Shia Altman
Shia Altman

No, talent competition shows are NOT like ‘Sophie’s Choice’

Sophie’s Choice is a 1982 movie about a Polish-Catholic woman caught with contraband by the Nazis, who along with her two children, her 10-year-old son and her 7-year-old daughter, is sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp. After she arrives, the SS officer in charge tells her she can only take one of her children to go with her to a labor camp while the other is to be gassed.

Of course, the sobbing, loving mother cannot choose, but her pleas and begging are ignored, and when a German soldier is ordered to take both children away, she tells the Nazi to take her daughter, and the screaming little girl is taken away to be murdered. Sophie’s son does go to a labor camp, but she never finds out his fate, and later on, after emigrating to the United States, the deeply depressed and guilt-ridden Sophie commits suicide.

I don’t enjoy watching movies like this and when I did see it some years back, I had regrets. Not only are such profoundly sad movies not the kind of entertainment I appreciate — the world is horror-filled enough without me having to look to Hollywood for more. And as those of you who have read my columns know, my own mother was in Auschwitz and my father was in a labor camp before escaping and becoming a partisan. Most of their families were killed by the Nazis.

Sophie’s Choice does hit close to home.

America’s Got Talent (AGT) is a talent competition show on America’s NBC network. The show is like other talent shows around the world and has its run every summer here in the US. Howie Mandel has been one of the judges since 2010. He is, by all appearances, a proud Jew who has supported Jewish/Israel causes and by all appearances seems to be a decent guy, a mentsch. I actually met Mandel some years back at a Jewish festival here in Los Angeles and he was pleasant enough.

On AGT’s finale, just before they were to choose between the last two contestants, Mandel said this: “Tonight, at this stage of the competition I feel like we are on a reality version of Sophie’s Choice, my heart is being ripped out.” (Minute 7:15 of the clip.) I cringed.

Really? A reality version of Sophie’s Choice? You are equating the choice between talent acts on a television show with a mother choosing which of her children would live and which would die? Which would become a slave and which would be murdered? You actually think reality show entertainment compares to the reality of the Holocaust where such atrocities occurred?

Am I being too sensitive because of my background? Or too politically correct? Should I lighten up?

Sometimes I feel, things just go over the line of decency or good taste, and yes, I know my line might not be your line or someone else’s. And if you know me and/or have read my blog, you know, at least when it comes to politics, I don’t think it’s too harsh to call someone a liar and a crook, or a scammy blowhard, if a person lies and breaks the law, or happens to be a deceitful windbag.

Certainly, if I were a politician, I would use more diplomacy before opinionating (at least in public), contrary to some politicians. But I am a writer, and so, I opinionate as long as I feel it is accurate, even if my words are biting. But I don’t call people Nazis for example, unless they have committed acts like Nazis. And by the way, I have been called all kinds of things including a Nazi, and a member of the KKK, even to my face, simply because of my political party affiliation and nothing more.

I first heard “Sophie’s Choice” used callously, in fact on the same AGT show in 2012 by a different judge, Sharon Osbourne — and I didn’t like it then either, so I thought Mandel got it from Osbourne. But I did some research and saw that Mandel used it in his first year as an AGT judge in 2010. “It came down to me, that was painful… For these kind [sic] of shows, this was like an episode of Sophie’s Choice and I was Sophie. That’s what it was. I’m Sophie on America’s Got Talent.”

Perhaps he got the metaphor from a 2009 column in an online entertainment magazine where the writer said this about choosing one contestant over another on yes, once again, AGT: “In a moment reminiscent of Sophie’s Choice — but with even more emotion…” MORE emotion? Really?

Mandel also used the Sophie’s Choice analogy in 2013 for an AGT choice and Osbourne, also in 2013, used the analogy again on a different talent competition show, The X Factor.

As a side note, in July, Trevor Noah, the guy who took over for Jon Stewart on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, after railing about both major party US presidential candidates, used Sophie’s Choice as a lament: “Grandma Nixon, or a traffic cone soaked in raw sewage. A real Sophie’s Choice… ” Noah and his staff obviously didn’t see the movie, because Sophie must choose between two beloved individuals and not two despised ones. This election is no Sophie’s Choice.

Trevor Noah was trying to be funny and his analogy made no sense. Mandel, Osbourne and the entertainment writer were trying to be dramatic but pushed it too far, in my opinion.

Rhetoric tends to get overheated when there is competition, and although I fully expect over-the-top dialogue in political campaigns, and have seen and heard lots of terrible comments from both sides to prove it, I would hope that when it comes to things like the Holocaust, or slavery, as another example, discretion, not devaluation, is used.

Howie, you are a good Jewish boy. Please stop with the Sophie’s Choice.

About the Author
Shia Altman who hails from Baltimore, MD, now lives in Los Angeles. His Jewish studies, aerospace, and business and marketing background includes a BA from the University of Maryland and an MBA from the University of Baltimore. When not dabbling in Internet Marketing, Shia tutors Bar and Bat Mitzvah, and Judaic and Biblical Studies to both young and old.
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