Once Upon a Shabbaton, I heard a story about a disgruntled Rabbi, slighted upon learning that a 400-pound oaf would be his bunkmate in the afterlife. The Rabbi met the man, and upon finding no redeeming qualities in him, confronted the man on his gluttonous ways. The Giant explained that as a child, he witnessed his frail parents get burned alive in a matter of seconds. He vowed to eat, and eat, and eat some more, to grow so large that should he ever be burned, he would show the world that Jews do not go down so easily.
I haven’t thought of this story in years, but it popped in my head when I learned of Joan Rivers’ passing.
To be fair, I know little about Joan beyond her 2009 Comedy Central Roast and the Wikipedia page that I have open as I write this piece. But here’s what I do know:
– She hosted a red carpet show at the Oscars
– Fashion and appearances mattered to her, inspiring numerous plastic surgeries
– She was unafraid to speak her mind, unafraid to be herself
– Her Judaism was central to this very identity
As the eulogies and tributes for Joan pour in over the coming days, I wonder whether or not she will be canonized as a Jewish Heroine. Make no mistake; the woman was not your typical Hebew School fare, lacking the pious purity of the Biblical Matriarchs. She was eccentric. She was crass. She was vulgar. Above all, she was Chutzpahdik. Chutzpah. That amorphous Yiddish word that lies on the spectrum from assertive to downright rude, and somehow remains essential to the Jewish experience. Whatever it means, Joan Rivers had plenty of it.
Never did this Chutzpah shine brighter than during her TMZ encounter in late July. Asked to comment on the Israel-Gaza conflict, Rivers responded with a spot-on analogy: “If New Jersey were firing rockets into New York, we would wipe them out… if we heard they were digging tunnels from New Jersey to New York, we would get rid of Jersey.” Joan did not end there. When asked about civilian casualties, she countered “then don’t put your goddamn things in private homes” without missing a beat. She then called out major media outlets for their biased reporting, and questioned the education of teenybopper popstars who tweeted “Free Palestine,” all the while using her trademark Joan Rivers humor, and yes, Chutzpah.
Joan Rivers’ rant made me laugh during a summer when few things could. I have supported Israel, even spent time here, during previous conflicts, but this was the first campaign since my Aliyah. The reality sunk in on a deeper level. Neighbors, friends, and brothers-in-law were called up to the front, and the everyman appeal of Max Steinberg made his tragic death personal. Worst of all, I did not know how to properly articulate my feelings about the conflict surrounding me. I did not know how to assert my right to safety, my nation’s right to self-defense, without coming off as insensitive to the innocent civilians on the other side of the conflict.
Enter Joan Rivers. Unapologetic, uncensored, unafraid. I am not saying that I totally agree with her views (I don’t) or that I would have delivered my message quite like her (I wouldn’t), but I am glad that she did. Most importantly, I appreciated how she understood her role as a Public Jew in the Public Eye – and owned it. She understood that in 2014, Israel and the Jewish People are one and the same, and to attack one is to attack them both. On that fateful July day, Joan Rivers defended Israel’s right to safety, security, and self-defense, and in doing so, she showed the world that the Jewish People will not go quietly into the night.
May her memory be a blessing.