Category Archives: Darren’s Archive Vault

Prince of Egypt: Steven Spielberg’s Country Music Moses

Prince of Egypt Moses Pharaoh

Val Kilmer is the voice of Moses

Culture Schlock — By Darren Garnick
“Country Music Moses won’t get a free ride at the box office”

Originally Published: The Telegraph, August 18, 1998

“And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Why dost thou cry to me? Speak to the children of Israel, that they go forward. But lift up thy rod,and stretch out thy hand over the sea and divide it – and the children of Israel shall go on dry ground through the midst of the sea.'”
— Exodus 14:15-17

“The Prince of Egypt tells the story of two men – one born a prince, the other born a slave … A lie made them brothers, the truth will destroy a kingdom and forever separate them … The country music ‘inspired-by’ album will feature an all-star lineup of the some of the genre’s top selling recording artists, including: Vince Gill, Reba, Randy Travis, Clint Black (and) Wynonna.”
— DreamWorks press release.

DreamWorks SKG – the superstar movie studio formed by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen – is tiptoeing through the Promised Land. Wanting to avoid any mass scale protests upon the release of their upcoming Moses cartoon, “The Prince of Egypt,” they have reportedly sought the advice of dozens of Christian, Jewish and Moslem clergy.

Giving religious leaders too much say in shaping an animated feature can be a dreadful mistake. For evidence, check out the old kids’ TV program “Davey and Goliath.” There’s one minute of action (i.e. Davey breaks a window) for every ten minutes of spiritual introspection and guilt. But based on promotional trailers showing in theaters now, gripping visuals such as Pharaoh’s armies, pyramid construction scenes and the Ten Plagues, should avoid the boredom problem.

Big name celebrity voices – including Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Sandra Bullock, Steve Martin, Michelle Pfeiffer, Martin Short and Patrick Stewart – will ensure a high entertainment value.

Val Kilmer Sandra Bullock Jeff Goldblum Michelle Pfeiffer

The Voices of the Prince of Egypt

However, the creators are doomed to fail miserably in achieving an authentic or a controversy-free film.

The real Moses had a terrible stutter and hired his brother Aaron as the official “Let My People Go” spokesman. Will movie goers pay eight bucks
to listen to star Val Kilmer stutter for two hours? Doubtful.

“Prince of Egypt” also faces the same wrath as any movie or TV program which dares to tackle the history of the Middle East. When Disney’s “Aladdin” hit the screen, it was assailed for portraying the ancient Arabian culture as too violent and barbaric. Unless the building of the pyramids are going to be presented as free job training programs, “Prince of Egypt” will likely generate complaints of anti-pharaoh slander.

As chief courier and guardian of the Ten Commandments, the character of Moses will be under tremendous scrutiny. The potential of Hollywood cheapening his stature is a religious landmine. If McDonald’s, for example, comes out with a Moses Happy Meal, the prophet’s stature may descend to the same level as Princess Jasmine or Buzz Lightyear.

Cognizant of religious sensibilities, DreamWorks executive Walter Parkes recently told the London Telegraph that all merchandising tie-ins will be carefully considered for taste and appropriateness. He promised there will be action figures, but “no burning bush night lights, no Red Sea shower curtains (or) no 40-days-in-the-desert water bottles.”

There are three CDs planned: the regular soundtrack and two inspirational albums (one country music, one R & B/ gospel). The music, scheduled to hit the shelves by mid-fall, should appease most Bible readers. DreamWorks say the songs stick to “themes inherent to the film’s story, including love, faith, freedom, deliverance and family.”

But no matter how many clergy DreamWorks consult, even Moses can not emerge from the cartoon dessert without controversy. Try this one for starters: “Prince of Egypt” is scheduled for release on Dec. 18, 1998.

That’s right, Passover’s big star is about to compete with Santa Claus and Frosty the Snowman.


In retrospect, I wound up liking this movie — despite the time-wasting chariot races and the buddy-buddy international brotherhood subtext.

There’s a rather moving (and tasteful) slavery montage with animated hieroglyphics.

