Pride and Prejudice

Hedy Weiss is, by her own description, a “visceral” writer. Her drama criticism, which I’ve admired for years, is brainy but it begins at the seat of her pants. Once in a while it also ends there.

On May 9 she wrote a piece for the Sun-Times’s Sunday Showcase section discussing some new musicals she’d seen in New York. She had just enough room to say what she thought about each, without going into why she thought it. One of the shows was Tony Kushner’s autobiographical Caroline, or Change, about a black maid living with a Jewish family in the south in 1963. “Unfortunately, Kushner, in the classic style of a self-loathing Jew, has little but revulsion for his own roots,” Weiss wrote. “You can hear it and feel it throughout, most notably when the Gellmans, modestly successful first generation Jews, sing their Hanukkah songs.”

Kushner’s relationship with Judaism is by every account a complex one. To find it reduced to “self-loathing” outraged him. “He was very, very disturbed,” says Martha Lavey, Steppenwolf’s artistic director, who happened to talk to Kushner soon after he read Weiss’s story. “He felt it was an illegitimate charge and a review was the wrong place to express it.”

Kushner called and e-mailed Showcase editor Laura Emerick. He wanted an apology. Emerick (who didn’t return my calls) e-mailed him back. Kushner says he felt “a certain degree of sympathy” from her, but she told him there’d be no apology. “She said, ‘My editors feel this is all within the realm of journalism. It was a good, clean shot,'” Kushner says. Then he asked for space to respond, and Emerick gave it to him.

“It is appalling,” Kushner wrote in Showcase on May 23, “that a playwright can be flatly accused of hating his own people without a single word cited from the play in question. That’s appalling, and so is the fact that Ms. Weiss’ editors were willing to publish her offensive words without demanding that she produce evidence for them.”

He concluded, “I am immensely proud of being Jewish–a sentence I should not have to write in response to Ms. Weiss’ ugly and baseless charge. I have written extensively about being Jewish. Nothing makes me prouder than hearing, as I often do, that my work is identified as Jewish-American literature. My anger at this critic and her editors for accusing me of hatred for the Jewish people–for my people–exceeds my abilities to express it.”

This wasn’t the first time Weiss had attacked Kushner in print without explaining herself. In April 2002 Kushner spoke to a big crowd in Northwestern University’s Cahn Auditorium. “If only,” Weiss told her readers, “he had posed a few more complex questions to himself before launching into a stock anti-Israeli diatribe that no one–either among the distinguished panelists onstage or the students and general public in the audience–attempted to probe further. Questions such as: Do you think most of your plays would ever be produced in any country in the Middle East other than Israel? In which country in that region do you think your work as a commentator and political essayist would be most welcome by a free and fractious press? And in which society do you believe that equal treatment, regardless of sexual identity, might be most fervently upheld?”

But if Weiss provided her readers with questions Kushner had neither asked himself nor had been asked by a docile audience, she didn’t report whatever it was he’d actually said.

Fortunately, the Tribune’s Chris Jones also covered the event. “Kushner,” he wrote, “explicitly compared the Bush administration with the Taliban, argued that the dictates of the oil industry long had clouded governmental minds over Afghanistan and suggested that the foreign policy of the United States government bore some responsibility for the attacks of Sept. 11.”

He reported that Kushner’s views were “well-received” until Kushner–whose play Homebody/Kabul had been written before 9/11–was asked if he intended to write about “the current crisis in the Middle East.

“‘I am not a Zionist, in case you haven’t noticed,’ he answered. With that, Kushner spoke disdainfully of Ariel Sharon (‘from whom no good could have been expected’) and attacked the current military activities of Israel. Audience discomfort increased notably when Kushner began to speak of the ‘shame of American Jews’ in failing to speak out in support of Palestinians. It was a reaction that Kushner, who is himself an American Jew, appeared to have anticipated. Apparently sensing hostility, Kushner noted that his comments on the subject invariably caused him trouble with fellow Jews. ‘It’s a family thing,’ he said. ‘It’s intense.'”

Martha Lavey recalls members of the audience walking out. She was one of the “distinguished panelists” Weiss thought should have taken on Kushner that night, but Lavey tells me she didn’t understand the Middle East well enough “to make commentary about it” one way or the other. “Tony’s remarks,” she says, “dealt principally with his belief that it was illegitimate for American Jews to be relegated to a position of utter solidarity with Israel’s position for fear of being called ‘bad Jews.’ He was expressing his long-standing sympathy for the Palestinians’ desire for statehood.”

