Here’s a favorite Jewish joke:
A Jewish grandmother is watching her grandchild playing on the beach when a huge wave comes and takes him out to sea. She pleads, “Please God, save my only grandson. I beg of you, bring him back.” And a big wave comes and washes the boy back onto the beach, good as new. She looks up to heaven and says: “He was wearing a hat!”
To me it is a joke about the Jews’ relationship with God. From Abraham to Elie Wiesel, Jews have a long history of arguing with God, judging God’s work, and demanding better.
Or maybe it is a just a joke about ingratitude — another Jewish mother who can never be pleased.
But what if a gentile were to tell the joke? Then it becomes a joke about Jewish penny-pinching.
Who’s laughing now?
Girls creator and writer Lena Dunham told an extended Jewish joke in The New Yorker last week, a satiric quiz comparing her Jewish boyfriend to a pet dog. He’s needy. He’s hairy. He’s got mommy issues, and, as a result, “he expects to be waited on hand and foot by the women in his life, and anything less than that makes him whiny and distant.” It was a cute conceit, although I don’t think she was able to sustain it for a full essay.
Many, many others were not amused. Local writer Jordana Horn wrote an essay for Kveller.com pointing out that the Nazis regularly compared Jews and dogs, and some in the Middle East still do today. Portraying a Jewish man as a “weak, cheap, complaining, ungrateful, whiny jerk” plays on age-old stereotypes. The fact that Dunham is Jewish does not earn her a pass, writes Horn; just because you consider yourself “culturally Jewish” doesn’t mean “you can say whatever you want about Jewish people, no matter how derogatory, with impunity.”
The Anti-Defamation League took notice, calling the Jew = dog equation “particularly troubling,” and wishing that Dunham had “chosen another, less insensitive way to publicly reflect on her boyfriend’s virtues and vices.”
Let me pause here and praise Horn for writing a sensible, consciousness-raising article, and the ADL for a restrained objection that did not label Dunham or The New Yorker as anti-Semitic.
I don’t for a minute think Dunham is a bigot. She was writing from a place of affection for Jews (and dogs, for that matter). Horn is right that this sort of affinity can be abused, giving Jewish and non-Jewish comedians license to say hurtful (and stale) things about Jews that they would probably not say about, for example, blacks.
But how you view the Dunham article reflects the frame through which you see the current Jewish experience. I have no doubt that The New Yorker, and its Jewish editor, David Remnick, view the Jews as a confident, successful minority that is able to enjoy a joke about itself. They see the Jews as influential in the arts and literary worlds covered by The New Yorker and past the point where a comedian’s stereotype can do any real harm or cause any real hurt.
But others regard the Jewish condition as precarious. They note the rising anti-Semitism in Europe. They refer to the ADL survey that found a 21 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents last year. And while there were fewer than 1,000 such incidents in a country of 320 million, the trend confirms their deeper unease about Jews and Israel. Such observers are likely to view the college campus as a battleground, where anti-Israelism on the Left easily and frequently morphs into anti-Semitism.
These two camps — the confident and the concerned, let’s call them — are likely to come away with very different conclusions about, for instance, Trevor Noah, the South African comedian who this week was named to succeed Daily Show host Jon Stewart (himself a Rorschach test for the Jewish community). For the confident, a jokey Tweet by Noah questioning Israel’s commitment to peace was well within the bounds of Middle East opinion; for the concerned, it raised alarms.
The split between the confident and the concerned is not as stark as I am suggesting; many of us are both confident and concerned. We are trying to weigh both inclinations at a time when the Jewish community, especially in the United States, has never seemed more secure but when European Jews are deeply anxious and the Middle East situation never seemed more hopeless. In Israel, too, a strong and confident country is extremely concerned about its place in the world.
What concerns a comfortable Jew like me, however, is our frequent tendency to find anti-Semitism where none is intended, and in doing so to deny or diminish the position of prosperity and influence Jews have achieved. Sometimes this takes the form of competitive suffering, and sometimes it leads us to forget the advantages and opportunities we have.
Dunham’s essay wasn’t sharp or fresh enough to justify the hurt it caused to some readers. But I am glad that our intellectual and cultural elites don’t feel the need to treat the Jews as a special case, too vulnerable to be joked about. If that day comes, our biggest problem won’t be Lena Dunham.