And I wish that Dreamworks execs were a little more creative with the merchandising. Personally, I would have loved the opportunity to buy a Red Sea shower curtain or a Burning Bush nightlight.



** Why I would have been a horrible Pharaoh !

** Schlock Flashback: Steven Spielberg’s Country Music Moses

** The Joys of Plastic Lice: Passover toys celebrate Ancient Egypt’s regime change

** Schlock Flashback: Origins of the Moses Duck

** Let My Tastebuds Go: I dare you to try Passover breakfast cereal!

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Pre-Swine Flu Nostalgia: Feeling sentimental about good old-fashioned germ-o-phobia

I used to mock Purell when it first came on the market. Now I may as well drink the stuff.

I used to mock Purell when it first came on the market. Now I may as well drink the stuff.

CULTURE SCHLOCK – By Darren Garnick
“PARANOIA AIR: Germ-o-phobia overtakes supermarket carts, airplanes”
The Telegraph
Originally Published: January 19, 2006
Like many overprotective parents, I zealously keep my toddler away
from chainsaws, pit bulls and downed electrical lines. But there’s one
hazard that terrifies me above all the others.

Despite explicit instructions not to touch a molecule, regardless of
how pristine it may appear, my three-year-old son acts like a “Price
Is Right” game show hostess in a public restroom. He slowly brushes
his hand across the stall partitions and the waste baskets. He
showcases the paper towel and soap dispensers. His fingerprints even
wind up on the floor tiles.

Scrubbing him down is a logistical nightmare because he cannot reach
the sink. I tuck him underneath one arm like a football and use the
other hand to rub his hands with soap. In the end, at least a half
gallon of water winds up on his shirt. When my child is tall enough,
I’ll teach him the essentials of urinal yoga: How to flush any toilet
with your sneaker.

I thought I was superparanoid about germs until I stumbled across The
Wall Street Journal’s recent consumer tests of anti-bacterial products
for airline passengers. As bad as a raunchy gas station bathroom or
portable toilet is, an airplane is essentially a petri dish with
wings. There’s no place for the germs to go, so they socialize inside
the vents and luggage compartments. In the airplane bathroom itself,
a.k.a. Virus Central, it is impossible not to have every body part
brush against the walls.

The Journal’s phobia product round-up includes a $75 neck pillow “with
a built-in ionizer to shoo pollutants from your personal breathing
space,” an $85 pair of metal-free “travel shoes” which wearers might
not have to take off during the security check, a $10 anti-bacterial
seat wrap, and an $8 bottle of anti-flu nasal spray.

We’re just one more SARS epidemic or chicken flu away from the launch
of Paranoia Air, an airline in which the flight attendants wear white
biohazard suits and the passengers all wear surgical masks. At least
that scenario might spare you from an annoying conversation with a
chatty passenger sitting next to you.

Self-help guru Deepak Chopra, who travels frequently for his New Age
seminars, told the Journal that he recommends flying without any
anti-microbe protection. “By creating an artificial environment, we’re
not stimulating our immune system enough,” he said. “Germs are immune
stimulants. They challenge you to be prepared.”

Back on the ground, it’s tough to be kissy-kissy with these
“challenging” germs — especially after reading the latest handwashing
studies (which the soap industry churns out weekly under academic
cover). After paying spies to observe more than 6,000 people in
public restrooms, the American Society for Microbiology recently
reported that 25 percent of guys snub the sink altogether opposed to
only 10 percent of women.

Unfortunately, there is no way to segregate the clean people from the
dirty ones. Even hanging out with just women doesn’t eliminate the
risk (although it does cut it in half).

Supermarket shopping cart studies, usually publicized at sweeps time
by FOX News affiliates, always prove to be nauseating. One University
of Arizona study found that one in five carts in Tucson “tested
positive for bodily fluids, blood, mucus, saliva or urine.” The
University of Maryland had no trouble finding E. coli bacteria in the
festering juices of raw beef, chicken and pork clinging to these

The Wall Street Journal gives a thumbs down to most of the anti-germ
products it tested, but it does endorse using alcohol-based hand
sanitizers, such as Purell, even after washing your hands on a plane.
Sometimes, they found, even the water can’t be trusted. The
Environmental Protection Agency recently discovered “unacceptable”
levels of coliform bacteria coming out of airline sinks.

