Sunday, April 24, 2011

I prefer Fagin ...

Last night, I caught one of the episodes of the 2010 "Upstairs, Downstairs", the BBC produced revival of the old, very popular 70's series.

I've got nothing much to say about the thing itself. It's about as good as any sequel that seeks to capitalize on the original success of any artistic production. That is to say, NOT! But I do have something to say about a British pathology when it comes to portraying Jews in their dramas.

In this particular episode we are introduced to a beautiful, tall Jewess who works as a maid in the elegant house. She is in fact a refugee from Germany, where she was a professor at university, married to (presumably) a man who is now in prison for political reasons. I assume that little detail is meant to act as a signal that her husband is not Jewish; if he were, he would have been in a concentration camp for his Jewishness, not in jail for political activism. She seems to be a gracious woman, actively anti-fascist, very willing to melt into the background, and has a daughter kept somewhere out of sight from the lady of the house, at some other, possibly Jewish, neighbourhood, though we are not being told that directly. As if it were some dirty little secret. Her only and closest friend is an Indian servant/gentleman. She is also made to be suffering from some illness that plagues her in the form of a cough. By the end of the episode, she dies. Some "people she knows" (again, presumably Jewish) come to take away her coffin and her little girl is left behind. Why couldn't she go with those people? asks Lady Agnes, petulantly. Because those people were not her mother's friends and she did not want to go with them. That's the explanation we get from one of the servants. (My cynical inner cricket keeps winking/nudging at my better sense: Perhaps she is being groomed to play a role in "The Promise"...)

I just wanted to point out that this is what the BBC (presumably, reflecting the culture of the people it serves) likes to present to us as a desirable Jew: someone who is by nature, inclination and culture automatically noble, universal, reluctant to fraternize with other real, sweaty, visible Jews who live next to other Jews, suffering and eventually dead.

And why am I making this startling judgment?

Last year I watched "The Last Detective", an ITV drama starring Peter Davison as Dangerous Davies. The series follows Detective Constable "Dangerous" Davies who is treated as a pariah by his colleagues, but is committed to his work and staunchly humane in his application. In two episodes Jews make an appearance. In one, no mention is made of the word "Jew", but we know these are Jews. They are depicted as a corrupt, vulgar, noisy and ridiculous lot, who get their comeuppance. We know they are Jews because you cannot mistake the names they are given, the choice of work ("the garment industry"), or stereotypical presentation. In the other episode we get a real Jew, referred to as a Jew. We don't see him, because by the time the narrative of murder and detection unfolds, he has been dead for many years. He used to be the piano teacher to an aristocratic boy, and became very friendly with the boy's genteel and sad mother. Her haughty thuggish husband, suspects an affair and has the Jewish man framed and imprisoned for stealing something. The Jew commits suicide in prison.

So you see again the formula I mentioned earlier? A noble, highly cultured Jew, poor into the bargain (piano teachers are not moneylenders, or garment producers), sacrificed on the altar of some universal value, like friendship that crosses the boundaries of class and race, and, of course, very dead, at the end.

Is there, I wonder, some real obstacle, in built into British culture, that prevents it from seeing Jews as nothing more human and complex than this cheap either/or? What to make of this fictional penchant to idolize assimilating Jews but reward their efforts with death? Remember PD James's "Original Sin", where the murderer turns out to be a Jew out to revenge his Nazi exterminated family? He, too, was an invisible Jew, highly cultured, a much-feted poet. He, too, ends up committing suicide.

I'd better stop right here, in case I find myself saying things that shouldn't be said, like, how the Brits seem incapable of looking at and seeing Jews as proper human beings. Or why. Even the French do a much better job ... without even trying.


At 6:01 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

perhaps the fudgy history is having the most tolerant family in England living at 165 Eaton Place. Even in 1936, servants were not allowed family, so Rachel had to hide her daughter, and had to pay for Lotte's care. I thought the reason Lotte was left behind after Rachel's death was that there was no one to pay for her care in the Jewish enclave.

In episode 1, Rachel says she has asthma, when it is triggered by seeing the chauffeur in his Moseley black shirt in the kitchen.

Episode 3 reveals Rachel's husband was imprisoned early on for being a Communist. That the Sikh secretary could not find him with so many letters of inquiry indicates a bit of fluidness in 1936 in calling the early concentration camps for political prisoners "prisons".

happy endings for all, especially Lotte, the little Jewish girl at the end of episode 3, assuming being sent to boarding school is a happy ending. If the diplomat's mother had not placed Lotte in a first rate clinic to cure Lotte's absence of speech after the shock of losing her mother, Lotte would have been deported back to Germany where they were already gassing the mentally defectives.

well, time to get some more sleep.

I now stay offline a lot as the news is no longer a positve distraction from my real life.



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