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
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.