April 19, 2007
Adam Gopnik: Doctor, Doctor! There’s a joke in my Judaism
(Page 2 - Previous Page)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 joints!"
Gopnik's son, Luke, still in grade school at the time of the essay, is also a joke teller:
"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 comedy."
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 York."
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 off."
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.