The anti-gospel of Lenny, Larry and Sarah: Jewish humor and the desecration of Christendom.
Lenny Bruce was a Jewish revolutionary because he expressed his frivolous blasphemy in public, not because it was created on a tabula rasa. The ridicule of Christianity and Jesus has a long genealogy in Jewish discourse, going back to the talmudic era, and, despite the changing historical context, blasphemous tropes from bygone centuries resemble those of today. Blasphemy in a time of Christian theocracy was a deadly serious matter, and the beleaguered Jews of Ashkenaz endured severe repression and periodic violence because of it. However, Jewish "culture had built in strategies of internal resistance to the religious narrative of Christian society," writes modern Jewish historian Elisheva Carlebach, what she calls a "trenchant polemic in the guise of folklore." (2) Modern Jewish entertainers may not be living in fear of marauding crusaders and Cossacks, but they are the heirs to the polemical and parodic folklore of their ancestors, much as modern Europe and America inherited the theological legacy of medieval Christendom. Secularization has reduced the burden--but not the relevance--of Jewish difference.
What is new is the unprecedented security, mobility and confidence American Jewry has enjoyed since the 1950s. Antisemitism has given way to tolerance and, among evangelical Protestants, to philosemitism; the Vatican dismissed the charge of deicide in 1965. Lenny Bruce and the Beat Generation proved that it could be cool to be Jewish. Yet Jewish success is tinged by a collective memory of persecution; the stigma of Christ-killer does not wash away so easily, and this has had a lasting impact on Jewish identity. The writers, filmmakers and comedians of Jewish descent who have excelled in American culture since Bruce's time have been able to be as Jewish in public as they wish, but they have often defined their Jewishness against a history of suffering and through the mock desecration of Christianity's symbols and rituals. Jewish humorists have accepted white Christian America's olive branch, but they are demanding inclusion on their own terms. The comedy of Bruce and his successors, including Larry David, Sarah Silverman and Lewis Black, illustrates the fundamental place Christianity holds in Jewish humor. It also reveals how Lenny Bruce's unabashed delight in his people's purported collective act of deicide marks a new chapter, but not a new book, in the epic chronicles of Jewish-Christian polemics.
Jews and Christians have lived as uncomfortable neighbors in theological conflict since late antiquity. Although the violent persecution of the Jews was the exception rather than the rule, Christian hegemony meant the imposition of occupational restrictions, constrained mobility, and the persistent branding of the Jews as social pariahs and existential threats. Church doctrine held the Jews collectively responsible for the murder of Jesus and viewed their stubborn unwillingness to accept him as their savior as proof that Christianity had superseded Judaism; Israel had relinquished its chosenness and should rightfully have vanished. As Abraham Geiger pointed out in the 1870s,
The continuation of Judentum in its earlier manner must necessarily appear to Christentum as a decisive protest against the truth.... The tough durability of Judentum serves a knockdown punch to it, a denial of its self-justification. Each Jew's existence bears witness against Christentum's truth. (3)
The Jews were not simply the accursed "other"; they were the ancestral remnants of those who begat Christianity yet sabotaged the fulfillment of Christ's divine message.
Lacking a state and having adopted an ideology of exile that eschewed violence and exalted prayer in order to hasten the Messianic age, medieval Jewry sought to cooperate socio-economically with the ruling Christians. But, unlike the Jews who lived under Islam, where pragmatic cooperation was often coupled with a collaborative ethos, the Jews who faced Christendom constructed a discourse of enmity. They had to justify their continued existence and their claim to be the true Israel--to impugn Christianity for having hijacked their religion and having falsely deified one of their own. The Jews, of course, could not flagrantly malign Christianity in public, given that the Christians--without evidence and with little provocation--often indicted (and killed) Jews for blasphemy and, in later centuries, for ritual murder (blood libel), desecration of the host, and the poisoning of wells. (4) The Jewish narrative assault upon Christianity thus occurred in private, surfacing in sacred texts, folkloric tales, proverbs, parody and mock rituals of desecration.
Scholars have pieced together evidence of what Judaic studies specialist Peter Schafer has called "a daring and powerful counter-Gospel to the New Testament," (5) which can be traced back at least to the Babylonian Talmud and which then persisted through the Middle Ages and into nineteenth-century tsarist Russia, where the Jews continued to endure theologically driven repression. (6) Negation of the gospels usually took the form of desecrating Jesus himself, whose alleged divinity was at the heart of Jewish-Christian polemics. As Schafer has shown, the vilification of Jesus in the voluminous Talmud is sparse, and its study may have been confined to the learned, but the Jewish masses had other means of symbolically confronting the disciples of Christ, most significantly through Toledot Yeshu (The Life of Jesus), a cluster of folktales passed down in various incarnations and in multiple languages through the centuries and across the diaspora. (7) Such texts were not merely read; they were often performed in a communal setting, possibly on Christmas Eve--"a type of megillah ... similar to the Book of Esther," as Sarit Kattan Gribetz puts it. (8) The Book of Esther has functioned as both a polemic and a parodic script performed on Purim, where carnivalesque inversion is coupled with fantasies of revenge against the enemies of Israel. (9) Although the canonical enemy on Purim is Haman, numerous accounts suggest that as early as the fifth century, he was conflated with Jesus, and, Gribetz writes, "the celebration of Purim was ... entangled with anti-Christian rituals." (10) According to Elliot Horowitz, in Purimsbpiels in late medieval and early modern Europe, Haman's garments were often emblazoned with an ecclesiastical cross and, in at least two recorded instances, the Jewish revelers "reenacted elements of Christ's passion" as part of their festivities. (11)
Despite the multiplicity of texts and performances spanning centuries, one can speak of a coherent Jewish anti-gospel, insofar as those texts and performances exhibit a common set of tropes and a collective intent to repudiate Christianity by turning the canonical gospels on their heads. The Talmud and various recensions of Toledot Yeshu brand Jesus a heretical Jew of ungodly origins, the bastard child of the depraved Mary, a menstruating whore, or "la zuna" ("the prostitute") according to a Ladino expression, (12) and of a father of uncertain origins named Pandera, often taken to be a Roman soldier. (13) The denial of the virgin birth thus negates the child's divinity, and Yeshu proceeds to live a life of sexual debauchery and the desecration of Judaism through sorcery, for which the Jewish authorities ultimately condemn him. The Babylonian Talmud, writes Schafer, "proudly proclaims [Jewish] responsibility for Jesus' execution.... We are the rightful executioners of a blasphemer and idolater." (14) The rabbinic sages and the authors of Toledot Yeshu were engaged in an existential battle with a deadly adversary and, unlike Lenny Bruce, their unabashed joy in having committed deicide was serious theological business, not an edgy comedy routine intended to stir public debate and sell concert tickets. Yet their narrative was no less satirical, and it was often performed as a carnivalesque ritual. They desecrated Christendom by symbolically defiling Jesus and parodying Christianity's sacred texts.
Such antipathy also found its way into colloquial Yiddish, which branded Jesus "der mamzer" ("the bastard") and--demonstrating the proverbial Yiddish speaker's penchant for wordplay--"Yoshke Pandrek." Pandrek may be a reference to Jesus' alleged Roman father Pandera, but it is also an amalgam of the words "Pan," Polish for "Lord," and "drek which is Yiddish for "shit," thereby maligning the Christian savior as "Little Jesus, Lord of Shit." (15) Far more subtle is the well-known expression, "Nisht geshtoygn un nisht gefloygn," which literally translates as "[Jesus] didn't rise up and didn't fly away," a distinctly Jewish way of saying, "Pigs can fly," or "Baloney." (16) "The ubiquity of the phrase [Nisht geshtoygn un nisht gefloygn] in common Yiddish speech," writes Naomi Seidman, "signals the extent to which Jewish identity in the Christian world ... is constructed by skepticism about the divinity of Jesus." (17) "Skepticism" is perhaps putting it mildly, at least for Yiddish speakers in Poland, where "beyz geboyrenish" ("wicked birth") was a term used to describe the Nativity. (18) Disparaged no less than Jesus himself were the attendant symbols of his martyrdom, most notably the cross. Jews from Galicia often referred to the Lithuanian (Litvak) Jew as a "tseylem-kop" ("cross-head"): a Jew who was assimilated to the point of worshipping Jesus. (19) Mocking Christendom was embedded into the daily discourse of Ashkenazic Jewry through its vernacular, a language that was still spoken by 11 million Jews on the eve of the Holocaust; Yiddish facilitated the propagation and perpetuation of a culturally resilient anti-gospel well into the modern era.
