The Jews and Bees

Hot on the wings of Rio, I have just finished watching (only for the second time) Bee Movie (2007). If there is an animated film that uses a Kafka-esque insect metaphor for the Jewish condition then this is it.

Bee Movie stars Jerry Seinfeld as Barry B. Benson, a bee who dreams of life beyond the hive. Of course, Barry is Jewish, not least because he is voiced by Seinfeld. But Barry Benson is also a very Jewish name — one of those names that only Jewish parents give their kids thinking that it’s what gentiles call their boys without realizing that it is only the Jews who do so. Think of presidential candidate, Senator Barry Goldwater. As the sage Lenny Bruce put it, “‘Barry?’ ‘Barry!’ Are you kidding me with that? Mogen Dovid. Barry! Where is there one goy with the name of Barry? It’s the most Jewishjewishjewish…” Benson also suggests son of Ben, invoking the Hebrew tribe of Benjamin and surely, in no coincidence, Barry’s father is voiced by Jewish director Barry Levinson (which demonstrates my previous point).

Barry has recently graduated from college, invoking Benjamin Braddock of The Graduate. At least one sequence, showing Barry reclining in a swimming pool of honey into which he dives, pays homage to this film. While not explicitly Jewish, Benjamin is played by Dustin Hoffman so we can claim it.

Other clues hint at Barry’s Jewishness. He is nagged by his overbearing parents into joining the family business — honey production. Everyone in the hive is related — they’re all cousins — suggesting a limited gene pool (as he puts it, “It’s a close community”) from which Barry is expected to find an eligible marriage partner. It is considered unconscionable for him to marry out, that is to someone not Bee-ish.

Of course, the hive is located in Central Park, New York City.

Barry is thus a city-slicking, wise-cracking bee who is defined by his brains/Yiddische Kopf. For example, he represents himself in court, thus adept at a stereotypically Jewish profession (ultimately he sets up an “Insects-at-Law” practice). Furthermore, he is a somewhat puny bee, which is emphasized when he flies with the much more athletic “Pollen Jocks” (those bees designated to collect nectar and pollinate). Naturally, his enemy is Ken, an athletic, tennis-playing WASP (see what I did there?) goyische type. In fact, for Barry, or any bee, to marry a wasp is beyond the pale, as indicated by the following exchange:

Well, I met someone.
You did? Was she Bee-ish?
– A wasp?! Your parents will kill you!
– No, no, no, not a wasp.

Barry uncovers a massive conspiracy in which bees are forcibly relocated to fake hives with fake walls which are, it is revealed, “work camps” in which the bees are enslaved and gassed in order to produce honey for human retail and consumption.

Barry sues the human race. In court (invoking Kafka’s The Trial?), he asks:

Is this what nature intended for us? To be forcibly addicted to smoke machines and man-made wooden slat work camps? Living out our lives as honey slaves to the white man?

Like a bee Marx or Moses, Barry leads his people to freedom, to a land of (milk and) honey which is solely owned by the bees for their own benefit, although this turns out not to be such a blessing.

Ultimately, in an echo of Gregor Samsa, Barry is a bee who yearns to be more human. In direct contravention of The (Bee) Law, he speaks to humans and is in love with one called Vanessa Bloome who’s surname suggests she may also be Jewish.

And if you think I’m reading too much into this film, then read this:

Rio and the Jewish Condition

I bought the film Rio for my two-year old daughter for Chanukah. Well, actually I bought it for myself, using her as the excuse. Having watched it about half a dozen times since then, I can conclude that, like the Madagascar movies, it is yet another animated film exploring the Jewish condition through an anthropomorphized creature, in this case a Blue Macaw called Blu.

Blu is captured as a young bird, before he learns to fly, and is transported from his native habitat of the Brazilian jungle to Minnesota. However, as the last Blue Macaw of his species, his owner is persuaded to return Blu to Brazil so he can mate with the last remaining female and thus ensure their continuation. Unfortunately, Blu is captured so he can be sold to collectors of rare and exotic birds. The rest of the movie follows Blu’s adventure: will he be reunited with his owner, will he and Jewel fall in love to ensure the survival of his species?

