As the coronavirus pandemic goes on—and on—I’ve become aware of how different friends reach out to make contact with others. Byron forwards comments about news reporting that he posts on the New York Times website. From Toronto, Brian emails me short stories he’s written. Cindy, my upstairs neighbor, shares photographs of the boarded-up storefronts along Boston’s posh shopping streets that she sees on her daily walks. And my friend Gary forwards jokes.
Most of Gary’s jokes are pretty funny. I enjoy them and often pass them on. As we’re all aware, humor helps lighten the stress we’re under. And if I don’t find a particular joke amusing, I figure that’s why God created the “Delete” key.
A few days ago, Gary circulated a long email to a number of friends under the subject line “Jewish Humor.” It consisted of a dozen or so “Jewish jokes,” most of them about Jewish mothers and Jewish American Princesses, the usual jibes at the alleged over-possessiveness and nagging of Jewish mothers and the whiney attitudes of spoiled young Jewish women. I found the so-called jokes offensive, inappropriate and ultimately anti-Semitic and told Gary so in a return email. I haven’t heard from him since and I’m not certain he’s still speaking to me.
At some level, every ethnic, religious, and racial group makes fun of itself. In most cases, though, this humor is directed toward an in-crowd and designed to be shared among people of the same background. Outsiders who attempt to join in the in-jokes are most often quickly put in their place. But while other ethnicities make fun of their own, Jews encourage outsiders to make fun of us.
Before World War II, Jewish men, as well as Catholic and other ethnicities who did not fit into the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant mold, suffered from discrimination in education, housing, and employment. After their military service, the U.S. could no longer permit overt discrimination against men who had fought for their country, and they were admitted (if not always welcomed) into public, corporate, and professional life. But as these men took their places in the greater world, they pulled up the ladder behind them, leaving women, people of color, homosexuals, and other disenfranchised groups behind. We have all been fighting for entry and acceptance ever since.
What sets the Jewish experience apart is that Jewish men were too often the only ones who sold out “their” women, relentlessly mocking us through a constant stream of books, movies, tv shows, and stand-up comics who told endless “jokes” about nagging Jewish mothers and spoiled young Jewish princesses. As my friend’s “jokes” demonstrate, even as the generations have changed, this cruel humor has not stopped.
This is ironic, because for centuries it was Jewish men who were mocked, often for their so-called hooked noses, flat feet, and sing-song voices. Today, we rightly react strongly when the stereotype of a hooked-nose Jewish man carrying a bag of money appears online or in print. Why then do we seemingly accept—and too often encourage—negative caricatures of Jewish women? Some of these jokes are innocent and well intentioned. But in the end, the endless repetition of jokes about Jewish women becomes a proxy for anti-Semitism.
I began my career during an era in which women were not welcome in the corporate world as anything other than secretaries and receptionists. In spite of this, I developed a excellent career that took me throughout the world and put me in contact with Nobel laureates, government leaders, and influential journalists. The single greatest issue I confronted throughout my career was not prejudice against women in general—although there was plenty of that—or any of my own professional limitations, but attitudes toward Jewish women that have become such an accepted part of our common culture that people forget that they might be hurtful.
A few years ago, a friend who’s involved with one of Boston’s many outstanding medical centers invited me to a meeting of a newly-founded women’s group in support of an excellent community-outreach programs. The speaker was a young man, a physician with impeccable credentials and outstanding experience. Like many of us in his audience, he was Jewish, but the subject about which he was speaking had nothing to do with Judaism.
He began his presentation with a joke about Jewish mothers. I didn’t think it was particularly funny, but dismissed it as a weak attempt at warming up the audience. During the next 10 minutes, he told at least five more “jokes” about Jewish women. I finally walked out. As I left, I told the staff that I felt he had crossed the line between humor and anti-Semitism. The friend who’d invited me to the presentation remained and said later the speaker continued in this vein for the rest of his talk. To their credit, the staff later expressed my concern to the young doctor. He was mortified and apologetic, and I had no reason to doubt the sincerity of his apology. He simply had no idea anyone might be offended by this “humor.” Hadn’t we all grown up with this kind of joke? Wasn’t it something we just took for granted?
Like many Americans, I’ve spent the last few weeks listening to African Americans talk about their experiences with both overt and subtle racism. I have fortunately been spared the anti-Semitism my parents faced, including employment discrimination and physical violence. I can, however, empathize when my Black friends tell me about the impact of constant micro-aggressions on their lives, and I think there’s an important lesson here for the Jewish community as well.
Even before the pandemic, American Jewish leaders were worrying about rising global anti-Semitism. Because the endless stream of “jokes” about Jewish women has continued for decades, entering the American conversation seemingly without resistance from the Jewish community, they give cover to a kind of anti-Semitism. Constant micro-aggressions—even in the form of “jokes”—are not benign, and we should take responsibility for having encouraged them in the past, for stopping them going forward, and for recognizing that the pain of the endless little pinpricks of micro-aggressions can lead to a large, raw, open, often incurable, personal and societal wounds.