Speak Softly and Carry a Camcorder

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

November.”

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,”

he admitted.

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

Visual Arts.

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.”

Speak Softly and Carry a Camcorder