The Confession of an American Jew

Everybody wants to know, but nobody wants to ask: Why are Jews funny? A journey far from the roads of good intentions.

A friend once asked why there are so many Jews in comedy. I must confess: The question struck me as dangerous—akin to asking why so many Greeks own diners. Still, he was hardly the first to make the association. The relationship between Jews and comedy frequently has been noted by scholars, serious talk-show hosts, and pudgy AEΠ guys.

And with good reason. No one can ignore the powerful Jewish presence in American comedy: the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, George Burns, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner, Neil Simon, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Henny Youngman, Jackie Mason, Don Rickles, Buddy Hackett, Rodney Dangerfield, Lenny Bruce, Gilda Radner, Andy Kaufman, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Sarah Silverman, Noam Chomsky.

So I decided to give my friend the politically correct answer: that the Jews had been forced into comedy by the downsizing of the Zionist government and continued outsourcing of baptized-baby blood-drinking jobs.

My sarcasm flowed from many places, but I had to acknowledge part of it came from my inability to provide a more satisfying answer. I simply didn’t know why there were there so many Jews in comedy. My Hebrew school certainly didn’t offer credits in stand-up, and I was pretty sure there wasn’t an “earlier, funnier” Torah. It bothered me that I didn’t have a better answer then, and it took me a long time before I realized I was making a mistake by focusing on the Jew in isolation. If Jew plus America equaled comedy, then there had to be something funny about that combination—and there is.

In America, Jews are a white minority. Think about that: We can live comfortably, practice freely, and bowl adequately. But being a Jew in America is like using left-handed scissors: You can make it work, but it just doesn’t feel right. This is Jesusland. Always has been, always will be. So perhaps what makes Jews so funny is not Judaism, but Christianity—and the American Jew’s constant immersion in it. Don’t believe me? Who could blame you? It’s easy to accept that Jesus healed the sick, raised the dead, and walked on water, but believing he begat the funniest fuckers on the planet would take a true leap of faith.

The Comedic Effect of Christianity

Sometime shortly after birth, an American Jew realizes he’s in the minority. That realization takes a little longer if the delivering obstetrician is Jewish or if the baby’s born in New York, but it’s still clear from very early on. This is a Christian show—and that’s no accident. Because when it comes to amassing a religious majority, Christianity, like most winners, cheats. And not just in the big historical ways (Spanish Inquisition, Crusades, Santa Claus), but with something more basic, something all around us: Christianity has ingrained an almost irresistibly hard sell right into its architecture. Beautifully adorned churches demand awe and reverence. Towering steeples force spectators to raise their eyes toward the heavens, where affixed crucifixes live in the sky. You can’t see a church without looking up—at God.

Surely, Christianity is God’s true religion because unlike comparatively modest synagogues, churches are more than houses of God; they’re homes for God. A place He might actually crash after a hard day of smiting. Sometimes He even hangs out there in those terrifyingly inspirational wax museum curios. You know what He looks like. The proof is in the plaster. (Though it strikes me as odd that a religion that places such a high premium on faith would leave so little to the imagination.)

And while I’m referring more to the flashiness of Catholicism than Christianity as a whole, Jews know as much about these differences as gentiles do about varying Sephardic and Ashkenazi pronunciations. In the end, all that matters to Jews is that it’s a Christian world and Christianity is growing, setting up shop in more and more places, always ahead of the competition and undaunted by the occasional lawsuit.

Humor can undo some deeply held beliefs. Just look at Jerry Lewis. How else, but through comedy, could the French be fooled into loving such a greasy Jew? Jews know this. And we accept that Christianity is lovely and successful and popular and comforting. Furthermore, we know all about you without even going to church because—unlike the mysteries of our minority religion—Christianity flourishes in the secular world. There are really good Christmas carols and Christmas movies and New Testament allegorical adventures with talking animals. But sometimes Christianity’s über-majority status becomes empowering to the point of perversion. Either that or they must be handing out testicles at Mass, because some Christians actually have the balls to complain about “Jewish paranoia”—as if six million Jewish men, women, and children weren’t rounded up, shipped out, tortured, and killed in the middle of the 20th century. Calling Jews “paranoid” is like giving shit to Christians in Ancient Rome for acting “kinda jumpy” around lions.