But the advent of modernity complicated matters. A fundamental shift in Jewish-Christian relations began in the seventeenth century, one that would have a profound impact on the ways in which each would represent the other. The Protestant Reformation slowly engendered a reinterpretation of Scripture and a reevaluation of the Jews' place in the unfolding of history. Beginning in Puritan-era England and later taking on greater significance among evangelical groups in the United States, certain denominations rejected the antisemitism of the past, opting to view the Jews through a philosemitic lens. The Jews were the original Israel, the people of the Old Testament, and they should be treated with kindness, despite their rejection of Jesus; benevolence toward the Jews (and, in the twentieth century, support for Zionism and Israel) would hasten the return of Christ and the End of Days. (20) But the attenuation of antisemitism owed just as much, if not more, to the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and the ensuing revolutions, which proclaimed equality, tolerance of religious difference and, ultimately, the separation of church and state. Jews, the former pariahs of Christendom were offered inclusion so long as their theology and way of life did not hinder the functioning of civil society. The "normalization" of the Jews in an envisioned secular society was now on the table.
And forward-thinking Jews responded in kind, but not without trepidation or a demand that their own voices be heard. (11) The Haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment movement, sought to modernize Judaism by shedding its outward manifestations of difference, to prove that the Jews were fellow citizens of the Mosaic faith, not eternal enemies. This included a reevaluation of Jesus' place in Jewish history, and a rejection of the bastard child and the blasphemer of Toledot Yeshu. Theologians, writers and artists rebranded Jesus as the prototypical progressive rabbi, as a Jewish revolutionary fighting Roman tyranny and as a symbol of Jewish suffering. (22) Their positive reclamation of Jesus, however, did not signify a submission to Christianity and, as Matthew Hoffman argues, "[T]hey asserted that the Christians had misunderstood Jesus' intrinsically Jewish teachings and 'kidnapped' their ancient Jewish brother, who now had to be returned home." (23) Jewish-Christian discourse of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries may have been less hostile, but it remained antithetical and it could be polemical; just as the Gentile world proffered benevolence without rejecting its Christian heritage, the Jews sought entry into the public sphere without abandoning their historical baggage, even if its contents were theologically contentious.
The appropriation of Jesus as a good Jew can be found in speciously gentle Jewish humor. In one well-known joke, the teller asks, "How do we know Jesus was Jewish?"
1. He was 30, unmarried and still living with his mother.
2. He went into his father's business.
3. He thought his mother was a virgin.
4. And his mother thought he was God. (24)
Although this joke contains no explicit challenge to Christian theology, it marks Jesus as the stereotypical twentieth-century Yiddishe Mama's boy. More importantly, it leaves his divinity ambiguous, inasmuch as his unnamed father's unidentified profession may not be God's ministry but rather Joseph's carpentry.
A subtle critique of the Christian narrative can also be seen in an episode of the hit situation comedy All in the Family, whose Jewish producers transformed television in the early 1970s by tackling the hitherto suppressed topics of race, religion and politics, much as Lenny Bruce had done on stage a decade earlier. In the program, comedy serves as the vehicle for confronting such issues, usually in the form of arguments pitting Archie Bunker, a bigoted, working-class conservative Protestant, against his liberal daughter, Gloria, and her idealistic husband, Mike. Despite his regular tirades against Jews, blacks, and Latinos, Archie usually pleads innocence and plays the victim, as in this dispute, which followed a car accident.
Archie: "A certain Mrs. Rhoda Greenspan plowed into the back of my cab. They're all the same, them people ..."
Mike: "What do you mean, 'They're all the same, them people'? What people?" Archie: "The Chosen People. What have I got to do, draw you a picture?" [Archie pantomimes a stereotypical big Jewish nose], "Plows into the back of my cab, then she opens up her yap ... they could have heard her all the way to Tel Aviv."...
Mike: "Let's go back; we were discussing one of your favorite old hang-ups--your anti-Jewish bias."
Archie: "What anti-Jewish bias?"
Gloria: "Oh no, Daddy, not that again; remember, even Jesus was a Jew." Archie: "Yeah, but only on his mother's side." (25)
Because Jewishness is halakhically defined through matrilineal descent, the antisemitic Archie ironically and inadvertently renders Jesus Jewish. Whether his father was God, Joseph or an illicit lover, Jesus entered this world as a Jew.
Such humor reflects Jewish ambivalence toward a Jewish-Christian rapprochement that cannot fully overcome the weight of history. Many Jews suspect that evangelical Protestantism's philosemitic outreach is driven by a desire to bring Jews to Jesus, thus representing "a continuation of traditional Christian attitudes that had seen Judaism as obsolete after the arrival of Christianity," as Yaakov Ariel puts it. (26) The Holocaust has scarred Jewish consciousness; it has unsettled faith in the trumpeted inclusion of an allegedly secular age and it has signified for many, if not the culmination of medieval antisemitism, then, at least, the resurgence of imputed (and unacceptable) Jewish difference. Although American Jews have not had to dismantle the (often metaphorical) ghetto walls of the Old World, and they were physically far removed from the gas chambers of Auschwitz, by descent, culture and collective memory, many remain tied to Ashkenazic Europe. As a small minority in an overwhelmingly Christian society, American Jewry cannot forget the ghosts of its past, so past polemics continue to surface in new forms.
One such form is modern Jewish humor, which, most scholars agree, emerged during the nineteenth century among German-speaking Jews, matured in the shtetls of the Russian Empire, and then flourished in twentieth-century America. (27) The spread of enlightenment and secularization challenged the traditional theology of exile, but this occurred against the backdrop of the porous yet tenacious boundaries separating Christian from Jew. Jewish difference seemed ironic in an allegedly post-theocratic era, and it engendered a sardonic humor of exclusion, best epitomized through the comedy of Heinrich Heine. (28) For Heine, the Jews remained barred from the comity of nations, so he converted to Christianity, contending that it was his "ticket of admission to European culture." He "cast himself ... at once a renegade Jew and a phony Christian," as Ruth Wisse puts it, existing on the margins of both communities, writing German comedy with a Jewish perspective and inflection. (29)
Following Heine, the cauldron of Jewish wit migrated to Eastern Europe, where a modern, secular Yiddish literature came into being during the latter half of the nineteenth century. More than anyone else, Sholem Aleichem captured the Jewish exilic condition, the cruel irony of being God's chosen people in autocratic Russia, where economic modernization was not accompanied by Jewish emancipation. (30) Jews and Christians were swept up together in a maelstrom of social change, but legal disabilities, the periodic eruption of pogroms, and even accusations of ritual murder meant that the Jews continued to wear the medieval badge of the accursed "other."
Although "goys" loom large in the writings of Sholem Aleichem, it was hardly permissible to brazenly attack Christian theology or the Yeshu of Jewish lore in periodicals and newspapers under the repressive conditions of late tsarist Russia. But this did not prevent the father of Yiddish literature from cleverly satirizing the Christian society and its laws, which many Jews deemed responsible for their misery. In one episode in Sholem Aleichem's acclaimed Railroad Stories, written in 190Z, we encounter a distraught father who is unable to enroll his son in high school because of the tsarist regime's notorious educational quota system. The poor father explains:
And I had become so mule-headed about it that it was an act of sheer mercy on God's part to find me a commercial high school in Poland where they took a Jew for every Christian--that is, where the quota was fifty percent. There was just one little catch: the Jew had to bring his own Christian with him--and only if your Christian passed the exams and you were ready to treat him to tuition did you stand a fighting chance ... In other words, instead of one millstone around my neck, there were two. Do you follow me? As if it weren't enough to knock my brains out for my own boy, I now had someone else's to worry about, because if Ivan doesn't pass, Yankl can pack his bags too.
