Bible in Pop Culture Week 6: Cartmanland and Job

“Cartmanland,” the sixth episode of season five of South Park, contains a specific reference to the Book of Job. In the story, Cartman’s grandmother dies and leaves her entire life savings to Cartman, because she believes the rest of her family would just spend the money on crack. Cartman decides to use the money to fulfill his dream of having a theme park all to himself. So, he purchases a theme park that was on the verge of going out of business and renames it Cartmanland. Cartman uses the park solely for his own fun and makes it a point to advertise on television that no one else may enter the park or ride the rides.

Kyle is horrified that a person as despicable as Cartman is experiencing such good fortune and questions his faith in God. Kyle’s faith is further damaged by the discovery that he has a hemorrhoid. Kyle and Stan decide to try to break into the park by climbing the fence, but this only makes Kyle’s situation worse: his hemorrhoid breaks and becomes infected, leaving him hospitalized. Kyle’s parents try to cheer him up by reading him the Book of Job, but they forget to mention the ending, where Job receives more material wealth than he previously had. Kyle is horrified and his health begins to fade as the hemorrhoid infection spreads to his lungs.

Kyle’s health only improves when he discovers that Cartman’s plan to have Cartmanland all to himself fails and he ends up worse off than he was before inheriting the million dollars. Cartman had to allow in guests to defray operating expenses, was fined by the IRS for not keeping tax records, was sued by Kenny’s parents because Kenny died in the park, and ends the show by losing the park and being $13,000 in debt to the IRS, sprayed with mace and crying, restoring Kyle’s faith in God.

Becoming Ottomans: Sephardi Jews and Imperial Citizenship in the Modern Era Book Cover

Becoming Ottomans: Sephardi Jews and Imperial Citizenship in the Modern Era, by Julia Phillips Cohen – Reaction Essay

In Becoming Ottomans: Sephardi Jews and Imperial Citizenship in the Modern Era, Julia Phillips Cohen examines the ways in which the Jewish community in the Ottoman Empire engaged in image management and identity construction through media, philanthropy and by engaging in patriotic behaviors. Cohen’s goal is to use the Ottoman Jewish example to show that the concept of imperial citizenship emerged earlier than what had been suggested by earlier works. Using newspapers, letters, consular reports, photographs, and postcards, Cohen creates a narrative that shows how the Jewish community conceptualized their place in the Ottoman Empire and how that self-image changed over time.

Cohen argues that prior to her work on the Jewish community’s relationship with the Ottoman state, previous scholarship had created a distorted narrative by relying on a narrow group of Jewish chroniclers who were sympathetic to the Ottoman state. Throughout her work, she gives examples of how the trope of a special relationship existing between the empire and the Jewish community was used to create and maintain an image of loyalty and patriotism, but shouldn’t be taken at face-value, because it oversimplifies a complex and constantly changing dynamic that reflected contemporary issues and needs.

Becoming Ottomans has a narrow focus on the Jewish community, but the narrative Cohen has produced can be used as a basic model for understanding how minority communities and their relationship to the state apparatus changed over time. Initially, Cohen states that the Jewish community was not even included in the imperial government’s considerations, but that oversight does not seem to have been malicious. There were simply too few total Jews and too few in positions of power for the government to have given them any consideration. It is also probably the Jews did not figure into imperial decisions very often because the Ottomans’ primary problem was Christian Europe.

With effort, the Jews were able to make their presence felt and gain recognition for their patriotism and loyalty to the state. Jewish attempts to appear patriotic was initially a response to a fear of being considered “inside outsiders”, a potential threat to the empire. This is an important concept that touches on the tension between Muslims and non-Muslims in the empire and shows that despite official rhetoric about equality, there was always a sense of the empire belonging to Muslims. Cohen did an excellent job of exploring this idea by showing how Jews attempted to adopt the language and symbols of Islam in an effort to fit in. By the end of Cohen’s narrative, Ottoman Jews in other countries identified with the empire, so the constant efforts of the community’s elite to mold Jews into citizens with a sense of loyalty to the empire were successful.

