Purim, Jews, and the Academy Awards

This year, Purim and the Academy awards happened to fall on the same day. I thought the show was classy and the most fun in a long time. Seth McFarlane can sing and dance and deliver a joke. I loved the dance numbers, and I only fell asleep once. (I read in the paper the next day that Barbara Streisand had been there. I missed her!)

The next day, there were many articles about Abe Foxman, the head of the Bnai Brith Anti Defamation League, who objected to Seth’s jokes about “Jewish Hollywood” and a series of responsive essays on why these jokes were the best thing that ever happened to Jews. I think they all have a grain of truth, but the funniest aspect is that it all happened on Purim: the day that Jews celebrate an ancient anti-semitic attempt to eliminate them by making jokes and putting on parodies called “Purim shpiels.” Some feel that the whole tradition of Jews and the theatre was born in this tradition of Purim shpiels. Check out my blog, which explains this tradition and has a terrific modern-day example of a Purim Shpiel video.

Now, what’s the back story that validates all of this brouhaha? I have read the book How Jews invented Hollywood and watched the recent PBS Television documentary about Jewish songwriters and creators of musicals on Broadway.

Jews wrote many favourite Christmas songs like “Silent Night” and “I am dreaming of a White Christmas.” Yes, Jews excelled in these areas starting in early 1900. The dirty little secret is that they excelled in these areas because they were restricted from other occupations by anti-semitic social structures. An excellent book that illustrates this social phenomenon is An Orphan in History, a memoir by Paul Cowan that shares the history of two Jewish families, his paternal and maternal parents and grandparents living in the US 1850s. Jews were restricted in universities, corporations, and law firms in the USA into the 1950s. Dershowitz’s book Chutzpah talks about graduating from Harvard Law School in the fifties and being unable to get a job in any firm because they did not want any Jews. Yes, he had to start his firm.

Independence is the name of the game. Jews have always had to thrive despite anti-semitism. During the middle ages in Europe, they were prohibited from farming, so they had to engage in commerce to make a living. Additionally, lending money was forbidden by Christian laws, so Jews became the only legal money lenders. But I digress.

This morning I was schmoozing about the Academy awards issue with my trainer, a practicing Mormon. He told me about the Broadway musical The Book of Mormon, which has been having a strong Broadway run for the last four years. Yes, it makes fun of Mormons, but it also shares their story, and he loves it. Similarly, my trainer loved Joseph and the Technicolor Dream Coat because the music and the parody still tell the incredible story of Joseph in all its details. Then he said: Could you ever imagine something like that using the Koran as a base text? End of story.