For what it’s worth, I have in the past two weeks become addicted to a new show on the STARZ cable channels. The show is called Magic City and it’s about life in Miami Beach, Florida, in 1959. In many ways, this show is a stunningly on target explication of an interesting sliver of the Jewish experience in America… the part that is really, really aggressive. Virtually every male character in it is Jewish, and what a bunch of characters they are:
The hero, if he can be called a “hero,” is part owner of a large hotel in Miami Beach which is patterned after The Fontainebleau, a showplace of long ago. He is an ambitious, driven, obsessive hotel manager. He loves his beautiful wife (really an amazing beauty) and his two sons, one a law student, the other a playboy. He also loves his daughter, an obnoxious little creep who is played to absolute perfection by an actress who has future Academy Award winner all over her.
The other male lead is a gangster named “Ben Diamond” or more properly, “Ben ‘The Butcher’ Diamond.” He owns 49 per cent of the hotel in question and is endlessly pushing the “hero” around and threatening him. The Butcher is married to a simply gorgeous woman who is having an affair with the “hero’s” playboy son.
Then there is one other important character. He is the father of the “hero.” He is supposedly the only one with any character at all, so he’s (I am not kidding here) a Communist who reads The Worker and will not go to his revolting granddaughter’s Bas Mitzvah because he considers all religion claptrap.
The stories week by week are fun and there are more than enough beautiful women in it for those of us who love beautiful women.
But what there really is in spades is the endless longing of certain sorts of the Jewish heart for “more,” as Ben Diamond puts it. The “hero” wants the best hotel in Miami Beach. The gangster wants more money. The aging father/Bolshevik wants to wreck the lives of everyone around him in classic Bolshevik fashion. (The idea that we are supposed to admire anyone who is a Communist after the whole world knew of Stalin’s genocide against his own people is astonishing.) Still, there is something beguiling about the old man, clinging to his failed materialist god against 100 percent of the evidence. He is like a particularly touching mental defective.
The kids want to be successful. The nauseating granddaughter wants to have Frankie Avalon sing at her Bas Mitzvah and have pink smoke all around her (14 years after Auschwitz). The boys want to be “shtarkers” and high players in Miami Beach. The playboy son seems likely to die soon.
Everyone wants more: more women, more money, more power. Not one person in this story has the slightest amount of peace of mind. My wonderful Presbyterian wife, who has plenty of peace of mind and wants nothing more than what she has, tried to watch “Magic City” and couldn’t. “I don’t understand these people,” she said.
But I am a Jew and I do understand them. Long ago, there was a movie about Louis “Lepkele” Buchalter, the Jewish head of the organized crime group called “Murder, Incorporated.” Their business was murdering people. In the movie, someone asks Buchalter why he is so aggressive. He answers (in paraphrase)… “You have arms, you take.”
That’s these people, the Miami Beach people in this series. And a compelling lot they are, minute by minute risking everything for “more.” Now, to be sure, someone has confused the dates and circumstances of this story. It supposedly takes place in 1959, when Miami was the height of chic, but Miami Beach was already rapidly fading by then. It is largely about gambling, but Las Vegas is the gaming center, not Miami Beach. And it shows men and women smoking so much you would think they were doing commercials for Liggett & Myers.
But these are trivial details. The beauty of the show, the reason it is absolutely must see TV, literally cannot be missed, is that it dissects a certain kind of Jewish — really human — personality and shows how it works. The people in the show are unbearably heart breaking in their pitiful belief in the value of material things. They are rich, but sad. Now, don’t bother sending me hate mails. I well know that the stars of this show are not at all representative of all Jews by any means. My parents were (of course) Jews and they had as close to zero interest in making money as any humans can have. My sister is Jewish (of course) and has never shown the slightest interest in making money. But there are enough Jews — and Italians and Irish and English and Poles and African Americans –who do worship the dollar to make the avatars of that state of mind important. Watch and learn.
I will tell you more about Magic City later. In the meantime, it’s well worth your time.