As long as we can’t see the germs, paranoia will continue to thrive —
and so will these products. Makes me wish I bought some stock in

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Maybe eBay should mediate U.S.-North Korea talks (or why I hate Melissa from New York’s guts)

CULTURE SCHLOCK – By Darren Garnick
“Conflict resolution the eBay way”

The Telegraph
Originally Published: November 30, 2006
Maybe eBay should run the multilateral talks with North Korea. Or
serve as a mediator between the United States and Iran.

The eBay conflict resolution team doesn’t screw around. No meetings to
discuss where and when the next meeting will be — or debates about
the shape of the negotiating table. When there’s a crisis in the eBay
community, a crisis serious enough to jeopardize a citizen’s feedback
rating, proceedings begin immediately.

There aren’t too many things in life that I brag about, but here’s
something I’d like to shout from the summit of Mt. Washington: “I HAVE

For those of you who do not understand the ramifications of that
statement, let me share a few testimonials from eBay sellers and
buyers who have been my recent trading partners. Think movie poster
testimonials when you read the following kudos:

“…Highly Recommended!”
“…Great Customer. A+++ !!!”
“…A Real eBay Asset!”
“…Awesome eBayer!”

It is quite typical for my feedback to contain a healthy serving of
exclamation points, only underscoring the enthusiasm people have about
me and everything I stand for.

So you might imagine my distress the other day when I received an
official eBay e-mail informing me I was under investigation in an
“Unpaid Item Dispute.”

Sounds like I need a lawyer.

I had “won” an old stunt show souvenir program for $8.01, but was
confused by the seller’s payment instructions. During the automated
check-out process, the message said that personal checks were
accepted. However, the auction listing itself said you had to pay by
bank check or money order.

So I emailed the seller, Melissa from New York, to clarify the
discrepancy. I explained my confusion and politely asked if a check
was okay, given my stellar 676 eBay rating. I emailed her three times
in five days. Never heard back. Never heard back, that is, until the
official eBay summons.

I hate Melissa from New York. Hate her guts.

The eBay warning told me I had seven days to get the payment to the
seller or else enter the next ugly phase of the conflict. I emailed
Melissa again, explaining I did not go AWOL on her and had tried
numerous times to clarify her preferred method of payment.

Getting close to the deadline – and not wanting to find out what
happens to auction deadbeats – I marked the box that said I paid and
just mailed a personal check. The souvenir program arrived 10 days
later and eBay informed me the case was closed and “No Strike Given.”

Strike? I had no idea they gave out strikes.

“If a buyer gets too many strikes in too short a time
period, their account will be suspended indefinitely. In some cases,
limits may be placed on the buyer’s account in advance of suspension.”

eBay giveth privileges to buy Pez dispensers; eBay can taketh away.
They can shut you off anytime and they’re not bashful about reminding
you who’s in charge. Whattya gonna do? Check out Yahoo’s lame-o

There is an appeal process to have a strike removed from your
permanent record. But after reading the fine print, I’d bet death row
inmates in Texas have a better chance of clemency.

Meanwhile, I’ve been contemplating the best forms of retribution to
strike back at Evil Melissa. Do I mail her a tersely worded note of
condemnation, hoping she will feel remorse about her overly litigious
behavior? Do I try to impose sanctions on her town in upstate NY? Do
I drive a few hundred miles, bang on her door in the middle of the
night and demand closure?

I’ve already ruled out the obvious option: giving her nasty negative
feedback. That’s only a guarantee for the same treatment back,
blemishing my 99.4 percent pedigree.

Mutual Assured Destruction caused me to exercise restraint and walk
away from possible escalation. Like I said, maybe eBay should take a
crack at resolving international conflicts.

Darren Garnick’s “Culture Schlock” column runs every Thursday in
Encore. Reader correspondence is welcomed at

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Capture That Auschwitz Moment


Japanese tourists take turns playfully posing by the barbed wire fence at the Auschwitz-Birkenau deathcamp in Poland.