So, yeah, that’s being a Jew in America. It’s not heartbreaking, it’s not debilitating, and it’s clearly not as difficult as being a non-white minority—though it’s had its moments. And while 2,000 years ago we might have gotten all Judah Maccabee on your ass, now all we have is Jon Stewart (and he’s not as good with a hammer as we hoped). So what else can we do except joke about it? Besides, comedy can be powerful; humor can undo some deeply held beliefs. Just look at Jerry Lewis. How else, but through comedy, could the French be fooled into loving such a greasy Jew?

But is that all Jewish comedy really is? A way of complaining? A subtler form of throwing a punch? A cry for acceptance? For some, sure, but those guys never seem to make it past a couple of Letterman appearances. There’s more to it than that because the truth is, we’re not sore losers. We haven’t even lost. Look it up. There’s never been a race between Judaism and Christianity to see who could amass the greatest numbers of souls. Judaism has always been an invitation-only affair, a reward that’s unsettlingly similar to a punishment. Like when the schoolteacher picks the good kid to help clean the erasers after class, Judaism is something of a burden. And that accounts for a need for humor as much as anything else.

Tikkun Olam and Comedy

Jews go by many names—”Children of Israel,” “Members of the Tribe,” “Executive Producer”—but perhaps the most descriptive is “Chosen People.” Chosen. Set apart by God. That means we don’t go looking for converts. Indeed, if a gentile comes to a rabbi seeking conversion, the rabbi is to refuse the candidate three times before even discussing the possibility of converting. Don’t hate us for that. It’s not like we’re bogarting the one true path to salvation. We don’t have a heaven, and if we did, we wouldn’t believe that only Jews go there. It’s not like Miami Beach.

No, rabbis initially refuse a convert only to make sure the potential Jew is serious—and tenacious. Because there’s work to be done. The world is incomplete, and God chose the Jews to complete it. Not chosen to reach heaven before others, but chosen to help with the heavy lifting during the final phases of construction. This concept is embodied in the Hebrew phrase “tikkun olam,” which roughly translates to “putting the world in order,” and conveys an obligation on Jews to pursue social justice. And even though countless Jews have never heard this phrase, we all carry it in our hearts, somehow.

The joke recognizes that Jews don’t do things the easy way. Why? Because they’re supposed to do more. But how does a Jew—even a religiously ignorant Jew—achieve these ends? How does a Jew complete the world? Charitable donation? Labor organization? New York Times op-ed? We don’t know. Somewhere there is a nagging voice telling us that everything is not all right. That action can’t be left to someone else at some other time. It’s hard to say if it’s the voice of God or the voice of history or, if Philip Roth were right, the voice of our mothers—but apparently he was raised by a cartoon. And still, we hear that voice and, without knowing what to do with it, sometimes we make a joke. Can making a joke mend the world? It sure couldn’t hurt.

Probably everything you need to know about this kind of Jewish humor and the Jews as a people can be summed up in an old joke popularized by Jack Benny and, more recently, Eddie Murphy in Coming to America:

An old Jewish man sits down in a fancy restaurant and orders a bowl of soup. Within 30 seconds of being brought his order, the man calls the waiter over and asks that he taste the soup. The waiter inquires as to the problem. The Jew doesn’t answer, but again asks the waiter to taste the soup. The waiter advises that he’s not in the habit of tasting patrons’ food, but the Jew persists. The waiter asks if the soup’s too cold, too hot, or contains—heaven forbid—a fly. Each time the Jew merely repeats his request for the waiter to taste the soup. Ultimately, the waiter relents, if only to bring some closure to what has become quite an episode. He looks all around the table, and then asks, “Where’s the spoon?” To which the Jew replies with a smile, “A-ha.”

