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Are Jewish Stereotypes Funny? Part 3

Jewish stereotypes: shame or pride?


"Mr. Poisson," said the assistant, "Your mother, Mrs. Fishman is here."

He ran to greet her. "Mama, are you okay? Sofia and I were worried when you didn't show up at our penthouse-warming party last night."

"The lobby? Gorgeous," said Mrs. Fishman. "I came, I saw ... then I vent home."

"But Mama, if you were there, why didn't you come up?" asked Poisson, puzzled.

"I forgot your name."

Such is humor of Jewish assimilation.

As Jewish males took center stage on stage and TV, stereotypical sitcoms leapt from their studios and pens – even while these Jewish males were saying, "Watch it. Too Jewish."

How could this happen?

"Shanda fur die Goyim."

Many children of immigrants grew up hearing this cautionary comment -- a warning not to do something shameful in front of non-Jews. We Jews have long been in the ironic situation of feeling quite superior to those who would shame us.

"Shanda fur die Goyim" became – a "shanda" mentality.

In this new land, for some early 20th century immigrants and their children, "Shanda fur die Goyim" became – a "shanda" mentality.

In the shtetls, Hebraic laws and traditions, sacrifice, protection, keeping our kids in the fold, were essential to keeping the family Jewish, together – and alive. In coming to America, I believe many parents found themselves "outsourced" as their smart, funny children wanted to fly and grab a piece of the American Dream -- an ambition hard to reconcile with their Jewishness. While Jewish immigrant culture informed and honed their wit, it also ushered in intense conflict between parent and child –especially for the sons. Long coats, earlocks, accents, commitment to shul, old world expectations, along with other Jewish traits and values, once revered, for some, became the "shanda" – the embarrassment. This was America! Separatism was deemed not only unnecessary, but a suffocating noose, keeping the next generation from acceptance and assimilation in the Gentile world. They wanted to distance themselves from those characteristics. And they did so ... in the Catskill Mountains, then television, literature, theater, and film.

Assimilation required "melting" into the mainstream, which meant moving away from "the public Judaism" and traditions of their parents – or away from Judaism – completely. Jewish names were changed, yet these sons had no problem using mockery and self-mockery, hallmarks of Jewish humor in their work.

Jackie Mason, a rabbi, never did tell his father, also a rabbi, he was running up to the Borscht Belt to perform. I once asked him how he thought his father would feel now, if he knew of Jackie's success. His answer? "He'd say, ‘Whether you steal a buck or million, you're still a thief.'"

"Write Yiddish, Cast British" (an old industry expression)

Some went underground, like Sid Caesar and his Jewish dream team of writers who used Yiddishe "in" jokes with abandon. When they created a Japanese character "Taka Meshuga" (Really Nuts), Jews were in hysterics, while Vanilla America was clueless.

Others disguised or milked their Yiddishkeit and let it fly from the mouths of Gentile characters– "for the jokes," and/or as backlash against the powerful parental images and expectations they (guiltily) left behind. Regardless, accentuating the "negative" brought the laughs. Virtually every major sitcom has a Jewish imprint, from The Dick Van Dyke Show, All in the Family (and spin-offs), Taxi, Sanford & Son, to Cheers, Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond, and The Simpsons, for starters. And the "typical-negative-stereotype-that's-offensive-to-the-Jewish-people," geshreid – and continue to do so, at the very suggestion of humor-by-stereotype.

While interviewing Jews for Yiddishe Mamas: The Truth About the Jewish Mother, my clinical hackles were raised every time I asked one simple question: "Is there such a thing as a Jewish mother?" When pressed, virtually all could list "her" qualities ... but they loathed to be "stereotyped." While all saw the cookie cutter negative images, they: either freely shared Jewish mother traits, and often hysterical Yiddishkeit to make their point; protested mightily; expressed total denial. (Take away her humor and there's no difference between Joan Rivers, and Queen Elizabeth – without the crown. A mother's a mother.)

To clarify, is the answer to deny there's such a thing as "Jewish humor?" To avoid any reference to Jewish "characteristics"? To do so means Margaret Mead should've gone into plastics, as we've all melted into an American "pot" with no true distinctions among ethnicities. Ridiculous. Whether we're talking about Jews, Italians, Irish, African-Americans, or the Zoa tribe, each group shares belief systems, attitudes, and values that bind them together, and are evident in thinking and behavior. True, 100% it's not. Also true, there are exceptions. Many. But anthropology isn't a personal resume. It deals in generalities. Patterns. Commonalities.

More ironic, many of the "typical-negative-stereotype-that's-offensive-to-the-Jewish-people" are the ones making the loudest PC tsimmis that turned the term "melting pot" to "multiculturalism." And other culturally iconic humor from Blacks, Hispanics, and others wear, and yes, milk, their perceived traits – including cutting edge images – with pride.

The question then, is how do we bridge the gap between the loathsome cartoon cut-out image called "stereotyping" and the very real characteristics that we, as part of a great tradition, share?