Japanese tourists take turns playfully posing by the barbed wire electric fence at the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau deathcamp, the Nazi graveyard for 1.5 million Holocaust victims.

“Capture That Auschwitz Moment:
Tacky tourism becomes part of the concentration camp landscape

By Darren Garnick
Originally published Oct. 26, 1998
The Jerusalem Report

OSWIECIM, POLAND — The tourist from Japan is on his stomach, straddling the main train tracks that bisect Birkenau. Meticulously resting his camera on the railroad ties, it first appears as if he wants a low angle shot of the camp. But he wants more. Clicking the camera’s self-timer button, he scrambles a few meters forward and sits on the tracks. He now has a better photo: himself crouching in front of the SS “Gate of Death.”

Off to the side, two other visitors take turns posing by the barbed wire fence. At nearby Auschwitz, an American stands stoically for his wife’s camera in front of canisters of Zyklon B, the same ones the Nazis used to gas people to death. The great concentration camp photo-op is too tempting to pass up.

Containing the ashes of 1.5 million victims — 90 percent of them Jews — Auschwitz-Birkenau has the sad distinction of being the world’s largest cemetery, a cemetery that doubles as an international tourist destination. On a scorching late-summer afternoon, the parking lot is filled with tour buses. One reads: “Regular Tours: Salt Mine — Wieliczka/ Auschwitz-Birkenau EVERY DAY.”

One of the throngs is Jeff Lavie, a Los Angeles public school teacher who says he is here to find out more about the deaths of relatives of his maternal grandparents in the camp and to satisfy a “curiosity to understand where my relatives stood.” But, he says, it is frustrating trying to find somewhere to pray among the streams of tourists. “This is a grieving place, but there is no place set aside to pray,” Lavie says, adding that he would like to see a centralized spot more conducive to leaving flowers and candles.

Lavie says most of his fellow visitors were respectful, but also harried by their guides. “Most people were rushed through here. Auschwitz was just ‘Stop B’ on a lot of places to get to that day.”

James E. Young, chair of Judaic Studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, has visited Auschwitz-Birkenau more than 30 times for his research on Holocaust memorials. He says he has witnessed numerous tourists who see the trip as a “vicarious thrill.”

The Great Auschwitz Photo-Op

The Great Auschwitz Photo-Op

“It is a very slippery line. At what point does a pilgrimage turn into entertainment? I don’t know where the line is drawn, but I know it when I see it,” Young says. “I know when people are playing Frisbee with their shirts off that something is wrong. It doesn’t happen often, but it happens.”

Young says he believes that most inappropriate behavior is not motivated by disrespect. In the case of overzealous photography, he suspects most people just want proof that “we were there. There’s such a thing as unintentional descrecration,” he says. “Even survivors my unintentionally violate the sacredness of the camps.”

Sometimes, tourist behavior can enhance the memorial. Rocks with Stars of David and “Yisrael” written on them left at the edge of the Birkenau tracks by Jewish youth groups may be regarded as more poignant that the official monuments.

As custodian of the camps, the Polish government is often in a no-win situation. If it promotes the camps too much, it will be accused of exploitation. If it stays too low-key, it could be accused of ignoring the Holocaust. According to Young, the most positive change was when the post-Communist government stopped renting out the camps as sets for movies and TV programs.

In 1989, the American producers of “Triumph of the Spirit” (a movie about a Greek-Jewish boxer forced to fight fellow inmates for Nazi entertainment) left papier-mache gas chambers propped up at Birkenau directly over the dynamited ruins left by the Germans. Says Young: “The last thing I’d want is to see a Holocaust denier show up and see a fake gas chamber.”

But fears of commercializing the Holocaust will always loom at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where the differences between the terms “gift shop” and “book store” are subtle. The shops, located right in front of the main entrance, so far have avoided items like T-shirts and key chains; postcards of the “Arbeir macht frei” (“Work makes you free”) gate and the Auschwitz fence at sunset are the closest things to souvenirs now available.

