By Laurel Snyder
It’s a strange thing, the hunger for public statements, testimonials. Periodically, an important event takes place and forces the media to seek out a community response. And if you happen to work for Hillel in the nearly-rural-overwhelmingly-Christian Midwest, you get a lot of calls from smalltown papers, hungering for the Jewish response to nearly everything — from the last episode of Sex in the City to the Democratic National Convention.
I work for Hillel at the University of Iowa, where I happen to be Jewish Student Life Coordinator, and I get a ton of calls. Lately, my phone won’t stop ringing.
Because suddenly Jews are interesting again, fascinating, unusual and targeted. Because suddenly, everyone wants a statement. They want me to say I’m scared to death, or they want me to say I’m not frightened at all. They want me to resurrect the Holocaust, proclaim that I don’t think violence will erupt, but that my grandparents didn’t think it would erupt in Berlin.
It doesn’t really matter what I say, so long as it fits into the column, and so long as it’s a defined position, symbolic of all the emotions of my chosen people, my Jewish race. So long as I’m not confused, conflicted, bewildered by complex factors.
Everybody’s Jesus? (The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson)
They sit at the other end of the phone, listening, scribbling right along for The Cedar Springs Courier, The Cedar Bluffs Statesman, and The Cedar Cedar Bugle, old hands from small towns and cub reporters from J-schools, local TV producers and Christian news service hacks, but then they say, “Wait, I’m not sure I understand your position.”
“My position?” I repeat. “I don’t really have one.” They get flustered, and I tell them that I have some feelings, some fears, some gut-reactions, but that I’m not sure what I think.
They respond: “But your community overall — what is your community feeling?”
And I’m at a total loss. It’s like they imagine I’ve just gotten off a conference call with Ariel Sharon, my bubbe’s ghost, the Elders of Zion, Moses, Chabad, The Beastie Boys, and the ADL.
Because there has been a major event, and they imagine my community is unifying, reacting, converging. And what is the event? Certainly not the explosion in Jerusalem yesterday, and not the building of the fence in the territories. Not the execution of Texas inmates and not the Iowa caucuses. A big event, bigger than that, a really enormous event.
Because Mel Gibson, bored with the American Revolution, 13th century Scotland and WWII, decided to conquer the greatest story ever told. He decided to invade the Bible. He decided to hand-pick scenes from the Gospels, mix in a handful of Mel-made manufactured moments, and film it all in Aramaic, to lend a Semitic hint of authenticity.
And they want my testimony on this movie, which nobody in Iowa has yet seen. They want me to either hug everybody or scream. They want to know what the Jews think.
The Jews think many things, but I think this — that Gibson is a heavy-handed fuck, that I was offended by 1776 long before The Passion of the Christ, that history is as malleable as the American mind. But that isn’t why they called me, is it? But I don’t care, I tell them this —
That Mel’s dad is guilty of child-abuse, of warping Mel’s mind with a sick, irrelevant hatred. That Mel wants to destroy the ethical left-wing of the Catholic church and that time marches forward, not the other way. That Mel must be a sad person on the inside, and that Passion plays are a part of history, as is sadness and violence and testifying.
The newsguy usually tries to end the interview, but I keep talking. I say —
That Josephus can explain a lot, that the Romans were powerful, and that movies are propaganda. I say that it’s hard to understand other people, that Gibson isn’t interested in me, that young, impressionable kids had best watch out, and that it’s strange how many ways there are for me to testify.
I say that this movie will come out, and that there will be offensive graffiti in the bathrooms in bars across America. I say that this movie will break sales records all over the place, and that most of the people who see it won’t be inspired to read a book, much less the Good Book. Which is sad.
And I say I’ll go see it.
But mostly, I say it’s hard to be a Jewish woman, trying to understand the rigidity of fundamentalist Christianity. How can I explain it to the man on the phone? I say —
“You’re a Christian, and whether you like it or not, Gibson has made a movie from your holy book. He has manipulated it and distorted it, but underneath his movie is still your Bible, the word of your God. And while he may be crazy, he’s honest. He believes I’m going to Hell, because his Bible told him I’m going to Hell. He believes that most of the world is going to Hell, and that it’s up to him to use his gifts, talents and power to save the world. So he made his movie.
“And if you think he’s right, that I’m going to Hell, then you should be doing the same with your gifts and talents and power. If you love me and God, and if you want to do the work of the Lord.
“But Christ! please don’t.”
Laurel Snyder is a Hillel Student Life Coordinator, the creator of JewishyIrishy, and co-editor of Pop!Goes the Lord, a forthcoming collection of writing about pop music and religion.