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Jewish World Review Nov. 23, 1999 /14 Kislev, 5760

Suzanne Fields

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A feast for the spirit and the stomach -- THANKSGIVING IS NORMAN ROCKWELL'S kind of holiday. The day brings out our better angels. The kids wear tattoos and earrings in all kinds of strange places and turn their baseball caps around backward, but nearly everybody's cheerful in anticipation of a family feast.

If the younger ones aren't wearing scrubbed-up smiles, we know they're still good kids. (Drugs are no longer cool in junior high.) If Mom and Grandma are too busy at their computers and fax machines to make the stuffing from scratch, they can get the abdicated patriarchs to do it. We've got Cuisinarts to make the cranberry relish and the Internet to recover a lost recipe for sweet-potato pie.

This year we can endure -- even enjoy -- debates at the table over whether to call the earliest inhabitants of the continent Indians or Native Americans, or whether we should eat turkey or tofu, but gone are the nasty arguments of Thanksgivings past when generational conflicts focused on who was a good American and who was not.

Political discussions can get lively but they aren't likely to ruin anybody's appetite. Both Republicans and Democrats have candidates we can all respect as being honorable men no matter who we like best. One candidate is even an authentic war hero.

Innocence and patriotism are "in.'' The Norman Rockwell image is relevant this year because nobody's ashamed of the country's prosperity. There's a lot of it to spread around. Enjoying abundance evokes neither guilt nor greed. Even the artist's Boy Scout calendars have an up-to-date concern for character building. We can argue over the height of the wall between church and state, but we can all revel in this secular holiday that celebrates the faith of our fathers (and mothers.)

Norman Rockwell, of course, knew the dark side of life, but that's not what he chose to paint. After a brief stay in Paris in the 1930s, he even tried his hand at "modernist'' paintings that everyone agreed were dreadful. He referred to that short time as his "James Joyce-Gertrude Stein period.''

I was a closet admirer of Norman Rockwell before Norman Rockwell was cool, because the best of his illustrations and paintings evoke nostalgia and because his attention to detail is meticulous. Critics have finally caught up with his talent and he's enjoying a Renaissance. This week PBS is airing a 90-minute documentary of his life and times. His works are on national tour for the next two years which will end in 2001 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. By then no one will remember the elephant dung, the rotting cow's head or the celebration of a child killer at the Brooklyn Museum.

Rockwell's Thanksgiving
Norman Rockwell drew what he knew and how he wanted life to be. He was as amusing in depicting the common cold as in celebrating the common man. Before he illustrated special editions of "Tom Sawyer'' and "Huckleberry Finn'' he went to Hannibal, Mo., to "absorb the feeling that Mark Twain had put into his writing.''

When he saw a farmer plowing a field, wearing exactly the kind of trousers he wanted to illustrate, he asked to trade trousers. He offered to throw in $4. The farmer, suspecting a scam, asked for the money up front. The two men found a shade tree and made the transfer.

Norman Rockwell tried at the beginning of World War II to interest the federal government in sponsoring his idea for his famous series, "The Four Freedoms.'' He failed. So he painted them as Saturday Evening Post covers. The government then turned them into posters to sell War Bonds. The freedom series took seven months to finish. "The job (was) too big for me,'' Norman Rockwell once said, without irony. "It should have been tackled by Michelangelo.''

Well, even a modest New Englander can exaggerate occasionally. Michelangelo was a great artist who painted and sculpted man as majestic in the image of G-d. Norman Rockwell was a careful illustrator who drew the little guys who carried G-d inside themselves in the habits of daily life. On Thanksgiving we give thanks to both, accurate depictions of the sustenance of both the life of the spirit and of the stomach. What a country. What a holiday.


11/23/99: Fathers need to say 'I (can) do'
11/18/99: Adventures of a conservative pundit
11/15/99: Traveling with Jefferson on the information highway
11/11/99: Wanted: 'Foliage of forbiddinness' for the oval office
11/09/99: Eggs, art and rotten commerce
11/05/99: Al Gore, 'Alpha Male'. Bow wow.
11/01/99: Gay love
10/28/99: Lose one Dole, lose two
10/26/99: Rebels with a violent cause
10/21/99: Reforming parents, reforming schools
10/19/99: The male mystique -- he shops
10/13/99:The campaign of the Teletubbies
10/08/99: Money is in the eye of the art dealer
10/01/99: Lincoln's 'Almost Chosen People'
09/29/99: Introducing Bill and Hillary Bickerson
09/27/99: Must we wait for the next massacre?
09/24/99: Miss America meets Miss'd America
09/21/99: Princeton's 'professor death'
09/16/99: The Cisneros lesson
09/13/99: No clemency for personal politics
09/08/99: M-M-M is for manhood
08/30/99: Blocking the schoolhouse door
08/27/99: No kick from cocaine
08/23/99: Movies don't kill people
08/19/99: A rude awakening
08/16/99: Dubyah and that 'language' thing
08/09/99: Chauvinist sows -- oink oink

©1999, Suzanne Fields. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate