Saturday, August 30, 2003

Freaks, Geeks and Gefilte Fish

“She’s seen her fair share of devils in this, Angel Town”
- Shaun Mullins

If I had to sum up my first three months in Los Angeles, it’s been religious. Not in the metaphorical spiritual sense, that my forefathers felt after alighting the Mayflower and stepping into a grateful dead concert, but in the absolute biblical sense. It has, literally, been religious.

The United States as we know is riddled with religious shenanigans from zealots to spiritual goo goo gurus preaching whatever seems redeeming and magnetic for the moment and the attending hypocrisy has been oft noted. I don’t need to do the same. And if I was being honest with myself I was craving it. As a cultural Jew living in Asia I had been starved of the trappings of my faith. A cultural Jew is exactly that, they worship at the temple of the trappings of their faith, where faith itself is merely a by-product usually brought out to play at key religious festivals. In my case as a lone Jew in Singapore I would cherish, nay, covet, the odd box of Matzo Meal and kosher pickles tucked into a corner of an overpriced expat supermarket on the Orchard Road.

So I was craving the abundance of Judaism that Hollywood would bring with its wealth of deli diners, kiddish dinners and, well, Jews. And yes I was an opportunistic Jew there as well. Knowing full well the power of the Jewish mafia, or “Kosher Nostra” in my chosen profession, I was totally ready, willing and able to flash my paid up Jew membership card as and when it suited. If research and cunning was what it took to get seated next to David Geffen, Michael Eisner or Lew Goldstein at the Sabbath service then I had no shame. So sue me, already.

It was with this sentiment in mind that Rosie announced shortly after my arrival that we were to attend Kabbalah. Ka What? I would ask. Kabbalah she said, it’s where Madonna goes, she said enthusiastically. I didn’t exactly remember Madonna’s bah mitzvah. I did however remember her once running around with crucifixes in the mid eighties, but Kabbalah does SOUND Jewish, so why not.

So six o’clock Saturday we go hunting Kabbalah on La Brea, which, I later discover, is a long strip of Jewish temples of one denomination or another. In fact the one denomination we did accidentally walk into turned out to be Orthodox. What they must have made of a pasty Brit and a Chinese Woman eagerly looking for service doesn’t bear thinking about. They’ve probably tightened security since.

Much debate had been spent on what to wear. Rosie relied on my vast experience of such occasions (albeit annual high holy days in Edgware) and taking my sombre grey slacks and dark shirt as cue, dressed accordingly.

Everyone was dressed in white. Chief Rabbi, white. Madonna, Guy Ritchie, Lourdes, white. Everything white. At a guess, I would imagine such a uniform prevents the age old embarrassing problem of two Jews turning up to temple wearing the same thing, which as anyone knows, is a travesty comparable to a burning bush.

In a room of three hundred or so, in white, we were ushered to a white table, given a nice and simple Middle Eastern supper and a Kabbalah “teacher” (in white) was kindly asked to sit with us to explain. Kabbalah, I was to learn, predates any religion. Hebrew in origin yes, but less about religious history and the old testament but more about spiritual grounding and accessing ones inner spirit and strength through the universe. Naturally.

Madonna and Guy were there, as were the kids. Very normal, no bouncers, no special treatment, no jewellery, no pointy bras, dressed in white. And it wasn’t too far removed from what I knew. Hebrew text I couldn’t understand, jolly songs, kids running around screaming, men talking to me with bad breath who stank of egg and onion. This is what I know. Except for the white of course.

They were all very nice to each other. Men hugged shoulders to sing songs, everyone made a point to introduce themselves and we were both made to feel very, very welcome. It was at that point that it all stopped ringing true for me. Yes they were all very nice to each other but so probably are the Moonies, I thought. They all just seemed that bit too keen to have us on board. As the saying goes, I didn’t want to be a member of any religion that was that keen to have me even if it was MY religion for chrissakes.

