Read my blog at Huffington Post

I also blog at Huffington Post's new UK site; please click here to read my posts there.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Kaddish in Homeland

Please don't read this if you have not yet watched Homeland and if you therefore don't want to know what happens. I'm watching it on my PVR, a Humax that my friends and I call the Hoover.

Anyway, back in April, the Jewish Chronicle (JC) ran a diary piece (http://www.thejc.com/news/the-diary/66188/kaddish-a-tv-terrorist) about how, in Homeland, the Mandy Patinkin character (Saul Berenson - with a name like that, and played by Mandy Patinkin, we're presumably meant to assume that he's Scottish, or perhaps Korean) says kaddish (a Jewish mourner's prayer) for a dead terrorist. As I was then looking forward to eventually watching Homeland on the Hoover, and as I do like Mandy Patinkin (I loved Chicago Hope), this fairly piqued my interest.

Then, some time later, a friend was praising Homeland, and he said in passing that there's this great bit where this guy's just died, and Mandy Patinkin shows his respect for him by muttering something in Arabic. Are you sure, I said - I saw this JC thing about Patinkin saying kaddish?

Then another friend was talking about Homeland and I said, oh yes, what's this thing about how the guy dies, and Patinkin says a prayer that the JC said was kaddish, but was it kaddish, or was it something in Arabic? Kaddish being mostly in Aramaic, rather than Hebrew, incidentally. And this second friend said that it wouldn't have made sense for it to be kaddish, and it must have been a Muslim prayer, and, besides, we don't know that Saul is even Jewish.

Just watched it, and yes it's kaddish - I listened carefully, in case it was a prayer in Arabic (or Urdu - the dead character was surely Pakistani?), but no, it's kaddish, including the lines "uvḥaye dekhol bet yisrael/beʻagala uvizman qariv veʼimru amen". "Bet yisrael" is the House of Israel, and do Muslims say "amen" at the end of prayers? I don't know. One ought to know, but I don't know.

Leaving aside my enjoyment of my own pompous pedantry - or is it pedantic pomposity? - I am fascinated: what did the Homeland team intend viewers to think when Saul uttered this prayer? Were viewers supposed to get it, or was it deliberate misdirection, especially as (at this stage on the Hoover) I am thinking that we are possibly supposed to see Saul as a potential red herring in terms of who is the traitor (if anyone is)?

Although my two friends took it as being that Saul was showing respect for the dead man by reciting a Muslim prayer. And it turns out that it was kaddish - in other words, a Jew showing Jewish respect for the death of a Muslim. Which makes perfect sense to me, because as soon as I saw Saul in Episode One, I knew that he was The West Wing's Toby Ziegler (only older and less cross) and David from Rubicon all over again - I got the shorthand telegraphy of his being a wise old American Jew whose conscience troubles him like indigestion.

Would Homeland's American audience (a tiny two million, in a country of 300 million, so this is niche American viewing that we're talking about here - in a country with six million Jews, many of whom surely fit the 'urban intellectual' demographic that might exemplify Homeland's audience) be expected to recognise kaddish, or was it done in the full knowledge that most people wouldn't get it, and that this would thus only add to the mystery for most viewers, and add further to online debate about what is going on (http://mobile.avclub.com/articles/blind-spot,64132/?mobile=true)?

Kaddish is one of the more famous Jewish prayers, and those Jews and non-Jews who have seen many plays or films about Jews will perhaps have heard of it, with its opening words ("Yitgaddal veyitqaddash shmeh rabba") not being wholly unfamiliar in context, particularly to an American audience. Wikipedia even tells me that Rocky recites it when someone dies in Rocky III.

But in Homeland it is not in context, not least because Saul says it quietly. Had I not been forewarned by the JC, would I have heard it and gone "Eh, what? Was that kaddish?", or would I simply have got it? I think I would have got it.

And as for Saul more generally, I do sometimes have an over-active J-dar, but to me he is obviously playing a Jewish archetype that is familiar from American TV, not least with a name like Saul Berenson. The Hoover yesterday showed me Episode Two, in which Saul goes to get a warrant from a judge in a gentlemen's club. Saul admires a painting that the club has just acquired, and says sonorously that it is by "an artist who, it turns out, was not only Dutch, but also Jewish". "In a club with no Jewish members," responds the judge (whose club it is). "That's your point, isn't it Saul?"

Now, as I say, I do sometimes have an over-active J-dar, but hello, a character played by Mandy Patinkin (who rivals Maureen Lipman in the known-to-be-Jewish stakes), called Saul Berenson, looking and sounding like every rumpled Jewish intellectual we've ever seen in the movies? He gets into a discussion about the fact that he's in a Washington gentlemen's club that doesn't accept Jews as members - is it not conceivable that this character might be Jewish, and that the writers intend us to pick up on this?

I love also that he is not wearing a tie and puts his coffee cup, minus a saucer, on the arm of his antique leather armchair, having ignored his host's question about how he takes his coffee, and having added his own artificial sweetener - it's a power play. He's exactly the sort of bearded university type that this sort of gentlemen's club wants to exclude. That's why he acts like that when he's there.

To me, he's clearly supposed to be Jewish from the off, just as Carrie is clearly supposed to be attractive, and just as Brody is clearly supposed to be an educated Brit, given that he is played by Damian Lewis - oh alright, my theory isn't foolproof. It is called acting and there's more to it than just casting types; Patinkin can play non-Jews, just as Lewis is playing a non-Brit.

And if you like these things less quietly telegraphed, then nothing beats the oh-so-subtle 'outing' of The West Wing's two Jewish regulars in this great scene from the very first episode: http://youtube.com/watch?desktop_uri=%2Fwatch%3Fv%3D8unqrdurxyg&v=8unqrdurxyg&gl=US#watch_actions. When I see Homeland, and when I see that even Saul's Jewishness is not immediately obvious, then I can see why Aaron Sorkin decided to make it obvious from the off in The West Wing.

No comments:

Post a Comment