It all began with a Purim spiel. Seven years ago, the much-loved New Yorker
magazine writer Adam Gopnik was living in a kind of secular New York Jewish
Adam Gopnik. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe
Then he got an invitation from the Jewish Museum to serve as Purimspieler --
the one who tells the Purim story. That single invitation was the catalyst for
an investigation of a whole lot of topics, not least "The Rise and Fall of Jewish
Comedy," which Gopnik will address in Los Angeles at a festival sponsored by
Nextbook this Sunday.
In other words, if it weren't for Purim, Gopnik wouldn't be coming to UCLA
this weekend. He wouldn't be talking about Jews and comedy or, for that
matter, about being a Jew himself.
He might not even be giving any of those subjects a second thought.
Gopnik was born in 1956 in Philadelphia and raised in Montreal. To those
who follow his writings, it would seem that he is curious about just about
anything, and one small incident in daily life can lead to 47 books perused, a
world of sideline distractions and anecdotes and colorful detail. Anyone who
knows his work, which has graced the pages of The New Yorker since 1986,
knows that he easily blends discourse on the death of Anna Nicole Smith with
the alleged recovery of the resting place of Jesus. Gopnik is able to weave his
family's exploits -- particularly those of his lively and clearly bright son, Luke
-- into his intellectual pursuits; he is both neurotically curious and genuinely
and infectiously in love with today's urban life -- particularly that of New York
But for all that, Gopnik, who would seem to be as obviously Jewish as anyone
might imagine a New York intellectual to be, professes surprise at being
pegged as a Jew. In his essay, "A Purim Story," which forms a chapter in his
recently released book, "Through the Children's Gate" (Knopf, 2006), he
describes a conversation with his wife:
"The thing that puzzles me ... is how they ever figured out I was Jewish."
She executed what I believe our fathers would have called a spit take. "That is
the most ridiculous question I've ever heard. There's your name, for one
thing, and then the way you use Jewish words in writing."
"What Jewish words have I ever used in writing?"
She thought for a moment. "Well, 'shvits.' And 'inchoate.'"
"'Inchoate' is not a Jewish word."
"It is the way you use it. You've got 'Jew' written all over you. It's
"It's obvious," my six-year-old son, Luke, echoed, looking up from his plate.
"It's obvious." I was startled, though not entirely...."
And thus began Gopnik's quest to uncover the meaning of Purim, the
meaning of being Jewish to a secular Jew and, perhaps, even the meaning of
faith. Where some might seek to explore such issues in conversation with a
few friends over dinner, or perhaps by taking an adult education class, or
maybe by running off to the nearest bookstore only to become overwhelmed,
Gopnik did his research by going on Sunday mornings to a deli with his son.
He also, as is his style, called up the leading authority, someone who would
seem to have little time for novices, and, with the weight of the New Yorker
imprimatur and the seeming guilessness that is his charm, got an audience.
This time it was Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, then chancellor of the Jewish
Theological Seminary. Schorsch discovered that Gopnik was using a Christian
Bible for his research, and went on to explain, impress and, perhaps, even to
elucidate Gopnik, who in the end, found his faith in Jewish humor, not
Nextbook.org, the hip, alert Jewish Web site, spent some time talking to
Gopnik about this tale, then followed up by inviting him to Los Angeles. It's
hard to resist a guy who's so curious, yet who also sets himself up as being a
little, well, naive.
I called Gopnik last week to talk about his Jewishness and comedy and to see
what he was really like. I'd been reading his work since he first started writing
for The New Yorker about art -- he'd been a student of art history at the
Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, where I also attended, though
not at the same time. And I'd followed the arc of his career from art critic (a
role I shared at the time in a much less high-profile way) to essayist and
diarist. Not long ago, he wrote at length about the death of his daughter's
betta fish, Bluie, in a side-splittingly funny style, and like most parents of our
ilk, my daughter had also had a betta for a short while. I felt like I sort of
knew Gopnik, and, well, I'm a fan.
Gopnik answered his home phone on a weekday evening, and in the course of
our conversation, he was interrupted regularly by his children, who were
alternately very excited about an upcoming hockey game on TV that evening
and wanting him to say goodbye to the piano teacher, who was leaving after
their lesson. He excused himself each time in midsentence and with complete
patience in his voice, responded to the kids and then returned to our
discourse with equal aplomb. "High and Low," the name of an art museum
catalog he authored in 1991 for a show at the Museum of Modern Art, could
be his own middle name. So the link between humor and theology, which I'd
called to ask about, seemed right up his alley.
I asked Gopnik why, as he described himself in "A Purim Story," he hadn't
been more inquisitive earlier about the religion to which he was born. Gopnik
started by explaining that both his parents were Jews but from very different
traditions. "I have a kind of double identity about Judaism," he said. "My own
parents were of that generation who, in retrospect, seem to be as Jewish as
people could be, in the sense that their only values were belief in education
and reading and argument. But the specific form it took was to be in rebellion
against their own parents, to secularize themselves."
Gopnik's father, an English professor and dean, came from an observant
Ashkenazi background, and Yiddish was his first language. He was raised
keeping kosher, and, Gopnik says, is Jewish in the "classic Philip Roth
Gopnik's mother is of Sephardi origin, and her grandfather was a "rabbi from
a distinguished rabbinical family in Hebron, in Palestine as they still called it,
who went to Lisbon to reopen the synagogue before the First World War."
That family, he said, were Levantine and also highly European, speaking
French and German, with strong ties to South America and North Africa.
Gopnik says that he was therefore always conscious of being a Jew, "and
oddly not curious about it, because it was what I grew up with. The religious
side of it was the least significant side of it, from [my parents'] point of view.
That was the thing we talked about least and heard about least."
