Anxiety is a normal state for Jews. It’s pretty much our default setting. According to Scott Stossel’s My Age of Anxiety, scientists who pinpointed a gene associated with fear named it “the Woody Allen gene.” (Actually, this happened twice. Two different genes. Jews are JUST THAT ANXIOUS.)
Given our history, it would be a wonder if we weren’t epigenetically tense. As the saying goes, you’re not paranoid if everyone really is out to get you. Has not every person of the Mosaic persuasion, at one time or another, pondered a stay in the Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very Very Nervous?
Perhaps this is why, as a people, we have been fond of smoking. Not that I’d know (I have asthma, another common Jewish trait, and I missed the teen window for becoming a smoker because being unable to breathe at parties apparently isn’t “cool”) but our history is rife with tobacco fiends. All the hep Jews smoked: Albert Einstein (dat pipe), Freud with his cigar-that-was-sometimes-just-a-cigar, J. Robert Oppenheimer (“now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds”—you know it, fella), Groucho Marx (perhaps even while shooting an elephant in his pajamas), Sophie Tucker, George Burns, Lillian Hellman, Jack Benny, Sammy Davis, Jr., Leonard Bernstein, Beverly Sills, Frank Zappa, Bob Dylan, Courtney Love, Warren Zevon (when your personal logo is a skull with a cigarette in its mouth, you might as well leave the epitaph “enjoy every sandwich”).
We Jews may even have introduced smoking to Europe, thanks to our expulsion from Spain in 1492. Rumor has it that a Jew named Luis de Torres, one of Columbus’s sailors, wound up in Cuba, became interested in the business of tobacco, and voila, a Continental addiction was born. (As William Shakespeare did not put it, “If you expel us, do we not give you cancer?”)
Nowadays, of course, cigarettes are frowned upon. Smoking rates in much of the developed world have plummeted. Tobacco is now considered declasse, not a habit for the educated and sophisticated. (Only in Israel has cigarette smoking made a comeback in recent years. Presumably Israelis are super-duper tense, for some reason.) Smoking bans in offices, bars and restaurants have proliferated. American Jews today are stuck with vaping, nail-biting, and guzzling unicorn lattes.
Thankfully, a Bay Area artist and fashion illustrator named Naomi Alessandra (real name: Naomi Alessandra Schultz) has elevated the culture of cigarettes once again. Ish. She has designed the “ANXIETY TWIG FETISH” (CAPS HERS), a cigarette-manque and comfort object made from acrylic, 22-carat gold leaf, charcoal, and a Douglas Fir twig. The dimensions are variable, what with it being a twig. The release is limited to 50 twigs (or more properly twiglets, as they come in three sizes: “butt,” “half-smoked,” and “full-length,” for $15, $18, and $20, respectively), so act quickly. The artist describes the ANXIETY TWIG FETISH as a “hand-painted talisman for warding off anxiety brought on by environmental and sociopolitical malaise” and notes, “Twigs are of variable lengths and possess the irregular physical attributes of nature.” All the best people chew on twigs. (“Not suitable for actual smoking,” Naomi Alessandra’s site notes helpfully. “Do not light on fire.”) I’m not positive about the safety of chewing, come to think of it, but I live dangerously, especially since I failed smoking as a teenager. I would chew that twig.
In an artist’s statement to Art Works Downtown in San Rafael, CA, where she has exhibited, Naomi Alessandra says, “I am interested in the portrayal of the inconsistencies, aberrations, and inherent dynamism of my subjects. Any story worth telling contains characters who embody contradictory impulses, and who mutate depending on the perspective from which they are examined. The multiplicity of the human experience and the impossibility of collapsing a human story into a single narrative fascinates me—that impossibility itself is the story I seek to tell. Visually, this translates into my practice of shoving multiple points of view, varied moments in time, or paradoxical character attributes into one frame.” To which I can only say: Indeed.
My mockery is somewhat tempered by the fact that Naomi Alessandra is donating 100 percent of the proceeds from this 50-twig edition to the North Bay Fire Relief Fund, which aids victims of the recent Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, and Lake County wildfires. This is a nice thing.
That said, I am currently working on a performance piece involving Naomi Alessandra’s ANXIETY TWIG FETISH and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Jade Yoni Egg. I’m thinking it’ll involve insertion of the egg in my sacred place, insertion of the Anxiety Fetish Twig in my mouth, and waddling hither and yon while ranting about consumerism, gender, health, and utter ridiculousness. I’m calling it “Sticks and Stones.”
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.