I think it was John Stewart (did you know his real last name: Leibowitz?) speaking to a supermodel years ago on MTV when I first heard the joke. The model discussed her ethnic background: she had "a little Native American in her," some Indian, some Scottish, some Brazilian. Stewart then asked her if she had a little Jew in her. The model said no. Stewart countered: Would you like to?
It was a funny moment, and it was a joke that Stewart could make, being Jewish, or at least of Jewish heritage. I, too, am Jewish in that it's my cultural makeup. I'm agnostic but still identify as a Jew because it's a culture even if it's not one specific race. (Plus, I'm wholly Ashkenazi, and we have our own genetic diseases, which I consider a rule for determining whether or not you belong to a race or ethnicity. If you're at risk for something that can kill you because of inbreeding that led to you having one cultural makeup, well, welcome to the "having a race" club. Or something.)
But I digress. Recently, while writing a story about direct e-mail publicity and marketing, I took notice of an e-mail I frequently receive from a PR firm representing Nextbook.org, a great magazine concerning Jewish culture. I respect this publication but don't know how they found my address. Perhaps it's because I'm a writer or blogger, and they just have a good PR team that looks for coverage under many stones (including blogs where the writer might post schmaltz recipes). That's probably the case. But I also have Jewish friends who receive notices from synagogues when they move to new cities. How do congregations know when new Jews move to town? Odd.
As for Jew-on-Jew humor, I'm usually in favor of it, especially from purveyors who share a somewhat common sense of gravitas: Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, even Sacha Baron Cohen (who definitely isn't anti-Semitic by acting as an anti-Semite and showing scenes of people in America offering glimpses of their fucked-up social views). I have never felt that these jokes about Jewish life are anti-Semitic, though some of the more conservative Jews definitely get cranky about them. In fact, I make fun of what being Jewish in 2007 can be like, too--for instance, needing to eat salted cured meat on a regular basis because my body chemistry requires it to produce a specific kind of irony-fuel. Or the fact that I'm glad I didn't marry another Ashkenazi, so my children might actually have good musculature. You get my point.
One team of writers and directors who cross the line in my opinion, however, have a new biopic-spoof movie coming out soon about a Johnny Cash-like character. I'm not allowed to discuss the film before its release, so say the PR people. But I have to say something without mentioning it, and I'm sure you'll put the pieces together.
In the film, the Cash-like character has a team of managers who want to promote him. The characters are Jewish with ridiculous names like Le Chaim. The joke is that it's a joke that the Jews run the entertainment business and have exquisite taste in musical acts. (Except that the seemingly right-leaning pot-smoking filmmakers only mention the joke-about-the-joke part very quickly, just like they avoided abortion-speak in Knocked Up so as not to turn off a wide U.S. crowd and do something, well, truthful-funny.) And, OK, the Jews in music is an old joke. And yes, there's a lot of truth to the fact that many entertainment execs and producers, etc., have been and remain Jewish. Yadda, to quote the bee.
Moreover, I wouldn't have been offended by this--though the point is hammered
home sooo many times throughout the boring movie that it's shocking,
strictly from the view that the film craves much more funny
original material than it receives, and that's it's made by the new comedy mafia receiving credit for all the funny raining down on today's America.
But to make matters worse, the team behind this film has decided to depict the Jews as Hasidic. Here's the problem. Hasids, as many people know, are a small, very distinct sect of Jewish people, some of whom don't really like--or, at least, approve of--the kind of secular Jews who made this movie--a much more common type of Semitic personality.