Shortly after dinner they rushed me over to meet Marc, who they were overjoyed to point out, attended the same school as me, as if that would swing my vote. I didn’t remember Marc but he remembered me. He was in LA “doing property” which quashed any doubts I might have had over his authentic North London roots. Marc was also a Kabbalah teacher and therefore felt he had every right to get zealous on my ass. And zealous he did. The following statement I swear I repeat verbatim,
“I’ve tried many religions, see and none of them answered what I was looking for. Not Yoga, not nothing. Kabbalah finds your place in the universe. It answers the problems you seek. There’s no point in trying to find answers in the wrong religion. I mean you don’t go to the doctor if all you want is a video from blockbuster…..”

I tried to catch Madonna’s eye. If ever there was a time I needed her to holler, “Papa don’t preach,” it was now.

As Rosie and I beat a retreat he had one last attempt, with a knowing wink he said “There are lots of people from your profession who come here.” It simply wasn’t enough, I wanted Blockbuster and a stiff dirty Martini. Rosie said she wanted to come back. She hasn’t.

Tenuously on the religious theme, a few days later, national newspaper USA Today ran a front page of David Beckham saying this was the world’s greatest athlete America had never heard of. The movie “Bend it like Beckham” had been the surprise summer hit, leaving many yanks wondering, who? I was surprised it wasn’t up for a Stateside remake, but I guess ‘Jump it like Jordan’ or ‘Wood it like Woods’ just didn’t have the same ring to it. A few days after that the following appeared on the letters page which again I repeat verbatim,

“I read USA Today religiously. I enjoy the broad scope of news that can be obtained only from a national newspaper. To tap into the wealth of good news reporting that characterizes USA TODAY, I sometimes have to turn up my nose as an underlying liberal slant bleeds to the surface. The story on David Beckham was a perfect example. USA TODAY gushed over the athlete as though he were the perfect role model for America’s Youth. Implicit in the article was the question as to why America was not on board with the rest of the world. But is a man who is “in touch with his feminine side” and who has posed for a gay magazine, one we really want our sons to emulate? Even if Beckham is sympathetic to the gay cause, is this any way to express it? Do we want our daughters posing for Playboy? What is the difference? Is it asking too much to request a little sensitivity to readers who cling to a more traditional definition of family? How does Beckham stack up against the brave troops, fire-fighters and police officers in our post 9/11 world?”
– The Rev. Gary l. Bankson, Rosepine, La. (May 13th 2003)

I wondered whether ‘Beckham stacking up against brave troops, fire-fighters and police’ might have been his gay fantasy, but considered it best to keep that thought to myself.

Between apartments, Rosie and I “head back East”. All Americans head “back” East apparently, even if they are not from there. I assume it’s because that’s where they disembarked a few hundred years ago and marched West ever since. First we go to NY, then Washington DC and finally Charleston, South Carolina for the mother of all religious experiences. I say mother, because it was exactly that, Rosie’s mum, Tabitha was getting ordained as a minister in the Episcopal Church. Relishing the fact that I may now be dating the minister’s daughter (a quintessentially British pubescent fantasy that just wouldn’t go away), I willingly attend.

Charleston is “The South,” and like any other Brit talk of “The South” conjures a thousand preconceived images. With the limited knowledge I had - that I was attending a pious ceremony; would be staying at a Reverend’s assistant’s home in deepest Bible belt and the Klan’s HQ was just a hop skip and a jump down the road; my already overactive imagination went into overdrive. As we drifted into sleep on the overnight train, my dreams morphed into, ‘The Crucible II – the Director’s Cut - This Time it’s Personal’ where the Chinkie and the Jew greet the inevitable forces of damnation, confess to their multitude and myriad of sins and attend their first and last lynching.

I should have known. The night before in Washington, we called the reverend’s wife, Annie to announce we’re on our way.

“Haaaaya honey,” she said in a southern drawl so clichéd I wondered whether it was put on for our benefit, “ Aarm so excited y’all coming down here. Aaarm jus’ sittin’ here drinkin’ champagne in maa underwear an’ soapin the carpet.”

Oh yes I should have known.

