I am in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to visit my daughter. This is my first visit to the Steel City, so to ‘acclimate’ I re-watched The Deer Hunter, much of which was shot here. The ugly industrial backdrops reminded me of the northern English city where I was an undergraduate myself when the film was released. Forty years later Pittsburgh looks a lot better, which is more than can be said for #MeToo activist Meryl Streep, Trump-hater Robert de Niro and Qantas insurance salesman Christopher Walken.
The city’s only other major cultural export is tomato ketchup, which was invented here in the late nineteenth century as an accompaniment to the bratwurst sausage so beloved of Pennsylvania’s German immigrant community. Just as the Sunshine Coast has its big pineapple and Goulburn its big merino, most visitors to Pittsburgh are at some point confronted, as I was yesterday, by a giant roadside condiment. The company Henry John Heinz founded in 1875 is still headquartered here, and I am considering visiting their marketing department before I leave to offer them a new slogan for their most iconic product. Even if they don’t go for ‘Every other ketchup’s playing catch up’ this would allow me to write off the whole trip as a business expense.
You don’t have to travel far out of Pittsburgh to find yourself among the Amish – the only Americans who still use doors and string in their dentistry, and for whom the price of gasoline is not an election issue. Actually that’s not strictly true; most Manhattan residents don’t own cars, either, parking in the Big Bagel now being prohibitively pricey for everyone but hedge-fund managers and drug dealers. As a result, NYC is also one of the few US cities where the sidewalks actually get walked on and the supermarkets aren’t full of women who resemble sumo wrestlers. I once had to fly from La Guardia to Topeka, Kansas, and my seat on the plane was so wide I wondered briefly if I’d been upgraded. The man beside me assured me all would become clear when we got to our destination, where I’d see why ‘if Midwest Airlines had normal sized seats they’d go out of business’. Not long after this Midwest did go out of business, and having been to Kansas several times by then I couldn’t help wondering if things might have turned out differently for them if they’d made the seats even wider.
For three centuries mainstream America left the Amish in peace, and it took an Australian to shatter that peace. Peter Weir’s 1985 blockbuster Witness was filmed two hour’s drive (or three days by horse-drawn buggy) from Pittsburgh, and ever since the film won two of the eight Oscars for which it was nominated the area has doubled as a theme park where besmocked and bearded locals go about their labours under the godless gaze of camera-toting tourists. In recent years cable TV has contributed to the humiliation of these communities with Breaking Amish, a popular show which shows disaffected Amish teenagers doing things which would mortify their parents if their parents had televisions. My daughter thinks that an even higher-rating show would be one called My Hillbilly Bar Mitzvah. We decide this could be shot in the neighbouring state of West Virginia, which was the setting for Deliverance, an even older movie about an isolated community with poor dentistry. The only dialogue line in Deliverance that everybody remembers is ‘Squeal like a pig!’, and from the diners we stop at it’s clear that West Virginians still have a great affection for pork, which for obvious reasons will have no role in our putative bar mitzvah.
Jewish families can’t be much more plentiful in the Australian outback then they are in the Appalachian backwoods. But this didn’t stop SBS signing off on an Untold Australia episode which followed Melbourne rabbis Rubin and Yossi Rodal’s attempts to locate the descendants of lapsed Jews in the redneck communities of the red centre.
All the people featured were delighted to learn of their spiritual antecedence, but I can’t help wondering what happened to the footage of those who weren’t. In the interest of balance, perhaps SBS should make another program about the lengths some of them went to in order to avoid being filmed. They could call it Rabbi Proof Fence.
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