The narrator's trepidation was well founded, as it led to a disaster replete with irony:
By the time I found the right Christian, a tailor's boy named Kholyava, I was green in the gills--and when the chips were down, wouldn't you know that he went and flunked flat on his face! And in "Christian Religion," of all things! Don't think my own son didn't have to take him in hand and coach him for the makeup. What, you ask, does my son know about Christianity? (31)
His son, apparently, knew a great deal about Christianity, more than his Christian peer, and perhaps as much as the talmudic rabbis, whose "highly sophisticated counternarratives ... presuppose a detailed knowledge of the New Testament," as Peter Schafer has argued. (32) While far less caustic than the Yiddish expressions that denigrate "Yoshke Pandrek," Sholem Aleichem's tales mock the proverbial "goyishe kop" ("stupid Gentile") and reveal the important place occupied by the Christian "other" in the budding realm of Jewish humor.
The uncomfortable place of the Jews in a Europe unable to completely shake its medieval Christian legacy abetted the gestation of modern Jewish humor. But its future lay elsewhere, on American shores, which received z million impoverished Eastern European Jews between 1880 and the early 1920s. (33) "Only in America", writes Lawrence Epstein, "could Jewish comedians ... have succeeded as they did," because it was a land of insecure immigrants, and the Jews, "the most insecure, the most common of immigrants, could understandably serve as a symbol for Americans as they could for no other people." (34) Requiring little money or education, entertainment proved to be an easy path for social mobility, and the Jews came to play leading roles in vaudeville, radio, film, theater, standup comedy and, later, television without having to "purchase" one of Heine's baptismal certificates of admission. But the end of the 1920s marked the onset of what social critic Irving Howe famously called "de-Semitization," and what other scholars have called "whitening"--the disappearance of Jewish visibility from popular culture. (35) There were several causes behind this shift, including the rise of nativism, the fear of an antisemitic backlash against the disproportionate presence of Jews in entertainment, and self-censorship by the Jewish executives who ran Hollywood. (36) The great comics of the era--Groucho Marx, Jack Benny, Henny Youngman, Phil Silvers--did not deny their Jewishness, but they muted it in their performances. (37) In a time when Eastern European immigrants were supposed to be "working toward whiteness," to use David Roediger's apposite phrase,38 being "too Jewish" in public was taboo, and, accordingly, mocking the religion of the majority culture was beyond the pale.
Change did come, but not until the 1950s, once the Jews had achieved middle class status, once the horrors of the Holocaust had rendered antisemitism unfashionable, and once the Jews had shown that they could "learn the ways of whiteness," as Karen Brodkin argues, and that they could be showcased as "a wonderful kind of white folks." (39) But a model minority in the 1950s did not exhibit ethnic particularism, especially in the form of irreverent humor. It was a transitional decade for the new generation of Jewish comics--Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Mort Sahl and, ultimately, Lenny Bruce--who started to push the boundaries of the permissible. (40) And it was in this transitional decade that Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks devised their now classic "2000 Year Old Man" routine, an improvised skit the duo performed at private parties, featuring a newscaster (Reiner) and an elderly Jewish man (Brooks), who, in a heavily inflected Yiddish accent, describes his numerous escapades from biblical times to the present. In some variations, Reiner recollects, the Old Man was at the Crucifixion and even knew Jesus well, since he and his disciples "used to come into the store a lot," but they "never bought anything." (41) In another variation, the Old Man had served as a soldier under Joan of Arc, though it was believed that she was really a man:
"Joan of Arc was your general?"
"Not Joan--John! We called him John."
"Oh, I see. You thought it was John, because in French her name was Jeanne d'Arc, and 'Jeanne' is pronounced 'John.'"
"Right, John Dark, but I called him Johnny." (42)
Upon seeing the general naked, the Old Man discovered that he was, in fact, a she, so they started dating, or, as he puts it, "I went with her." (43) "You know something," the Old Man recalls fondly, "I always liked Johnny, but from that moment on, I loved him!" (44) The routine was a hit among their friends, but "Mel was uncomfortable," Reiner maintains, because "we were treading on sacred ground. It didn't sit well with him that we were making jokes about a revered Catholic saint." (45) Consequently, in their first commercial audio recording of the skit, released in 1960, the duo retreated from the edgier theological terrain; Jesus was not mentioned, and although the elderly Jewish man still boasted of his romantic escapades with Joan of Arc, her gender was never in doubt. (46) Apparently, mocking Christianity still touched a nerve among Jewish entertainers. Even in an era of unprecedented acceptance, security and comfort, there were some things best left unsaid "in front of the goyim."
But not everyone felt this way, and, by the early 1960s, a handful of Jewish cultural producers, including Philip Roth in literature and Lenny Bruce in standup comedy, shattered those enduring taboos and rose to national acclaim. (47) "Bruce," writes David Kaufman, "was the first major celebrity in American show business to pull off the mask of assimilation and challenge the idea that one's public identity could be 'too Jewish,'" but he was also "a discomfiting figure--misbehaved at best, depraved at worst." (48) Where Reiner and Brooks deployed Yiddishkeit with a modicum of propriety, Bruce saw an opportunity to smash the boundaries of respectability through the linguistic pollution of sacred space; his Yiddishkeit was an effective tool to provoke anxiety within a white Christian America that proclaimed equality and tolerance but often failed to live up to that ideal. In this sense, his bad behavior did not constitute depravity; it was a way of defying the conformist ethos of the 1950s through a uniquely Jewish lens, one that took the notion of American pluralism seriously. (49) And for a Jewish comic, this entailed publicly confronting the legacy of Jewish-Christian relations with unprecedented irreverence.
Thus, America was different from old Europe, or, rather, it has been perceived by Jews at least since the 1960s to be sufficiently different from old Europe to transform past polemics into public satire, and to depict the Jewish-Christian encounter with ironic twists that are only possible in a land where the unwanted have found safety and success. For example, in the 1979 film The Frisco Kid, a Polish rabbi who is struggling to make his way across a bewildering American frontier in the 1850s must rethink his theology after being robbed and dumped in the wilderness. Alone and dejected, Reb Avram Belinski becomes elated when he spots a group of bearded men in black coats and hats, whom he takes to be fellow Ostjuden from the shtetl. But relief quickly turns to confusion, when Belinski's "landsmen" fail to respond to his frenetic pleas in Yiddish, and look at him quizzically, stating, "Das ist nicht Deutsch. Konnen Sie Englisch sprechen? Dost thou speak English?" As the bewildered Belinski slowly repeats, "Dost thou speak English," he spots a Christian Bible among the group and, with a horrific, "Oy, gevalt!" he falls unconscious. The equally bewildered Amish men take Belinski into their community and nurse him back to health. Clearly, Belinski's Polish Weltanschauung had not allowed for the possibility of meeting heretical Christians who resembled him--Christians who had come to America as outsiders, much as he had, and who were willing to help a downtrodden Ostjude, undoubtedly an unfamiliar sight in Pennsylvania Dutch Country. America's diversity challenged Belinski's predisposition to homogenize Christianity and conflate its practice with inexorable antisemitism. (50)
The Frisco Kid is hardly a realistic portrayal of a Polish Jew during the time of the Gold Rush, but it does, in part, reflect a dominant trend in multicultural, POSM950S America: Jewish-Christian enmity has given way to an intense curiosity about the Jew and a degree of admiration of him that borders on fetishizing Jewish culture. In another example, Calvin Trillin's humorous story "Lester Drentluss, a Jewish Boy from Baltimore, Attempts to Make It Through the Summer of 1967," published in 1968, we encounter a young Jewish editor who is utterly baffled by the philosemitism that surrounds him: the Yiddish idioms deployed by his Gentile co-workers and splashed as graffiti on the subway walls; his Methodist boss's decision to devote 90 percent of the firm's resources to publishing a Jewish epic novel a la Leon Uris, convinced that "there's no use trying to sell books to the goyim"; and his sudden success with a blonde shiksa he had been courting for months, who now believes that "the Jewish sensibility is really rather unique." (51) Similarly, Wallace Markfield's 1974 novel, You Could Live If They Let You, describes a series of interviews with Jules Farber, a cantankerous Jewish comedian, by Chandler Van Horton, an admiring Gentile who is obsessed with Yiddish, believing that no "word is without mystery and magic ... simultaneously consecrating and transcending, fusing the sacred and the secular." (52)
Father's quintessentially goyishe interlocutor may be misreading the Jewish comic's exploitation of Yiddish, which for Farber represents how "we enter the world yelling 'Oi' and we leave it whimpering 'Gevald.'" (53) But his attraction to what he sees as "consecrating and transcending," "fusing the sacred and the secular," underscores the Jewish place in post-1950s America, where the separation of church and state, coupled with ethnic pride, has engendered the parading of cultural and religious difference as public spectacle, where the maskilic command to "be a Jew at home and a man on the street," has ironically become its opposite, (54) where the Christian wants--even expects--to see Judaism on display. The often uncomfortable mingling of faiths is most glaring in December, when the ubiquity of Christmas bleeds across confessional boundaries and the imagined barrier between the public and private sphere. Such was the case one Christmas for the Jewish comedian Marc Maron, who describes the painful holiday season with his wife, "a six foot tall woman of Germanic descent":
As I said I'm not religious and my wife said to me--she said after we decorated the Christmas Tree [Maron's emphasis], she said "why don't you get some Hanukkah candles? Why don't we do Hanukkah?" And I'm like "I don't do Hanukkah, I just don't believe that much, and it's silly and I haven't done it since I was a kid." She goes "I think you should, I think it would be important I think it would be nice." I'm like "uh. nah ..." She goes "For me?" And I'm like "Alright." (55)
Much like Lester Drentluss, who grew up in a "militantly Americanized" household, (56) Maron is compelled by a philosemitic Christian to embrace a heritage he would rather forget.
