Cross Cosmo and sober Jewish journal and you get a coast-to-coast debate

August 22, 1991|By James Warren | James Warren,Chicago Tribune

A late 20th-century American philosopher, Woody Allen, once raised the prospect of merging two high-brow political journals, Dissent and Commentary, and calling the result Dissentary. People laughed.

A Baltimore paper exhibited a similar bent. It suggested the merger of Cosmopolitan, Helen Gurley Brown's love-crazed and

hugely successful monthly, with Tikkun, a very serious, liberal Jewish critique of politics, culture and society.

Some people didn't laugh. Specifically, some female employees of Tikkun were outraged by a mock cover of Cosmokun, dominated by the cleavage of a classic Cosmo girl, crafted by the glossy Baltimore Jewish Times, the largest Jewish weekly in the United States.

The female staff members' initial furor, and the response of Tikkun readers, is instructive during these caution-filled days when supersensitivity reigns and many, including too many in the media, are on the alert not to offend anyone for any reason.

Baltimore Jewish Times Editor Gary Rosenblatt always does some spoof around the Jewish observance of Purim, a merriment-filled religious feast. This time he went with a full-page mock cover of a merged Cosmopolitan and Tikkun, clearly labeling it "satire."

The joke was aimed at bimonthly Tikkun, based in Oakland, Calif., and started as a counterbalance to conservative Commentary. Tikkun has had an impact in the Jewish intellectual community, some say, including helping to change attitudes on what's acceptable debate on the Middle East.

"Cleavage and the Jewish problem" was the most prominent headline on a cover that aped Tikkun typeface. Having fun with Tikkun's self-definition, which runs at the top of each cover, Cosmokun's top read: "Cosmokun: to mend, repair and transform the world, or at least your thighs."

The articles touted included "A Palestinian Woman's Plaintive Diary: Terrorism, Shmerorism, My Bosom Is Too Small." Another was "The '90's Politics of Racial Identity, Rabbinical Responsibility and Really Tight Pantyhouse: A Symposium." A third was "Prostitution in Jerusalem: the Israeli Piece Movement."

A few readers deemed the spoof sexist and chauvinist. Most did not, seeing it as a droll jab at a publication that, Rosenblatt believes, "takes itself so utterly seriously."

Across the land at Tikkun, Editor and Publisher Michael Lerner found internal dissent when suggesting that Tikkun rerun the pseudo cover in an issue devoted to political correctness.

"Some people here thought that showing a woman's breast as a major enticement for even a joke was not politically correct," Lerner explains. "It was sexist, they said.

"Those people also referred to the little jokes, like prostitution in Jerusalem, the 'piece movement,' the Palestinian diary, and repairing your thighs, and claimed that was exploitation by using women's bodies to sell a magazine, or at least to sell a joke."

Lerner says he took the matter seriously for many reasons. Those include the fact that sexism is real, as well as his memories of being offended upon first hearing Polish jokes in the 1960s.

"It was because many of the people who told them really didn't like Poles."

He thought it relevant to consider both the audience and the joke-teller in this instance -- namely Jews and Jews. The matter might have been murkier, he says, if the context was blacks making the jokes, or Jews making jokes about blacks.

He ran Baltimore's mock cover in Tikkun's July-August issue, in part to "deflate some of the pretenses of the progressive movement. Sometimes a good laugh can be the best weapon in building progressive social change."

Inescapably sober even when self-deprecating, Tikkun included a caption under the reprinted cover that states, "Although we enjoyed the notoriety and appreciated the humor, it stimulated a lively office debate. . . . Is it obsessively 'politically correct' to question this sort of humor? We'd like to hear your reactions."

Lerner figured on a hefty number of negative responses.

So far about 50 letters have arrived, and the overwhelming reaction, Lerner says, is the same: "Lighten up, guys, this is funny."

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