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Problematic Jews:  Shylock; Bernie Madoff; Charles Krauthammer; Matt Drudge; Henry Kissinger; Ayn Rand; Rabbi Yehuda Levin; Dracula; Ariel Sharon; Bill Kristol; Watto from Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace; Richard Perle; Michael Savage; Barabas; Kyle Broslofski; the woman at the deli who makes you pay for her fat thumb every time she weighs out a pound of brisket; Caspar Weinberger; Berine Goldberg; Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb; Norman Podhoretz; militant West Bank settlers; David Horowitz; Geraldo Rivera; Ahasver; the international cabal of bankers and entertainment executives planning the takeover of the world financial system; Douglas Feith; that scruffy haired Jesus of Nazarene fellow.

And, of course, Fagin.

I approach Oliver Twist with trepidation, because I have difficulty processing racist stereotypes.  And while Alec Guinness doesn’t overtly identify Fagin as a Jew, he does have an unfortunate habit of pronouncing Oliver “Oy-iver.”  Plus:  the fakest nose in the history of cinema, only recently surpassed by Nicole Kidman’s proboscis in The Hours.  (Describing a Jew as having a “hook-nose” is one thing, but attaching a wedge of Brie to their face is another.  Also worth noting:  Fagin runs a gang of young boys living together — sort of how I imagine the goings-on in the Bel Ami house.  But with fewer rags.  And no artful dodging.)

I’m of two minds on how to engage with literature and films with racist depictions.  On the one hand, you can’t ignore the real damage that these stereotypes have done.  The Shylock and Fagin-type figures, in particular, have been used to perpetrate systemic discrimination — and worse, obviously — against Jews.  (Yes, some Jews do have those sharp hawk noses, but that just means that you have to tilt your head more to kiss them properly.)  On the other hand, you want to forgive one element in otherwise engaging and important works.  I adore Breakfast at Tiffany’s, for instance, despite the feeling that Mickey Rooney is going to hell for his portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi.

This is a long-winded and roundabout way, I suppose, of cautioning myself not to ingest my media blindly.  Given that art is already an imperfect medium, it doesn’t hurt to attach an asterisk.  Thus:  Triumph of the Will is a stunning film.*  Listening to Wagner will stir your soul.**  Middlemarch is a really long book.***

So, as my huge asterisk in talking about Oliver Twist, I duly note that Dickens, in later revisions of the novel, removed references to Fagin as “the Jew.”  He also later took pains to include positive portrayals of Jews in Our Mutual Friends.  I haven’t seen the Roman Polanski’s recent version of Oliver Twist, I understand that Ben Kingsley did his best to make a full character out of Fagin.  Also, I have never seen any iterations of Oliver! — but this is less my avoidance of Fagin-related materials and more that I don’t really like musicals.  Hey, we all have to resist our stereotypes and caricatures somehow.

*if you don’t mind all the dancing Nazis.

**especially if you blot out the anti-Semitic elements.

***written by a chick in drag!

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A friend recently remarked to me, apropos of me making little headway on my novel, “Why, didn’t you know that Charles Dickens wrote [x number of words] in [y number of days]?”

To which, I replied: “Yes, but Charles Dickens didn’t have to teach freshman composition.”

“Touché,” said my friend.

Great Expectations was the assigned book for my 10th grade English class.  Every year, the high school English curriculum consisted of one canonical novel and one Shakespeare play — regular as running laps in the gym.  Our teacher, Mrs. Francis, was about 50.  She had the round eyes and cheeks of a goldfish — a pet one tries to pretend is fun and entertaining even though it isn’t.  I remember once she wore a white polyester shirt with a 70s-bold, geometric print — angular slashes of red and brown blocks.  She had a head full of tight gray curls kept in a round, meringue-shaped mass.

I say this not to mock Mrs. Francis, but to acknowledge how years of teaching 10th grade English — a thankless task if ever there was one — may have worn her enthusiasm for the material down to a nub.  For 10th grade, Romeo and Juliet was the Shakespeare of choice, and the class watched the Franco Zeffirelli film version.  During the post-coital scene, when Romeo stood at the window, his buns bathed in golden sunshine, Mrs. Francis fumbled with the remote of the VCR, but quickly gave up.  “Oh, well,” she said.  And the next thing we knew, Juliet’s breasts flashed on screen.  The class tittered.

There’s no boob shot in Great Expectations — though if there had been one, I’m not entirely sure it would have kept our adolescent attentions any better.  The closest we get is a shirtless John Mills punching Alec Guinness, who does his best to keep his loafers from becoming airborne.  (He generally fails.)

I dutifully read for about two weeks, but once Pip left for London, my attention flagged and waned.  Oh, I know the novel is an insightful look into class mobility, but, dammit, I just couldn’t be bothered.  I passed by getting daily updates from my friends, and briefly opened the book to read Ms. Haversham’s fiery death before putting it down again.  Dickens, I fear, will remain a literary blind spot for me, but I’m reminded that David Lean himself hadn’t read Great Expectations when he set out to make the film.  Vindicated by liner notes!

If nothing else, Great Expectations at least helped me solved an eternal mystery of cat food etymology:  what the hell is a ‘Tender Vittle’?  Early in the book, Magwitch demands “vittles” from Pip, which, according to the handy-dandy glossary, is a bastardization of ‘victuals.’  At the time, this was not a clarification, since we didn’t know what ‘victuals’ were either.  As I’ve learned, ‘victual’ has a verb form too, which means ‘to feed,’ but no similar debased version (if I say I’m going to ‘vittle’ my cat, this sounds like I’m traveling to Germany to shave him).  Ah, the transformation of language:  an actual word falls out of favor and gets consigned to a footnote, while its spawn becomes famous for its semi-moist consistency and slight nutritional content.

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