Maron's unease becomes outright resentment when his wife appears to be amused by his attempt to appease her curiosity about Judaism:
So I go out, I get the menorah, I get the candles, the first night I'm lighting the one candle, I got the big candle, I'm lighting the other one, I've got my yarmulke on, I'm saying the prayer, "boruch attoh adonai" And my wife is standing across from me and goes--[sound of wife snickering]. I'm like "w-w-why-what are you laughing at?" But she goes oh I just think it's so cute that ..." "That's not what you're laughing at! I know what you're doing, you're sitting there thinking 'look at the Jew. Look at the Jew in his little Jew hat, [Maron's voice becomes melodic] singing his silly Jew song.'" (57)
Whatever the source of his Germanic wife's delight, the Jew ultimately interprets this unwanted attention as a bizarre inversion of history, for as the narrator of Howard Jacobson's best-selling novel The Finkler Question puts it, "You could divide the world into those who wanted to kill Jews and those who wanted to be Jews. The bad times were simply those in which the former outnumbered the latter." (58) The advent of philosemitism does not signify the normalization of the Jew; it is merely antisemitism turned on its head, an obsession with the Jew that marks him as inherently different, a scriptural object who has provoked persecution, intense observation, sympathy, envy and obsessive compassion. But the Jew has never provoked indifference among the Christians.
Accordingly, Jewish humorists continue to see Christianity through the lens of collective memory--a renegade child who turned on his theological parent--as Alexander Portnoy's father explains in Philip Roth's classic novel, Portnoy's Complaint:
They worship a Jew, do you know that, Alex? ... Now how do you like that for stupidity? How do you like that for pulling the wool over the eyes of the public? Jesus Christ, who they go around telling everybody was God, was actually a Jew! And this fact, that absolutely kills me when I have to think about it, nobody else pays any attention to. That he was a Jew, like you and me, and that they took a Jew and turned him into some kind of God after he is already dead, and then--and this is what can make you absolutely crazy--then the dirty bastards turn around afterwards, and who is the first one on their list to persecute? who haven't they left their hands off of to murder and to hate for two thousand years? The Jews! who gave them their beloved Jesus to begin with! I assure you, Alex, you are never going to hear such a mishegoss of mixed-up crap and disgusting nonsense as the Christian religion in your entire life. (59)
It may be "mishegoss"--"craziness"--but it is misplaced hate, for, as comedian Lewis Black quips: "Why were the Catholics so pissed at us? If someone didn't kill Jesus there'd be no Christianity." (60) Maron elaborates on this, positing a Jewish entitlement for gratitude from Christendom:
Now look: I'm sure we had something to do with it. But I don't know what part we played in it. And I just want to say that I think that being angry at Jews for killing Christ is really the wrong angle to take. Let me explain. I think instead--just entertain this--I think maybe you should thank us, for killing Christ. Cause think about it if he doesn't die, you don't have much of a story. Cause that's really why Christ is so popular is that he died at the peak of his career. He was young, hot, well spoken from all accounts. I really think it would have been different had he lived longer. Say had he gotten old enough to get bitter. Please hear me out. Lighten up Christians, judge not. (61)
Christianity spurned its filial debt to Judaism in favor of discrimination, and the Jews were now calling in their markers through an acerbic wit and the anachronistic projection of antisemitism onto an imagined biblical past, as in the following joke:
This is a story about the Jewish man who wanted to check into the Kenilworth Hotel in Miami Beach, and the clerk says, "It's restricted." The guy says, [with a Yiddish accent] "Who's a Jew?" "If you're not a Jew, you wouldn't mind answering three questions?" The guy says. "Fire avey." He says, "Who was our Lord?" He says, "Jesus Christ." "Where was He born?" He says, "In a stable." He says, "Why was He born in a stable?" He says, "Because a rat bastard like you wouldn't rent Him a room." (62)
Belle Barth performed and recorded this joke live in Miami Beach in 1961, when restricted hotels and country clubs were still common in America, and when the Vatican had yet to absolve the Jews of deicide, but after the public sphere had sufficiently expanded to tolerate the irreverent blasphemy of Jewish bitterness.
Hence, Lenny Bruce's contemporaneous claim of ownership to deicide. And, hence, Lewis Black's later disappointment "when the Catholic Church let the Jews off the hook" in 1965:
I have never felt the need to be macho because I knew that my people had killed God's only begotten son, and that was all I needed on my resume. Christ-killer sure beats being called a kike. Of course, either expletive is usually followed by a good ass kicking. But I felt it kind of gave me a leg up. "I killed your savior, so bring it on." Talk about the ultimate fighting match. (63)
The charge of deicide ironically negates the stereotype of the unhealthy, cowardly Jew of the diaspora--the so-called exilic condition that has framed much of modern Jewish political discourse. Yet, the exoneration of the Jews by Vatican II did not wipe the slate clean. Bitterness and mistrust linger. In Markfield's novel, Jules Farber refuses to grant Chandler Van Horton an interview until he signs a form letter that reads: "I, Chandler Van Horton, do absolve Jules Farber of the killing of Christ. It is my understanding that the very worst his people might have done was to lean on Him a little." (64) Although Farber's demand may seem superfluous because Markfield's fictional tale takes place in the 1970s, it reveals the tenacity of Jewish memory. Such tenacity is perhaps not unfounded, given that Lenny Bruce was publicly accused of "blasphemy" a mere decade earlier, (65) and given the subsequent popularity of Mel Gibson's controversial 2004 film The Passion of the Christ, which (re)brands the Jews as Christ-killers, "the latest manifestation of Jews' angst about Jesus and the role he plays in the public sphere," as Matthew Hoffman puts it. (66) But angst is precisely what propels Jewish humor's misappropriation of Christianity. Farber will not let bygones be bygones, because he feels entitled to restitution; it is his way of asserting power over his former oppressors. Fifty years after Lenny Bruce opened Pandora's box in public, its lid remains off, and a gleeful Marc Maron credits Mel Gibson with breathing "life again [in]to the conversation that the Jews killed Jesus." (67) Otherwise, his comedy would not be possible.