I was expecting god fearing piety and the fires of hell, what I got was a reverend who stops service in time to watch the Simpsons, a wife who collects Disney memorabilia and a son who plays slide guitar numbers out on the porch. These were truly wonderful, lively, witty people who couldn’t have been more welcoming no matter who we were, and what our convictions of faith. And that other cliché, the one about Southern hospitality, couldn’t have been closer to the truth. We ate well, laughed well and slept well. Hell we even prayed well. They were what Christianity intended when they first proposed a power point tablet 2000 or so years ago.

And boy there were many of them. Episcopalians, see, don’t have quite the same stringent laws on marriage and divorce as their other Christian brethren, hence Rosie and I struggled to remember who was married to who, who was once married to who and whose child was who’s. I wasn’t even sure if they knew anymore. No matter.

Among all this religious gaiety and communal love the guns in the mix really took me by surprise. I guess it was naïve of me to think that the two were incompatible. But it was the mere pervasiveness of them, their being part of the very fabric of Charleston society and so shamelessly acceptable that I found so hard to reconcile.

I first knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore when we arrived at our hosts for the night, Jean and Jon (Jean being the aforementioned reverend’s assistant). Wealthy, self made, true god fearing people, their house sat across the water from Charleston among acres of their own luscious land. Sombrely but tastefully decorated, built with their own fair hands it was clearly their pride and joy and stood as proof that the good lord had blessed them. I counted the crucifixes at every turn. There were 46. They even had cute ones in the bedroom where Jesus dropped the whole blood and gore act in favour of a nice big colourful smile, “so as not to upset the children,” I assumed.

I’ve always judged people by their pooing material and their loo was stocked with back copies of “Young Hunter” where a tweenager adorned the cover in lumberjack suit and 12 bore shotgun. Nice. This became even harder to stomach when Tabitha told us in hushed tones that some years earlier Jean and Jon’s own 10 year old son had been shot in the back of the head and killed on a hunting expedition.

Sorry…what?

A few nights later at a Venison dinner (shot, skinned and grilled by themselves) they then proceeded to tell us, with pride, that their six-year-old grandson had just shot his first buck. Hurrah!

Sorry…what?

In an unrelated incident Rosie and I had to attend the local doctor’s surgery. Upon entry a bold notice on the door read, “No Smoking. No Soliciting. No Concealed Weapons.” So, like, if you can see my weapon then all is well, is it? And why do I need a weapon at the doc’s anyway? In case he tries to put his finger up my ass again, I’s gonna blow him away?

It wasn’t just ‘gun’ culture, it was THE culture. The altar window of the church depicted St Michael slaughtering the devil at the gates of heaven; the reverend gladly allowed snipers to use the church belfry when a member of the Noriega klan was tried in the courthouse opposite; even the first shot of the civil war came on Charleston soil. That civil war by the way is locally referred to as, “that recent unpleasantness”.

It all came together the first night. At a party held by the reverend we met David in a wheelchair. What happened we asked Annie, “Oh he was hunting deer some time back, climbed up a tree to stalk, fell asleep and fell from the tree. He’s paralysed from the waist down. They had to airlift him by helicopter to hospital,” pause, “…so how you two enjoying Charleston?”

Right. So let’s just summarise for a moment. If I’m not totally mistaken, in less than six hours I’ve heard stories of dead children and paralysed men. So, like, what’s the common denominator here? What connects these two stories? And why, if I may be so bold, don’t you people get it?

We return to Los Angeles – the city of angels – with Robbie Williams lyrics repeating over and over in my head,

“….the Holy Ghost and the whole East Coast are moving to L.A…….”

Our new apartment sits just below the famous “sign” - that modern day false idol that beckons all who believe in the gospel according-to-Hollywood to come, worship. And come they do. We did.

Is there a biblical metaphor for networking? Maybe not. But as rookie’s in this new temple, networking we must do. I get invited to my first breakfast network by Ken, a new media correspondent for the BBC who seems enthusiastic about literally everything.

“You’re gonna love it,” he says. Yes I say. “It’s a bunch of guys just like yourself and we meet every Saturday and get to know each other and see how we can help each other. You’re gonna love it.” Yes I say.

“But you gotta come every week,” he tells me, “It’s a religious commitment.”

Of course it is.