Ethno-type vs. Stereotype

In this context, I've replace the hideous "stereotype," and replaced it with a new term – "ethno-type." No, it's not some dubious, slight of "word." It's a perceptual change. "Ethno-typing" allows us to treasure our uniqueness as a group, without falling into the trap of carbon copying all Jews.

Ethno-typing carries with it no positive or negative judgment. Traits are seen as true, generalized observations. Ethno-typing allows us to look, examine, and portray history, biology, values, traditions, and characteristics, without shame or the quick sound bite. It's in the "method," or how we use them, that creates "images." More, it allows the "typical-negative-stereotype-that's-offensive-to-the-Jewish-people" a way to share their Jewish experience and humor, without censoring for fear of "stereotyping" ... a way to view and portray our images through a new, updated lens.

The Updated Lens

Whereas a half century ago, we were largely strangers to fellow Americans ...
Whereas a half century ago, we were at best, odd or unknown, at worse, hated and feared ...
Whereas a half century ago, we were forging an American identity ... And...
Whereas a half century ago, we were fighting for acceptance in the secular, but "free" America...

Today ... we have it. We're a hit! We occupy the top rungs of power, status, success. Our massive contributions in virtually all fields, have earned us an ethnic respect, even if grudgingly, that's unparallel in history. Indeed, we're still disliked and feared by some, who've added our very secular success to their very reasons. Then again, so are the Trumps, Martha Stewarts, and in Britain, the Upper Classes. Yet, you won't hear them kvetching. They're "flattered" by mockery ... or are above it. If power and money is the bar, we've not only reached it, we've raised it. And that too, is our American and world "image." Today.

Yet some of us still believe we can't "afford" to portray our Jewishness truthfully in humor. Must we shudder at any "Jewish" comic portrayal? Should we burn our great gift of humor, which has, for centuries, included biting wit, mockery, sarcasm, and egalitarianism? A humor that has proved so universal, it has successfully influenced virtually all American comedy?

Could it be that the "typical-negative-stereotype-that's-offensive-to-the-Jewish-people" voices, rather than the very soul of cutting edge PC, are really the outdated voices of the frightened and embarrassed "greenhorns?" Could it be that instead of defenders of Jewish pride they're really the voices of weakness, now crying, "Shanda fur die Jews?"

The truly strong, the truly confident, the truly powerful don't fear "shanda."
They don't have to. They are joyous in their differences – even in their foibles.
They don't have to or wish to "melt" to assimilate. The truly strong, the truly confident, the truly powerful hone and use their differences with pride.

To be offended by, or wish to remove virtually all well-intended "Jewish" ethno-typical humor, is to me, to deny who we are, and what we've achieved. Personally, I can think of few things more offensive, or more damaging to our culture than attempts to annihilate it. Especially now, at the very time we've obtained the success to use it well, as did Molly Goldberg, and yes, even Grace Adler from Will and Grace who married under a chuppah, and wasn't the lone resident "foil" for a Gentile friends or husband.

Especially now, when we have the power to make our comedic point without being "the comedy" itself.

Especially now, as we again, struggle to insure the survival of our religion, and our homeland -- Israel, we must wonder what "survival" truly means. Throughout the Diaspora, while taking on, and contributing to other cultures, we've also managed to stand apart in our shared common beliefs, and culture. To be a Jew is to carry an ethnicity unto itself. A Jew is a Jew, not merely a Russian, a Pole, a Spaniard, an American.

So we also must also ask ourselves, if we assimilate away from our magnificent beliefs and culture, what then truly "survives?"

And so, we must finally ask ourselves, is it not part of our sacred duty to continue to define, redefine, and use our special gift of humor, so deeply imbedded in our spirit, so critical to that survival? And to do so, not only among ourselves, but to inform and entertain the world.

Epilogue: Seinfeld, Episode 152

Jerry: I wanted to talk to you about Dr. Whatley. I have a suspicion that he's converted to Judaism just for the jokes.
Father:And this offends you as a Jewish person.
Jerry: No, it offends me as a comedian.

May 16, 2009

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Visitor Comments: 12

(12) Marnie, the author, June 10, 2009 9:21 AM


Now this is what I love ... a respectful debate. (Oy, are we classy or what?) Actually, I agree with some of your picks and pans. But I must admit ... I'm offended by the "humor." I just don't laugh. By and large, Ben Stiller films, e.g. Meet the Parents, and the new Heartbreak Kid ... aren't merely not funny, but in the last case, took a cult movie and ruined everything that gave it subtlety. Oh ... another point ... Sometimes, showing us Jews not doing "what we should" is, in my opinion, a highly valuable way to tell a human story. Not the foremost example, but in original Heartbreak Kid ... the lead character's Jewishness was there, but significant only in the larger, more subtle point -- that this guy couldn't commit to anything/anyone, regardless of who they are -- once he'd "won" them. In telling human stories, there often may be imperfections, flaws, etc. One sees them in great Yiddish literature. Without them, there's often no drama. Yes, some of these have moral points to make. But many leave the questions open. Again, so nice we've had this time together. Shalom, Marn

