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may / june 2007:

The Essayist: Shalom, Snoop
American Idol. The Killers. Conan O’Brien. Things an American college student enjoys? Sure, but so do his counterparts in the holy land. It’s a small world, after all.

By Alex Pollack

It’s a sweater-cold January day in downtown Jerusalem and the outdoor marketplace buzzes with the clop-clop of food crates and the quick spit of Hebrew. Yarmulke-clad shop owners hawk everything from rib-lined beef carcasses and pumpkin seeds to chocolate rugelach and fresh challah. To my left is a falafel stand, a steaming hiss of meats, spices, and potato shavings.

I wander among a huddled mass of forty Jewish college students. We’re hungry and we’re tired and we’re American. I’ve worn the same rustling red hoodie for 32 hours straight, give-or-take. I’m not much of a traveler, but darn it, I’m in Israel and I’m going to soak it all in.

In the busy foot traffic, I twirl in a circle, pointing my camera at a Hasidic Jew, with his long scraggly beard, dressed from head to toe in black. In the United States, he’d be a curiosity; here he’s the majority. He shoots me a “what’s-with-the-camera?” glance, but I don’t mind it. Two green-suited soldiers walk by, followed by an old wrinkled man in a black cap, all three frowning at me, but so what? I don’t care if I look like a stranger or even a tourist.

I’m far from America and I want to aggressively revel in the differences of Israeli life, in the exoticism of a country where I won’t find a Chili’s Bar and Grill around the corner.

Avi, our ponytailed rifle-carrying security guard, walks up to our group. He’s 23 and already an army veteran. He’s traveled to South Africa, but never to the United States. I bet he can give me a little dose of Israeli culture, of what’s happening in the holy land. He walks up next to me, and then, in an accented lilt, hums a few words I’ll never forget: “Somebody told me, you had a girlfriend, who looked like a boyfriend.”

“The Killers?” I ask, immediately recognizing the lyrics from the glittery Las Vegas-bred hipster act. “Yeah man!” he says. “So have you heard their latest album?” I ask him, bemused. He replies knowingly, “Sam’s Town!”

I can’t help but smile. Here I am, thousands of miles away from home, walking through a foreign marketplace smelling of rain and falafel, and I’m chatting with an Israeli security guard about The Killers.

That moment was a mere sign of what was to come. My trip to Israel would provide an incredible lesson on the cross-cultural reach of American pop culture. And it’s not just Israel. Turns out, American recording artists publish almost 60 percent of the top 100 albums in major global markets and in 2003 the top five films worldwide were American.

Let me explain. Even before my trip, I knew that Israel was a Westernized country, but I was downright stunned by just how in tune the nation is with the current trends of American pop culture. And I’m not just talking about Avi and his knowledge of The Killers’ record catalogue. I’m talking about marveling at the Hebrew signage of a Jerusalem grocery store, only to be mentally shuttled back to modern-day America with the boom-thump of Snoop Dogg and R. Kelly’s “That’s That S**t” blasting through the store speakers.

And then there was the movie theater, the GLOBUS 8, with its assorted posters advertising movies native to Israel. Exotic, huh? But then I hear a leather-jacketed Israeli ask his friend about the movie Hafkodin. Is Hafkodin some Tel Aviv-based drama about badass rabbis? No, it isn’t. Hafkodin is actually the translation of Martin Scorsese’s Boston-brute epic The Departed. Apparently the Israelis love the loopy raised eyebrows of Jack Nicholson just as much as we do.

Upon first glance, these U.S.-Israeli pop culture connections may strike an observer as amusing yet superficial. But the Norman Lear Center, a research institute, reports that $8 billion worth of American entertainment each year hits foreign shores, and I’ve found that this $8 billion figure represents a whole lot more than money. Our globally shared tastes in movies and music resonate deeper than just the playlists on our iPods.

Take, for example, Eyal and me. Eyal is a 20-year-old from northern Israel currently serving in the defense forces. Thanks to the organization of my Birthright trip, I was granted an opportunity to share a hotel room with him in Tiberias, Israel. Soft-spoken, good-hearted guy. But did I mention that he carries around a gun bigger than my head? While Eyal serves his tour of duty behind the barbed-wire fence of his army station, I’m sitting at Emory University writing a screenplay for my thesis project and eating Rice Krispies treats in my dorm room.

Eyal and I face somewhat different challenges in our young lives. But still, in our few days of knowing each other, we managed to find common ground. That came in the form of a goofy red-haired late-night comedian who makes wisecracks about American Idol winner Ruben Studdard and horny manatees. “Conan O’Brien is pretty funny,” Eyal announced, and I quickly agreed.

Now that I’m back home, half a world away, I wonder if Eyal and I ever laugh at the same Conan joke. And if we do, what does that mean? Sure, music is considered to be the universal language, but perhaps the free-flowing entity that is American pop culture might not be that far behind. After all, Eyal and I didn’t need a trumpet or a saxophone to connect; what we needed was a late night host.

The story of my pop culture relationship with Paz, another Israeli soldier, is quite different. Paz has an egg-shaped head. He is cheeky and cynical and aware of his cheekiness and cynicism. One morning at breakfast, when I looked particularly drained from the go-go-go itinerary of our trip, he said, deadpan, “you look like you fell off the moon.” Paz loves goth metal. “Like Marilyn Manson?” I asked innocently. “Ugh, yes,” he answered, as if it completely and utterly went-without-saying that he would love himself some Manson. “Pantera?” I wondered. Again, “Ugh, yes.”

I never did quiz Paz on what exactly he enjoyed about the genre; I guess I didn’t have to. That, in its own way, remains inspiring to me in how it reflects the multiple layers and consequences of American pop culture. We’re not only exporting Conan O’Brien overseas; we’re sending Marilyn Manson and Pantera as well. And there’s an audience for all of them.

So what is it about our pop culture that translates so well to Israel? Why does a Conan joke about a sexually stimulated manatee make Eyal laugh just as hard as I laugh? What is it about Marilyn Manson that unites the misunderstood teenagers of late-90s suburbia with Paz, a present-day Israeli soldier with an egg-shaped head?

The easy answer to these questions would be that as human beings we share this mass American culture, that it connects all of us. But that’s not quite the full story, for perhaps Eyal and I laugh at Conan for different reasons and during different jokes. The truth is, we might very well interpret the same entertainment in alternative ways.

But rather than being a hindrance to global communication, this ability to claim one’s own entertainment as his own serves as a testament to the flexibility and inclusiveness of American pop culture. After all, before Avi’s impromptu performance of “Somebody Told Me” in the Jerusalem marketplace, I had never before experienced that song delivered in an Israeli accent. Now, I can leave this earth knowing that I have. Thanks, Avi.

Still, these ripples of American pop culture haven’t penetrated all of Israel. That Hasidic Jew I spied at the Jerusalem marketplace? I’m guessing he’s not too pumped about Jay-Z’s comeback. The brooding old man who asked me for charity at the Western Wall? Probably not a fan of the VH1 reality show Flavor of Love.

But when it comes to the young, mostly secular Israeli soldiers I’ve met, it’s all about America and our rock, hip-hop, and comedy. No matter how differently we may absorb these cultural cornerstones, we still do absorb them.

If we didn’t, Avi’s cell phone would not ring to the thrumming guitars of rock maestros Linkin Park. Not to mention that he wouldn’t be singing songs by The Killers. And that in itself would be a shame, a loss for the musical joy that comes from cross-cultural exchange.

And I say all this knowing full well that Avi does not have the best voice.

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