Last year Grove Press published a collection of essays, Wrestling With Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, that was coedited by Kushner and Alisa Solomon to present “the spectrum of dissenting views.” In an interview with the Israeli daily Haaretz soon after the book appeared, Kushner said that being Jewish and gay in America had taught him that constitutional democracy offers imperiled minorities more lasting protection than fortification. But though the creation of a separate state was, in his view, the wrong answer to Jewish suffering, the Holocaust made the founding of Israel “completely unavoidable,” and it deserved to continue to exist. “I am no more represented by Israel than I am by Italy. I am an American citizen, not a citizen of Israel,” he said. But he declared, “There is nothing in what I am saying that has to do with hatred of Jews. I am Jewish and proud of it.”

Weiss tells me, “I should say first of all, I am a huge fan of his work.” But she thinks Kushner turned Cahn Auditorium into “a platform for the most virulent, one-sided view toward Israel. And nobody countered him. Nobody questioned him. I think the audience was terribly cowed. I’m not super-Jew”–she laughs–“but I thought it was a very sad demonstration of our inability to have a real two-way discussion on an important issue. Nobody took him up on anything.”

If Kushner and Weiss saw eye to eye on any one point, it was that a serious two-way discussion on Israel had become nearly impossible. Yet they held one themselves. Sometime after his speech in Cahn Auditorium, he and Weiss were talking about one of his projects. “We had a nice interview,” he says, and when it was over he changed the subject. “I said, ‘You know, Hedy, I heard from many people that you got upset. I want to talk to you as one Jewish-American to another Jewish-American about this,’ and we had a very long telephone conversation. For the topic, it was a pretty civil conversation.”

Weiss agrees. “It was very cordial,” she says. “It was strong, but it wasn’t–whatever. We agreed to disagree.”

Now it’s whatever.

When Laura Emerick got back to Kushner, she e-mailed him something he hadn’t asked for–a response from Weiss. In it she did what her review hadn’t: argued her position. She wrote:

“Your letter to my editor was clearly written with the same heat that I felt while watching ‘Caroline.’ So, since we are both passionate people, especially when it comes to the theater, to politics and to the written word, I will explain my response to your show in kind. I should preface this by saying that my reaction to ‘Caroline’ had absolutely nothing at all to do with our long and honest phone conversation of about a year ago. You and I are not the only Jews to see the Israeli situation in different terms. And I hope that we can respect those differing views and continue to debate them. I certainly did not ‘use’ our discussion in my critique of your show.

“You are correct in asserting that I did not quote any particular line in ‘Caroline’ to support the claim of ‘self-hating’ Jew. But as you very well know, words alone are not the only means of expression at work in the theater. Tone is of the absolute essence, as is body language. And these things, as I’m sure you do not need to be reminded, can often work their way into an audience’s psyche more powerfully and insidiously than language itself.

“In watching ‘Caroline,’ I saw one culture (African-American), portrayed as being totally buoyed and buttressed by its music, by its way of moving, by its way of interacting within a family and by its sense of pride in the face of adversity. And then I saw another (the Jews, with the sole exception, perhaps, of the Socialist grandfather), as more than palpably ill-at-ease with themselves, with their music, with their choices. Furthermore, let’s not be naive about this; ‘Caroline’ is, in a very significant way, about Jews and money (just as August Wilson’s plays are often also about blacks and money, and more crucially, blacks and guns), and the stereotypes in this arena are all too alive and well and unworthy of propagating.

“After watching the black characters in ‘Caroline’ command the stage with one powerful number after another, I watched the scenes of Jewish life–particularly the one in which the Gellmans celebrate Hannukkah–and found myself cringing at the discomfort, awkwardness and yes, palpable self-loathing they seemed to display. The sight, in particular, of [actress] Alice Playten–and the smirky little look she had as she was about to break into a hora–remains etched in my memory.

“‘Self-loathing’ is a harsh term, to be sure. But it does seem inordinately strange to me that even Caroline’s wife-beating ex-husband is endowed with more self-confidence and appeal (and musical style) than any single Jewish character in the show. By the way, Caroline’s focus on money is no less strong than the Gellmans’, yet the Jews are stigmatized by this fact while she is ennobled.

“Incidentally, regarding other critics’ opinions about the show: I do not read other writers’ work until I have seen and written about a show myself. I responded viscerally to ‘Caroline,’ which suggests your work can have a powerful effect. I think you would have it no other way. And while it may not be to your liking, I hope you do not believe an ‘apology’ is what is in order. That would seem to me to be counter to everything you stand for.” She signed the letter “Sincerely (and without anger).”

