"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.