A prominent rabbi endorses a fascist in the latest episode of HBO’s miniseries.
“He’s koshering Lindbergh.”
With those three words near the end of the second episode of HBO’s The Plot Against America, the true intent of our country’s political machinery snaps into focus. We now have a good look at Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro), a bigshot in the Newark Jewish community and Evelyn’s (Winona Ryder) new squeeze, and what we see is terrifying: a Jewish leader who stumps on the campaign trail for a Nazi sympathizer.
Of course, as the Levin family observes from their homes, no self-respecting Jew would follow Bengelsdorf into the trenches behind someone like Charles Lindbergh for president. That’s not why the Lindbergh campaign trotted him out. No, he’s there to lend the candidate an air of legitimacy, for all the goyim who like his policies but don’t want to feel guilty about that other stuff. All they need is a guy with a yarmulke to tell them he’s all right: how could this man be anti-Semitic if he’s endorsed by a rabbi?
But that riddle says far more about the rabbi than it does about the candidate. Bengelsdorf was the fascinating enigma at the center of Phillip Roth’s novel: the leader who abandons his flock for personal gain. And David Simon’s show complicates the character even more, now that we can see him up close. Turturro plays him as a man who seems to legitimately believe he’s doing the right thing because he’s saving the U.S. from getting involved in a war… even if the war stands to eradicate his own people.
It’s easy to throw around the phrase “self-hating Jew” as an insult these days to describe pretty much any Jew with whom we may disagree politically. But who does the phrase actually describe? I think it’s someone like Bengelsdorf.
How are the other members of the Levin family weathering this unprecedented stormtrooper march to the White House? While the men sputter and bicker uselessly amongst themselves, Elizabeth (Zoe Kazan) is excited to start her new job at the local department store… until two WASPy customers waltz in with Lindbergh pins (“Leap for Lindy!”) and remind her how widely accepted his candidacy has become. It’s a scene that cuts deep in the modern era, thinking about how some seemingly innocuous campaign swag and fashion trends can quickly assume the symbol of something deeper and more frightening than even its wearers may understand. Leap for Lindy, indeed.
But there are still moments of levity to be found, especially in a cute bit of play-acting between Elizabeth and hubby Herman (Morgan Spector), and a shout-out to Jewish Detroit’s most valuable export of the era, Tigers superstar Hank Greenberg. Even though he’s clobbering their favorite team on the radio, these Yankees fans call it a win when Greenberg rounds the bases.
But how much longer can these Jews comfortably lie nested within the fabric of everyday American life before they begin to feel excluded from it? Already the three younger men are drifting apart from one another, with cousin Alvie (Anthony Boyle) running off to Canada so he can fight the Nazis, while Phillip (Azhy Robertson) falls under the spell of a charismatic, wealth and status-obsessed classmate (who has an uneasy, very Phillip Roth-like fascination with his celebrity mother’s underthings). And Phillip’s brother Sandy (Caleb Malis)? He continues to draw his Lindbergh sketches, even defending the pilot’s aviation skills in an argument with his father.
This is the stage we’ve reached so quickly: vulnerable families turning on each other at the dinner table. The koshering of Lindbergh is the un-koshering of America.
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Read more: ‘The Plot Against America’ Sets in Motion