I’ll be the first to admit: Ice dancing is not my favorite event. I’m more partial to the other figure skating competitions. But, it’s the Olympics and as anyone who’s read this column at all can attest, not only do I love to watch the Olympics, I love keying in on the Jews involved in the Games.
Ben Agosto, one-half of the American championship pair (who finished fourth), is Jewish. But I got really interested on Saturday night when the Israeli brother-sister duo, Roman and Sasha Zaretsky, were set to show the world (or at least a national television audience courtesy of NBC) what they could do in their original dance.
What a great opportunity, I thought, for this pair to represent the Jewish state and show the progress it has made in the world of winter sports. I was anticipated being able to write a glowing column about Zionism, ice and pride.
I was wrong.
The first sign of things heading in the wrong direction were the costumes. They were old school, shtetl-like garb, for those who didn’t get to see the performance. He wore a kippa and she wore a head covering as well. I might be assuming too much, but I’m willing to bet that may have been one of the few times, if not the first time, the Belarus-born Roman Zaretsky wore a kippa. They looked, I’m sad to say, like they were from a community theater performance of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
But OK, ice dancing isn’t my thing and it tends to be an over-the-top theatrical endeavor, so I decided to cut them some slack. Perhaps they’d have some interesting Israeli folk music to dance to. As the broadcasters read from prepared material, my heart sank again. They talked about the oldest, best known Jewish folk tune. That’s right, to show the world what Jews are all about, they picked perhaps the most stereotypical Jewish song they could find, “Hava Nagila.”
They must not have known the history of the song. A traditional niggun brought to Palestine from Europe, Avraham Zvi Idelsohn set it to words. While he wanted to preserve the old melodies, he was passionate about creating a new style of modern national music. Ironic, then, that in 2010, the Zaretskys would dress up and try to dance like it was 1918.
And that brings me to the actual dancing. I’m not talking technically, because I don’t begin to understand that end of things. I want to focus on the content. The routine started with Roman Zaretsky on his knees, pretending to daven. Then he gets distracted by the woman — we’ll leave aside the weirdness of brother-sister combinations in this competition in general — gets up and dances with her.
She had a napkin, you know, like they do at Jewish weddings so they can “hold” on to each other. Except they never used it. They danced like more progressive, modern folks (for once!), thus finding away to offend Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews at the same time.
Sure, I’m laying it on a bit thick here. But I have to admit I felt more and more uncomfortable as I watched the routine. I kept thinking about how this was the one look into Jewish life millions of people around the world would get to see during the Olympics and it came across like “Yentl on Ice.”
Still, I thought, maybe I’m over reacting. So I went looking for an expert on such things.
I found Ari Y. Kelman, an assistant professor in American Studies at the University of California-Davis, who has done much work on the portrayal of Jews in the media. Just based on my description, before he had the chance to watch the performance, he said:
“Apparently when you want to ‘look Jewish,’ diversity and multiculturalism notwithstanding, Jews worldwide have taken to reverting to the lamest (albeit photogenic) stereotypes of what ‘Jews’ look like,” Kelman said, pointing out an Erran Baron Cohen appearance on Conan O’Brien in December 2008 as another example. “Frankly, I’m really surprised to hear this from Israelis, who know better than anyone that religion is hardly what unites Jews.”
Then Kelman watched the performance and was floored by the amount of Jewish stereotypes in the routine. I was glad to know it wasn’t just me. The Zaretskys, by the way, went on to finish 10th overall after a free program set to music from Schindler’s List (and wasn’t shown by NBC).
I suppose it was meant to be an homage to our roots, but it really missed the mark. Maybe it wasn’t as offensive as the Russians doing that ill-planned aboriginal dance (at least the Zaretskys are actually Jewish), but there’s so much to celebrate about our history, our present and our future, that it was a real shame to see this opportunity squandered with a very contrived concept.
“Is performing an ethnic stereotype a requirement for Olympic figure skating?” Kelman asked. “If it is, these folks should have gotten some 10s. As far as their skating goes, I’d give it a six.”
(Jonathan Mayo, The Chronicle’s sports columnist and a staff writer for MLB.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)