The final chapter of Cohen’s book, dealing with “Contest and Conflict,” was confusing and spent too much time describing competition between Jewish clubs, almost obscuring the more important conflict between pro and anti-Zionists, which has greater implications for later Middle Eastern history. I also felt like Cohen should have spent more time discussing the impact of the Sephardic cooption of the Ottoman Jewish narrative on the Mizrahi, but that may have taken her too far outside the scope of her intended argument. I also received the impression that she intended this book to be consumed by scholars familiar with Jewish history, since she failed to explain issues she brought up that would not be readily comprehended by someone unfamiliar with Judaism. A good example is the problem of the Turkish ice cream seller and eating meat. If one did not understand kosher dietary laws, the entire conflict would make no sense.

The Butcher’s Tale: Murder and Anti-Semitism in a German Town Book Cover

The Butcher’s Tale: Murder and Anti-Semitism in a German Town (2014), by Helmut Walser Smith – Reaction Essay

In The Butcher’s Tale: Murder and Anti-Semitism in a German Town (2014), Helmut Walser Smith uses the murder of Ernst Winter in Konitz in 1900 as a lens through which to examine the historical place of the Jews in German and Christian society. The narrative is constructed like a murder-mystery novel that contains analysis both of the event itself and historical anti-Semitism. Smith does an excellent job of interjecting his analysis into the narrative in a way that maintains the pace and “action” of the story, with the exception of Chapter 5, “Performing Ritual Murder,” which is necessarily more abstract, but feels out of place, as if it just happened to find itself in the middle of an otherwise fluid narrative.

Through his examination of Winter’s murder and the reaction of the people of Konitz, Smith touches on the idea of nations, nationalism and state formation. Who gets to be German? What are the criteria? In a period of crisis, clear lines were drawn between “us” and “them,” with the Jews being clearly placed outside of German society. Based on Smith’s work, the majority of the Jews in Konitz led what might be called average lives. Many did not see themselves as very different from their neighbors. Some rejected Judaism and Jewishness altogether, like the boy that incriminated his father in an 1882 trial regarding a ritual murder charge in Tisza-Eszlar in Hungary (Kindle location 1801). Reform Judaism was on the rise. Most Jews clearly wanted to separate themselves from their past and become German, to one degree or another. What stopped them was latent anti-Semitism that continued to come to the fore during times of crisis.

Another important force that buttressed anti-Semitism during the early 1900s was the press. Because of Germany’s high literacy rates and the apparent freedom to publish uncensored material, “journalists” like Bruhn were able to cater to a demographic that craved news that satisfied their existing world view that supposed Jews really did commit ritual murders. Bruhn, and others like him, leapt on every opportunity to publish sensational stories, much like modern tabloids, invariably making the situation for Jews worse. It makes one question how free the press should be allowed to be. Why does the free press work in the modern US, but so obviously failed in Germany in 1900? One possibility is that the people were not so far removed from natural, learned behaviors imparted to them by their religious affiliation and past.

Smith attempts to explain this by looking at the history of ritual murder accusations and their relationship to the idea of host desecration. The idea that Jews might desecrate the “host” through desecrating a cracker perpetuated the image of Jews as Christ-killers, as people beyond the pale of civilization. Ritual murders were supposedly re-enactments of the murder of Christ. In a period of secularization, where highly educated people were denouncing ritual murder as a myth from an age of barbarism, average people were still by-and-large defining themselves based on religious affiliation. It is interesting that when it came to Jews, Christians in general united in hatred against them, regardless of their personal denominational affiliation.

One of the weak points of Smith’s work is the failure to more clearly link the events that happened in Konitz with Hitler, whom he discusses in the opening of the book as representing the fringe, rather than the mainstream of German society (Kindle location 152). In fact, Smith’s narrative, which shows a nearly united Christian front, ready to accept and lie to support ritual murder charges, seems to contradict that statement. Like the ritual murder charge, anti-Semitism in general did not die out, but rested “in repose,” both among Catholics and Protestants and served as the unifying factor that excluded Jews from belonging to the nation, which in turn constituted the imagined state (Kindle location 1552).

Fort Tryon Park and the Cloisters

My wife and I have been taking some time to go out for long walks while I’m not so swamped with classwork. Central Park is nice, but we live a lot closer to Fort Tryon Park, which is also an awesome place to visit. We can walk there from where we live and the park itself has some great views of the Hudson River and The Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that houses a large part of the museum’s medieval collection.

We walked around there on a Saturday afternoon. Since it was a Saturday afternoon, the park was full of Jewish people relaxing for Shabbat. We saw families sitting on benches, walking together, taking in the view, and kids playing. There were groups of people on picnic blankets and some playing games.

