Britney Spears Is Good for the Jews

The other night I was on a panel at the 92nd Street Y,

biting my tongue as fellow panelist Dennis Prager spoke in a deep, ominous

voice-as if the weatherman was predicting Armageddon-about the nation’s debased

moral fiber. We were discussing the role of the country’s Jewish community

centers in nurturing the Jewish sojourn in America. Mr. Prager, who writes on

Jewish subjects and has a radio talk show in California, said that he had heard

that first-graders in one J.C.C. had a “dress-up-as-Britney-Spears day.” Gasp!

He’d also heard (from conservative drumbeats that pass from hill to hill across

the land?) that a Jewish transvestite bingo night was permitted in one unnamed

J.C.C. Mournfully, he told the audience (not in these exact words) that Jews

were going to hell in a handbag. He probably meant Hillary’s handbag, although

he didn’t say so.

The moderator wouldn’t let me get my two cents in on this

one, so I stayed up all night phrasing and rephrasing my response. Here it is.

Let’s start with the

shocking Britney Spears event. I would have said that we should be thankful

that the little girls were not dressing up as JonBenét Ramsey. I would have

said that the obvious glitter of the pop star, who makes a lot of money and

receives a lot of adoration, creates a model of female sexual power. The little

girls of the J.C.C. were doing no more than little boys do in their Superman

capes: They were practicing for the real thing. Sexual power-flash and dash,

the enjoyment of the body-isn’t a sign of moral decay. It’s a fact of life.

Just as war games do not cause boys to become snipers, girls imitating rock

stars are not so much a breed of deadly Lolitas-in-waiting as a flock of

children playing dress-up. I would rather they imagined themselves in a

singer’s clothes than in a Barbie-goes-on-a-date outfit. It bodes better for

their futures. If you can’t dream of going onstage and knocking them dead when

you are 6 years old, when can you? These little girls-nice Jewish girls from

nice Jewish families-aren’t going out on any road when they hit 16. They’ll be

too busy studying for their PSAT’s.

The point of play (the

work of childhood) is to meld the desire for love and power into a form that

survives into adulthood, that weaves itself into our realities, acknowledges

our limitations and allows us as much freedom of the imagination as possible.

There is some aggression in this. Let’s call it “sass.” Sexual dress is not a

desire for victimhood, certainly not when it involves imitating a star. It is

not a reduction of all life to the bump-and-grind. It is simply the expression

of one-and only one-aspect of the female self, just as running trains around a

track again and again is not a sign of male feeblemindedness, but rather a

fascination with motion that is linked to male being and reveals no particular

moral or mental deficiency. The boy who imitates Sammy Sosa is not just a boy

of summer; he is also dreaming of high salaries and applause. This seems

unsexual, therefore moral, to the likes of Dennis Prager-but when you think

about swinging the stick, the act isn’t as unsexual as all that. (Not to

mention that all aggression has some sexual link; if it didn’t, we would be

inert, death-driven creatures all.) Girls and boys express their desire for

power differently because our sexuality drives us and our society informs us of

acceptable paths to approval. But the little girls in their Britney Spears

costumes are not the forerunners of moral decay, they are simply little girls

at play, hoping for more excitement in their lives than they will most likely

ever have.

Now the transvestites at

the J.C.C. bingo game are another problem altogether. It really boggles the

mind to think of men in high heels and fishnet stockings calling out the

numbers while sipping fruit punch. How exciting! But if you were a

transvestite-even a nice Jewish transvestite-wouldn’t you prefer a nightclub to

a board game? Maybe these bingo-playing cross-dressers exist. And if they do, I

don’t see any harm in their playing their game at the J.C.C. I haven’t heard of

any sexual diseases transmitted on bingo night. It doesn’t seem like a great

spot for doing drugs or having sex in the aisles. And if it provides a

little sociability, isn’t this a good

deed-exactly what a J.C.C. should be providing for its members and neighbors?

Doesn’t the very fact of transvestite bingo night tell us that all kinds of

sexual behavior are part of the human spectrum and, in fact-if no one is

hurt-one is as humdrum as the next? If this story is true, it tells us that

some people have emerged from their closets to join the banality of the bingo

parlor. Do we only allow people into the J.C.C. who have never done anything

proscribed by Leviticus? If we make that one of our criteria for admission,

won’t there be some unfortunate drop in membership?

What this is really about is not habits of dress, but who is

more moral than whom-and what we mean by “moral.” The sexual police in this

country have always been armed with a passion to point fingers, to punish

transgressors and make the public behave as they think fit. Puritanism-Jewish

or otherwise-is on all our talk shows, filling the airways with a vision of

life that aims at the repression and suppression of joy, variety, style and

humor. I wonder why Mr. Prager is so concerned with proper dress; both of his

examples of immorality run rampant hinged on clothes. I am more concerned with

the immorality of children unable to get health insurance, old people who can’t

eat because they spend all their money on prescription drugs, carbon dioxide

that will destroy the ozone and things of that sort. Character is about love of

others, control of self, honesty in your dealings with others, commitment to

the bettering of the world, caring (as the Talmud says) for the widow and the

orphan. It is not about monitoring the dress of others.

Carnival is always about turning the existing order upside

down, playing with a reversal of who has power and who does not. The little

girls playing dress-up are pretending to have a sexual power they do not, and

the transvestites at the bingo table are turning the rules inside out. It’s

good for our society to let off steam, to reverse the “proper” order of things, to play at Purim and other times. Satan

is the butt of the joke at the carnival, not its king.

There, I’ve said it. The super-righteous and the sexually

obsessed moralists will always be with us. They will always see problems as

black and white. They will never see the virtue in a little cross-dressing.

They are the real barbarians at the gates of our city.