A mini-mall — complete with a visitor’s center, bank, post office and restaurant — is scheduled for completion next February. This is a scaled-down version of a planned larger center, including a supermarket and fast food restaurants. And in an attempt to minimize offense, the mall, which will be located across the street, will be a neutral color and contain no large advertisements.

While the controversy and tension over the crosses placed outside Auschwitz-Birkenau recently by Catholic extremists assume a higher international profile, it may be the identity struggle between tourist destination and Holocaust memorial that will never be resolved.

“When the graves of your family become the historical curiosities of others, the conflict begins,” says Young. “Here’s the choice: Either we put the sites off-limits to everyone but historians… or we end up with kiosks selling mementos. There is no way to win this.”

HONEY, GRAB A PICTURE OF ME WITH THE ZYKLON B!  (An American tourist wants Nazi poison gas in his vacation scrapbook)

HONEY, GRAB A PICTURE OF ME WITH THE ZYKLON B!                                                               (An American tourist wants Nazi poison gas in his vacation scrapbook)

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The Original Butt Sketch: Every tush is beautiful in its own way

The Original Butt Sketch elevates sidewalk artist to lucrative trade show gigs

The Original Butt Sketch elevates sidewalk artists to lucrative trade show gigs

CULTURE SCHLOCK — By Darren Garnick
“Every tush is beautiful — in it’s own way.”

Originally published: March 17, 2000
The Telegraph/Encore Magazine

While the scientists on the Human Genome Project aim to discover every DNA sequence in the human body, Texas artist Krandel Lee Newton isn’t concerned about probing underneath the surface. Focusing on exteriors and posteriors, he is driven by one core belief: You never forget your first Butt Sketch.

Newton is a mercenary artist, a charcoal-for-hire sent to fight boredom on treacherous trade show turf. A few weeks ago in New Orleans, I met him at a not-so-boring gathering of TV programming executives. But I just as easily could have discovered the Butt Sketch if I were a florist, a dentist or a mortgage banker.

I begin by walking over to a masking tape line on the plush carpet cushioning my feet. My back to the easel, I spread my feet about three feet apart and put my hands on my hips — my imagined “tough guy” stance.

Krandel scampers in front of me like an art critic looking for a good angle. His hands, too, are on his hips. “Is this the way you want to pose?” he asks, making direct eye contact. His voice softens. “I like what you’re doing. I really do. I just want to tweak things a bit.”

The artist gently nudges my head to my left, pats my shoulder and says, “See you in two-and-a-half minutes.”

I don’t feel self-conscious while my butt is being sketched. Maybe that’s because my pants are kept on. Maybe it’s also because Krandel has a non-threatening, wisecracking style that instantly puts me at ease. For a brief moment, I believe I can quit my job and pose for Dockers ads.

In the end, my Butt Sketch really does look like me and the appeal is twofold. First, there’s accuracy. Nobody thinks about his or her rear end being as definitive as a thumbprint. Yet, Krandel proves that it is, capturing an individual’s personality through tushie language. Second, Krandel’s quality doesn’t suffer despite the self-imposed time limit.

Sharianne Brill, of New York City, watched me get my butt sketched. Satisfied with the results, she tells Krandel: “Wow, that’s good. I hope you do my body justice!”

Three minutes later, Brill is happy. “Oh man, I look hot! My butt says I mean business,” she says. “People always teased me about my booty for years, but if you got it baby, flaunt it!”

Krandel, 41, was an engineer for Westinghouse before becoming a full-time butt sketcher 13 years ago. Trade show paychecks are far more lucrative, multiplying his old salary “more than five times” and bringing in enough business to hire a support team of seven artists. Inspiration came from his days as a sidewalk artist, when bystanders would marvel at his drawings of parades – from the rear.

“There is no horrible looking butt. Every butt is a good butt in my eyes,” Krandel says. “That’s my company line and I’m sticking to it.”

