Although Burlington's Old North End once boasted a neighborhood called "Little Jerusalem," Vermont is not exactly known as a haven for Jews. Sure, there are many of us Chosen People around. It's just that we're vastly outnumbered by the goyim. Moreover, our ethnically specific influence on the arts is somewhat muted here.
Along comes Kenneth Peck, a macher - translation: mover and shaker - in the realm of Green Mountain State cineastes. In the upcoming weeks, the 49-year-old Charlotte resident is giving two free evening lectures, both with provocative titles: "What Images Did the Marx Brothers Offer of Jews?" on February 18 and "Is Superman Jewish?" on March 4.
These 7 p.m. sessions, which will include the screening of pertinent video clips, take place at Temple Sinai in South Burlington. The first lecture, which Peck delivered earlier this week, concerned depictions of Moses.
Peck founded the Burlington College film studies program in 1995. He hosts "Reel Independents" on Vermont Public Television, a Friday night showcase of work by local filmmakers, and is currently teaching a course on documentaries at Community College of Vermont. The curriculum covers everything from Nanook of the North, Robert Flaherty's pioneering 1922 look at Inuit society, to Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election. This movie sold out at October's Vermont International Film Festival, of which Peck was executive director from 1996 to 1999.
After growing up on Long Island, Peck earned a doctorate from New York University in comparative literature with a focus on cinema studies. He moved to Vermont in 1987, and has taught teen-agers at a local religious school about Jewish references in movies and television. "We looked for shtick," he explains. "We tried to find Yiddishisms in American popular culture."
Peck's lectures for the general public will zero in on some of the most universally recognized names in show business. "The Marx Brothers came out of a Jewish vaudeville tradition in the early 1900s, but they evolved into more mainstream entertainment," he says. "Their jokes were often about the immigrant experience. Chico caricatured Italians. Groucho was always scheming to marry into the wealthy social class."
Peck plans to screen a clip from Animal Crackers in which the brothers sing like a barbershop quartet and Groucho quips: "This is brought to you by the House of David."
Remember Harpo, Groucho and Chico's famous mirror scene in Duck Soup? According to Peck, some scholars believe the routine symbolized "how a Jew always tried to act the way others did, to fit in by being someone else."
When the New York-born Julius, Arthur, Leonard and Herbert portrayed Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo, their Jewish roots were fairly evident. But the Man of Steel?
"The two guys who created the Superman comic book in 1938 were first-generation Americans - Jewish kids," Peck says, referring to Ohio teenagers Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. "Some people suggest the planet Krypton was a veiled metaphor for the Yiddish world that was disappearing in Europe then. The only remnants of that civilization were wherever they happened to land on the Earth. So they had to hide their Jewishness and maintain a secret identity to blend in."
Superman's nebbish of an alter ego, Clark Kent, was named Kal-El on Krypton. His father is Jor-El. "El" designates God in Hebrew. Without a doubt, this is a family blessed with godly gifts.
Siegel and Shuster initially experimented with a bald villain, but quickly decided on a do-gooder hero in meise mit a deitch, a.k.a. stories with a moral twist. Look, up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Supermensch!
In the subsequent television series and films, Superman was portrayed by rather WASPy actors George Reeves and Christopher Reeve, respectively. During these more pro-diversity times, maybe Superboy should stage a clandestine bar mitzvah in Clark Kent's hometown of "Smallville," the title of a contemporary Fox network show.
While of obvious interest to Peck's fellow "chosen" folks, the lectures examine beloved touchstones that resonate for the larger community. The Marx boys reflect the American sensibility when it comes to zany - or meshuggah - comedy. Spiderman might be more famous now, thanks to last year's hit movie. But Superman remains the fundamental fantasy in this society's fascination with more-than-human powers.
"These figures started out very Jewish," Peck contends, "but became very assimilated.