My wife and I would like to go back and have a picnic. Maybe we can pull that off this weekend.

Comparing Antonin Brtko and Oskar Schindler: Holocaust in Film

Tono Brtko, from The Shop on Main Street*, and Oskar Schindler, from Schindler’s List, are both main characters in Holocaust films that, while similar, have very different impacts on the Jewish communities they interact with.  The Shop on Main Street takes place in a small town in Slovakia during 1942, at a time when the fascist government is cracking down on Jewish residents. Schindler’s List** takes place in the latter years of World War II in and around Kraków, Poland. Both characters are non-Jews that are placed in positions of power over Jewish people, one as a shop manager and the other as a factory owner. The roles are similar, but because of the different motivations that guide Tono and Schindler’s actions, their relationships with Jews lead to very different results.

Antonin "Tono" Brtko and Mrs. Rozalia Lautmannová

Antonin “Tono” Brtko and Mrs. Rozalia Lautmannová

The more complicated of the two characters by far is Tono Brtko. The Shop on Main Street is a highly symbolic film and endless meaning can be read into Tono’s actions, but it is fairly safe to say that Tono represents the Slovakian nation. He is “Mr. Everyman Slovakia” and his behavior in the film can be seen as a critique of how the average Slovakian citizen treated his or her Jewish neighbors. In the film, all of those Jewish neighbors are represented by Mrs. Lautmann, a widow that runs a bankrupt button shop on Main Street.

Tono’s relationship with Mrs. Lautmann is essentially predatory. Throughout the film, he acts only in his own interest. Tono’s only purpose in interacting with Mrs. Lautmann is to satisfy his greed. As part of the Aryanization process in Slovakia, Jewish people were required to turn over their businesses to Aryan managers. This is depicted in the film and, because of his brother-in-law’s position, Tono is appointed Arisator of Mrs. Lautmann’s button shop. The idea of stealing the wealth of another person and not having to work for it put Tono in good spirits, which were dashed when he realized Mrs. Lautmann’s store was bankrupt and had nothing to offer him. The only reason he continued to have anything to do with her was because the Jewish community offered him a salary to look after Mrs. Lautmann and her shop. So, Tono was only interested in Mrs. Lautmann when there was an apparent means of profiting from her situation.

Oskar Schindler and Itzhak Stern in Schindler's List

Oskar Schindler and Itzhak Stern in Schindler’s List

Oskar Schindler, in Schindler’s List, is easier to understand. He is the hero of the story and a hero of the Jewish people. His development as a character follows a path similar to Tono’s, but there is a key difference. Unlike Schindler, Tono never has a change of heart. He never wants to help Jewish people because it is the right thing to do. Instead, he is only interested in profit. Schindler is depicted as being far more altruistic. At the beginning of the movie, Schindler is a cold, calculating business man who sees an opportunity to make massive profit off of cheap Jewish slave-labor during wartime conditions. This is similar to Tono’s desire to become wealthy through the acquisition of Mrs. Lautmann’s shop. In both cases, they are stealing the labor of others and converting it into personal profit, but when Schindler comes to understand the brutality of the Nazis, he empathizes with the Jews and expends all of his wealth in an effort to save as many of them as he can.

At the end of The Shop on Main Street, Tono attempts to hide Mrs. Lautmann from fascist soldiers approaching the button shop. It is possible that he does this because, in that moment of crisis, he realizes he actually cares about Mrs. Lautmann and feels guilty about what is going on, but it is more likely that Tono acted out of self-interested fear for his own well-being and a desire to avoid being considered a “Jew-lover.” In contrast, Schindler takes much greater risks than Tono in an effort to save people.

At the end of the two movies, both Tono and Schindler are broke, but while Tono ultimately has nothing to show for his efforts except a town empty of Jews, Schindler has saved over a thousand lives. If Tono had come to the same conclusion as Schindler, he could have saved Mrs. Lautmann, but because he was only thinking of how to profit from her, he caused her death. In the end, Tono and Schindler really aren’t that alike after all. They start out in similar circumstances, profiting from the labor of others, but their motivations and desires set them widely apart.

*For more on The Shop on Main Street, see this post:

The Shop on Main Street: The Holocaust in Film

**For more on Schindler’s List, see these posts:

Schindler’s List: The Holocaust in Film

Criticism of Schindler’s List: The Holocaust in Film