How do we know that Blu is Jewish? Well, first he is voiced by Jewish actor Jesse Einsenberg. Second, he is blue, suggesting the twin stripes of the Israeli flag and its national team’s football strip. Third, the object of his attraction is called Jewel. But there are deeper and more significant clues to his underlying Jewishness.

Blu is an exile, forcibly removed from his home and raised in a foreign country. He embodies the outsider, the stranger in a strange land. However, Blu does not know this, as he is thoroughly domesticated. His essential bird nature, or id, has been completely suppressed, manifested by his inability to fly and dance. These deficiencies highlight his non-athletic nature, a very stereotypical Jewish tic. As the film progresses, we learn that he yearns for captivity over freedom and prefers domesticity to the wild. For example, his idea of the good life is to sit indoors and enjoy a hot chocolate with marshmallows.

Furthermore, Blu has become urbanized, adopting the mores of civilization (although not civility for he burps loudly when brushing his teeth — another indicator of his Jewish Otherness). As a small-town slicker, Blu is an excellent mimic (a clear sign of the Jewish condition), being able to copy a clock-radio and car alarm, among other things. He lives indoors at his owner’s house and goes with her to her place of work which is, of course, a bookshop. He is described by a Canada Goose (voiced by Wanda Sykes, thus recalling the uber-Jewish Curb Your Enthusiasm), as a “nerd bird”. He can also read books, which he does in order to learn how to fly. Indeed, Blue Macaws are described as very intelligent birds. Thus Blu is defined by his brains rather than his physical attributes, what we can call his Yiddische Kopf or “Jewish brains”.

When Blu is, against his will, returned to the wild he manifests the anti-nature attitudes which are also characteristically and stereotypically Jewish. In dialogue reminiscent of Madagascar, Blu states his fear of the jungle:

Jewel: Now, uh… just come on! We need to find a safe place to spend the night.
Blu: Safe? Safe? We are in the jungle! You know when people say ‘it’s a jungle out there’, well I’m pretty sure they don’t mean it as a good thing.
Jewel: Look, I hate to break it to you, but this is where our kind naturally lives.
Blu: Hey, hey! Don’t talk to me about nature. I watch Animal Planet. I know all about the food chain.

As he speaks, a bug flying by gets eaten by a frog sticking his tongue out to grab it which, in turn, is swallowed by a snake. This exactly replicates a similar jungle/food chain sequence in Madagascar. Both draw upon Woody Allen’s Love and Death (1975) in which he articulates his view of nature: “Nature is spiders, and bugs and big fish eating little fish. And plants eating plants and animals eating… it’s like an enormous restaurant.”

Blu exclaims, “Ah! You see? You see, out here, I’m just an hors d’oeuvre! Nothing more than a feathery spring roll.” Of course, his use of a metaphor drawn from the world of Chinese cuisine yet again points to the Jewish penchant for such food, particularly on Christmas, and which is a significant feature of Woody Allen’s oeuvre. When Jewel tries to reassure him that it is “why we stay in the trees and not on the ground”, Blu opines that he would “feel much more comfortable in something man-made” such as a tree house.

To also show how far Blu is removed from his inner id, when he is taken to a Rio night club, he complains about “all the obvious health code violations”.

Finally, the movie’s concern with survival and continuity echo contemporary Jewish concerns particularly in the wake of the Holocaust and modern assimilation when intermarriage is increasing. The whole point of the film is to ensure endogamous reproduction hence its repeated use of the word “kind” to refer to Blu’s species (“his kind”, “our kind”, “own kind”).

So, taken together, although nowhere explicit, these clues point to the Jewishness of Blu, the Blue Macaw whose bird id has been suppressed in favor of an urbanized superego that is essentially Jewish. It takes his involuntary return to the wild to release his inner id. I look forward to seeing how this is developed in the sequel, Rio 2.

Meanwhile, my daughter loves the film and has not yet detected any of this underlying, subsurface Jewishness of the plot but, in time, I’m sure she will.