The artist admits he has “been accused of having a flattering hand” in his drawings. Perhaps he should sell women’s bathing suits on the side. Krandel is the consummate salesman, enticing both men (40 percent of drawings) and women to play along with the gag. The co-ed clientele and his avoidance of offensive innuendos have shielded him from inevitable cries of sexism.

“The first time I saw him I was so nervous,” recalls Leslie McClure, a publicist from California. “Nobody likes their own butts, especially women.” Since sketch one, she has been immortalized five more times and even hired Krandel to sketch guests at her 50th birthday party.

For the record, all of McClure’s Butt Sketches are framed and matted. Four hang in her office and two are displayed at home. Krandel, who obviously loves repeat business, insists he doesn’t get tired of drawing the same butt twice.

“We like to call them ‘Butt Upgrades,’” he says.
Darren Garnick’s “Culture Schlock” appears every Friday in The Telegraph’s Encore magazine.


ALSO SEE: Booty Call: Butt Sketch artists shake up corporate trade shows

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Booty Call: Butt Sketch artists shake up corporate trade shows

Original Butt Sketch charcoal artists are shaking up the world of trade show entertainment

Original Butt Sketch charcoal artists are shaking up the world of trade show entertainment

THE WORKING STIFF – By Darren Garnick
” BOOTY CALL: ‘Butt Sketch’ artists shake up corporate trade shows”

Originally Published: February 22, 2006 (Boston Herald)
It’s called the “Butt Sketch.” And it’s probably the only time co-workers can blatantly ogle their office crush without being accused of sexual harassment.

It’s also the great equalizer between bosses and employees. Fashion doesn’t care what your business card says.

“If there was any tension before in the office, it’s gone when I get through with them,” grins Butt Sketch artist Pjae Adams, who captures “posteriors for posterity” in up to 10 cities per month. “Hopefully, they’ll go back to work with a new sense of comraderie.”

Adams was sketching butt this past weekend at the Hynes Convention Center, where thousands of college students gathered to scout entertainment acts at the National Association for Campus Activities Conference. Her act seems gimmicky at first – Project Runway meets amusement park caricature – but those who walk away with the charcoal picture may momentarily fantasize about posing for the next Macy’s newspaper ad.

Revere’s Jeff Smith, a student affairs administrator at Salem State College, plans to hang his likeness in his office. “It’s a different perspective of you,” he says. “You never see what you look like from the back. There’s no mirror to do that.”

“Some people are shy at first, but there’s a little bit of exhibitionist in everyone,” adds the 29-year-old Adams, who used to design boutique shop windows in Atlanta and Dallas.

The artist’s outgoing personality must have been wasted on the mannequins. Adams begins her two-and-a-half minute sessions with friendly banter urging her models to relax. Usually, the Butt Sketch becomes a group experience with co-workers smirking and laughing in the background.

Original Butt Sketch artist Pjae Adams

Original Butt Sketch artist Pjae Adams

“I think this is great for guys and girls,” says Butt Sketch devotee Krystal Johnson, a student at the University of North Carolina. “But you can’t take it too seriously.”

Sage advice.

My turn on the Butt Sketch runway was enlightening. At the risk of sounding trite, I have gained new respect for fashion models. I had trouble standing frozen yet “relaxed” for more than two minutes. And I still can’t pull off a pouty expression.

Nonetheless, my butt does look fantastic. In fact, everyone’s butts look fantastic off the charcoal pencil of Adams, who admits using a flattering touch.

“Whether people believe me or not, that’s what I see. Every butt is different. Every butt has its own personality,” she says.

Just as fascinating as the psychology of the Butt Sketch experience is the backstory. Dallas sidewalk artist Krandel Lee Newton first set up his easel in 1987 at the West End Marketplace, a tourist spot similar to Faneuil Hall. The popularity of his “Original Butt Sketch” appearances at trade shows, conventions and private parties eventually encouraged him to build a Butt Sketch empire.

Today, a dozen artists travel the country to immortalize the tushes of people who’ll likely never have the opportunity to model again. Newton’s company, which charges between $1,700 and $3,000 for a four-hour session, boasts more than 250,000 Butt Sketches in its portfolio — including the famous rear ends of Alex Trebek, Donnie & Marie Osmond, Ted Danson and Queen Latifah.

