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Why Lena Dunham’s comedic gaffe is so alarming

A grade school classmate of the Girls creator describes the milieu that made joking about Jews and dogs seem OK

Lena Dunham recently stirred the ire of some of her fans over a quiz in the New Yorker entitled “Dog or Jewish Boyfriend?”. While many of the comparisons were relatively innocuous, a response by one Jewish fan named Jordana Horn, that has now been shared over 35,000 times, articulated the more offensive points of both the content of the quiz and the New Yorker’s decision to publish it in the first place.

I went to high school with Lena Dunham at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn Heights, New York. She and I were never best friends; our closest period came when she performed one of four roles in a play I wrote about two dysfunctional couples, one gay and one lesbian. I bring this up not to claim any sort of insider access to the current thought patterns of the young star, but to shed light on the background from which she comes and why for just that reason, the fact that no personal alarms sounded in writing the piece or that none rang off for those who approved its publication is particularly disturbing.

Saint Ann’s School was founded in the basement of Saint Ann’s Episcopal Church in Brooklyn Heights, in 1965. After a few short years the school moved into 13-story building at 129 Pierrepont Street and has continued to expand in real estate and the size of its student body since its founding. It formally ended its affiliation with the Episcopal Church in 1982. There are no grades, children receive elaborate reports on their progress. There is tremendous academic freedom and excellence in nearly every field (with all due respect to Saint Ann’s, save its athletic department). Students are encourage to take a wide variety of classes as well as to develop their particular skills in depth. For example, I have a gift for languages and was able to concurrently take Latin, Greek, French and Spanish — none to the detriment of basic but solid studies in all other fields. Lena Dunham has always had a gift for theater. She took a great number of theater classes throughout high school (including the playwriting class we took together), and clearly she is talented and has achieved incredible commercial success very quickly.

Even back in high school I was a big Jew. One day I decided to go through the school phonebook and count the Jews in my grade: 43 of 76, roughly 60 percent. None were Orthodox, many had one non-Jewish parent, most were only so observant as to have Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, cease with all Jewish education after that and remember they learned to read Hebrew letters once a year at a Passover seder when confronted with a Haggadah. Regardless of ethnic origin, the socioeconomic makeup of Saint Ann’s was upper-middle- to upper-class. The vast majority of my classmates went on to the best schools in the United States for their undergraduate education, many continued on to other degrees, law school, med school, business, entertainment and art. By and large they are successful people. They are almost all Democrats.

The overwhelming presence of Jews in an environment whose character was academic, pluralistic, American, but in no ways expressly Jewish meant that Jewish identity was suppressed in all conversation. Despite the fact that I was in high school during the bulk and height of the Second Intifada, those events hardly ever came up. We cut class to go protest the Iraq War in 11th grade. Being Jewish for most people at Saint Ann’s (including the Jews) was as simplistic “as knowing the difference between lox and nova” as Horn mentions in her response to Lena. The school’s founding headmaster, who remained in that position until 2004, was a Jew named Stanley Bosworth who affected a (New) English accent, wore tweed and did everything he could to give the impression that he was not a Jew.

Lena’s quiz is another example of anti-Semitism on the left, that while it never mentions Israel, the Palestinians or the Middle East, is contributing to a broader dehumanization in leftist media that does focus on the above.

I don’t believe that Lena Dunham has any malicious agenda towards Jews. What is exceedingly disturbing is that someone who has grown up surrounded by Jews believes that it is acceptable to publish ridiculing and dehumanizing tropes humorously, that are exactly those tropes that have been part and parcel of real historical and present anti-Semitism. What is exceedingly disturbing is that so many in my generation of American Jews whose parents put an emphasis on secular over Jewish education, are inclined to take this language lightly.

There is an obvious current in both the United States and Europe to make light of horrors in the past in order to ignore the fact that they have never been fully resolved. Whether it’s the absurd percentage of Blacks in American prisons and the War on Drugs, or the BBC’s recent question posed to its audience, “is it time to put the Holocaust to rest?”. There are endless examples.

Studies coming out over the past several years have suggested that since Tiananmen Square, most Chinese young people have abandoned a struggle for democracy in favor of wealth acquisition. As China becomes rich, the Chinese are becoming complacent.

I fear too that socially upward mobility in the United States is producing persons ever more disconnected from the awareness that they are joining a class with tremendous historical crimes on it that have not been adequately addressed. I do not advocate that all of my peers abandon their lives and careers in pursuit of historical justice. I expect a minimum that in the face of overt racism, call it out; and if you won’t stand up for others, at the very least, stand up for yourself.

Lena’s show “Girls” is about the upper-middle class narcissism of people my age. Perhaps she thinks that everything should be taken lightly, everything is. But Jews are also called dogs by the people responsible for a huge wave of anti-Semitic attacks in Europe in 2015 alone. Some things are really not funny.

About the Author
Avi Taranto is a tour guide, chef, translator and photographer based in Tel Aviv. A native of New York City, he has a BA from McGill University in History and an MA from Tel Aviv University in Diplomacy.
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