The Wrong Kind of Mensch
If you kept up with the 2017 World Baseball Classic, which the United States won on March 22, you might have caught a surprise early on: the Israeli baseball team. Against the odds, Team Israel donned blue and white to rack up stunning wins against Taiwan, Korea, and Cuba before elimination by Japan. What an exciting ride for these Davids taking on Goliaths, but unfortunately I have a problem with them, and not simply because none of the players are native Israeli. Their mascot sums it up quite well: a cuddly, stuffed Chasid, named Moshe the Mensch on the Bench.
Think about Jewish stereotypes. As much as they may seem ridiculous to you, try not to laugh. Our greatest modern Jewish coping mechanism is humor, but how often is it used for defense nowadays? We’ve thankfully gained much since the wellspring of Jewish comedy from the Marx Bros. to Broad City, but our brand of self-deprecation has been sold cheap along the way. It’s become mainstream hack that everyone seems to use because we, “The Jews,” laugh too. What if I told you though, no matter how many times we’ve reclaimed and outsmarted antisemitism or slipped into White privilege, many still see Jewish folk as shylocks, spoiled princesses, and weaklings? Worse, while we’ve been laughing, we’ve internalized and helped normalize the sinister, orientalist perception of Jewish people that’s always brought mockery, prejudice, and poor self-image. That Mensch mascot represents the endpoint of Jewish self-deprecation; commodified cultural emptiness.
In sport I root for the countries for which I feel national pride, but I always root for Israel because it’s my heritage. Israelis represent their country and the same cultural homeland, but as Israelis representing Israel. At the WBC, however, Team Israel marketed itself as some sort of “Team All-Jews”. Composed almost entirely of Americans, many with little connection to their Jewish roots, Jewish social media exploded with pride for “our team.” I’m not Israeli and the US was playing.
Before the tournament started, the team went to Israel, many of its players for the first time. Oblivious to the irony, in describing the team The Jerusalem Post wrote:
Almost all the players on this team are Jewish Americans, representing a mix of the American-Jewish community. Some have an integrated Jewish backgrounds…while others…barely know they are Jewish. Yet somehow, they all bought in on being a Jew representing Israel.
“Bought in…” As if Israel’s enemies didn’t have enough ammo, by shoving in our faces this unenthusiastic confederacy of non-citizens, sewn together under a romanticized visage of a mythical Israel, devoid of actual Israeli character, the conservative Jewish/Israeli media completely delegitimizes the state of Israel. It is replaced by a hollow caricature, like a Birthright group in over its head. Team Israel is the Mensch, a manufactured pandering tool wrapped up in faux-yiddishkeit and salesmanship.
This was not Team Israel. This was a glorified U.S. Maccabi team, and as someone who’s been invited to play the Maccabiah, I know that many of these players were sold an empty Jewish identity just as forcefully as their contracts. It doesn’t surprise me that their mascot was adopted with such nonchalance – most of the team likely see the Orthodox, and the Judaism they most visually represent, as foreign; Israel certainly.
This detachment can produce shocking ignorance. At a press conference, designated hitter Cody Decker said, “…[the Mensch] is a borderline deity to the team…we even gave him offerings: Manischewitz, gelt, and gefilte fish.” Ah yes, those funny Jew buzzwords! You want to talk about funny? Doesn’t get more ironic than Team Israel boasting idolatry, right before parshat Ki Tisa (The Golden Calf) no less.
They put tallit on a doll. Commemorative kippot were imposed upon the players (some of whom practice Christianity) for photo ops. The permissibility and flaunting of uninformed or fetishized Judaism does nothing but continue the notion that Judaism is “abnormal.” Across the Diaspora, ingrained discomfort with Jewishness manifests in defensive parody that, over time, turns culture into carnivalesque schtick. The Mensch, the “obvious Jew,” represents ‘otherness’ while those who exploit him are safe in their hegemonic assimilation. Meanwhile the non-Jewish world gains entry to an inside joke that’s not theirs.
The Mensch represents the disconnect between the culturally anxious assimilators and the newer wave of Jewish people who yearn for genuine cultural and spiritual identity. Of all the iconography available, Team Israel ignored the wolf of Benjamin, the stag of Naftali, and the lion of Judah and jumped on an ignorant depiction of a religious, Ashkenazi male (mensch means human, not man). This is meant to make us feel unified pride? While perpetuation of antisemitism surely was not what the toy’s creator intended, the Mensch is a Jewish sambo for sale. If China’s team sold a Chinaman doll, the Chinese community would stand up for their dignity. Why don’t we? Because it’s harmless fun? I don’t find the Chasid being stared at, or the girl ashamed of her nose, or the grave that’s pushed over very funny.
Israel and Judaism are in crisis. In permitting and promoting the Mensch, I am simply reminded of Jewish obliviousness. Team Israel was an exploitation of Judaism and Israel, and the entire media storm around them packaged religious conviction and cultural identity into cheap laughs and kitsch. The unoriginal bubble that enjoyed all this without reservations, that thinks a borderline racist mascot is fun, is the same bubble that keeps trying to impose a narrow, vapid Jewishness on the world.
Irony is dangerous when used improperly and peddled cheaply. Don’t forget how to laugh, but get better material. Adapt. Reject the unrequested ambassadors who often enforce prejudices and an inaccurate, blanket take on Jewishness. Instead embrace the different leaves that stem from our common roots. Let us discover our love for Judaism and Israel willfully, even if that means reconciling with the ugly parts – including not having any great baseball players – because identity is not a toy, it’s what makes you a mensch, a human.
Gregory Uzelac is a Brooklyn-based comedian, writer, and artist who can be found hosting a weekly stand up show in Williamsburg, or on the internet at @greguzelac.