Tuvia Tenenbom, The Lies They Tell. Gefen Publishing House, Jerusalem, 2017
It takes a genius of a clown like Tuvia Tenenbom to piece together the American Tragedy in a drive-in tour de force that spans the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave from coast to coast, from north to south, from Alaska to Hawaii. Our roaming reporter and natural actor drops in on all kinds of folks, getting them to speak their minds, such as they are, and making us forget the vast empty spaces where nothing is worthy of mention and even the boredom is too flat and weary for words. Tuvia T., a man of theater, artfully creates the illusion of unity of time, space, and action out of thousands of kilometers of loose ends.
And that’s not all! In a six-month (was it only six months?) road trip in the USA, he finds enough people actually present in public places to converse with, however scantily, and fill 400 pages with notable quotes. Like an archeologist putting together a Greek urn out of a pile of broken bits, Tenenbom distills the essence of early 21st century America with bits and pieces of locations, characters, and dialogue. It is so funny to read. And so sad, once you’ve assimilated the whole journey.
The American tragedy is, by definition, the inextricable association of the best and the worst. The USA is an upstart nation founded by Europeans that fled their oppressive culture and established a glaring contradiction of their origins. From there, the nation is built in layers like a “mille feuille” (that they call a “napoleon”) of refugees and fortune hunters. Let it be called a melting pot (what a strange idea when you think of it) or a tossed salad, the only way it could work is, as Tenenbom writes, by forcing them to abandon their ancestral cultures… and get nothing in return. That’s the land of opportunity. So little to master. Just get the knack of things and fly.
Tenenbom is a skilled weaver, composing his tableau with colorful threads that create coherence out of a mixed bag of chance encounters. There is the search for traces of the German origins of 50 million (or so he was told) Americans. Nowhere to be seen. When he finally hits on a German restaurant in Fredericksburg Texas, it’s decorated with two guys dressed in Luftwaffe uniforms. One of them does speak fluent German. He’s a Brit. Most of the customers think they’re American military men. And the food is tasteless. Jews, on the other hand, turn up in the most unexpected places and seem to be drawn to the closet Israeli by some ancestral impulse. He strikes up a conversation with a woman after a Quaker meeting in Philadelphia; she turns out to be a convert from Judaism. The only Jew in the small town of Lugonier PA walks up and introduces herself. Then there’s the friendly Jewish mayor of Anchorage Alaska, Ethan Berkowitz, and Chicago’s unapproachable Rahm Emmanuel. Here and there Tenenbom meets an authentic Zionist Jew but the overriding concern of most of them, individually or collectively, is the wellbeing of Blacks and Palestinians.
They share this concern with humanitarians of all stripes and colors that seem to cross whatever path Tuvia might take in his spontaneous zigzags up down and sideways in that vast land. He quickly catches on to their thinking kits. If a guy is concerned about global warming, Tenenbom knows he’ll be in favor of immigration, gay marriage, gun control, Black Lives Matter, and Palestinian rights. On the other side of the aisle, it’s not always so clear. Some champions of law and order, gun rights, traditional marriage, a clear distinction between male and female, and a strong alliance with Israel believe, nevertheless, that Jews run everything and own everything in the US.
Might this be the ominous glue that will patch up and repair the cracks in the discombobulated America discovered by the inimitable Tuvia Tenenbom? The belief that the Jews pull the strings and fill their moneybags is prevalent in all sectors of the land of diversity. Outside the Charleston SC church where Dylann Roof murdered nine black churchgoers, he bumps into Johnny, a disciple of Farrakhan, who says Jews run everything. Further down the road a black woman pinpoints Jerusalem “next to Israel” and swears the Jews are the richest people in America. A young Texan encountered on Mackinac Island proudly displays his political science credentials and says Israel should stop building colonies in Gaza. Outside a museum in St. Augustine Florida, a Democrat from New Jersey grumbles about the entry fee imposed by… guess who? Money-grubbing Jews. Tuvia joins some Jordanians out for a smoke in Dearborn and learns that American food is lousy—he agrees—and the Jews do all the dirty tricks, including 9/11. A Somali cab driver in Seattle tells him the Jews run Obama. A self-anointed specialist in political science in LaCrosse Wisconsin tells him in 1947 or ’48 the US and the UK replaced the State of Palestine with the State of Israel. In Dodgeville, a guy who works for anon-profit is fed up with Israel shooting rockets at the Palestinians. None are more virulent than the anti-Zionists demonstrating outside a CUFI Conference in Washington DC. A rich Jew in Boca Raton Florida does care about being Jewish; he’s not happy with the way the Israelis treat the Palestinians.
Fools rush in
The humanitarian sermons and hymns to diversity most often end up with a warning: don’t go “there.” “There” is the nearest crime-ridden ghetto where the diversity, uniformly black or Hispanic, actually lives. Tenenbom is shocked by the degree of segregation that persists in spite of the high rate of do-gooders per square mile. And of course he does go “there” and chews the fat with the boys in the ‘hood who tell it like it is. Obama? Aint done nothin’ for us. Fills he own pockets is all. What’s wrong here? People shooting each other up day and night. We killing each other for no reason. Desperate innocent kids or hardened criminals and jailbirds, they’re all open to a friendly chat, and Tuvia comes out intact, leaving them behind in a blight and squalor that is worse than what he’s seen in Mideast refugee camps. Not the least of the worst is Southside Chicago, the district represented by President Obama in his early political days.
