I Love You Alice B. Toklas (1968, directed by Hy Alverack) was my favorite movie in 1984 or thereabouts when we got a VCR, and my parents, for whatever hippie reasons of their own, deemed me old enough to see the film. The lead character, Harold Fine, is played by the great Peter Sellers. Harold starts out as a mild-mannered Jewish lawyer in Los Angeles. Over the course of the movie, he goes through the process of what would then be called “turning on” but now would be called “getting woke.”
Harold’s initial change comes in the form of sex with Nancy, a hippie chick who bakes mean marijuana brownies, and has a tattoo of a butterfly on her upper thigh. At the end of his and Nancy’s first lovemaking session, Harold gasps, “The earth moved,” and then pulls on his asthma inhaler. It’s a pretty Jewish moment, if you go by my cultural atheist political but also largely humor-based style of Jewishness. You know: physical instability combined with pleasure, hilarity with insecure freedom.
The late Paul Mazursky, who went on to direct Moscow on the Hudson, Enemies: A Love Story and most famously, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, wrote I Love You Alice B Toklas. He was brilliant at the gentle skewer that hits right in the gut, an ironic shish kebab.
One of the best scenes Alice is when Harold is walking on the beach with the Guru, a handsome tall Indian man (though, in reality, it’s a folkie named Louis Gottlieb in brownface). Both Harold and the Guru are barefoot on the beach, clad in white kurtas and airy trousers.
The Guru (Jewru?) walks confidently stepping on shells, crunching them with his feet, experiencing no visible discomfort. He talks on and on: “Flower in the crannied wall, I pluck you out of the crannies. I hold you here, root, and all, in my hand. Little flower…”
Harold steps mincingly, trying to stifle his yelps of pain as his tender feet catch on the sharp shells. It’s a moment of extreme Jewishness, again, for that certain kind — my kind — of 20th century Jew.
The Guru continues, “But how can you know what a flower is, Harold if you don’t know who you are? Who are you? Do you know who you are?”
Harold replies – it’s a killer line, and Peter Sellers nails it – “I’m trying. Guru, I’m really trying.”
”I’m trying. Guru, I’m really trying.” My family and I repeated this line to each other when we couldn’t figure out where to take something. We loved the self-awareness of the writer versus the character’s lack thereof. We also loved the effort, genuine and ridiculous.
I grew up with that kind of – I have to admit it, my dad pronounces it with a long “U” – humor. Old Jewish, almost borscht belt, but then… Skewer to the time and place. Alice B. Toklas was a family favorite because it both appreciated and critiqued hippies and Jews in equal measure.
For example, the extras, a bunch that the casting director must have picked up on Hollywood Boulevard or the Venice Boardwalk include speaking parts for people named Love Lady and Big Bear. (I recognized a few of the actors later in Easy Rider’s commune scene, proving my folks’ contention that there were never more than a handful of “real” hippies anyway.)
It was the times. “The best of times, the worst of times.” My dad, who introduced me to Dickens as well as Peter Sellers, still loves that line, never remarking on the sentimentality, focusing on the “u-mor,” the description, and the social justice. You don’t get one without the others, I always learned.
We have u-mor now, right? At least some. I mean: Kate McKinnon has gotten me through many a long day of the soul these last few months, and even my shrink told me she’s rarely cheered more than by the New Yorker’s “Borowitz Report.” Stephen Colbert, nominally Irish Catholic, has been given higher-than-Ivanka-level Jew bonafides because of his desire to take it there (and also, Stephen, my cousin Rachel, the soul twin of Queen Jewess Abbi on Broad City, really really wants to, um never mind, she’s married).
We have to have to have to be saved by something right now, other than our unceasing fucking efforts to change everything that’s happened, to roll back the clock, to push forward, to turn over those House seats, to plan for the apocalypse, to calculate the cost of Melania’s marital woes, and Ivanka’s eyes-wide-shut pandering to her abusive fuck of a parent. We are all exposed. Some of us for the first time, some as if for the first time.
There is simply no way to keep my cool right now while stepping on the sharp shells.
I guess that’s how I feel about being Jewish in the age of Trump. Well, after I finish screaming about the Kushners and Israel and whether or not I even want to claim my Jewish-ness any more, considering the state of the world that religion helps create and finance, and the fact that I’m an atheist for god’s sake. But I’m pretty sure if I sent for one of those DNA tests (which I will, very soon, for various reasons), it will come back that I am at minimum 97% Russian Jew. There’s no escaping a certain amount of biology, and like my curly hair and my ample hips and my nearsightedness and my anxiety disorder, I’m a damn Jew in the time of Trump. I’m trying. Guru, I’m really trying.
Elizabeth Isadora Gold’s writing about motherhood, books, music, and feminism has appeared in The New York Times, The Believer, Tin House, The Rumpus, Time Out New York, and many other publications. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and daughter. Her nonfiction book, The Mommy Group: Freaking Out, Finding Friends, and Surviving the Happiest Times of Out Lives was published by Atria Books in 2016.