Butt Sketch artist Pjae Adams

Butt Sketch artist Pjae Adams

“I never imagined I’d be sketching people’s butts for a living,” says Adams, who hopes the gig will advance her art career. “But I always hoped to use my gifts to support myself.”

Specializing in acrylic paintings of the human form, Adams sometimes finds that her rapid fashion drawings of accountants and dental hygienists subconsciously influence her future work.

“The more butts I sketch,” she says, “the more inspired I become.”

Darren Garnick’s “Working Stiff” column runs every Wednesday in the Boston Herald. Story tips from the workplace are welcomed via email at heraldstiff @


ALSO SEE: Every tush is beautiful – in its own way!

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Phishing for Jewish Heritage

phish 96

Though many may see Phish as the heirs to the Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia’s band never regaled audiences with renditions of “Jerusalem of Gold” – in Hebrew, no less

Originally Published: December 26, 1996
The Jerusalem Report

By Darren Garnick

They never asked to inherit the mantle of the Grateful Dead after Jerry Garcia’s death. They seldom sing about utopian peace, love or brotherhood. But whether they accept the honors or not, the members of the undefinable Vermont band Phish are the shaggy-haired heirs to the Grateful Dead. Their ever-expanding and faithful population of “Phishheads,” comprised mostly of those born after Volkswagen buses went out of vogue, are keeping the American hippie mystique alive.

Guitarist Trey Anastasio, keyboardist Page McConnell, bassist Mike Gordon and drummer Jon Fishman, all hovering around age 30, often bounce mid-stage on trampolines, not missing a beat in their performance – which is never the same set of songs as the previous night. The crowd-pleasing Fishman wears a polka-dot dress in concert and sometimes plays the vacuum cleaner as a musical instrument. Like the Grateful Dead, Phish has always sold more concert tickets than albums and encourages its fanatically loyal fans to make bootleg tapes of their shows.


It is no accident if some of Phish’s infamous free-wheeling jams – which never get airplay on mainstream radio stations – include occasional snatches of Hebrew. Fishman and bassist Mike Gordon are Jewish, and bundled in their tie-dyed core are strands of klezmer and even “Jerusalem of Gold.” The Hebrew lyrics of Naomi Shemer’s classic song, which turned into an ode to the reunification of Jerusalem after the 1967 Six-Day War, was featured in the liner notes of the group’s 1994 album “Hoist,” and the melody made its way into the end of a long instrumental on the disk, just as it sometimes unexpectedly surfaces in concert.

Gordon, who attended the Solomon Schechter Hebrew Day School in Newton, Massachusetts, in his youth, used to hear the tune on one of his parents’ Israeli “Greatest Hits” compilation albums, which got major air time in the house. “It’s been a melody that has been stuck in my head since childhood. We sort of sing a mediocre – or bad – version of the song,” the self-effacing Gordon recently told The Jerusalem Report. “The first time we played the song in concert was a great moment. It was at a sold-out show near Boston, and 17,000 people were perfectly silent. They didn’t know what they were hearing” – not surprising, since Phish was performing it in Hebrew. “It was special, because my grandmother was there.”

Phish Billy Breathes

Gordon, whose grin adorns the cover of Phish’s 1996 release, “Billy Breathes,” recalls that the non-Jewish band members “were eager to do ‘Yerushalayim Shel Zahav.’ I’m more familiar with Hebrew than Jon. It was difficult for them to learn their parts. I’m not as religious as I used to be,” he says. “But at the same time, I feel I have a strong Jewish identity and it is an important part of who I am.”

THE “PHAB PHOUR,” as some wryly refer to them in writing, are always striving to outdo themselves on the quirky meter. Adopting “musical costumes,” for Halloween concerts, the band has done shows consisting entirely of cover versions of the Beatles’s “White Album” and The Who’s “Quadrophenia.” This year they were the Talking Heads, performing songs from their album “Remain in Light.”

