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Larry David’s SNL jokes moved Jew-haters to laughter and Holocaust survivors to tears

The Curb Your Enthusiasm creator's jokes moved Jew-haters to laughter and Holocaust survivors to tears
Larry David in August 2014. (Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images via JTA)
Larry David in August 2014. (Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images via JTA)

It took me a couple of days to figure out how I – a child of Holocaust survivors – feel about Larry David’s monologue on Saturday Night Live:

“I’ve always been obsessed with women, and I’ve always wondered: If I’d grown up in Poland when Hitler came to power and was sent to a concentration camp, would I still be checking out women in the camp? I think I would,” quipped David.

“Of course, the problem is there are no good opening lines in a concentration camp. ‘How’s it going? They treating you OK? You know, if we ever get out of here, I’d love to take you out for some latkes.’”

My Twitter feed instantly lit up with the incensed horror of Jews whose connection to the Holocaust is arguably much less personal than my own. But I and other 2Gs (children of Holocaust survivors) grew up and (excuse the expression) survived on a steady diet of Holocaust humor delivered by family and friends whose knowledge of the subject reduces David’s musings about hitting on women in concentration camp to a first-grader’s knock-knock joke.

“The Shoah must go on,” we 2Gs regularly noted under our breaths regarding our elders’ conduct at what they called “eat-how-much-you-can” buffets.

So I wondered, “What right do I have to deny David’s the right to do what I have so frequently done myself?”

I was waiting for someone like Simon Spungin of Haaretz to write, “So, spare me your outraged complaints about Holocaust jokes. When you book Larry David… you know exactly what you’re getting: a genuinely funny comedian who doesn’t care about being inappropriate.”

Spungin’s self-proclaimed “defense of the indefensible” made some sense to me. But I took exception to his conclusion that “It’s time to embrace the disgrace and to feel comfortable with the awkward.” It is not time. It is not even close to time. As long as even one Holocaust survivor is alive on this planet.

I know and have known many survivors well enough to know that some would be deeply hurt by David’s comments. I know that many of them depend on Saturday-night programming to put an end to the longest day of the week. They fall asleep to the television’s warmth and white noise at the end of an interminable day that was once called Shabbos, a day in which dozens of the missing cousins who now haunt their dreams played under the groaning tables of grandparents who spoke Yiddish. A day in which they now eat Friday’s leftover Meals on Wheels alone. The very, very least David could do is refrain from making cheap shots at their expense.

If that isn’t bad enough – and it’s SO SO bad — David’s Holocaust jokes just weren’t funny.

It may be hypocrisy for Jews to judge the propriety of jokes that we make ourselves, whispering in private to each other. But all are entitled to judge Larry David by the standards of his profession. I suspect I am not alone in thinking that he failed in this regard as well.

Was he outrageous? Yes. Funny? It failed to get a laugh or even a smile out of my brittle and highly reflexive Holocaust funny bone.

His transparent bid to replace humor with shock, tweets, and clicks felt pathetic to me. Like the swan song of a limp and balding washout prepared to say anything to thwart the cancellation of a program inevitably destined to jump the gefilte fish.

Perhaps, Larry, you were going for a classically Jewish, Chaplinesque, and self-deprecating laugh through tears. If so, I appreciate the shout-out to Woody Allen and Hershele Ostopolyer. But I expected better of you, Larry, and better of SNL, than moving tweeters to tweet, anti-Semites to laugh, and Holocaust survivors to cry.

I didn’t laugh and I didn’t cry. Because when it comes to the Holocaust, Larry, the tears should not be shed by survivors or wasted on you.

About the Author
Varda Spiegel was Nurse-Director of the Bedouin Mobile Unit of the Negev, later serving as Maternal-Child Health Director for the Ministry of Health Jerusalem District. I am the author of Hershele and the Chicken Skates, was the English Web Content Manager for the Israel Museum and have translated from Hebrew to English for Haaretz and the ANU Museum of the Jewish People. I'm a grandmother, mother, and beachbum.