February 26, 2013
Comedy is good for the Jews
Are you one of those Jews who got offended by Seth MacFarlane's "Jews control Hollywood" shtick at the Academy Awards last Sunday night? And do you agree with Anti-Defamation League (ADL) leader Abe Foxman's statement that MacFarlane's attempt at humor was "sad and disheartening" because it "reinforces stereotypes which legitimize anti-Semitism"?
Well, I think I can make you feel better.
First, this notion of poking fun at Jews has to be looked at in the context of the century-old love affair between Jews and America, and the role of humor in that love affair.
Until the birth of Israel, no country has been so welcoming to the Jews. After 1,900 years of feeling insecure wherever we lived - and very often persecuted - we finally found in America a haven that would protect us and give us the freedom to succeed.
And boy did we succeed, beyond anyone's dreams.
We spawned generations of successful Jews, who have left extraordinary marks on American life: prominent doctors, lawyers, business tycoons, real estate moguls, philanthropists, professors, scientists, artists, politicians, media titans and, of course, Hollywood machers.
This enormous success earned the Jews a lot of respect.
But respect doesn't necessarily mean love.
To be loved, as I recall from a psychology class in college, you need to earn respect and affection.
And who are the experts at earning affection?
Yes, those who make us laugh. The comedians.
Has any ethnic group made Americans laugh more than the Jews?
From the early days of vaudeville to Jon Stewart today - names like the Marx Brothers, George Burns, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Neil Simon, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Jackie Mason, Don Rickles, Rodney Dangerfield, Lenny Bruce, Gilda Radner, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Adam Sandler, Howard Stern, Ben Stiller and Sarah Silverman, just to name a few - Jewish humor has pretty much become synonymous with American humor.
Jewish comedy has come to symbolize Jewish success: We feel so free and successful that we can afford to poke fun at the world, and, especially, at ourselves.
One of the most endearing qualities you can have is the ability to poke fun at yourself. No people have poked fun at themselves and embraced humor quite like the Jews.
Humor also signifies human power. The ability to make people surrender to their laughing gene is given only to a chosen few, and the Jews have been at the head of those chosen few.
For more than a century, Jews have tickled America's funny bone. If making someone laugh is one of the most generous of all human acts, then the Jews have been the most generous of immigrants.
In fact, I have this theory that the best fighters against anti-Semitism in America have been not the Jewish activists (like the ADL), but the Jewish comedians.
Comedy disarms a lot better than press releases. A funny routine by Billy Crystal or Seinfeld poking fun at Jewish stereotypes is a lot more endearing than a press release complaining about how reinforcing Jewish stereotypes legitimizes anti-Semitism.
The well-meaning kvetching chorus in the Jewish establishment that sees anti-Semitism around every corner ought to be very careful not to turn our reputation into a people without a sense of humor.
Having a sense of humor means being able to take it, not just dish it out. Sure, I get it. Poking fun at Jewish stereotypes recalls classic anti-Semitic tropes and so on. But not all stereotypes are created equal. Being "successful in Hollywood" is a galaxy away from the blood libels of the past. And, in any event, where would comedy be without stereotypes?
If you ask me, losing our sense of humor would create a lot more anti-Semites.
And no, I don't buy the argument that "only Jews have the right to poke fun at Jews." That's a sign of weakness. The fact that a non-Jewish comedian had the cojones to poke fun at Jewish stereotypes at the Academy Awards is a compliment, not an insult. It says to the world, "I think Jews are strong enough and cool enough and funny enough to take it."
If MacFarlane was spoofing a stereotype of the American Jew as "very successful and with a great sense of humor," I'll take that any day of the week.
It's no coincidence that in a recent study by sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell, Americans said they had warmer feelings toward Jews than toward any other religious group.
Where do you think these warm feelings come from? From ADL press releases? No, a crucial ingredient undoubtedly has been our ability to laugh at ourselves and make others laugh. Once we lose that reputation, we'll only look weak and boring - and who would love that?
If worried leaders like Abe Foxman are looking for new targets, instead of going after comedians, they ought to check out a new study by the Henry Jackson Society that shows how the threat of Islamic terrorism is increasingly in our own backyard.
Hmm, Islamic terrorism. Now that's a strain of anti-Semitism I find has very little humor.