While non-Phish fans are quick to dismiss some of the band’s own lyrics as foolish babble, they will never be accused of attending the Cliche School of Songwriting. “Scent of a Mule,” for example, is about a girl and her donkey trying to make peace with their UFO abductors. Trying to be diplomatic, she urges the aliens: “Stop, we ain’t looking for a fightin’… Come on over for some lemonade – just follow me now with the whole brigade.” The appropriately titled “Dinner and a Movie” is an endless reel of the dating refrain, “Let’s go out to dinner and see a movie.” And another foot-tapper called “Contact” is a silly, rhyming tribute to our dependence on the automobile: “The tires are the things on your car that make contact with the road… Bummed is what you are when you find out that your car has been towed.”

The band has been together since 1983, when three of its four members met as freshmen at the University of Vermont. Attracting a strong following on the college pub circuit, the musicians held a series of jobs as odd as their song lyrics. According to their fan newsletter, “Doniac Schvice” (the name was chosen by the band itself, and has no known meaning in any modern language), McConnell once worked in a candy store painting white spots on chocolate cows and Fishman formerly stitched maternity bathing suits.

What probably draws most fans, Jewish or otherwise, to Phish is the energetic dancing the band’s concerts afford them the opportunity to partake in. “The appeal of a Phish concert is sweat, gallons and gallons of sweat, although the stench from the unwashed hippies can be a turnoff,” says Al Kaufman, a music critic from Austin, Texas. “Phish just plays. There is no overpowering light show or technical wizardry. It is just a bunch of great musicians on stage enjoying what they are doing. That’s rare today.”

That may be why a two-day concert at an air force base in Plattsburgh, New York, last August, drew 135,000 fans. And why, in the spirit of the Deadheads, Phish has a ferociously loyal national following that includes fans who follow them from show to show. And though live performances are still their bedrock, record sales are nothing to sneeze at either: The band now has three gold albums (500,000 copies sold), “Hoist,” 1995’s “A Live One” and “Billy Breathes,” their latest.

Cincinnati social worker Jonathan Willis, who regards himself as a fan of both Phish and the Grateful Dead, maintains that the comparison between the two bands is an unfair one. “Obviously, the death of Jerry contributes to their recent surge in popularity. The Generation X-ers are looking for a sense of community and bonding around the ideas of hope and peace. People are projecting that onto Phish,” Willis says. “But Phish has a much more ironic and fun view of the world than the Grateful Dead. They don’t buy into that peace, love and harmony bit as much as the Grateful Dead theoretically did.”

Phish fan Lynda Segal, who works in magazine production in Massachusetts, claims to be drawn by the band’s nonromantic lyrics and Fishman’s offbeat feminine wardrobe, which has been copied by numerous male fans. “I hate groups that sing about love. Love is so overrated,” she says. “And I have to admire any guy who wants to wear a skirt. Pants are very restrictive. There is a certain freedom that comes with wearing a dress.” (Fishman, it should be noted, is not a transvestite per se; he’s just a guy in a dress who plays the drums.)

phish rolling stone

Segal, who says she was first exposed to Phish while visiting an American friend who was spending time studying in Israel, also likes the idea of Hebrew-influenced hippies: “It’s cool that the band has tapped into their heritage. It’s cool that a Jewish song has become a pop song. But I wonder if the crowd really understands it.” Gordon, who occasionally has sung verses of the High Holy Days hymn “Avinu Malkenu” in concert, concedes that not too many fans probably “get it.” Phish fans, however, have come to expect becoming familiar with the unfamiliar.

“To some, it seems blasphemous to take a holy prayer and play it in concert. I don’t sing it as a joke. It’s an acknowledgment of my heritage,” Gordon says. “When we play it, I can always look up and see the Jews in the audience smiling.”


I’ve read this unsubstantiated statistic in several Phish profiles, based on anecdotal evidence at Phish concerts (or by prejudiced bastards who think they can spots Jews in a crowd just by looking at them).

In any case, I highly recommend checking out the most entertaining travelogue ever written about the Jewish-Phish connection: Felix Vikhman’s 1999 Salon essay exploring those “looking for God in a haze of mushrooms and acid.”


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