So, I was passing through the Los Angeles airport last week.
Don’t worry, this isn’t about to turn into a humble-bragging Thomas Friedman column where I somehow manage to work in a lot of details about my fabulous jet-setting lifestyle of discussing current events with world leaders and preternaturally wise cab drivers while bemoaning our comparatively faulty infrastructure and pleading with Mike Bloomberg to buy us out of this mess before every building, sidewalk, and taco stand in America crumbles to dust.
You’ll be happy to know that LAX was as ever—which is to say, benignly unpleasant and filled with overpriced fish fingers. But it did afford me the opportunity to notice how Los Angeles newsstands put the showbiz trade magazine right out in front, like we do with actual newspapers here on the East Coast, which is how I saw the latest issue of the Hollywood Reporter with the stars of Oz the Great and Powerful on the front.
The first thing I thought was, “Sweet Jesus, I want that green dress Rachel Weisz is wearing.” The second was: “Oh wow, three out of four of those actors are Jewish.”
Now, here’s the thing: I’ve been pretty preoccupied with classic Hollywood a lot lately, having just published a novel set during it (we’ll have more on that soon, just you wait), but it’s impossible for even a flicker of awareness about Oz the Great and Powerful not to send you into a strong, sense-memory reverie about the magisterial original Wizard of Oz, and the vastness of its incredible emotional reach.
So why, despite the rich rabbit hole of ideas and history that this magazine cover could have driven me into, did I wind up Jew-counting? What could possibly be the point? Pride in one’s heritage and those who share it is a good thing, but this is something else; this is the reflexive defensiveness of someone—and I don’t think I’m alone here—who still (still!) has something to prove … but what? That Jewish women can be sexy and beautiful, without any sort of couched caveats or jokes about plastic surgery? That we are an important, good, indispensable part of American society and culture and you’ll be very, very sorry should you decide to get rid of us one day? That Jewish leading men have evolved from nebbishy Woody Allen types to … well, to whatever the hell James Franco is?
I think it’s the second one. And looked at objectively, it’s completely crazy. Yet it persists.
The Wizard of Oz was made in 1939, when the Hollywood Dream Factory was at the height of its prolific powers. It was also a year when a huge subset of the Earth’s population desperately wished that they were somewhere, anywhere else.
This attitude is clearly, heartbreakingly, reflected in its most famous legacy, the song “Over the Rainbow,” which never fails to reduce me to tears in virtually any incarnation. On its face, it is a classic version of what musical-theater writers call the “I want” song, which is exactly what it sounds like—that is, the number where the hero or heroine lays bare the dreams and hopes and longings that will turn into the narrative engine of the plot. But “Over the Rainbow” is far from typical in this respect. Written by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, both sons of observant Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe (Arlen’s father, famously, was a synagogue cantor), and first recorded by a teenaged Judy Garland—the very embodiment of yearning—in October of 1938, a scant month before Kristallnacht, its haunting melody and searching lyrics don’t long for adventure or glamor or romance; in fact, quite the opposite. The primary wish expressed in “Over the Rainbow” is one for safety. For a way out of the black-and-white world of the newsreels and into secure, placid Technicolor, where nobody will bother you and you can be yourself without threat or fear. It’s both an incredibly reasonable wish and an incredibly difficult one. But what more can one ask from Paradise?
The question is, of course, how do you know when you get there? When do you know you’re truly safe? Is it when everyone has the right to marry whom they love, or worship as they wish, or go anywhere in the world in safety and peace, regardless of the color of their skin or the name on the passport?
Or maybe it’s simpler than that. Maybe it’s just being able to look at the cover of a magazine without having to play “count the Jews.” Maybe then we’ll know we’re really home, and there’s no place like it.
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