In his turn, Gopnik's wife is Lutheran, and the family celebrates Christmas,
Chanukah and Passover. But, Gopnik says, his recent Passover seder was in
"the Alexandrian model," and having just read "Boychiks in the Hood: Travels
in the Hasidic Underground," by Robert Eisenberg (HarperCollins, 1995), he
says almost apologetically that among some Jews "we may not, even remotely
in any imaginable way, be counted as Jews."
"I don't mean to be sentimental about it," Gopnik says. "In a certain way,
we've made a secular decision, but as for so many American Jews, it also
involves a certain consciousness of valuing those traditions."
His is the dilemma of much modern Jewry -- sentimental about the seder,
secular in their beliefs, belonging to no synagogue. He is totally Jewish in his
outlook -- in terms of pursing justice (Gopnik has become an advocate for
universal health coverage), in terms of intellectual questioning (no argument
goes without multiple sides, even when only one person is talking) and in
terms of his love of humor.
Which brought us back to the topic that makes him feel most comfortable as
a Jew: jokes.
As he wrote the story of his pursuit of his Purimspiel gig, Gopnik remembers
his grandfather, the butcher whose greatest joy was that two of his
grandchildren have degrees from Oxford (Gopnik's siblings), but whose
parlance was pure vaudeville: "Feel stiff in the joints? Stay out of the
Gopnik's son, Luke, still in grade school at the time of the essay, is also a
"Daddy, did I tell you the new version?" Gopnik quotes his prodigy-progeny.
"Man goes into a restaurant, he says, 'Waiter, waiter.'"
"No," [Gopnik] corrected him, "he should just say, 'Waiter!' It's the guy who
goes to a doctor who says it twice: 'Doctor, Doctor!'..."
"Oh. He says 'Waiter, what's this fly doing in my soup?' ... then the waiter
says, 'There was no room left in the potato salad.'"
Gopnik talks pretty much the same way that he writes: long sentences, lots of
asides, a kind of sweet emphasis on details. He is (surprisingly) self-
deprecating and (not surprisingly) engaging for someone so accomplished,
and as he casually mentions dozens of books he's just read, he seems less
interested in impressing than of being precise.
Humor is something he's thought a lot about, shtick is something he does,
but not in the way of Henny Youngman or Groucho Marx, whose art form, he
believes, is gone from our culture.
"In my grandfather's generation, being able to articulate your Jewishness
against the background of assimilation and discrimination was a very
powerful thing. And you could still feel it in the work of -- someone I really
admire -- Mel Brooks, in his use of Yiddish words, like 'schvartzes' in 'Blazing
Saddles.' That was a hugely powerful thing. Or Lenny Bruce."
Gopnik's father would insert a Yiddish word into a lecture on Alexander Pope
or Ben Jonson "as a sign to his students that he came from elsewhere and as a
reminder to himself that he came from outside that tradition."
But Gopnik's own generation doesn't have the same adversarial relationship
with the surrounding culture, at least not in New York today, and it's the
integration of unacknowledged Jewishness that he believes now defines
Jewish comics. And while he finds many of them very funny, he says, the loss
of overt Jewishness in their work defines what he sees as the "fall of Jewish
Of "Seinfeld," for example, he says, "It's astonishing to me that it's at once
entirely Jewish -- the humor is entirely Jewish, the character of George, who
other than Sgt. Bilko is the most caricatural Jewish character on television
[albeit in reruns], but it's entirely denied. The parents live in Florida, they eat
dinner at 5:30, they fight with the other people in the condo...." But George is
Catholic, and Jerry unidentified. "Seinfeld is just upper-middle-class New
Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" goes even further, making the context a
Jewish guy entirely wealthy and arrived. "If you were a scholar," Gopnik
suggests, "you could say it's a classic form of Jewish humor; he's the
schlemiel, he's the smart guy, and all that's true.
Only the other funny thing about it is that it's against the background of
unbelievable affluence. They're incredibly rich. And they take for granted that
that's what life is like, because they're in show business, partly. So, in that
sense, it's not aspirational comedy -- about how you can arrive. It's about
having arrived and then trying to see how you can have your pleasures
exactly the way you want them, when you want them, without pissing people
And so, asks Gopnik, one of the more arrived writers of his generation: "Is
that maybe not something of our time?"
What marks much of Gopnik's writing is an unapologetic sentimentalism,
amid all the questioning. That, too, may be one of the bigger changes since
the ironic, uncomfortable, edgy stance of an earlier generation that was not
only aspirational but also uncomfortable about it. And the trick in making his
own work both humorous and a little weepy is part of what makes it so
familiar and, perhaps, even comfortable for many of us.
In the early 20th century, the painter artist Henri Matisse got into trouble with
his avant-garde contemporaries when he said that he dreamt of an art that
could have the effect of a good armchair, an escape from life. Having said
that, though, Matisse continued to push boundaries of artistic representation
to the limits through his use of simplified lines and bold color. Likewise, as
we read Gopnik's story of the Purimspiel and of his son's attempts to refine
comic timing, and of his own quest for how to tell Esther's story anew, it's
easy just to get lost in the yarn, with all its color.
But it's clear, too, that Gopnik is searching for something more and pushing
boundaries by mixing up Schorsch's teachings with those of his toddler
daughter, Olivia, and his late grandfather and Youngman's, "Waiter, what's
this fly doing in my soup? -- The backstroke."
Gopnik pushes us to explore the limits between today's Jews and the
surrounding culture. To help him figure out who is and who is not. To see
whether we all think the same things are funny these days.
One of the great beauties of Judaism is that it lives on the line between
intellect and sentiment, between probing and faith. It's not all about God, and
Gopnik's beliefs and observance are hardly what would make us know him as
But I don't have to say any of that, because his son already told him, with
perfect comic timing.