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Sunday, May 13, 2018

... a nation like any other.

There is a quote that is usually attributed to Chaim Nachman Bialik, the great modern Hebrew poet (and great-great-great-grand uncle of actress Mayim Bialik), who said, ''We will be a normal state when we have the first Hebrew prostitute, the first Hebrew thief and the first Hebrew policeman". 

That quote always bothered me.  After all, why set the bar so low?  Aren't we supposed to be 'a light unto the nations'?

It wasn't until I was watching the Eurovision finals last night that something clicked, and I finally understood the context of his quote.

In order to be a ‘normal state… 'a national like any other'… Israel has to not only accept, but also embrace, its normalcy.  More than that, we have to make the rest of the world see and accept us as completely normal.

It's great to have brilliant Israeli Nobel laureates and scientists so we can point and say how erudite we are. 

It's great to have achingly beautiful Israeli models and actors so we can point and say how attractive we are.

It's great to have a healthy, thriving democracy so we can point and say how evolved and civilized we are.

And it's great to have impressive military and intelligence capabilities so we can point and say how powerful and self-reliant we are.

But Bialik understood that a 'normal' state is the average of its people, not its top 1-2%; That the typical citizen - the everyman/everywoman - is not necessarily a scientist, a model, a legislator / jurist, a spy / commando… yet can still excel, impress and astound!

The average citizen of a 'normal’ state is a work-a-day person, struggling valiantly to carve out a life for him/herself and family.  That means an endlessly normal list of normal occupations including bus drivers, bank clerks, secretaries, insurance agents, telephone operators, ad executives, rear-echelon soldiers, entertainers, policemen and yes, thieves and prostitutes.

Israel has been participating in the annual Eurovision Song Contest since 1973. 

Including last night's triumph, we have won a total of four times.  On the face of it, that feat would seem to be fodder for our list of bragging rights along with Nobel laureates, models, military heroes, etc.

But look at the Israelis who have won:

Our first win was in 1978 with Alphabeta, sung by Izhar Cohen the child of Yemenite immigrants (considered at the time to be an underprivileged minority).  We won the following year with Hallelujah, sung by Gali Atari, another child of Yemenite immigrants.  Our third win came in 1998 with 'Diva' sung by Dana International, a transgender individual.  And last night's winning song, 'Toy' was performed by Netta Barzilai. 

While I was watching Netta peform, a few things hit me all at once:

First, although Barzilai is a fairly typical surname among Jews from Morocco and other North African communities, I hadn't seen or heard one person categorize her by ethnicity.  That's huge for us Israelis that Netta's family origin is such a non-ssue that nobody feels compelled to hyphenate her Israeli-ness.

Next, while almost all of the Eurovision performers in last night’s program were talented singers / performers, most looked like they could easily moonlight as runway and print models.  In the back of my mind I couldn't help wondering if some of them might not have been selected if they hadn't first won the genetic lottory.

Netta, like most of us, doesn't come close to conforming to the prevailing - and certainly flawed - modern ideals of beauty as sold to us by the entertainment and fashion industry.  She is a plus-sized woman with a larger-than-life stage presence that is at first a bit shocking... but very quickly quite appealing.  She is so completely at home in her skin that she practically forces the viewer/listener to recalibrate in their head what ‘normal’ is for a star.

And the lyrics of her song reinforce her moral authority to take up the #metoo banner in the name of everyone who has ever been objectified, harassed, victimized or assaulted... deftly and rightly taking it from the manicured hands of Hollywood A-listers who, let's face it, look better the morning after an all-night pub-crawl than most of us looked on our wedding day.

When Christina Aguilera sings, "I am beautiful no matter what they say, Words can't bring me down...", it's honestly a little hard to feel her pain...or reflexively, to believe that she truly understands the self-image issues that the 'normal' woman (or man), wrestles with.

But when Netta sings, "Look at me, I’m a beautiful creature... I’m not your toy. You stupid boy”, you instantly get that she is not talking about some subjective external criteria of beauty... she is talking about the intrinsic beauty & value of every human being, and the right we all have to not be reduced to a kind of object, prize or plaything.

What a powerful yet obvious message!  And it carries extra gravitas because it is delivered by a 'normal' everywoman.

This is the 'normal' that Bialik was talking about.  This is the 'normal' that Israel consistently projects. 

We Israelis are worthy and valuable, not because we have accomplished all these wonderful things through the luck of being born exceptional... but rather in spite of the fact that we were not.

There can be extraordinary things to be proud of in being ordinary.  But to do so, one has to first be prepared to embrace and celebrate being 'normal'.  Last night’s Eurovision performance /win was all that, and more!

Netta

Posted by David Bogner on May 13, 2018 | Permalink

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Posted by: Alex | May 14, 2018 9:16:29 AM

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