(11) Sam I Am, May 28, 2009 5:21 AM

Good Humor

Hi Marnie: Once again, I so very much appreicate the kind and considerate manner in which you communicate. And YES, we certainly need humor--Jewish and in general--in our lives. Personally, I especially find everyday life so full of opportunties for humor based on common human experiences. In addition, truly good humor--like a good smile--is a gift of love. I also wanted to mention to Phil that I too enjoyed the comedians he mentioned. Generally speaking, they didn't incorporate the lack of morality in so much of today's comedy. For example, I recently saw a Seinfeld episode where Seinfeld and the main lady in the show (I think the name is Elaine) decide to have casual sexual relations with no commitment etc. Of course, in the Jewish faith commitment means marriage. Honestly, this is so wrong to display on T.V. and our society suffers for it. Dan Quayle was NOT wrong about Murphy Brown. And movies like Meet the Fockers and Along Came Polly et al are disgraceful. The worst was a Jewish commedian I recently heard on TV who used a highly obscene four letter word before the word G-d. This is extremely different from a gentleman like Myron Cohen. Also, from what I read on the wedding of Grace on the internet, the prior and especially the subsequent events were certainly not what I find within Jewish standards. In closing, I do appreciate much of what you say while still maintaining what I've stated. And certainly, we have more than enough common ground in our love of humor. Thanks for this exchange and wishing you all good things!

(10) Phil Peltz, May 27, 2009 10:35 PM

You hit the nail right on the thumb!

Marnie, Not only are you a talented writer, but you are also a very insightful analyst. Sam is sadly accurate as we assimilate and intermarry, but none of the "guys," Sid Ceaser, Milton Berle, Red Buttons or Myron Cohen ever made me anything but proud to be a jew.

(9) marnie, May 22, 2009 11:12 AM

You're Sam, the Man

I, too, respect your point of view, and value it. Indeed, I hoped this article, and the earlier ones on the topic, would inspire us to do one of the things we do best: debate, discuss, consider. Our most important area of agreement is -- Jewish humor exists, it must survive. To deny it, or move away from it is a denial of one of our marvelous traits and values. And my point was directed at those who are offended at the very notion that we Jews must "assimilate out of" Jewish humor. And like you, I hope, if anything, Jewish humor becomes even MORE strongly Jewish in representing our values, religion, culture. In my earlier articles you'll note that in going through the brief history, I did not advocate our recent media images. Hence, the comparison between Molly Goldberg, and Rhoda, or The Nanny. In Molly, Jewish humor and Yiddishkeit were portrayed in the service of larger Jewish values which resonated with all groups. When we re-surfaced on TV 20 years later, instead of using our humor to portray who we are, we became the butt of it. Another point I didn't mention that I found interesting in my research re: "stereotypical" even ethno-typical TV Jewish humor. In "Seinfeld," for example, for all the kvetching about implied Jewish behavior, they employed almost the same behavior they "loathed" in their parents in their “new” family groups – their friends. Seinfeld, is rife with examples of the negative Jewish stereo-type – not just through “the parents,” but among themselves! No topic is too small to debate. With exquisite logic, the group might argue the possibility of “over-drying.” It’s laundry by Talmudic review. While George's parents make him meshugge, within his “family” of pals, could he be more "them" in high decibel? Group kvetching forms the core of the comedy. It’s “we four against the world – which is out to get us,” plus the never-ending boundary-busting, that are a close replica of the very traits they mock in their parents. Add a few years to the group and they would fit neatly with their “Boca” families, arguing over temperature control, early bird specials, and pens that write upside-down. Ditto for "Will & Grace." Although it was the first prime-time sitcom since The Goldbergs to feature a marriage between a Jewish man and woman. When Grace and “Leo” Markus stood under a chuppah to wed, viewers saw a major Jewish character who didn’t “trade out” or become the oddball mate, as foil for the more stable WASP such as Paul and Jamie, Fran and Maxwell, Dharma and Greg, or Rhoda and Joe. More, the audaciously Jewish Grace, is not the primo resident neurotic, as Jewish comic characters are often portrayed. Jack and Karen make Grace (even when she’s singing) seem almost “regular” – an unusual and positive Jewish TV turn. It could be that the need for “family,” connection, involvement, and intimacy, burdensome as it may sometimes be, is still around. Because if we don’t get it, we simply re-invent something like it – and call it “friends.” So, what does the future hold for TV Jewish comedy? I agree with you, Sam. A return to more traditional religious values in humor as way to save Judaism’s unique comedic voice. Shalom, Marn P.S. But you might wish to pick up "Yiddishe Mama: The Truth About the Jewish Mother" for a fuller explanation. (I'd send you one, but I'm short and have to order a few more myself. You can get it new or used on Amazon.)

(8) Sam, May 21, 2009 7:39 PM


Just to add that I sincerely appreciated the kind manner of the author's response to my initial e-mail. And although we disagree on the Seinfeld show and other issues, I'm sure we would find a healthy commonality on what we would both consider good humor. This is not to say I don't remain strong in my opinion that so very much of today's humor by Jews is far outside the framework of Torah. Moreover, respect in life is earned through both our spoken word and our actions. We are supposed to be a light unto the nations, not a cesspool for degrading humor.

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