommodate only so far, to adjust their plans only so much and that some Jews remain so tentative about their place in broader American society that any acknowledgment of Jewish practice feels like a victory. Asher’s father, Saul is quoted as saying: “I think Asher’s performance and the fact that he went in there and had his kippah and went in there as a Jew, it was a testament to all of us… you can live in the world and live the Torah life.” Certainly, Saul and kol hakavod Asher but, apparently, you can live in the world but you can’t be invited to the after-party.
Let me be clear, I am not an Orthodox Jew but many of many closest friends are and I have noticed an attitude towards observant Jews, both within and outside the Jewish community, that is akin to seeing them as foreign beings from another planet, barely relatable, barely a part of our society. The attitude seems to be that they have chosen their strange, isolationist and logistically inconvenient lives and the consequences of such a choice are theirs to bear and theirs alone. To some extent this is true. That is why one of my friends could not continue to play classical music when she became observant. She could not ask the symphony not to play concerts on Shabbat or holidays. She could not insist on refraining from related travel due to her observance and she accepts that choice, though not without difficulty, and has now entered into the wonderful world of klezmer and Jewish music. But there is a spectrum and variance for the situation at hand.
When Sandy Koufax refused to pitch a 1965 World Series game on Yom Kippur he became a Jewish hero for the ages – a public figure and a public Jew. Not a kvetchy Heeb drawing too much attention to himself who should just consider himself lucky to be playing with the Dodgers in the first place, you know, for a Jew. When Israeli author Shai Agnon won the Nobel Prize for Literature there was a great run around co-ordinated in Oslo to get him to the ceremony via police escort only after close of Shabbat and after he took his time to daven maariv, light havdalah and Chanukah candles and shave his 24-hour stubble. He neither chose to “sit this one out” nor to bend his practice for the occasion. However, Koufax and Agnon had clout. That is a lot to ask of boy who is six-years old in his first film.
In another stretch to make a Jewish connection like pulling an elastic so far that it snaps back and stings, the article proclaims that: “Orthodox Jewish Asher, with his yarmulke, fits right in with the rest of his “Drac” family: which includes famous Jewish comedians like Mel Brooks, who plays Dennis’s great-grandfather, Adam Sandler, who plays Dennis’s grandfather, and Andy Samberg who plays Dennis’s father.”
Let me get this straight: they are all Jewish, so they are all one big mishpocheh on and off screen? Well, no, Asher doesn’t “fit right in” because his brider were popping bacon wrapped scallops on Erev Shabbat at the rap party while young Asher was noshing quietly at home with his folks. If they had been a gang, a team, a chevre, perhaps the mighty triumvirate of comedic Yids would have thrown their Jewish weight around a little and insisted that there is no premiere without Asher. It’s all rather telling as in the movie, Asher plays a character – Denis – torn between two worlds with a vampire mom and a human dad (which makes Denis halachically Draculish) and the movie is spent with him connecting to his Jewish, I mean, vampire roots to determine once and for all whether he should go blend in as a full human in California or stay with the monsters in Transylvania. As a friend of mine duly noted: “those semi-human, blood-drinking, strange, ethnic others from Eastern Europe are always so entertaining.” The movie may have a fairytale ending but this story – of integration, accommodation and inclusion – is far from over.