This is my favorite Jewish joke, even though I’m sure the only thing most take away from it is that Jews are insufferable pains in the ass. But that’s only the obvious punch line. Of course it’s easier just to ask for a spoon. This joke recognizes that Jews don’t do things the easy way. Why? Because they’re supposed to do more. This old man wanted to teach a lesson and not in a haughty, degrading manner, but through humor. Without putting the waiter down, he said, “Understand what’s it’s like to be a hungry man with a bowl of soup and no spoon.” Yes, he wanted a spoon, but he also wanted to make the waiter remember. This old Jew wants to make sure that someone else gets their spoon tomorrow.

Perhaps more important, though, is that by taking the time and energy to do things the hard way, he confirms his faith in humanity. He rejects cynicism. Who would waste that kind of energy unless they believed they were addressing someone who wanted to be taught? That kind of humor, mixed with energy and faith, is a tiny part of tikkun olam. And even though it’s not in the joke—because it’s not funny—I like to believe the old Jew left the waiter a good tip. Of course, he did: The Jew likes the waiter. Don’t you know that?

This joke is only possible with a Jewish patron. Change the customer to a WASP and this is what you get:

An old WASP sits down in a fancy restaurant and orders a bowl of soup. After receiving his order, he notices that the waiter has failed to bring a spoon. Accordingly, he simmers, quietly, for five minutes until he can catch the waiter’s attention with a polite gesture. Upon doing so, he requests a spoon while mentally calculating a small, but distinct, reduction in tip.

The sad part is that most of us would rather sit at the table next to the quiet (if angry) WASP were we at the restaurant. But don’t you think the old Jew knows that, too? He lives in this world. He knows he has been set apart. But he does it anyway. He makes a joke knowing that some will view him merely as the joke.

But what about those who might reject that analysis? People who are convinced this joke is only about how far Jews will go to belittle and belabor, because they think they’re better than gentiles? Of them I would ask, “Is it hard to find a place to get your jackboots properly polished in Argentina?” Because these are the people who can’t be taught. These are the people who blindly hate. And they deserve the Don Rickles kind of comedy, not the Jack Benny kind. Being a Jew in America you need to learn the difference, and if people are going to hate you anyway, well, then sometimes it feels better to give them a reason.

A Rejected Invitation and the Confession

Don’t get me wrong. America is rife with gentiles who magnanimously blur the distinctions between Jews and the rest of Americans. They’re really swell folks. They stress unanimity. Some are even hostile to the notion of a difference. “You’re just like us,” they say while adjusting their navy blue sports jackets—”and who wouldn’t want to be?” Who could envision anything better? Don’t the citizens of every country want a government just like ours? A powerful presumption by Christian Americans who fully understand (without ever even stating it, of course) that Christianity is America: powerful, successful, expansive, and almost completely devoid of American Indians.

So sometimes, our humor is a polite way to decline your invitation to climb aboard the S.S. Milquetoast. Flattering to be thought of that way, but we better not. We’ll react badly to the shellfish appetizer. Yes, it’s like an allergy.

It’s better that we use humor to kindly keep some distance and gently remind you who we are, to save us both the pain of your shocking realization. Because even the most inclusive of you will ultimately discern the difference. And we want to be different. Yes, we can throw a punch or a football. We can drink a beer or go fishing. But we don’t buy meat on a stick or tell our kids they can skip homework to watch the Final Four. We won’t do something because everyone’s doing it. We won’t believe all’s well that ends well when the same sin is scheduled for the day after tomorrow. Except for those Jews who will—because some Jews do. And I don’t know what to say about them. They own BMWs. They like Philip Roth. They don’t make inappropriate jokes. They ruin theories. They’re not like me.

I like to think those Jews aren’t funny. That they don’t laugh at the right jokes. That all of them probably wish they were Christians. And I like to say I’m different—that if I were Christian, I’d ask to convert to Judaism. But I have to confess, I’m truly afraid I might only ask twice. Funny, isn’t it?