At the recent screening, where I sat next to tons of young
people--kids who cracked up at the sight of a penis and other nonsense;
clearly, American audiences don't need much to yuck--I saw them crack
up just at the sight of these Hasids as Jewish music managers. Point
is? If you're not Jewish, and and you don't live in NY or LA or Chicago
or another city where many Jews make up a large portion of the
population (or even if you do!), you may just come to believe that all
Jews are Hasids (or can be Hasids if they just want to be in 1960) as
opposed to all Hasids being Jews. And that it's funny that Jews run
Hollywood! (But it's sort of like the square and rectangle thing,
right? A square is a rectangle, but a rectangle isn't a square. Does
most of this movie's audience know this? I doubt it. They may. But they
may also just think that many Jews don't choose to dress like the
Hasids depicted in the move. And they will likely miss the filmmakers'
one-second appropriation that it's really a joke about a joke--or is
Sure, this Hasid dressup game is the easiest, broadest way at communicating to a large, mostly culturally uneducated audience that a character is Jewish. Even Woody Allen used it in Annie Hall--although he used it to poke fun at how a "classic Jew-hater" of a Wisconsin grandmother must see all Jews. But to use the imagery and exaggerated Yiddish accent in this Cash-spoof film lacks the subtlety--the layers of humor--that many other truly funny Jewish films and shows enjoy.
Basically, these Jewish filmmakers are letting America laugh at Hasidic-tinted images of all Jews without complexity or just minimal commentary. Why they didn't just put images of themselves up there--bearded, skinny 40ish hipsters with '70s sneakers, baseball caps and glasses who dress like they're college kids but also drive Lexus hybrid SUVs and buy $120 T shirts--is beyond me. OK, they were telling the part of the story that doesn't exist now--the "historical" section. But that's the real image of the new, successful American entertainment-biz Jew--at least in Hollywood and Manhattan.
find the way real Jewish managers looked and spoke back then and choose
not to continue to show Hasids throughout the movie as it moves into
the present day? But this movie goes for big laughs, and the filmmakers
apparently don't even care to be causing conceptual or ontological
confusion about their culture or anyone else's as long as they make
more money. After all, they're Jewish. They're allowed. Right?
Of course, that is one way to look at it all--and who cares
as long as it makes people laugh? We're preying on stereotypes that
already exist. Maybe. But I don't think those stereotypes exist
anymore. New ones have replaced them, or at least exist along with
them. So this one is kind of doing damage.
When people think about Jews today, I think, they probably think
about Jerry Seinfeld. Or John Stewart. Or Steven Spielberg. To regress
to the Hasid image is both terribly incorrect, stupid, insulting, and
let's face it, irresponsible in a world where anti-Semitism still
thrives. (See the recent MySpace Nazi hacking.)
So let me clarify as a non-practicing, purely cultural Jew: It's OK when Larry David pretends to be Modern Orthodox for laughs on Curb Your Enthusiasm--that's realistic Jew-on-Jew humor from someone who pushes boundaries but knows certain, important lines; and it makes sense as it's skewering the borders that Jews have drawn between each other. But for the makers of this Johnny-Cash-spoof flick--the name of which I can't mention--to show Jewish music managers as caricature-ishly Hasidic is just plain morally and culturally irresponsible when so much anti-Semitism brews, especially among some of the young unsophisticated, sheltered people who might see this movie.
Plus, it doesn't even come across as funny to anyone who knows more than the average 13-year-old in Iowa who may think every Jew dresses like a "Brooklyn" Hasid (don't think I hate Iowans, but I have tales of Iowa anti-Semitism).
But good luck, guys. I'm sure no one will say a thing to you as you rape America of its millions with your bad music-biopic spoof. For that matter, you don't mock the Beatles as well as you could have, and no one's going to get your poorly executed Brian Wilson satire--or the fact that you spent millions on poor original "satirical" music.
P.S. Oh, I get it all. It's an inside joke, the Brian Wilson and poor satirical materials thing. Just like the fact that maybe no one will get the joke about the joke about the Jews in the music industry. Just like how in Knocked Up you wouldn't give your characters names. To laugh at the fact that you wouldn't have to while still wining people over--that naming characters is, in fact, arbitrary; that America's that dumb. How meta and clever. Except you're actually not that clever. Cleverness requires the ability to create true straight-up humor first. And here you failed. And you're sort of failing comedy as you fail humanity. And that's something--the former, that is--you should actually care about as it will likely influence the size of your inflated wallets.