Mocking Christianity entails its symbolic desecration, and, in articulating their anti-gospel, Jewish comics are heir to a tradition of premodern Jewish polemics and practices. This includes every aspect of Jesus' life, from his allegedly divine origins, through his miracles, his death and his subsequent fate. Debauchery and impure bodily functions are common tropes in the refutation of Jesus' divinity. Much as the sexualization of Mary in the Talmud and in Toledot Yeshu negates the virgin birth, certain recensions of Toledot Yeshu depict Judas and a renegade Jesus engaging in an aerial battle, in which Judas either urinates on the would-be Messiah, sprays him with semen, or sodomizes him, depending on the version. (68) In one instance, Judas buries the executed Jesus in a cesspool, thereby mocking "the cult of the Christian holy place by transforming the Holy Sepulcher into a latrine," as Peter Schafer argues. (69) In the Talmud, Jesus is condemned to hell, slated to spend eternity burning in excrement. (70) And, lest they inadvertently save the bastard child's soul, Ashkenazic Jewry often refrained from studying Torah on Christmas Eve. (71)
The prominent role accorded to Judas in defiling Jesus is a polemic against Christianity's having branded him the emblematic evil Jew, (72) a narrative assault against medieval antisemitic discourse, which, after the eleventh century, included the charges of ritual murder, the desecration of the host, and the urination on crosses and images of Jesus and Mary. It need not be stated that the Jews never engaged in the ritual murder of Christian boys, but there is evidence to suggest that urinating on crosses and perhaps even desecrating the host may have occurred. (73) This should not be surprising, because, unlike the blood libel, these are symbolic acts of desecration--the ritualization of the anti-gospel, similar to the "performance" of Toledot Yeshu on Christmas and the conflation of Haman with Jesus on Purim. These were the weapons of an accursed community devoid of physical power--parodic rites deployed to oppose a theology that claimed to have superseded Judaism and charged its practitioners with infiltrating Christendom to destroy it from within.
In modern Jewish humor, the desecration of Christianity occurs frequently on the hit HBO television series, Curb Your Enthusiasm, which stars Larry David as himself, a Jewish man who lives a life of luxury in Los Angeles, having acquired millions as a co-creator of the hit television show Seinfeld. In one episode, David loses control while urinating and accidentally sprays a portrait of Jesus hanging in his devoutly Christian receptionist's bathroom, thus echoing the medieval charges of urinating on crosses and Judas' violating Jesus with bodily fluids in Toledot Yeshu. But David adds a new level of irony to this ancient trope. Upon seeing the painting, his receptionist concludes that Jesus has wept and that it is her calling to embark on a journey with her blessed object to expose this miracle. With this episode, David simultaneously defiles Jesus, parodies antisemitism and mocks devout Christians who have claimed to bear witness to weeping statues and Marian apparitions. Christian miracles are not merely a sham; they are actually the product of Jewish corruption. (74)
Judaism and Christianity recurrently clash on Curb because David's Gentile wife Cheryl comes from a pious Protestant family. On one episode, Larry arrives late to the baptismal ceremony of his sister-in-law's Jewish fiance and he proceeds to interrupt it when he takes the priest's ritual dunking of the future Christian in the river to be a homicide in progress. Larry screams, chaos ensues, and the groom-to-be nearly drowns. But once order is restored, the fiance refuses to complete his conversion, claiming that he has had a divine revelation not to abandon his Judaism. Cheryl's sister accuses Larry of subversion, insisting, "You just didn't want him to convert ... You didn't want to lose a Jew and you know it." Meanwhile, the fiance's family hails Larry as a hero for having saved a wayward Jew from the clutches of Christian proselytism. The wedding is called off and the scene ends with a mob of equally angry Gentiles and Jews arguing over scripture and the superiority of their respective faiths. (75)
David may have (accidentally) saved a Jew from apostasy on that occasion, but he is powerless to prevent Christianity from penetrating his own home. In the third season episode "Mary, Joseph, and Larry," David is upset that Cheryl's family's plan to spend Christmas with them entails the acquisition of a Christmas tree:
Larry: "Give me a break on the tree. Do we have to do that?"
Cheryl: "Of course we do. It's Christmas!"
Larry: "It's too weird, man ... I'm a Jew! To have the tree in the house is bad luck. You know, my guy may think I'm switching or something, you know.
He may not understand."
Cheryl: "I think your guy is going to be fine with it."
Larry's actual discomfort is not due to any concern with offending "his guy," since his secular Jewish identity is defined neither by faith nor by the practice of Judaic ritual, but through his rejection of Christianity and all its trappings. Accordingly, Larry refuses to join his wife, her sister and their parents on Christmas Eve by the piano and the gigantic tree where they sing carols well into the night. Unable to sleep, a doleful Larry--an alienated Jew engulfed by the trappings of Christianity--seeks solace in the kitchen with some milk and cookies. (76)
But Larry's troubles are just beginning, as he is rudely awakened on Christmas morning by angry shouts from his wife and her family:
Cheryl: "What happened to the cookies?"
Larry: "The cookies from last night? What? I ate them."
Cheryl's sister: "You ate them?! They were for the manger scene! Larry, you ate the Baby Jesus and His Mother Mary!"
Larry: "I thought they were animal cookies!"
Cheryl's sister: "Animal cookies!"
Cheryl's mother: "Oh, for heaven's sake."
Cheryl's father: "Animal cookies--what? Are you kidding?"
Cheryl's sister: "Jesus Christ is not an animal!"
Larry: "I thought he was a monkey!"
Cheryl's family: [shouting in unison] "A monkey! Oh, please!"
Cheryl's sister: "You thought the Son of God was a monkey?"
Cheryl: "We worked all day on those cookies."
Larry: "I'm sorry."
Cheryl: "You didn't see the hay, the toasted coconut with hay, the barn?"
Larry: "I thought that was all part of the zoo."
Cheryl: "Why would we have a zoo on Christmas day?"
Larry: "Okay. You know what? I'll make it up to you."
Cheryl's sister: "How can you make it up to us, Larry, Okay? You just swallowed our Lord and Savior!"
Larry: "I'll make it up. I'll go get another manger scene."
David's consumption of Jesus--and one may call it a ritualistic consumption since it temporally transpires in unison with Cheryl's family's Christmas ritual--echoes the antisemitic charges of blood libel and host desecration, while simultaneously mocking the ritual of Holy Communion. As with the "miracle" of Jesus shedding the tears of David's urine, this episode cleverly desecrates Christianity by parodically resurrecting antisemitic motifs from another epoch. The Jewish comic is thus entitled to defile Christian symbols on network television because of the centuries of persecution that have scarred Jewish collective memory. (77)
Although David's desecration of Christianity is accidental in these instances, often the product of his sheer ignorance, on other occasions he is far more deliberate in his blasphemy. After Cheryl's father shows off the nail he acquired from Gibson's Passion and tries to convince Larry to watch the film, Larry responds with his characteristic irreverence:
Larry: "You're nuts about this Jesus guy, aren't you?"
Cheryl's father: "Yeah, well I have a personal relationship with Christ."
Larry: "Really? See, I can see worshipping Jesus if he were a girl, like if God had a daughter. Jane--I'll worship a Jane. But you know, to worship a guy, like, you know, it's a little gay, isn't it?"
Cheryl: [Trying to put a stop to the conversation] "Okay."
Cheryl's father: "It's the Son of God. What's the matter with you?"
Cheryl: "Larry ..."
Larry: "No, I'm just saying: I would worship Jane. If he had a daughter, Jane, I could have a relationship with a Jane."
Cheryl's father: "He didn't have a daughter!"