Kushner dismisses this letter as a “smarmy” attempt by Weiss to equate the two of them as passionate people. “We’re not on the same footing,” he says. “I’m not somebody who goes around calling people names until I think they really deserve them and I have hard and fast evidence to back it up. It’s not her passion I object to. It’s her intemperate and slanderous language.”

In his Sun-Times response Kushner addressed Weiss’s letter–quoting from it out of context, she says. He wrote, “She admitted that she decided that I hated being Jewish and hated Judaism not because of what I wrote, but on the ‘tone’ of the production, the ‘body language’ of the actors, and the fact that Caroline’s black characters have, in her opinion, better music. She concluded by writing that ‘stereotypes’ about ‘Jews and money’ are ‘unworthy of propagating,’ though, typically, she cites no specific stereotypes from the play, nor anything more specific than the joint presence of Jewish characters and a story line about money.

“There’s a reason for her lack of specificity: there are no such stereotypes in the play, and there is not a single line of text to corroborate her charge.”

Suppose, I said to Kushner, her review had contained the argument her letter to you did and had concluded that an air of Jewish self-loathing spoiled the show.

“I wouldn’t have responded to it,” he said.

What Kushner responded to was an ad hominem attack. If a Sun-Times political writer had called Joseph Lieberman a self-loathing Jew, Kushner argues, “an editor would have said, ‘Excuse me!’ Why am I not protected by the same standards of journalistic responsibility? My reading of it is they were basically saying, ‘It’s a big “who cares?” It’s a theater review, and why should we really give a shit if she says something she has no substantiation for and therefore is inaccurate and grossly unfair to the person being slandered? It’s all good fun.’ It’s all part of the blood sport of being an artist in this country.”

To Weiss, her editors are her champions. “I don’t want to be silenced,” she says. “I have a right to say what I feel. To the credit of my paper, they published what I had to say. I have no problem with his response. But to not say what I felt might render me unable to do my job.”

Every so often the best writers need to be saved from themselves. Somebody needed to tell Weiss, “You can’t say that.”

Twisted History

Nothing was terribly wrong with the long cover story on Barack Obama in the May 31 New Republic, Noam Scheiber’s “Race Against History.” But it had a few not-so-terrible problems–including the familiar “too good to be true, but he is!” message that for voters who don’t like stampedes might have been the best reason to vote for someone else in March’s Senate primary. (For more on Obamania, see the adjacent article by Ted McClelland.)

Consider the New Republic’s table of contents. Touting the Obama piece, the New Republic announced, “For decades, an almost iron law has ruled American politics: Black candidates don’t win statewide. Until Barack Obama ran for Senate in Illinois.”

Until? All Obama’s won so far is a primary. If he beats Jack Ryan in November, he’ll be just the fourth black candidate recently elected statewide in Illinois alone. Had the New Republic managed to overlook Roland Burris, Carol Moseley Braun, and Jesse White?

Yes, no, and yes.

Burris won statewide three times for comptroller and once for attorney general, and White has twice been elected secretary of state, in 2002 carrying all 102 counties. All this made them such inconvenient exceptions to Scheiber’s thesis that he ignored them.

Scheiber cited Braun as the exception that proves the rule. The rule, as laid down in the New Republic, says that before Obama, the way for blacks to get elected in America was to downplay race if they needed the white moderate vote, and if they didn’t “to rely either exclusively on African American voters or on a coalition of African Americans and white liberals, with little attempt to reach white moderates.”

Scheiber continued, “The last black U.S. senator–Carol Moseley Braun, also from Illinois–essentially pursued this strategy, patching together a coalition of blacks and liberals in her 1992 campaign. (Braun did win over some moderate Republican women, but it was thanks almost entirely to her being a woman in a year when abortion rights and the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill controversy weighed heavily on the minds of female voters. She lost her reelection bid decisively in 1998.)”

This schematic interpretation of Braun’s political history is most useful to readers who know nothing about her. It omits some locally familiar realities, such as that she would have been reelected easily if after six years in office she’d been known for anything besides a manipulative boyfriend and cozy relationship with Nigeria’s dictator. And then Scheiber went on to say, “Harold Washington, the only African American mayor of Chicago, pursued an even more racially segregated strategy, winning with just over 51 percent of the vote against his Republican opponent in 1983, in an overwhelmingly Democratic city.”

As Scheiber remembers it, Washington turned his back on white Democrats.

As I remember it, white Democrats abandoned Washington wholesale when he got the nomination, lining up in a panic behind that year’s token Republican candidate, Bernie Epton. Until I read Scheiber’s account it had never occurred to me that the reason Washington didn’t get those white votes was that he didn’t ask for them.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Charles Eshelman, Jon Randolph.