My Problem with Jason Alexander
I got a sick feeling in my stomach when I read that Jason Alexander, (who played George Costanza on the hit T.V. show Seinfeld), was going to headline fundraising events for the Federation’s annual campaigns in Montreal and Toronto. Of course, events like these are not unusual; similar occasions elsewhere regularly feature all sorts of celebrities, including sports stars, politicians, business executives, models and movie producers. But it still bothers me that we need celebrities to sell charity.
Make no mistake; I absolutely supported inviting Jason Alexander. (full disclosure – I’m a Vice President of our local Federation). Federations have first and foremost a responsibility to raise money to feed the poor, to support Jewish education and to defend the state of Israel. The Montreal and Toronto events sold out, due to the celebrity power of Jason Alexander; and that translates directly into more money for communal needs. If Jason Alexander can help the community feed even one more poor family, then I’m all for inviting him. The needy family receiving some extra support certainly won't mind.
I didn’t have a problem with Jason Alexander’s presentation either. Yes, I cringed when I heard some of the sarcastic things he said about his Jewish background. He made fun of his Hebrew school, his Bar Mitzvah, and his parent’s hypocrisy. Judaism doesn’t inspire Jason Alexander spiritually. But I can’t fault him for that; like many Jews of his generation, Jason Alexander was taught a hollow Judaism, an empty piety based on guilt, fear and hypocrisy. You can’t blame the messenger for the message he delivers.
Actually, my problem with Jason Alexander isn’t with him, but with the size of the audience that went to see him. It’s always easy to get a sellout crowd for a man whose major accomplishment in life was appearing on a hit TV show that ran for nine years. While he was speaking, I couldn’t help wondering; would a similar crowd have come out for Natan Sharasky, who spent nine heroic years in a Soviet prison? Sadly, a hero like Sharansky just wouldn’t sell the same way. Today, celebrity matters most, and style is prized above substance; in virtually any venue, an Oscar winner will sell more tickets than a Nobel Prize winner. The reality is that an actor from a “show about nothing” is far more popular than the real people who have done something, and celebrities garner far more respect than the fireman, policemen and soldiers who risk their own lives daily in order to protect and save the lives of others. North American culture seems to get more superficial by the day.
For Jews, this superficiality is especially dangerous. Far too many Jews subscribe to the movie set version of Jewish identity. All you need is a few Jewish props, and you’re an authentic Jew: a plate of gefilte fish on the table, some cantorial music in the background, and a conversation sprinkled with a few Yiddish words. A Jewish style Jew will know all of celebrities in Adam Sandler’s Hannukah song, but none of the Rabbis in the Mishnah. In an era of superficiality, it’s easy to latch on to a Jewish identity that is about nothing.
Jewish identity used to be about something. Jews have disagreed on about virtually everything, but there was once a universal consensus that Judaism is a serious, thoughtful undertaking. Instead of chasing movie stars, Jews used to pursue ideas. Indeed, Jews have always been passionate about learning. Jerome, the Church father, remarked that in the fourth century that the average Jew knew the Tanakh by heart. In Eastern Europe, bakers and coachmen would hurry to the shtibl to study some Ein Yaakov and weekly Parsha. Even the illiterate would come to synagogue, hoping to catch a snatch of enlightening conversation. We have always seen ourselves as “the People of the Book”*, a name that we have proudly embraced. At the very least, to be Jewish means to be passionate about ideas and learning.
But now superficiality threatens to undermine this vital tradition. The new Jewish “Stars of David”** are known for their acting and not their actions. For too many Jews, Jewish learning is no longer a passion. Sadly, we are no longer the People of the Book; we’re now the People of People magazine.
And that’s my problem with Jason Alexander.
* (the phrase "People of the Book" first appears in the Koran)
** (name of an actual book about Jewish celebrities. Jason Alexander is interviewed there as well).