Larry: "It's a shame it wasn't a girl, that's all I have to say. Good lookin' woman, zaftig, you know, good sense of humor. If he had a daughter, everybody--everybody--would worship Jane. That's all I'm saying." (78)
Through seemingly nonchalant banter, David ridicules Christian theology by sexualizing Jesus and his relationship with his (apparently gay) followers. He is also marking the Jew as a sexual predator by reimagining the Son of God as a voluptuous female and the object of "everybody's" (read: every Jew's) illicit desire. As with his imagined "Jane," David reveals carnal urges for the Holy Virgin in the Christmas tree episode, after he hires a church group to perform the Nativity scene outside his house, in an effort to make amends for having eaten the Jesus cookies. While the actors are setting up the manger, in full costume, Larry casually mentions his impressions of the beautiful Mary to a hitherto amicable Joseph:
Larry: "Oh boy, that Mary, by the way, has quite the bod."
Larry: "Come on, Joey, between you and me? You and Mary, eh? You don't feel like it every now and then? What do you do?"
Joseph: "No! You know what? We're leaving. That's it; let's pack it up. We're leaving!"
Larry: "What? Come on, Joe!"
Joseph: "I'm not gonna stand for this. Don't 'Joe' me; we're leaving. You will take it back!"
Joseph proceeds to grab Larry and wrestle him to the ground, while the Wise Men goad him on and Mary shouts, "Kill him Joseph, kill him!" Meanwhile, Cheryl and her family return home, just in time to see the blasphemous Jew fight it out with the progenitors of Christianity. (79)
The sexualization of the Holy Virgin is more than just anti-Christian blasphemy, as it also signifies the allure that Christianity has presented to Jews throughout the ages. The cross was a deadly temptation that constantly hovered over the maligned communities of medieval Ashkenaz, inviting them to betray their faith and negate their exilic condition. Conversion was likened to adultery, the forbidden fruit of the "other." (80) Medieval Jewry, writes Elliott Horowitz, described the cross and all it implied as an "abomination," a term of biblical origin that signifies both idolatry and illicit desire, (81) a trope that surfaces in modern Jewish humor. In the Inquisition scene of Mel Brooks' imaginative film History of the World: Part I, we find hapless Jews who are being lured into the world of Christianity through a combination of violence and sexual temptation. The musical number features a dancing Tomas de Torquemada whose abuse of his Jewish victims (anachronistically wearing Hasidic garb) through various medieval torture devices fails to compel them to convert. (82) The perplexed Grand Inquisitor laments to his disciples:
We flattened their fingers, We branded their buns, Nothing is working, Send in the nuns. (83)
Church bells toll as a group of nuns enter the chamber, and a drawbridge is raised to reveal a swimming pool. Removing their habits, the grave-looking nuns are transformed into sexually captivating women clothed in tight-fitting swimsuits. The women ostentatiously dive into the water, and, swimming in unison, they surround the immobilized Jews and pull them to the bottom, thereby baptizing them in the sacred waters of Christianity.
The forced "baptism by swimming pool" in History of the World may be read as a metaphor for the perpetual struggle of the Jews to keep afloat--and to keep their identity secure--in the often-hostile yet enticing cosmic ocean of Christianity. In modern America, where the Jews no longer face the wrath of crusaders, inquisitors and Cossacks, this epic battle nevertheless continues in the form of what may be called holiday envy, particularly around Christmas, a topic that has become fodder for Jewish humorists in recent decades. Although Christmas is often marketed today as "universal," a winter celebration of chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost, mistletoe, sleigh bells and snow--to paraphrase some of the immensely popular carols authored by Jewish songwriters--and for many it is merely a time for family and commercialized gift giving, it cannot be severed from its theological roots. "I shall repeat," Lewis Black contends,
I am A JEW. I may have been brought into Christian households to celebrate the festivities, but I am not a part of them. Christians don't seem to get why we Jews don't just embrace Christmas. Well, it's because WE DON'T BUY THE STORY! We don't believe a special infant was born and that he was the Son of God, and that story is the reason all of you Christians aren't Jews. So we are put off a little by all of the hoopla, which is perfectly understandable when you people do it, but it still makes us cringe a little. (84)
And, notwithstanding its pagan origins, a Christmas tree has no place in the Jewish home; it could never be a so-called "Hanukkah bush." For Black,
[A] tree during Chanukah was an interloper. I may like the way Christmas trees look when I drive by houses and see them in people's living rooms, with their twinkling lights aglow, I just don't want one. If ever I was stupid enough to put one up at my place, I know it would stand there, taunting me, saying: "What are you doing here, Jewboy?! This is my house. Jews don't have Christmas trees. Why don't you go to the temple and find a menorah to hang out with?" I don't need that kind of aggravation from a conifer. (85)
For Larry David, "there's nothing worse than Jews with trees," and, like Black, he cringes at the sight of the colossal one Cheryl's family brings into his nominally Jewish home. And, feeling taunted by the tree around which his in-laws gather to sing carols--and they are not regaling one another over Jack Frost, chestnuts and Santa, but over "the little Lord Jesus"--the lone Jew retreats to the kitchen, where he commits symbolic deicide and host desecration over a glass of milk. (86)
For Jews who suffer from Yuletide envy but who will not give in to its lure, there is Flanukkah, which American Jewry has imbued with greater cultural significance, in part, to compete with the ubiquity of Christmas. (87) But it is a losing battle, as Lewis Black points out:
When you compare these two holidays, there is only one conclusion: Christmas is great and Chanukah sucks. Next to Christmas, Chanukah looks like a retarded crafts fair. To begin with, Christmas is celebrated with electricity. There are lights everywhere: on the streets, on the tree, on the house--everywhere, for Christ's sake. And what are the lights saying? They're saying, "We're having fun! We're having fun! And you're not, 'cause you're a Jeeeew!" We celebrate Chanukah with candles. Itty-bitty, shitty candles, as if we are living in a cave in the fifth century and hydroelectric power is unknown to us. We are supposed to light the candles for eight days, but most Jewish families are lucky if they make it to day five.... On Christmas Day, I would go to my Christian pals' houses to see what they got. Sure enough, they got everything that I had wished for. Everything. They even got really great stuff I hadn't even thought of. And that was where I learned what the word "covet" meant. It was as if Santa was taunting me. "See what I do for the Christians, Jewboy?" Afterward, I'd go home and see what I got that night for Chanukah. That's when I first learned what depression was. I got a pen-and-pencil set. (88)
Despite his jealousy, Black neither succumbs to Christmas nor embraces the all-inclusive "Happy holidays" greeting that masks the actual theological underpinnings of the season:
Think about it another way: By putting the mute button on a simple "Merry Christmas," you destroy the sense of separation that gives me such joy. For one brief moment, in the expression of just two words, I am made unique by nothing I had done, just by being born. (89)
"Judaism," writes Yiddishist Michael Wex, "is obsessed with separation, with boundaries," (90) which is why, "the very first distinction" Alexander Portnoy learned "was not night and day, or hot and cold, but goyische and Jewish." (91) Lewis Black's revulsion over spurious anti-denominational universalism is thus an expression of his otherwise minimalist Jewish identity, which is rooted in what it is not, and what it is not, decidedly, is Christian.
