PERFORATED SHEETS fortnightly with Amir Muhammad
(from the New Straits Times 10 November 1999)

 Why I like Jews

 I would like today to hail and praise two men. Why? Well, why not? In this
 fractious world we could use more praise, because praise generates good

 These two are as different as chalk and cream cheese. One is a revered but
 controversial film-maker while the second is a revered but controversial
 academic. Aside from the startling similarities of the words “revered” and
 “controversial”, I couldn’t think of anything to tie Woody Allen and Harold
 Bloom together.

 And then it hit me, like a light from above, or a ton of bricks coming down
 a chute: They’re both Jewish. But of course! It all came back to me, the
 fact that I’ve always been interested in Jews and have always wanted to like
 them, or at least some of them.

 Where did I get this desire, when other guys my age were content with
 fire-engines and exploring the mysteries of the female anatomy? Well, part
 of it has to do with the natural tone of my personality, which has great big
 dollops of the contrarian.

 I don’t know if you noticed this, but Jews are, in this country, a natural
 outlet for any kind of rabid paranoia. The way same some people talk, you’d
 think that these hook-nosed usurious beings are lurking around every corner,
 ready to kidnap our babies, cripple our banks and topple our entire value
 system – all before breakfast.

 Naturally enough, most of us have never even met anyone of the Jewish
 persuasion, so this enables these dark libels to fester and grow like some
 kind of loathsome fungus. This is always the cue for someone like me to step
 in and say: “Well, well, what have we here?”

 Several different aspects of me will gel to create this unusual interest.
 One part subscribes fully to Oscar Wilde’s saying: “Wickedness is a myth
 invented to account for the curious attractiveness of others.” And another
 part is a living, breathing, throbbing demonstration of Mae West’s dictum:
 “When I’m stuck between two evils, I always pick the one I haven’t tried
 before.” So put them together, and you have a Wilde-West scenario explaining
 my fondness for Jews.

 I still recall the first time I had a Jewish acquaintance. His name was Ari
 and I spent an inordinate amount of time looking at the shape of his head
 during   our first conversation. I said with a genuine wonder, “I thought
 you people have horns growing out of your heads!” His reply was instant –
 and classic: “Well, I combed my hair differently today.”

 It was one of those Quotable Quotes that made you want to rush back to write
 down, and despair even further that the only friends you have these days are
 dullards whose idea of scorching wit is recounting what happened on Senario
 last night. Ah, the friends of yesterday always seem suffused with gold, and
 in my case I’m glad a few of them were of the Goldberg variety.

 That kind of mercurial wit, so hard to categorise but so easy to remember,
 is precisely what I associate with Woody Allen. Some of you may think of him
 only as a nervy, nebbish auteur of thinning charms, but there was a time
 when he was also one of the most accomplished prose humourists around. That
 voice of his – which can be sometimes grating and self-indulgent in his
 movies – found perfect expression in prose collections which had titles like
 Getting Even, Side Effects and Without Feathers.

 These essays and stories brilliantly showcase his absurdist, semi-surreal
 comic sense and sensibility. The emphasis is on bathos and self-deprecation,
 but you just never know what will happen next. I mean, all his books have
 this line in the author bio: “His one regret in life is that he is not
 someone else.”

 My favourite short story of his is “The Whore of Mensa,” a knockabout parody
 in which a girl is busted for the crime of visiting strange men in their
 rooms to discuss, for a fee, literature and philosophy. The vernacular of
 hooking is fused with the conventions of intellectual discourse; the piece
 ends up spoofing both and yet exists in some untouchable place beyond them.
 As Allen himself once said: “It’s the most fun you can have with your
 clothes on.”

 The question remains, though: Is there something about Allen’s brand of
 humour that is fundamentally Jewish? (No, this has nothing to do with Jewish
 fundamentalism). The consensus affirms this, although humour is a bitch to
 pin down. There’s a wry, dry sense of neurosis, the kind we get from fellow
 Jews like Dorothy Parker and Jerry Seinfeld. Who knows how it got there? Far
 better to just gasp in appreciation.

 Now even people who dislike Jews acknowledge, sometimes very grouchily, that
 the race has a reputation for reading and learning. This brings me neatly to
 Harold Bloom, the astonishingly erudite professor of literature who has
 written and edited dozens of books. He’s someone to admire in an age where
 people need to lie down with a cold towel on their foreheads after composing
 a postcard.

 Unlike Allen, he doesn’t have a great sense of humour and this must count as
 a flaw. But the rabbinical fervour he invests in the study of literature is
 enough to inspire anyone. He has at every stage in his long career battled
 conventional pieties to do with the benefits of literature and later
 “political correctness.”

 The first book of his that I read was his fuss-making “The Western Canon”,
 his passionate argument for the centrality of literature in human thought.
 He listed the 1,000 most important books in this canon and of COURSE it’s
 terribly subjective and eccentric but that’s OK because he’s fighting the
 good fight. Read him.

 Judaism is not the same as Zionism. The latter is a racist, imperialist
 political philosophy that deserves all sorts of “Boo! Hiss!” reactions. When
 the two are unfairly conflated by demagogues here in their perennial pursuit
 of new bogeys to distract the public’s attention from the real wrongs in
 this country, we should be more than miffed. We’re being patronised -- yet
 again. Besides, I believe I once pointed out that some of the most
 vociferous anti-Zionists are Jews.

 The accomplishments of Allen and Bloom are there to see, but if we don’t
 take the trouble to even get to know them, we impoverish ourselves. Who will
 be the winner then? I don’t know, but it certainly ain’t you or me. If Bloom
 can acknowledge the spiritual power of the Quran in “The Western Canon,”
 there’s no reason why we can’t similarly let intellectual responsibility
 overcome imposed prejudice.

 OK, I’ll remove my agent provocateur outfit and come clean. At the end of
 the day, this search for the defining traits of a particular race may be
 futile. We can only aspire to take the best from the best of a group. It
 seems fitting to end with some characteristic Bloom:

 "What is supposed to be the very essence of Judaism - which is the notion
 that it is by study that you make yourself a holy people - is nowhere
 present in Hebrew tradition before the end of the first or the beginning of
 the second century of the Common Era. It is perfectly clear that the notion
 reached the Rabbis directly or indirectly from the writings of Plato,
 because it is a thoroughly Platonic notion. And yet it has become more
 characteristic of normative Jewish tradition than of any other Western
 tradition still available to us. I take that to be an instance of why one
 should distrust any statements about the ontological or historical
 purity or priority of any spiritual tradition whatsoever."

 There’s a deep message embedded in there, if we only care to look. Shalom!

 * Amir Muhammad’s e-mail address is