Thursday, February 8, 2018

Rabbi in a Pick-Up

Although I have never actually watched a Super Bowl game from beginning to end, I have been in a room in which the game was playing on a television many times and have occasionally watched part of it. And this year was no exception—when we got back from spending the afternoon in the city playing with Michal (and her parents, but mostly Michal), we did turn the game on to see who was winning and how much time was left. So it’s not like we didn’t watch the game at all!
Of course, since no New York team was playing and we therefore personally had no pony in the race this year, we were therefore less interested than we might otherwise have been. Nor for some reason were we particularly interested in the halftime show this year—Justin Timberlake is a big star, but we certainly weren’t going to forego bath-time or story-time with Michal just to watch him for a few minutes! And then there’s the third reason people turn watch the Super Bowl….

The commercials this year ran the gamut from the bizarrely tasteless (Danny DeVito as a human M&M who goes around to strangers asking if they’d like to eat him until he is hit by a truck) to the quite moving (the Verizon ad celebrating America’s first responders actually brought tears to my eyes) to the truly shocking (the E*Trade ad suggesting the best way for America’s seniors to supplement their retirement income would be to parlay their meager pensions into the big bucks by taking up online trading). And then there was the rabbi.
Any number of websites, some even not Jewish or Jewish-ish ones, voted the Toyota commercial featuring the rabbi, the priest, the imam, and the Buddhist monk as the best of the lot. And I do have to admit that it’s slightly heartwarming. Maybe even more than slightly. If you’re reading this electronically, you can see the whole thing just by clicking here. If not, let me tell you the story. It won’t take long, since the whole thing is exactly one minute long. (In a setting where a commercial half that long cost more than $5,000,000, a minute is a serious length of time.)

The commercial begins with a rabbi ripping off the tallis he is for some reason wearing in his otherwise empty shul, gathering up his keys (the keen-eyed can already see that they’re for a Toyota, but you have to look very fast), and racing out into the street. The synagogue clearly says Temple Beth Israel in Hebrew and English letters over the door. But where is it? It’s definitely an Orthodox synagogue—you can see the women’s section in the sanctuary as the rabbi races out into the street—but most Orthodox synagogues don’t use the word “Temple” in their name. But there it is, and in easy to read letters. Still, I couldn’t find an Orthodox shul named Temple Beth Israel anywhere at all. This intrigued me.
What other clues are there? The rabbi goes out in the street just in shirtsleeves, but there’s a small notice board visible that clearly says it’s October…so that means the place could basically be anywhere. But that signboard is interesting: the date given is Thursday, October 2.  Last year, October 2 was a Monday. It was a Sunday in 2016 and a Friday in 2015. In fact, the last time October 2 fell on a Thursday was 2014. So this is not a new picture…and that gave me an idea.
The internet really is a remarkable tool and, after about twenty minutes… there it was with its new name (but the same tired façade), still on Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles, but now newly morphed into a yeshivah and otherwise known as the Harry L. Rubenfeld Friendly Family Neighborhood Shul. So that explains the name. But who the rabbi is? That I couldn’t find anywhere. Is he just an actor? To me, he looks more like a rabbi than an actor. (Oh wait, or do I mean that I myself do? And, just for the record, I also drive a Toyota. Just saying!) He’s definitely not the rosh yeshivah, however, which you can verify for yourself by clicking here. Whatever…it’s L.A. and the sun is shining. So what if the rabbi is driving a 2018 truck in 2014? That’s just acting!
And now we come to the ad itself. The rabbi jumps into his Toyota pick-up. (Another riddle: what rabbi drives a pick-up?) Still, he is clearly in a great mood as he drives to a church to pick up his friends, a Catholic priest, a Muslim imam (just out of whose range they amusingly keep driving so he can’t quite grab the door handle—hardy-har-har!), and a Buddhist monk while listening to—even I can’t believe I know this—Foreigner, an English-American rock band that formed in 1976, sing their 1984 hit single “I Want to Know What Love Is.” (For the record, October 2 fell on a Tuesday in 1984. So it’s not then either.).
Finally, they arrive at the stadium. All four friends honor their team’s colors by donning something in blue and white, the team’s colors. (The rabbi puts on a blue and white yarmulke, although he seems now to have lost the one he was possibly wearing in the opening scenes.) There are riddles here too. The team is the Pirates, but there hasn’t been an NFL team with that name since 1940. Once I saw that, I went back to look at the shul’s notice board and saw the name of the time and the time of the game clearly announced there—but for no obvious reason. (In my experience, synagogues do not really ever announce random sports events on their message boards.) Whatever! The friends arrive and take their seats. A pair of nuns seated in their section crankily blame the team’s apparently not-yet-too-stellar performance on the tardiness of the four amigos. (A tall black man wearing a clerical collar makes a brief appearance. A football stadium with a clergy section? Another riddle!) The rabbi cheerfully blames the others, even though we ourselves saw that he didn’t actually have to wait for any of them. Whatever again! But now that the cavalry has arrived, the tide turns and the Pirates begin to win. The nuns, cranky no longer, exult. Everybody cheers. The buddies hug and trade high-fives. The moral of the story, such as it is, flashes on the screen: We’re all one team. Exeunt omnes.