Not everyone has Black's willpower, particularly children, which is why, Black writes:
Jewish parents make absolutely sure that their children will never believe in [Santa Claus] during their formative years. If Jewish children did, imagine the madness that would ensue. We could bring down Judaism just by demanding that our parents recognize the reality of Santa Claus. (92)
But Santa's exclusion from the Jewish home is not enough, as comedian Sarah Silverman humorously illustrates in her music video "Give the Jew Girl Toys." The video begins with a startled Santa Claus who, upon entering a Christian home, discovers a female burglar clad in black and brandishing a tire iron, waiting in the shadows to confront him:
I hate to say this Santa but you're acting like a dick You should give presents to everyone that's good And not just to your personal clique If you bring me a toy to open Christmas morning I'll let you be my boyfriend all bearded, fat and horny Oh yeah, oh yeah
Silverman, playing the home invader with a combination of malice, sly sexuality, and childlike simplicity, invokes Jesus to express her self-professed entitlement--the entitlement of an embittered Jew who does not understand her continued exclusion:
What does Jesus have to do with you? You've got as much to do with Jesus as you do with Scooby-Doo What do you have to do with Jesus? You have as much to do with him As you do your mother's penis oh yeah
Although Silverman (crudely) renders Jesus extraneous to the rituals of Christmas, she nevertheless exploits him through the manipulation of Christian discourse in order to put forth a Jewish perspective:
So I don't think he's the son of God I think he was still a nice boy If you ask yourself what would Jesus do He'd say give the Jew girl toys Give the Jew girl toys, give the Jew girl toys, Don't be a douche, what would Jesus do, He'd say give the Jew girls toys
By recasting "What does Jesus have to do with you? You've got as much to do with Jesus as you do with Scooby-Doo" into "What would Jesus do? He'd say give the Jew girl toys," Silverman simultaneously negates the theological roots of December 25 and then misuses a sublime Christian saying to insert the Jew into the holiday. (93)
Yet Silverman remains suspicious of Santa's origins and thus his intentions. In the middle of the video--immediately after a cartoon of a kindly Jesus is shown embracing Hasidic dolls--Silverman approaches Santa and casually asks, "Claus ... Claus? Is that German?" Silverman's haughty smile suddenly gives way to a look of severity and, with a mock Nazi salute she exclaims "SANTA KLAUS!" in a caricatured guttural German accent. (94) Her implicit reference to the Holocaust and its possible connection to Christian practices undermines the prospect of Jewish inclusion. And, leaving the viewer with little doubt that there can be only one victor in the epic battle between Judaism and Christianity, the video ends with Silverman snuggling on the floor with a bound, gagged and subdued Santa. The crafty Jew has invaded Christendom, and, in the name of her persecuted ancestors, she has desecrated its symbols and conquered it from within. "Give the Jew Girl Toys" is Silverman's anti-gospel, a clever reenactment of classic Jewish-Christian polemics, performed through the idiom of modern Jewish humor.
Lenny Bruce, Larry David, Sarah Silverman, Lewis Black and other Jewish comics have confronted and rendered problematic the alleged Jewish-Christian symbiosis of modern America through the humorous use of stereotypes and tropes with deep roots in the past. Their comedy suggests that the diminution of antisemitism has not engendered the normalization of the Jew, but its illusory opposite: a philosemitic trend that may preach compassion but still marks the Jew as anomalous. Simply put, the Jew has been invited to take a seat at the Gentile's table and to break bread with him, but the Jew can never do so if the table is adorned with the symbols of a troubled history, and the meals are ritualistically served according to the rhythm of a Christian calendar. To be sure, Jewish comics are not functioning in the hostile (and often deadly) environment of their premodern landsmen, who used anti-Christian polemics to justify their claim of chosenness and to abet their self-preservation; the symbolic desecration of the cross and its martyred occupant produces commercial success and adoring fans today, not pogroms and expulsion. But their use of anti-Christian tropes for the creation of Jewish humor is an effective tool to carve out their own Jewish space in a homogenizing public sphere. And it is no less an act of self-preservation because they are constructing Jewishness by defiling its opposite, the Christian theology that had for centuries declared the obsolescence of the proverbial Jew.
(1.) Lenny Bruce, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People: An Autobiography by Lenny Bruce, with a new introduction by Eric Bogosian (New York: Fireside, 1992), 155.
(2.) Elisheva Carlebach, The Anti-Christian Element in Early Modern Yiddish Culture (Ramat-Gan: Bar-Ilan University, 2003), 9.
(3.) As quoted in Jay Geller, The Other Jewish Question: Identifying the Jew and Making Sense of Modernity (New York: Fordham University Press, 2011), 12.
(4.) Joshua Trachtenberg, The Devil and the Jews: The Medieval Conception of the Jew and Its Relation to Modern Anti-Semitism (Cleveland, 1961), chapters 7-10.
(5.) Peter Schafer, Jesus in the Talmud (Princeton: Princeton University, Press, 2007), 129.
(6.) See for instance, the essays in Peter Schafer, Michael Meerson and Yaacov Deutsch (eds.), Toledot Yeshu ("The Life Story of Jesus") Revisited: A Princeton Conference (Tubingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2011); Carlebach, The Anti-Christian Element-, David Biale, "Counter-History and Jewish Polemics Against Christianity: The Sefer Toldot Yeshu and the Sefer Zeruhavel," Jewish Social Studies 6, no. 1 (1999), 130-145; Elliott Horowitz, Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006).
(7.) See Peter Schafer's introduction to Schafer et al., Toledot Yeshu for an overview of Toledot Yeshu's history.
(8.) Sarit Kattan Gribetz, "Hanged and Crucified: The Book of Esther and Toledot Yeshu," in Schafer et al., Toledot Yeshu, 179.
(9.) Horowitz, Reckless Rites, 23, 84-85.
(10.) Gribetz, "Hanged and Crucified," 174-175.
(11.) Horowitz, Reckless Rites, 86, 265. See also Jean Baumgarten, Introduction to Old Yiddish Literature, edited and translated by Jerold C. Frakes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 380-382.
(12.) Sarah Bunin Benor, "Do American Jews Speak a 'Jewish Language'?: A Model of Jewish Linguistic Distinctiveness," Jewish Quarterly Review 99, no. 2 (Spring 2009), 262.
(13.) Peter Schafer, "Agobard's and Amulo's Toledot Yeshu," in Schafer et al., Toledot Yeshu, 46; Michael Stanislawski, "A Preliminary Study of a Yiddish 'Life of Jesus' (Toledot Yeshu)," in Schafer et al., Toledot Yeshu, 81; Peter Manseau, "Missionary Yiddish," Jewry, January 22, 2009, http://www.jewcy.com/jewish-religion-and-beliefs/missionary_yiddish, accessed on July 25, 2014; Naomi Seidman, Faithful Renderings: Jewish-Christian Difference and the Politics of Translation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), Kindle Edition, loc. 898-902.
(14.) Schafer, Jesus in the Talmud, 74.
(15.) Matthew Hoffman, "Satire and Survival: What Jews Had to Say About Jesus and Why It Was Funny," Unpublished Paper, 10. I would like to thank Matthew Hoffman for permission to cite his paper.
(16.) Michael Wex, Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2005), 20; Hoffman, "Satire and Survival," 9.
(17.) Seidman, Faithful Renderings, loc. 3856-3857.
(18.) Dianne Ashton, Hanukkah in America: A History (New York: NYU Press, 2013), 114
(19.) Jeffry Mallow, "Our Pal God" and Other Presumptions: A Book of Jewish Humor (New York: iUniverse, 2008), Kindle Edition, loc. 719-720.
(20.) On the emergence of philosemitism, see David S. Katz, Philo-Semitism and the Readmission of the Jews to England, 1603-1633 (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1982), especially chapter 3; William D. Rubinstein and Hillary L. Rubinstein, Philosemitism: Admiration and Support in the English-Speaking World for Jews, 1840-1939 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999); Yaakov Ariel, An Unusual Relationship: Evangelical Christians and Jews (New York: NYU Press, 2013).
(21.) See Jonathan M. Hess, Germans, Jews and the Claims of Modernity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002).
(22.) The Reform Rabbi Abraham Geiger, Yiddish novelist Sholem Asch and artist Marc Chagall were among those who refashioned Jesus through a positive Jewish lens. See Matthew Hoffman, From Rebel to Rabbi: Reclaiming Jesus and the Making of Modern Jewish Culture (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007); Donald A. Hagner, The Jewish Reclamation of Jesus: An Analysis & Critique of the Modern Jewish Study of Jesus (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984).
(23.) Hoffman, From Rebel to Rabbi, 3.
(24.) As quoted in Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Humor: What the Best Jewish Jokes Say About the Jews (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1992), 39.
(25.) All in the Family, "Archie's Aching Back," January 26, 1971, CBS Network.
(26.) Ariel, An Unusual Relationship, 117.
(27.) There is a vast literature on Jewish humor. Some of the more informative works include: Ruth R. Wisse, No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013); William Novak and Moshe Waldoks, The Big Book of Jewish Humor: 25th Anniversary (New York: William Morrow Paperbacks, 2006); Avner Ziv and Anat Zajdman, eds. Semites and Stereotypes: Characteristics of Jewish Humor (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993); Sarah Blacher Cohen, Jewish Wry: Essays on Jewish Humor (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987); Elliot Oring, "The People of the Joke: On the Conceptualization of a Jewish Humor," Western Folklore 42, no. 4. (October, 1983), 261-271.
