Once upon a time, a western directed by Mel Brooks called Blazing Saddles brought up a point about Jewish identity that nearly has been forgotten in this day and age.
The point was made during a dialogue between the villain Hedley Lamarr (ha, ha), brilliantly played by Harvey Korman, and the bumbling, racist enforcer Taggart, portrayed by the terrific character actor Slim Pickens. Thinking up ways to drive out residents of the town Rock Ridge, Taggart suggests “[killing] the first-born male child in every household.” And what does Lamarr say in response?
I’m not sure many people today will get that joke, which even in 1974, when this film came out, might have seemed a bit dated—what with comedians such as Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce, as well as writers such as Philip Roth, already showcasing their Jewish heritage in blunt, candid ways. But Blazing Saddles remains one of the few movies in recent memory to have addressed, in some fashion, one of the trickiest conundrums in the canon Hebraic self-expression: whether outward displays of one’s heritage are detrimental to the faith and its adherents owing to concerns about such behavior inciting further anti-Semitism.
And of course, the killing of the first-born son in every household comes straight from the Passover story—hence Lamarr’s “too Jewish” joke. That this comment is made in a western parody is especially potent; what could be “less Jewish” in subject matter than a flick about cowboys that takes place on the American frontier? The idea of Taggart inadvertently pointing to this “solution” is absurdly hilarious and devastating at the same time … and Korman, as a Jewish performer, for sure recognized this line’s subtext. In ye olden days, openly advertising one’s Jewish culture could have had a deleterious effect on business, professional relationships, life. Jews have had to hide their traditions for so long, in so many ways. Anti-Semitism was ever-present.
Unfortunately, it still is.
Yet the question of whether one can appear “too Jewish,” though no longer an overt issue in today’s universe, remains a pungent dilemma. Jews are targeted throughout the world by perpetrators of hate crimes, and there’s no doubt that symbols of Judaism are in the sights of those who are seeking to do us harm. We wonder: Is wearing kippot in public dangerous? Are we putting bullseyes on our backs? How shall we celebrate the New Year without demonstrations of our faith—the dinners, the apples dipped in honey, the gatherings outside the buildings, the noise we make, the songs? Do we not call attention to ourselves in manners that give anti-Semites significant ammunition? Why are we incapable of stopping each other from walking down this path of self-destruction?
The truth is, we must continue to broadcast our Jewishness as much as we can—even if that means people, in return, desecrate our graveyards with swastikas and call us kike and sheeny and hebe and all those slurs that many of us in the younger generation haven’t grown up with but were well known to folks like Brooks and Korman and Bruce and Allen and everyone else whose careers started to blossom during a period when a member of the tribe’s name might have been changed because of a “witz” or “stein” at the end of it. We cannot afford to lose our individuality, our customs … no matter what threats we’re facing. Because even if anti-Semitism never goes away, we should always take it by the horns that once were prescribed to our physiognomy and counter it with being. With existing. With thriving.
Nothing, anymore, is “too Jewish” for us.
This idea may hold water for Muslims, too—many of whom are now buffeted with the stream of Islamophobia that has become all too prevalent in this epoch of fear and anger. Can they not exhibit their faith, just like us, on the street, in restaurants, in their houses of worship? They’re targeted, just like us. And just like us, they can’t be afraid.
I say, wear that kippa, don that burkini. We can be scared, sure, but it mustn’t prevent us from revealing our backgrounds. Seeming “too” anything may give us pause, but it can’t stop us. We’ve got to change that idea of “too” into “absolutely.” We’ve got to contest our problems with publicizing our lifestyles.
If we don’t, the bigots will win. Is that a scenario that we really want to develop?
Blazing Saddles may not have been a profound picture, but that one bit of dialogue ending with the “too Jewish” joke continues to speak to the issues surrounding what it means to be “ethnic”—and how we perceive ourselves in the midst of prejudice and persecution. With Rosh Hashanah upon us, now is a good time to reconsider such perceptions, as well as the ways we think of our heritage … whether it’s based in our religion, our humor, our mien, our lives. It’s not too late to start being “too Jewish.” It is too late to keep thinking it’s a challenge.
Even Hedley Lamarr might not disagree with that.