The season of red, white and blue

Posted: Mar 27, 2003 12:00 AM

NEW YORK CITY - The windows of the apartment on the fifth floor on the Lower East Side once had a view of the Twin Towers. Now there's only a patch of blue sky, and memories sailing past like puffs of white clouds, making fanciful shapes. It's a beautiful spring day.

Cafes and shops on the street below reflect the ethnic mix of past and present, immigrants thrilled to be American. They sell foodstuffs and goods from Thailand, Burma, India, Russia, Afghanistan. Peace symbols decorate some windows and storefronts, but many more are festooned with American flags. Swarms of young people meandering toward midtown to join a protest march look compelled to take to the street as much by the spirit of spring as by anger at the war in Iraq.

Battlefield chic is everywhere in Soho. Women in fashionable silk khaki walk on high heels with pointed toes. Men, women and children are decked out in cotton camouflage pants and jackets and sturdy boots. These are both fashion statements and approving comments on the war.

The counterculture, after all, has gone mainstream. Aging baby boomers among the middle-aged demonstrators heading to Times Square look thankful to have a war, to recall memories of American pie, rosemary and thyme (and their youth). Norman Mailer, who just celebrated his 80th birthday, is too tired to march with the armies of this night.

The New Yorker magazine delivered its antiwar protest on a cover reminiscent of Picasso's famous painting of Spanish innocents killed by the Nazis at Guernica, but it was more tired cliché than incisive reflection of perceived reality.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been uncharacteristically visible for days, riding the subway; visiting a busy food pavilion; urging constituents to take in a Knicks game, a Broadway musical, a walk in Central park or a stroll to the corner to buy a hot dog. In a radio speech, he scolds the squeamish who cancel school trips to be less vulnerable to the war.

The best way to support the troops, he says, is to enjoy what our soldiers are defending. "Fear of terrorism is like a low grade fever lingering over the city," reports The New York Times.

But there's little of that in evidence in the crowded shops, galleries and museums. Gyms, coffee shops and yoga classes are packed. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, long lines wait to see the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci and paintings of Manet.

The Jewish Museum, supported with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, has mounted a particularly relevant exhibition exploring the changing public attitudes toward American Jews and the entertainment industry in peace and war.

The focus is on entertainers, but the exhibition poses both a cultural and political question about the perception of Jews in America: How can they be seen simultaneously as cultural and political "outsiders" when they continue to influence both culture and politics with a great variety of attitudes?

The point is that there are almost as many different opinions coming from Jews in America as there are Jews in America. That's why anti-Semitic theories of conspiracy and dual loyalties are as misleading and insidious during the war with Iraq as they were during World War II. If Robinson Crusoe were Jewish, goes a Jewish jest, he would have built two synagogues on his island, one in which to worship and one for all those interpretations he disagreed with.

When cultural critics at the Jewish Museum analyze the success of "Seinfeld," the popular '90s television sitcom, Jerry Seinfeld himself has the last word: "It's about nothing." That's why, says one wry critic, "Seinfeld (as a Jewish character) was good for Jews."

When one or two Jews offer an opinion, their critics often attribute the opinion to all Jews. Certain critics of the war in Iraq, for example, attack influential Jewish foreign policy experts and writers for the New Republic and the Weekly Standard as a "clique" or "conspiracy" of Jews directing policy. (The executive editor of the Standard, by the way, is a born-again Christian.)

Innuendo quickly becomes anti-Semitic, raising old questions of dual loyalty. "If it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war with Iraq, we would not be doing this," Rep. Jim Moran, Virginia Democrat, told a group of his constituents. Public outrage, and not all of it from Jews, drew a quick apology.

Like all Americans, New Yorkers are looking for occasions to display their patriotism. Street vendors, ever on the scout for a trend, hawk coin purses with the flag beaded in red, white and blue. These are the colors of spring, the colors that don't run.