(28.) On Heine, see Jefferson S. Chase, Inciting Laughter: The Development of "Jewish Humor" in 19th Century German Culture (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2000); Wisse, No joke, chapter 1.
(29.) Wisse, No Joke, 37.
(30.) On Sholem Aleichem, see Jeremy Asher Dauber, The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem: The Remarkable Life and Afterlife of the Man Who Created Tevye (New York: Schocken Books, 2013); Wisse, No Joke, chapter 2.
(31.) Sholem Aleichem, "High School," in Tevye the Dairyman and the Railroad Stories, translated by Hillel Halkin (New York: Schocken Books, 1987), 226.
(32.) Schafer, Jesus in the Talmud, 8.
(33.) On Jewish humor in the United States, see Lawrence J. Epstein, The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America (New York: PublicAffairs, 2001); Stephen J. Whitfield, "Towards an Appreciation of American Jewish Humor," Journal of Modern Jewish Studies 4, no. 1 (March 2005), 33-48; on the settlement of Eastern European Jewry in the United States, see Gerald Sorin, A Time for Building: The Third Migration, 1880-1920 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992).
(34.) Epstein, Haunted Smile, xiv.
(35.) Irving Howe, World of Our Fathers: The Journey of East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1:976), 567; Karen Brodkin, How Jews Became White Folks: and What That Says about Race in America (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1998).
(36.) See Neal Gabler, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood (New York: Crown Publishers, 1988).
(37.) Epstein, Haunted Smile, chapters 3-4.
(38.) David R. Roediger, Working Toward Whiteness: How America's Immigrants Became White: The Strange Journey from Ellis Island to the Suburbs (New York: Basic Books, 2005).
(39.) Brodkin, How Jews Became White Folks, 10.
(40.) Epstein, Haunted Smile, chap. 7; see also Gerald Nachman, Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s (New York: Pantheon Books, 2003).
(41.) Carl Reiner, My Anecdotal Life: A Memoir (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2.003), 53
(42.) Carl Reiner, I Remember Me (Bloomington: AuthorHouse, 2013), 30.
(45.) Ibid., 30-31.
(46.) Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks, 2000 Years with Carl Reiner & Mel Brooks (World-Pacific Records, 1960).
(47.) Philip Roth first tackled Christianity through a Jewish lens in his short story "The Conversion of the Jews," published in 1959 in the Paris Review. It can be found in Philip Roth, Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories (New York: Vintage International, 1993). On Lenny Bruce, see Nachman, Seriously Funny, 389-435; Epstein, Haunted Smile, chapter 7; Albert Goldman, Ladies and Gentlemen: Lenny Bruce!! (New York: Random House, 1974).
(48.) David E. Kaufman, Jewhooing the Sixties: American Celebrity and Jewish Identity--Sandy Koufax, Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan, and Barbra Streisand (Waltham, Mass.: Brandeis University Press, 2012), 100-102.
(49.) James Bloom argues that Lenny Bruce, Philip Roth and other "darkly funny Jews ... converted the opprobrium that they drew into a virtue, indeed a moral obligation, and, when handled nimbly, a source of aesthetic pleasure as well." James D. Bloom, Gravity Fails: The Comic Jewish Shaping of Modem America (Westport: Praeger Publishers, 2003), 140.
(50.) The Frisco Kid, directed by Robert Aldrich (1979).
(51.) Calvin Trillin, "Lester Drentluss, a Jewish Boy from Baltimore, Attempts to Make it Through the Summer of 1967," Atlantic Monthly 221, no. 1 (1968), 43-45.
(52.) Wallace Markfield, You Could Live If They Let You (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974), 145
(54.) David Biale, Power and Powerless in Jewish History (New York: Schocken Books, 1986), 195.
(55.) Marc Maron, "Coming Out As a Jew," Tickets Still Available (Stand Up! Records, 2006).
(56.) Trillin, "Lester Drentluss," 43.
(57.) Maron, "Coming Out As a Jew."
(58.) Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question: A Novel (New York: Bloomsbury, 2010), 224.
(59.) Philip Roth, Portnoy's Complaint (New York: Vintage International, 1994), 40.
(60.) Lewis Black, Me of Little Faith, edited by Hank Gallo (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), 42. Kindle Edition.
(61.) Marc Maron, "Bitter Jesus," Tickets Still Available.
(62.) Belle Barth, 1 Don't Mean to Be Vulgar, But It's Profitable (Surprise Records, 1961). A variation of this joke can be found in Alan Dundes, Cracking Jokes: Studies of Sick Humor Cycles and Stereotypes (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 1987), 129.
(63.) Black, Me of Little Faith, 42.
(64.) Markfield, You Could Live If They Let You, 5.
(65.) Ronald K. L. Collins and David M. Skover, The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon (Oak Park, Ill: Top Five Books, 2012), Kindle Edition, loc. 2607-2624, 2775-2782.
(66.) Hoffman, From Rebel to Rabbi, 256.
(67.) Maron, "Bitter Jesus."
(68.) Eli Yassif, "Toledot Yeshu: Folk-Narrative as Polemics and Self Criticism," in Schafer et al., Toledot Yeshu, 132.
(69.) Peter Schafer, "Introduction," in Schafer et ah, Toledot Yeshu, 8.
(70.) Schafer, Jesus in the Talmud, 13.
(71.) Marc Shapiro, "Torah Study on Christmas Eve," The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy 8 (1999), 319-353
(72.) Frank Felsenstein, Anti-Semitic Stereotypes: A Paradigm of Otherness in English Popular Culture, 1660-1830 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 31.
(73.) Horowitz, Reckless Rites, 169, 172-173. Ivan G. Marcus argues that Jews in medieval Ashkenaz may have, on occasion, placed images of Jesus and Mary in latrines as they "were viewed as no better than feces and urine." Ivan G. Marcus, "A JewishChristian Symbiosis: The Culture of Early Ashkenaz," in Cultures of the Jews: A New History, edited by David Biale (New York: Schocken Books, 2002), 484.
(74.) Curb Your Enthusiasm, "The Bare Midriff," October 18, Z009, HBO Network.
(75.) Curb Your Enthusiasm, "The Baptism," November 18, 2001.
(76.) Curb Your Enthusiasm, "Mary, Joseph, and Larry," November 10, 2002.
(78.) Curb Your Enthusiasm, "The Christ Nail," October 9, 2005.
(79.) Curb Your Enthusiasm, "Mary, Joseph, and Larry."
(80.) Horowitz, Reckless Rites, 150, 156.
(81.) Ibid., 156.
(82.) Brooks is, of course, taking numerous historical liberties here. The Spanish Inquisition sought to target heretical Christians, including the Conversos, the formerly Jewish converts to Christianity who were accused of being crypto-Jews. It did not target Spanish Jews who remained practicing Jews on the eve of the 1492. expulsion.
(83.) History of the World: Part I, directed by Mel Brooks (1981).
(84.) Lewis Black, I'm Dreaming of a Black Christmas (New York: Riverhead Books, 2010), Kindle Edition, loc. 205-209.
(85.) Ibid., loc. 409-413.
(86.) Curb Your Enthusiasm, "Mary, Joseph, and Larry."
(87.) See Ashton, Hanukkah in America.
(88.) Black, Me of Little Faith, 29-32.
(89.) Black, I'm Dreaming, loc. 1069-1071.
(90.) Wex, Born to Kvetch, 18.
(91.) Roth, Portnoy's Complaint, 75.
(92.) Black, I'm Dreaming, loc. 1078-1080.
(93.) Sarah Silverman, "Give the Jew Girl Toys," http://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=gRGMOhslqo. Accessed on June 15, 2014.
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|Title Annotation:||Lenny Bruce, Larry David, Sarah Silverman|
|Publication:||American Jewish History|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2015|
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