Saturday, February 22, 2020

Anti-Semitism In America? In New York City? A Guest Post By Playwright Gary Morganstein


America may be about to elect its first Jewish president and I was buoyed yesterday to read that Bernie has gained tremendous ground among African-American voters. According to a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, Bernie is now basically tied with Obama's former vice president. Before voters were made aware of Biden's record (other than what people already knew, namely that he served as Obama's VP), he led Bernie by as much as 30 points. Now Biden and Bernie are within the margin of error of each other's support in black communities.

I asked a fellow graduate of Stony Brook, Gary Morgenstein, author of the new Off-Broadway play, A Black and White Cookie, to give us some insight into the provocative new drama about racial harmony-- which opens at the Theater for the New City on March 26-- especially since Beigel's Bakery, which has made more than 100 million black-and-white cookies since opening their first store in 1949, just announced that it is pairing up with a A Black and White Cookie, "by handing out hundreds of their signature black and white cookies in an effort to raise visibility of the timely new show and its important and unifying subject matter."

Performances are on Wednesdays to Saturdays at 8:00pm, Saturdays and Sundays at 3:00pm. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased online-- or at TNC's box office (155 1st Avenue, NYC) prior to each performance.

A Black And White Cookie
by Gary Morgenstein

As the old joke goes, a train in Russia at the end of the 19th Century has been stranded for hours. A Cossack officer stomps about the car, shouting darkly that it’s all the fault of the Jews. An elderly religious Jew approaches him and asks respectfully, "Excuse me, Captain, but I am also stuck on this train with no heat or food, just like you. Why would you blame the Jews?"

The Captain shrugs and asks, "Why not?"

I set out to write my new play A Black and White Cookie, about a conservative African American newsstand owner and a Jewish Communist who must overcome anti-Semitism to confront corporate greed and their own mortality, to explore that most ancient of bigotries. You’d be hard-pressed to recall the last play that focused on Jew hatred without referencing the Holocaust.

There’s no single reason why there’s a dearth of theater or even general entertainment about this particular hatred. Since Israel won the 1967 Six Day War, Jews moved out of the underdog category. They’re considered part of the white privileged class as many discriminatory barriers are long gone. The BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement and unsettling leap in college campus anti-Semitism further eats away at sympathy for Jews through attacks on Israel. Hollywood has a long history of ignoring anti-Semitism dating back to the original movie moguls who didn’t want Gentile America to know that Jews were creating their cultural myths. The media really doesn’t much care unless Jews are attacked by far right extremists.

As the great Paddy Chayefsky said, "All Jews keep a packed bag in the hall closet." That once seemed a quaint phrase from a bygone paranoid era. But now, Jew hatred is surging world-wide, including here in the United States, home of the planet’s second-largest Jewish population. According to the FBI, anti-Semitic hate crimes rose 40 percent nationwide from 2014-2018. In 2019, New York recorded the most anti-Jewish hate crimes since 1992, reported the Center for the Study of Extremism and Hate at California State University, San Bernadino (, 1/3/20).

What I wanted to examine in my play is contemporary anti-Semitism through the prejudices of decent people. Sadly that’s not an oxymoron. Apologies to the gifted Spike Lee and his fine film BlacKk Klansman, but it’s easy to portray pure hate. Violence, name calling, evil vs. good. Forgive the pun, but that’s all so black and white. As a Jew, I’m not particularly worried about the hate mongers. As history has taught those who are willing to study it, the extremists aren’t the ones who pose the real threat, but the good people. They’re the ones who look away, who don’t speak up and let the hatred flourish in their name.

But how to show that? We live in a polarized society where increasingly it’s difficult to explain why something happened. An historical event, a political choice; if you dare try, you’re as often as not hit with accusations that you’re agreeing with that point of view. If you can’t explain, you can’t reason or think and you’re certainly not listening, and very soon our society degrades its simple ability to understand.

What I did in A Black and White Cookie is flip Jew hatred upside down through the prejudices of two African Americans, leaning into the recent spate of violence against Orthodox Jews in major cities and underscoring the sad reality that the strong historic alliance between Jews and blacks in the fight for equal rights has frayed. While there’s a long list of contestants for this title, Jews and blacks have been screwed the most by the world.

In the play, Harold Wilson is a gruff, no nonsense Republican and Vietnam Vet in his late 60s, who must close his newsstand in the East Village after 30 years because of an exorbitant rent increase. His 30-something smart and very protective niece Carol Wilson owns a toy store in Clearwater, Florida, where she’s going to move her uncle once they’ve sold his house.

Hate doesn’t spring from nowhere. It has its own twisted logic. Both Harold and Carol Wilson had a tragic situation involving the death of a loved one which they blame on the Jews, who didn’t act because they were racist but greedy and duplicitous. Now they believe all Jews are that way.

The precarious balance I walk is showing the rationale for hate without justifying the hate, while still portraying Harold and Carol as otherwise sympathetic and good people. The irony is the target of their prejudice is Albie Sands, a non-practicing atheistic Jewish Communist. If you want a picture of Albie, imagine that Bernie Sanders fell on hard times early in his life and ultimately became homeless, while still preaching his political philosophy.

But A Black and White is about more than anti-Semitism. It’s a window into all hatred. There’s no difference between hating a Jew or any other minority except the reason and the pejorative names. Hate is hate and wrong no matter where it comes from and no matter whom is the target.

When a person becomes one of "those people," they’re suddenly not like us. And if they’re not like us, they can be treated differently. They don’t have quite the claim to their place in society. They’re somewhat delegitimized. A person so devalued becomes fair game to any manner of assaults and deprecations, physical, emotional and political. The good and decent people with odious views of “those people” will certainly not raise a hand against them, figuratively or literally, but nor will they raise their voice.

After all, it’s one of "those people" lying on the street, bleeding.

At the end of the day, the play about a theme is just about people. A writer can imagine themselves as Thomas Paine, rousing a rebellion against the Crown, but there are no speeches in my play. I leave that to the politicians. A Black and White Cookie is about two older guys who are superficially strikingly different, yet develop a powerful friendship because neither will go quietly into that good night.

It’s also very much about faith. Not faith in an organized religion or even faith in God. It’s about faith in ourselves and each other as human beings, a simple concept that if we care about each other and get past all the slogans and stereotypes, we might actually like what we find. Another human being.

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