A Jewish grandmother is watching her grandchild playing on the beach when a huge wave comes and takes him out to sea. She pleads, “Please God, save my only grandson. I beg of you, bring him back.” And a big wave comes and washes the boy back onto the beach, good as new. She looks up to heaven and says: “He was wearing a hat!”
That’s one of my favorite Jewish jokes. To me it is a joke about the Jews’ relationship with God. From Abraham to Elie Wiesel, Jews have a long history of arguing with God, judging God’s work, and demanding better.
Or maybe it is just a joke about ingratitude — another Jewish mother who can never be pleased.
But what if a gentile were to tell the joke? Then it might become a joke about Jewish penny-pinching.
That’s the thing with ethnic humor: Its meaning can shift with the teller and the audience. Context is everything.
Girls creator and writer Lena Dunham told an extended Jewish joke in The New Yorker last week, a satiric quiz comparing her Jewish boy friend to a pet dog. He’s needy. He’s hairy. He’s got mommy issues, and, as a result, “he expects to be waited on hand and foot by the women in his life, and anything less than that makes him whiny and distant.”
It’s a promising conceit (the same joke is essentially the plot of the 1962 Sandra Dee movie If a Man Answers), although I don’t think Dunham was able to sustain it for a full essay.
Many, many others were not amused. Writer Jordana Horn wrote an essay for Kveller.com pointing out that the Nazis regularly compared Jews to dogs, as do many in the Middle East today. Portraying a Jewish man as a “weak, cheap, complaining, ungrateful, whiny jerk” plays on age-old stereotypes, she writes. The fact that Dunham is Jewish does not earn her a pass, writes Horn; just because you consider yourself “culturally Jewish” doesn’t mean “you can say whatever you want about Jewish people, no matter how derogatory, with impunity.”
The Anti-Defamation League took notice, calling the Jew = dog equation “particularly troubling,” and wishing that Dunham had “chosen another, less insensitive way to publicly reflect on her boyfriend’s virtues and vices.”
Let me pause here and praise Horn for writing a sensible, consciousness-raising article, and the ADL for a restrained objection that did not label Dunham or The New Yorker as anti-Semitic.
I don’t for a minute think Dunham is a bigot. She was writing from a place of affection for Jews (and dogs, for that matter). Horn is right that this sort of affinity can be abused, giving Jewish and non-Jewish comedians license to say hurtful (and stale) things about Jews that they would probably not say about blacks, gays, women, or other minorities and special interest groups. (Except, of course, when they do: See Chris Rock on blacks, Gabriel Iglesias on Latinos, Amy Schumer on women, and Dean Obeidallah on Muslims.)
At some level, how you view the Dunham article reflects the frame through which you see the current Jewish experience. I have no doubt that The New Yorker, and its Jewish editor, David Remnick, view the Jews as a confident, successful minority who are able to enjoy a joke about themselves. The New Yorker is created by and for an educated cultural elite, a class in which Jews are influential and over-represented as creators and consumers. Members of this elite — friendly with Jews, married to Jews, and Jews themselves — feel we’re past the point where a comedian’s stereotype can do any real harm or cause us any real hurt.
But others view the Jewish condition as precarious. They note the rising anti-Semitism in Europe. They refer to the latest ADL survey, which found a 21 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States last year. And while there were fewer than 1,000 such incidents in a country of 320 million, the trend confirms their deeper unease about Jews and Israel. These anxious Jews are likely to view the college campus as a battleground and bellwether, where anti-Israelism on the Left easily and frequently morphs into anti-Semitism. (A subset of the anxious are over-playing the anti-Semitism card in order to discredit critics of Israel, but that’s a topic for another discussion.) They see churches, academic groups, and bar associations accepting the foul principles of the BDS movement, and wonder where it will stop.
These two camps — the confident and the concerned, let’s call them — are likely to come away with very different conclusions about what is and isn’t anti-Semitism. Take, for instance, the case of Trevor Noah, the South African comedian who this week was named to succeed Daily Show host Jon Stewart (himself a Rorschach test for the Jewish community). For the confident, a jokey Tweet by Noah questioning Israel’s commitment to peace was well within the bounds of Middle East debate; for the concerned, it raised alarms. The two camps are similarly divided by this dumb Tweet by Noah:
Almost bumped a Jewish kid crossing the road. He didn’t look b4 crossing but I still would hav felt so bad in my german car!
The concerned see anti-Semitism; the confident see a weak joke about Germans. (Incidentally, the bi-racial Noah is half-Swiss and one-quarter Jewish — but who’s counting.)
(And once again, the ADL, which often gets rapped for over-reacting to perceived slights, was circumspect on the Noah controversy, saying, “We hope he will not cross the line from legitimate satire into offensiveness with jokes calling up anti-Semitic stereotypes and misogyny.”)
The split between the confident and the concerned is not as stark as I am suggesting; many of us are both confident and concerned. We are trying to weigh both inclinations at a time when the Jewish community, especially in the United States, has never seemed more secure, but when European Jews are coming under attack and the Middle East situation has never seemed more hopeless. In Israel, too, a strong and confident country is extremely concerned about its place in the world.
What concerns me, however, is the tendency by some to find anti-Semitism where none was intended, or exaggerate the impact of a tasteless or ill-considered joke. To sustain their outrage, they’ll deny or diminish the prosperity, influence, and social acceptance American Jews have achieved. Or they will exaggerate the Jews’ vulnerability. Sometimes this takes the form of competitive suffering, and sometimes it leads them to forget or ignore the advantages and opportunities we have as Jews living in the early 21st century.
Dunham’s essay wasn’t sharp or fresh enough to justify the hurt it caused to some readers. But I am glad that our intellectual and cultural elites don’t feel the need to treat the Jews as a special case, too vulnerable to be joked about. If that day comes, our biggest problem won’t be Lena Dunham.