If you live in New Jersey, you get used to being in the shadow of New York. Hell, even our sports teams like to pretend they play across the river. Second-cousin status extends to the state’s Jews, who have always struggled for an identity distinct from New York’s huge and influential kehilla.
Even anti-Semites get this: “New Yorker” — not New Jerseyan — has long been a code word for “Jew” in parts of the heartland.
What are we, not chopped liver?
That’s why I took perverse satisfaction from a story out of Georgia, where a Republican raised in New Jersey became the first Jewish candidate to win a statewide race in the Peach State. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution blogger said Sam Olens’ successful race for attorney general “broke through one of the oldest barriers in Georgia politics.”
Mazel tov, Mr. Olens! But here’s the part that really caught my eye: During the primaries, “[r]eference to his New Jersey upbringing became ‘a code word,’ [Olens] said.”
Thank you, code-talking, anti-Semitic Georgians! At last somebody recognizes a New Jersey stereotype besides big hair, cracking gum, Mafiosi, and Jersey Shore. I can almost hear the tourism slogan: “New Jersey and Jew: Perfect Together.”
I’ve been a little sensitive about this issue since 2001, when I first moved to New Jersey (from New York, of course). A big part of my job is to reflect and instill a sense of pride in a distinct New Jersey Jewish identity. And there is a lot to be said for the state’s thriving Jewish communities, besides “conveniently located between New York and Philadelphia!”
But then I’ll hear something that will undermine my Jersey pride. I remember when I first told my then 10-year-old son that I was leaving the Manhattan-based Forward newspaper to come work for New Jersey Jewish News.
“Does this mean you won’t be famous anymore?” he asked.
Ouch. Of course I wasn’t famous to begin with, although I suppose no fame is harder to lose than the fame you never had in the first place.
A few years later my wife and I saw the cross-dressing Australian comedian Dame Edna on Broadway. We had the good luck to be invited up on stage. Dame Edna asked what I did for a living, and when I said, “I work for a Jewish newspaper, in New Jersey,” the audience laughed — I mean belly laughs. Apparently “New Jersey” and “Jewish” are the three funniest words you can say on a Broadway stage.
Perhaps the nadir of New Jersey Jewish ridicule came during South Park’s recent parody of Jersey Shore (a show I had thought was beyond parody). The episode was an orgy of anti-Jersey jokes, portraying the state’s citizens as an invading horde of big-haired, freakishly tanned, trash talking, loutish guidos and guidettes. One of the show’s main characters, Kyle, is mortified to learn from his mother he was conceived in New Jersey.
Kyle is Jewish, and his mother, Sheila Broflovski, is the crassest Jewish caricature this side of Der Sturmer. I always thought her ear-splitting accent was meant to be Brooklynese, but she explains that “when I got pregnant with you, Kyle, your father and I were living with my parents in Newark.”
What follows is a typically appalling and at times brilliant satire: Rather than succumb to an invasion of New Jerseyans and their alien ways, the citizens of South Park fight back and slaughter the interlopers with some last minute help from Al Qaida. (You’ll have to believe me when I say that the episode was a pungent commentary on Islamophobia, The Real Housewives of New Jersey, Cold War horror movies, and what Richard Hofstadter called the “paranoid style in American politics.”)
I think more than a few of us were relieved that Jersey Shore has no recognizable Jewish characters, and that its tattooed stars are from some alternative New Jersey. The South Park episode shatters that complacency. To the rest of the country, New Jersey means beer-soaked beach houses, bathrobe-wearing mafia dons — and Jews.
And I’m okay with that. The NJJN staff and I remain committed to celebrating all things Jewish and Jersey. We’ll keep pointing out that Mozart’s Jewish librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, would eventually move to Elizabeth and open a grocery store (true story). And that Rabbi Joachim Prinz was the last speaker at the podium before Martin Luther King delivered his “I have a dream” speech. And that Philip Roth, whose work is soaked in memories of Newark Jewry, is the only living American writer to have his work published in its entirety by the Library of America. Take that, New York!
Besides, the whole New York Jewish thing is so 20th century, as the late intellectual Tony Judt explained in an essay published in The New York Times on Sunday. “Jewish New York too is past its peak,” wrote Judt. “Who now cares what Dissent or Commentary says to the world or each other?… The intellectual gangs of New York have folded their knives and gone home to the suburbs — or else they fight it out in academic departments to the utter indifference of the rest of humanity.”
To which the only proper response is, You have a problem with the suburbs?