The Hidden Jew as Critic

Jan. 10 2020

 In November, the theater critic John Simon, known for his erudition, prose style, and biting, sometimes cruel, reviews, died at the age of ninety-four. While obituaries noted that he was born in Serbia as Ivan Simmon and came to the U.S. in 1941, Jonathan Leaf reports hearing a very different story about his early life from Simon’s close friend and fellow critic Howard Kissel: that Simon was born to a Jewish father who barely escaped Europe, and that he had a half-brother who remained behind and perished in the Holocaust. Leaf believes this closely guarded secret may shed some light on Simon’s notoriously selective tastes:

People hide their Jewish roots because they are ashamed of their Jewishness. I suspect that Simon’s experiences had persuaded him that Jewishness was a particularly dangerous kind of weakness, and in his vanity, as well as for perceived reasons of self-protection, he chose to identify himself with his oppressors. That which was Aryan was good, and in his mind he was not only its advocate but a kindred soul.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Simon first made his name as a critic through his promotion of the erstwhile art-house Nazi, the Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman. Simon’s writing about Bergman is startling for its fatuousness. There can be little doubt that Bergman was capable of great filmmaking: one has only to think of movies like Summer with MonikaWild Strawberries, or Autumn Sonata. Yet these were not the films that Simon praised. Rather, he celebrated the worst of Bergman’s tedious exercises in pomposity and pretentiousness, deservedly forgotten motion pictures like The Silence and Hour of the Wolf.

In [his writings on these films], Simon was establishing a template, a pattern of taste that would carry through the rest of his career. Whatever was admired by the most recondite of European highbrows, he admired. Whatever was liked by New York Jews, he despised.

Thus, Barbra Streisand was “the sort of thing that starts pogroms.” . . . Annie Hall was “so shapeless, sprawling, repetitious, and aimless as to seem to beg for oblivion.” Everything that David Mamet wrote after his first two one-act plays was “the same thing rehashed over and over, and no longer news.” (This included American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross.) Simon was rueful that political correctness had made it impolitic to call something a “faggoty Jewish musical.” . . . Any actress with Nordic looks was likely to be judged as superlative. Thus, Uma Thurman was “scintillating.”

Read more at Tablet

More about: David Mamet, Film, Holocaust, Literary criticism, Theater, Woody Allen


Syria’s Druze Uprising, and What It Means for the Region

When the Arab Spring came to Syria in 2011, the Druze for the most part remained loyal to the regime—which has generally depended on the support of religious minorities such as the Druze and thus afforded them a modicum of protection. But in the past several weeks that has changed, with sustained anti-government protests in the Druze-dominated southwestern province of Suwayda. Ehud Yaari evaluates the implications of this shift:

The disillusionment of the Druze with Bashar al-Assad, their suspicion of militias backed by Iran and Hizballah on the outskirts of their region, and growing economic hardships are fanning the flames of revolt. In Syrian Druze circles, there is now open discussion of “self-rule,” for example replacing government offices and services with local Druze alternative bodies.

Is there a politically acceptable way to assist the Druze and prevent the regime from the violent reoccupation of Jebel al-Druze, [as they call the area in which they live]? The answer is yes. It would require Jordan to open a short humanitarian corridor through the village of al-Anat, the southernmost point of the Druze community, less than three kilometers from the Syrian-Jordanian border.

Setting up a corridor to the Druze would require a broad consensus among Western and Gulf Arab states, which have currently suspended the process of normalization with Assad. . . . The cost of such an operation would not be high compared to the humanitarian corridors currently operating in northern Syria. It could be developed in stages, and perhaps ultimately include, if necessary, providing the Druze with weapons to defend their territory. A quick reminder: during the Islamic State attack on Suwayda province in 2018, the Druze demonstrated an ability to assemble close to 50,000 militia men almost overnight.

Read more at Jerusalem Strategic Tribune

More about: Druze, Iran, Israeli Security, Syrian civil war, U.S. Foreign policy