Despite all the riddles and discrepancies (it’s daytime when the rabbi picks up his friends, but nighttime when they arrive at the stadium), it really is a very good ad, created for Toyota by the famous advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi. But I was thinking as I watched it over a few times to prepare to write about it, how interesting it is, not just as a well-done Super Bowl advertisement, but as an expression of a something for which truly America longs without knowing how exactly to attain.
At the heart of the ad is the simple fantasy that all religious leaders should be friends, that (by extension) all people of faith should realize that more binds them together than separates them, and that, if we could just set aside the craziness that seems for some reason to rear its unwanted head whenever the subject of religious identity comes up, we’d realize easily how simple it would be to embrace members of other faith communities, not merely as co-citizens, but as true friends—the kind who truly like each other, who go to football games together and who, when they do, root for exactly the same team!
The four amigos in the ad are well-chosen. None has the good looks of your typical Hollywood actor; each looks like the kind of guy you really might find preaching from the pulpit in your church or temple or shul or mosque. None is intimidating. None uses really big words or seems to have any sort of personal agenda. No one has a foreign accent! Just the contrary, in fact, seems to be the case: here are friends divided by mere details (where they work, how they daven, what they wear) but united by far more profound things than that: their shared love of sports, their clear affection for each other, their common Americanness (represented in the commercial by the way they good-naturedly fool around—making gentle fun, for example, of the monk’s clunky sneakers—without any malice being even remotely hinted at), and their deep mutual respect for each other as individuals and as clergymen.
And that is one of our chief American fantasies, that what we have in common should be more than enough to override the divisions of race, ethnicity, and, yes, religion that so often threaten to divide us. But who really thinks that? Secularists—people who belong to no faith community at all—tend to think of religion as a basically divisive force in American life, as something that drives people into warring camps far more often than it brings people together. People who are religiously affiliated tend to know so little about other religions—partially because religion is so totally omitted from the curriculum of our public schools—that they look at least suspiciously on the adherents of other religions than their own. And, of course, religious people of all stripes and varieties almost invariably assume that secular types will be threatened by any public affirmation of religious identity. 
And so we have one big riddle hiding behind all the littles ones in the commercial: this fantasy of all religious types not merely co-existing, but doing so in the context of friendship, respect, and mutual affection—how can it be that we all harbor the same fantasy at the same time that we are all so fundamentally suspicious regarding both people of other faiths and people of no faith at all? That is to say, how can the ideal be just as in the ad—people of all faiths enjoying each other’s company and feeling devoted to each other’s welfare—and yet the reality be so different on the ground, where—in our American world—people of different faiths have no forum to meet in, clergypeople of different religions can live within a mile of each other for decades without ever actually encountering each other in person, and most religious people suppose naturally that people affiliated differently are more likely than unlikely to support their right to self-assert begrudgingly, if at all, rather than generously and respectfully? It’s a riddle! And the solution? I have no idea, but the commercial is a good start: if people share a fantasy, then that surely is the first step to making it into reality! 

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