Tuvia passes through these minefields like a winged angel. In Mexico, too, where he crosses the “green zone” at the 5th block into Laredo and just keeps going and going, into the inferno where, he was warned, he’ll be kidnapped, tortured, killed and beheaded. What he finds is great, delicious, tasty, real food. The lack of which, all over the United States, even at most Jewish events, is a cause of suffering for our Sancho Panza. Coming back from Mexico, Tuvia goes through the wringer at the border and commiserates with the unfortunate refugees. You’d almost think it was Trump’s fault … but this was back in the Obama days!
One continuous Jewish joke
Tuvia Tenenbom is the personification of that particular syncopation, the subtle offbeat that makes the Jewish joke. He’s sublime and ridiculous, endearing and exasperating, hamishe and a ham, sincere and sly, deliciously intelligent and cunningly naïve, constantly generating the positive/ negative charge that gives a spark to all he writes. Sublime in his descriptions of nature—Yellowstone Park, Aspen, Alaskan glaciers—pitiless in the portrayal of gullible Americans, like the one-hundred gun couple that lets him try a few of their toys. Have you ever shot before? Of course the Israeli military veteran says no and goes on to hit endless bull’s eyes. Awesome. As for the Indians, those Native Americans who’ve lost their plumes, their native tongues and infinite wisdom, don’t ask.
Every reader will have favorite morsels. My copy of the book is porcupined with sticky tabs, I can’t even begin to mention a tenth of them. Let me choose one that’s close to home. On the first leg of his trip, the intrepid traveler steps out of New York and ventures as far as Philadelphia. That’s where I grew up. And what does he find, inscribed on the famous cracked Liberty Bell? “Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” The yeshiva bocher knows “these words are taken from the Bible (the Book of Leviticus), and they were written about the Holy Land of Israel.” That’s my kind of travel buddy! Righteous Quakers break the righteous silence of their righteous Meeting to mouth journalistic platitudes. I remember my disappointment at a Quaker meeting back in the early 1950s when I was a volunteer in an American Friends Service Committee program. Our humanitarian service in the ghetto wasn’t organized by the synagogue, we worked directly with the Friends. We did some house painting in the slums. The young dudes would walk in and out, giving us snide looks and hissing through their teeth as we plugged up holes in the plaster drenched with the stench of urine, fatback, and coal dust. Ignoring Friendly warnings, Tenenbom hops over to the killing fields of Germantown. Germantown? Too dangerous? They were our main football rival when I was a student at Upper Darby High School.
Those were the innocent 40s and 50s. We won the war. The soldiers came home and started building a new chapter of the Dream. Which brings me to the most puzzling thread: Tenenbom asks Americans and himself why they bombard other countries to force them to accept their way of life. If I may reply: They (we) don’t see it that way at all. America is traditionally isolationist. If you want to appeal to American voters, you say you’ll keep them out of foreign wars. They reluctantly and belatedly got drawn into WW 1 and 2, like someone going back to save the dysfunctional family he fled decades ago. Joseph & his brothers in Egypt. Latter day interventions are unpopular. They don’t fit the liberation theory model. It is not a question of imposing the American way of life, but of liberating the oppressed so that they will freely choose the best: democracy, capitalism, and all the rest that’s so good about the USA.
If the clumsily assimilated Judaism via Protestantism represented by the Liberty Bell Proclamation has resulted in this kooky Yankee righteousness, the fast pace of change brings us from the heroic generation that saved Europe from the Nazis to today’s millennials, hell bent on throwing the Jews into the maws of intersectionalized jihad.
I attended the session at Limmud’s International Conference where Tuvia Tenenbom presented his forthcoming America the Beautiful (the original title that I much prefer). Thin-skinned humorless Americans went into a rage. How dare he say such things? Throwing knives of indignation, they blamed him for not doing a proper sociological study with scientifically selected samples that yield reliable statistics. What’s this nonsense of vagabonding all over the place, cherry picking opinion and drawing unflattering conclusions? Tenenbom was subjected to a targeted elimination, wiped out of the round table scheduled that afternoon, and subsequently disgraced in partisan media.
I’ve thought a lot about that experience in the year since I first read The Lies They Tell. Would Tuvia be in greater danger today on a college campus than in a benighted ghetto? People were afraid, then, to tell him who they had voted for? Today, you would have to own up, declare what side you’re on, and that’s not all. If you don’t hate Trump as much as the other fellow, it’s a causus belli. You’re a white extremist fascist racist woman-hater, you don’t deserve to walk freely on this earth. And there’s no place to hide. If you don’t unconditionally adore Trump as much as the next guy, you’re a lowdown anti-Trumpster, a traitor to the conservative cause, a collaborator with the Socialist Islamo-fascist Left… There’s no discussion on either side. Nothing to discuss. It’s war.
Besides which, who does he think he is, always talking about attractive young ladies? It’s no wonder he got kicked out of Nashville for asking a(n attractive young ) employee at the tourist office how she felt about leaving liberal LA (he recognized her accent) to live in conservative Nashville? “Political” questions are haram!
And if they don’t get him for political crimes or disrespect for LGBTQ and #MeToo, he’ll be tossed on the chopping block for cultural appropriation. First of all, who is he? Israeli, German, a New Yorker, a Jew or a journalist? And he thinks he can hang out with cowboys, Indians, African-Americans, rednecks, Muslims, Latinos, ex-cons and elected officials? And talk to us in their lingo?
Frankly, these days, even saying “I’m fat” is problematical. It can be deemed a micro-aggression aimed at the ponderously challenged.
For this and so many other reasons, for his impudence and sincere tenderness, for the skillful craftsmanship that makes it flow and jive, for his solid learning and derring-do, I’ll always be happy to hitch a ride with Tuvia Tenenbom.