Lost in the hoopla surrounding Elizabeth Dole’s potential
Presidential run and Hillary Clinton’s beatification and possible
Senate candidacy was an event that history may judge as more momentous than
either: Na’ama Batya Lewin’s student video. Entitled A
Political Wife’s Tale , it played for a couple of weeks in December
in the lobby of the School of Visual Arts, part of a show called
“Biting Imagery” that included another video starring a nun
puppet, as well as an exhibit with a series of large-scale tarot cards
featuring dead celebrities.
If the name Na’ama Batya Lewin doesn’t ring any bells,
she’s a recent S.V.A. grad and the wife of New York City Consumer
Affairs Commissioner Jules Polonetsky. A Political Wife’s Tale
is a parody–actually five of them–of those smarmy campaign ads
where politicians, who may be indulging in all sorts of depravity on the
sly, wheel out their pearlescent wives and kids around election time to
convince voters they aren’t likely to be hauled before a grand jury
any time soon.
“For more than 200 years this country has been struggling to find
the ideal politician’s wife,” a narrator intones solemnly in the
first ad as the coifed visages of First Ladies from Martha Washington and
Mary Todd Lincoln to Barbara Bush and Hillary flash across the screen.
“We need someone who cares but doesn’t get too involved–and
Na’ama won’t. We need someone who understands complex topics but
doesn’t expect her opinion to be heard. Vote Polonetsky this
If one detects an undercurrent of discontent in the ads, it’s
because Na’ama, a former reporter for the Washington Jewish
Week , didn’t aspire to be a politician’s wife when her
husband abandoned his up-and-coming legal career and ran for a State
Assembly seat in 1994, a race he won.
“It was scary to me how fast I went from being a reporter with a
byline to being Mrs. Polonetsky from Brighton Beach,” the video artist
recalled as she sat in Starbucks on a recent morning still looking like a
Barnard College English major–she graduated from the school in
1991–in a beige mock turtleneck, large silver loop earrings and a mane
of black hair.
While her husband found it gratifying when constituents called their
home late at night to discuss renovating the public library or to enlist
his assistance getting their wheelchairs replaced, Na’ama, who
didn’t possess her husband’s mastery of local issues, started to
feel like window dressing. It’s those emotions and experiences that
she exploits to highly amusing effect–particularly in an ad using
authentic footage from the 1997 Columbus Day parade where she’s
marching alongside her husband, who was running for Public Advocate at the
time, a race he lost.
At one point, the entire line of dignitaries, including the Mayor, comes
to a crisp stop while Na’ama keeps on marching–until her husband
grabs her and pulls her back. In a subsequent scene, we see him nudging her
aside as he makes a beeline for some potential voters along the barricades.
“As you can see, I’m in the way,” she noted dryly.
“I had three different friends of mine come to functions and film me.
It made me feel like I had a purpose.”
It took a while for Mr. Polonetsky to get used to it. “It was
awkward at the beginning when I’d show up at things and my wife would be there with her own camera crew,”
If it’s unusual for a politician’s wife to make subversive
videos–rarer still in the Giuliani administration, which isn’t
exactly known for freedom of expression in its commissioner corps–what
makes it even odder is that Na’ama is an Orthodox Jew, a member of a
subculture not usually associated with the avant-garde. “That’s
what gives her work this wonderful tension,” observed Grahame
Weinbren, a video artist and adviser of Na’ama’s at the School of
Actually, Mr. Weinbren was thinking less of A Political Wife’s
Tale than of Cycle: The Mikvah , Na’ama’s master’s
thesis. It concerned her conflicting emotions as a modern woman taking the
ritual purification bath required of orthodox women after they menstruate.
According to the religion, women must abstain from having sexual relations
with their husbands while they’re having their periods and for the
subsequent seven days.
The 15-minute video stars Na’ama going through a lot of sanitary
napkins–”My grandmother hates that part,” she
says–counting clean days, shaving her armpits and legs and flossing,
immersing herself in the mikvah and resuming marital relations with her
husband–played, as always, by the game Commissioner Polonetsky, with
whom Na’ama engages in some light kissing.
Mikvah even features a real fight between the two over her claim
that Jewish men aren’t required to practice any ritual that asks them
to focus on their relationships with their wives. The Commissioner
belittles his wife’s mikvah ablutions as “mechanical.”
“You don’t need great concentration,” he sniffs before
returning to Newsday , probably looking for coverage of himself.
“All you’ve got to do is go into the water.”
“You know nothing about this,” his wife screams.
Na’ama’s idiosyncratic sensibility becomes more understandable
once you know something of her background. Her father is Nathan Lewin, a
Washington attorney whose clients have included not only the Lubavitchers
but also Richard Nixon, former Attorney General Edwin Meese and Jodie
Foster during the John Hinckley trial. Na’ama didn’t attend a
yeshiva. Instead, she went to Holton-Arms, a tony secular private girls
school in Bethesda, Md., where she kept kosher but also spent a lot of time
listening to rock and roll.
“I wanted to marry a British rock star,” she remembered.
“I thought I’d find this hunky British rock star, he’d fall
in love with me, and he’d be Jewish.”
She met her husband, who wears a yarmulke to work and bears no
resemblance to Keith Richards, while she was still at Barnard. “I
loved the world I lived in,” she said, explaining why she never
abandoned Orthodox Judaism. “My father, who was a big lawyer traveling
around the country, was always home for Shabbos. It was a beautiful time
for me. That was the life I was used to living and want to live.”
Commissioner Polonetsky’s constituents will be relieved to hear
that the couple has more than recovered from their Mikvah spat.
“I deserve your vote because of the relationship I have with my
wife,” the Commissioner explains in one ad from A Political
Wife’s Tale before he and his wife indulge in a slow motion
embrace. “We enjoy long walks in the park, flavored coffee with our
morning paper …”
“I’ve learned the least I can do is be a good sport
considering the amount of time and energy she’s put into my
career,” he said, explaining why he appears in her videos.
It’s also shrewd domestic politics. Even though Na’ama is
considering tackling the issue of hair-covering and wigs among Jewish women
in her next video, it’s undoubtedly only a matter of time before she returns to the subject of her marriage. “Another idea
about political spouses hasn’t come to me,” she said innocently.
“I’m sure it will.”