Sunday, March 30, 2008

Down is Up in America

The Jewish Week, September 3, 2004

A few months ago, “Saturday Night Live” introduced a new character that is certain to take her place along side such SNL immortals as Emily Litella and the Church Lady. She is Debbie Downer, the glass-half-empty girl who can drain the fun out of anything. Played to morose perfection by Rachel Dratch, the skit had the rare effect of throwing the entire cast into a giggling fit.

In the sketch, Debbie dampens spirits at her family’s Disney World reunion with interjections about Mad Cow disease, global warming and a Korean train wreck. She even manages to wipe the smile off of Pluto’s face with a remark about how theme park characters must live under the constant threat of terrorism and heat stroke.

What makes the Debbie Downer sketch so hilarious is that her behavior echoes something so recognizable in our own lives. There is a little Debbie Downer in each of us – and we all know someone who is Debbie incarnate.

One might say that Debbie Downerism has become pervasive in American culture. Pessimism is running rampant in recent national polls, regarding Iraq, terrorism and the economy. It’s even infiltrated the Happiest Place on Earth: Next summer, Disney is scheduled to release an animated version of “Chicken Little.” Many trace this negativity to the residual effects of 9-11, when the sky, did, in fact, fall. But I see it as yet another bit of evidence that America is, culturally speaking, becoming Jewish.

We are the people, after all, who invented pessimism. Think of the ten spies, who convinced their compatriots that it would be impossible to conquer the Promised Land. Golda Meir was right when she said, “Pessimism is a luxury that a Jew can never allow himself.” But it’s also an embedded characteristic that we can never shed.

Think about our love affair with that folksy favorite, the Evil Eye. The ayin ha-rah as it is called in Hebrew, appears in many other cultures. In Arabic, it’s called the ayin harsha; the droch shuil in Scotland, mauvais oeil in France, bösen Blick in Germany, mal occhio in Italy and in ancient Rome, the oculus malus. According to the Skeptic’s Dictionary, some folklorists theorize that the evil eye belief is rooted in primate biology, where dominance and submission are shown by gazing and averting the gaze, and it relates to our dislike of staring.

The Evil Eye was a Jewish concept long before it gained a starring role in “Lord of the Rings.” For Jews, the Eye became a subtler, safer substitute for fatalism and devil worship and an easy explanation for inexplicable calamity. The folk traditions that arose empowered Jews faced with continuous humiliation and powerlessness. Through the ages, Jews have gone to great length to distract the Eye from its intended victim, especially newborns. This has been done with the assistance of incantations, amulets (like the omnipresent ‘hamsa’), charms, and even inscribed bowls that were buried at the entrance to the home. While great rabbinic scholars were asking profound Talmudic questions in ivory-towered yeshivas, the vast majority of Jews faced one question only on a daily basis: How do we confound the Evil Eye?

When I was a child, nothing terrified me more than thunderstorms. There were times when I would be walking home from my synagogue – about five city blocks – and a sudden storm would trap me. With no place to hide, the only thing I could do to protect myself was, paradoxically, to assume that each bolt was aiming for me and me alone. It worked – I never got hit! I assumed that if I were to suppress my irrational fear, just once, THAT would be the time I would get struck.

I must have been a troubled child. My father used to call me “myiskeit,” “ugly” or “unfortunate one,” not because I was ugly or unfortunate, but because that’s how Jews deceive the Evil Eye. Spitting between the fingers has found its way to other cultures, but Jews do it with aplomb, often accompanying the act with the threefold “ptu” or the expression “Kein ayin hara,” which means “No evil eye.”

I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard a “Ken ayin hara” from none other ABC sportscaster Al Michaels during the last minutes of the NBA finals. Detroit was destroying L.A., but despite the lopsided evidence of supremacy, Piston coach Larry Brown was playing it as if the game were much closer. Michaels, noting Brown’s Brooklyn Jewish roots, said, "I think his mother taught him, ‘Larry, don't give yourself a Ken ayin hora.’”

One wonders how bad karma happens to good religions. Judaism is optimistic to the core, a faith based on messianic aspiration and a positive view of human potential. Yet lately we’ve become most notable for celebrities wearing red threads and great aunts spitting between their fingers. All the faith and hope – and even God – have been overshadowed by this optic immortal, the Bogey of Bogeymen, which is getting so big that we might soon have to call it the Elvis Eye.

So when a congregant who will soon be visiting Israel asked me why his terrified relatives are screaming about how crazy he is and begging him not to go, I immediately thought about my own childhood battles against heavenly demons.

“Your relatives are covering themselves,” I responded. “Not legally, but emotionally. There is little they can do to control destiny and reduce the danger, except to inflate it completely out of proportion -- in order to fool the Evil Eye. We ensure a positive result by expecting the worst.”

Makes perfect sense to me.

And now the rest of America is catching this myopia. We’ve buried Ronald Reagan and replaced him with Debbie Downer. Maybe its time to break out the Gipper’s old rose-colored specs and stopped paying such homage to the Evil Eye.

No comments: