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Image of Rodent Stirs Ire of 'Weekly' Readers

November 22, 2007 By:
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Philadelphia Weekly's most recent cover -- the issue of Nov. 14-20 -- has stirred up some debate over what's cute versus what's in poor taste.

The full-color front page -- tagged to the paper's annual gift guide -- depicts a tan-and-white hamster with one of its front paws resting on a dreidel. The hamster sports a blue yarmulke and blond peyot. The headline accompanying the image reads: "Couldn't we all use a hefty dose of cute right about now?"

Other animals featured on inside gift-guide pages include cats, dogs and parrots decked out in Christmas, Kwanzaa and winter garb, including a dog in a Santa Claus hat on a sleigh pulled by another pup dressed as a reindeer.

The only rodent in the entire spread is the critter on the cover.

Tim Whitaker, editor of PW, said that "it never occurred to us" that the front page could have been seen as offensive. Originally, he said, the idea was to use the dog on the sleigh as the lead image -- that is, until the hamster one was presented.

That animal is the pet of Liz Spikol, the newspaper's senior contributing editor.

Spikol said that once it was decided to have "cuteness" as the theme for this year's guide, cute animals came to mind. She immediately thought of her male hamster, whose name is, coincidentally, Tinsel, and whom she described as "super cute."

But why dress him as an Orthodox Jew? Why the overtly Jewish symbols to highlight the least religious of the religion's holidays?

Spikol said that the paper's art director created the "hat ensemble" for Tinsel to wear; it was geared to be "more graphically appealing" and "to make it readable as a Jewish observance."

She added that, as a Jew herself, she doesn't find the image offensive, and she doesn't "understand why Orthodoxy would be offensive."

"I just thought it was a fun image in context of our theme," said Spikol.

A rodent as a symbol for the Jew has a long and notorious history, which becomes apparent even if you do a rudimentary search on the Internet.

Nazi propaganda throughout the 1930s -- films, posters and other images -- depicted Jews as rats and other vermin; the point was to portray Jews as subhuman creatures who were unclean and in need of extermination.

The rodent family is a large and varied class of animals, replied Spikol. There is a huge difference, she added, between a rat and a hamster -- and hamsters, she said, were never used in Nazi propaganda.

Despite Spikol's reasoning, some are upset with the cover.

"Where did your art director receive her training?" wrote Solomon Moses in an angry letter he sent to PW and then forwarded to the Exponent. "At the Heinrich Himmler Academy of Design?"

The Northeast Philadelphia resident went on to say that "of all the possible 'cute' animals, you felt compelled to have a rat in skullcap and sidelocks celebrate Chanukah?"

In comments to the Exponent, Moses added that the PW rodent cover spurred much discussion within his family, and he hopes he isn't the only one who expresses outrage. He said he found the peyot the hamster's wearing as particularly offensive, "as peyot have been trotted out there as a prop by vicious anti-Semites for many decades."

There are others who don't see the image as an issue.

"I didn't find it problematic," said Barry Morrison, Anti-Defamation League regional director for Eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware. He said that the ADL received just one call regarding the cover. "We don't find anything objectionable about this."

Morrison said the image is not "mean-spirited or a negative depiction of a Jewish theme."

He added that the "cute, cuddly animal" is a hamster, not a rat; had a rat been pictured, then it would be an issue.

Rabbi David Gutterman, the executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia, said that the image "is not terribly appealing," and that he'd classify "this creepy, crawly thing" as being in poor taste.

"If you really look at it and think about it, it's not the most affirming message about Jews -- and Orthodox Jews in particular. It is touching on offensive."

His administrative assistant, Greta White, agreed.

"I'm not even Jewish and I'm offended," she said. "It's an insult. They didn't stop to think that it's insulting."

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