Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Welcome To The Neighborhood, Jerry Springer (The Jewish Week 7/15/09)

By Joshua Hammerman

OK, say you’re a rabbi and Jerry Springer sets up shop in your backyard, moving from Chicago and schlepping his unruly entourage with him. Then he brings along Maury Povich, whose followers aren’t much better. Oh, and Steve Wilkos, too, Jerry’s former security guard, whose show recently featured the compelling topic, “Teen Girls in Jail.” They’re all moving to Stamford, my town, a place that already has gained a reputation for erratic behavior as the home of professional wrestling, chimps gone wild and Joe Lieberman.

So when fellow Jews Jerry and Maury come around for High Holy Days tickets, do you roll out the red carpet? Do you say, “And bring your lovely deviants too, like the guests featured recently in, “I Have a Latin Lover” and “Sex for Diapers,” or the teenager who claimed that he was influenced by a Springer episode on incest to molest his half-sister?

Springer’s program, which once topped TV Guide’s list for “The Worst TV Shows Ever,” is so lacking in redeeming value that the star himself admitted to Reuters, “I would never watch my show. I’m not interested in it. It’s not aimed towards me. This is just a silly show.”

Welcome to the neighborhood!

Thanks to NBC Universal and some serious tax breaks offered by the state of Connecticut, so many TV and movie productions are streaming to these parts that Stamford is beginning to look like beautiful downtown Burbank. The movie trucks are lining up at the Greenwich border, along with Powerball players, same-sex couples and New Yorkers looking for a state government that actually functions. We’re thrilled to have them all.

But this is different. Jerry Nation will now be taking over the Rich Forum, a glittering arts center that used to be known for highbrow theater, right smack in the heart of a county known for its demure upper crustiness. Stephen Colbert mused that the combination can’t possibly work out. “I want to see people in Spandex punching each other out,” he mused, “rather than having people in v-neck sweaters excluding each other from guest lists!” Predictably, elected officials are overjoyed and religious leaders less so. The tapings will take place next to one of the region’s most venerable Catholic churches. “I’m not very thrilled about it,” said the pastor, Stephen DiGiovanni.

So what does all this have to do with the Jews?

Some would claim that Jews are disproportionately represented among rabble-rousers. That category, loosely constructed, includes union activists, politicians, journalists and lawyers, all very “Jewish” professions. But I’m talking about the real rousers, people with the rare combination of charisma, sarcasm and political savvy — people like Lenny Bruce, Harvey Milk, Bella Abzug and shock jocks like Stern and, yes, Jerry Springer. The Torah calls the rabble afasfsoof, an alliterative expansion of the word for “gathering,” suggesting an arena full of unhappy hockey fans. Demagogues like Korach manipulate the mob, while organizers like Moses channel their anger and craving into constructive, world-repairing activity. That’s where Bella and Harvey succeeded, and where Jerry continues to fail.

But why give up hope? Jerry, former mayor of Cincinnati, clearly has a talent for leadership. He might be one good High Holy Days sermon away from tossing off all that craziness and channeling that asafsoof anger into the kind of compassion that could make miracles happen. Imagine all those Springer fans leaving the studio and heading for their pickups, but instead of hopping back onto I-95, they cruise on over to the local food pantry to stock the shelves.

Imagine how much good Jerry could do.

What rabbi wouldn’t want to take that challenge on? Here’s a man whose parents fled Nazi Germany for England only a few weeks before Hitler invaded Poland (eventually settling in Queens in 1949), a man who lost 27 relatives in the Holocaust. “My parents instilled in us the idea that life is a gift,” he recently told the Daily Mail.

I can work with this guy! But in Fairfield County?

Springer’s Jewishness should be immaterial, but older people who grew up here still have vivid memories of closed country clubs and restricted real estate. It’s been a half-century since Gregory Peck’s character experienced the anti-Semitic snobbery of “Gentleman’s Agreement,” but some are still uneasy. In addition, the Madoff scandal has hit disproportionately hard, town budgets have been massacred and hedge funds — many with Jewish names on the letterhead — are reeling.

Last month, the local newspaper ran a headline story about a bat mitzvah party run amok in Norwalk, with oral sex in the bathrooms and a historic mansion trashed. Many Jews reacted angrily, correctly noting that there was no need to label this sordid celebration in religious terms, nor did it belong on the front page to begin with. It hit the shanda nerve, and the vehemence of the outcry told me that there is still a tinge of uneasiness among Jews on the Gold Coast.

I’ve lived here two decades and love it. I was president of our interfaith council, presiding over the most established churches of New Canaan, Greenwich and Darien, and never once have I felt unwelcome at civic events or houses of worship. The Jewish population has boomed in formerly Judenrein neighborhoods of Westport and Greenwich. But still, some are worried about what “they” think.

And into all this storms the “King of Sleaze.” At least crazed chimps and professional wrestlers are typically not Jewish (with the notable exceptions of Kane, Goldberg and Randy “Macho Man” Savage). But the man from Chicago, the producer of “I Married My Horse” and “I Refuse to Wear Clothes,” most definitely is.

Jerry’s Web site is now casting for future shows, asking: “Did you get two women pregnant?” “Are you a transsexual who has a story to tell?” “Is your marriage falling apart because of cheating?”

So, would you give the guy an aliyah?

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