Is It Funny for the Jews?

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In the climactic scene of the musical “Caroline, or Change,” an 8-year-old Jewish boy, Noah, and his African American maid, Caroline, living in the Jim Crow South, get into a heated fight and end up trading ugly insults. Noah says he hopes a bomb kills all Black people, and Caroline responds that all Jews will go to hell.

It’s always a charged moment, but there was something peculiarly unsettling about it the night I saw the recent Broadway revival. For while there was silence after Noah’s hateful outburst, what followed Caroline’s comment was something I did not expect: laughter. Nervous giggling in uncomfortable moments can be a coping mechanism. And that wasn’t the audience reaction every night. But in a radio interview, Sharon D Clarke, who played the title character, said that at the majority of shows, there was laughter. She was disturbed by it but couldn’t explain it.

I found it jarring because I thought I could. Of course it’s impossible to get inside the heads of theatergoers, but as a Jewish person, I recognized this laughter. Who would buy a ticket to a Broadway show and chuckle at the eternal damnation of Jewish people other than Jews?

There is a long, rich Jewish tradition of grappling with antisemitism by laughing at it. This has produced a vast amount of great comedy, from Mel Brooks turning Nazis into musical theater buffoons in “The Producers” to Sacha Baron Cohen, in character as Borat, leading the denizens of a Southern bar in singing, “Throw the Jew down the well.” There is a sensibility behind these jokes that I grew up around and have long embraced.

Some artists argue that making light of prejudice, or turning purveyors of it into absurdities, robs hatred of power. I’ve been persuaded by that idea, and like many secular types, a Jewish sense of humor is more integral to my identity than any religious observance. It’s also a source of pride. A resilient comic sensibility that finds joy in dark places is one of the greatest Jewish legacies — as is an ability to laugh at ourselves.

Those hung up on the question of whether the latest news is good for the Jews always seemed not only hopelessly ineffective but also tedious. Scolds from the Anti-Defamation League, alert to the damage done by every Jewish stereotype, will never end an ancient prejudice, but they could ruin a good time. And yet, as a critic engaging with a chaotic and constantly changing culture, in an online world that seems somehow both more outraged by and tolerant of hate speech, I am increasingly uncomfortable with this kind of condescension. It’s too glib. And that has made me look closer at the disturbing rise in antisemitism today, Jewish culture and identity, and the implications of what we find funny.

THERE’S BEEN GROWING PUSHBACK in the last year from some Jews about double standards in the cultural conversation. Take the increasingly politicized issue of casting, which has inspired considerable controversy. We have never been more sensitive to issues of whitewashing, appropriation and representation. Think of Scarlett Johansson being hired for an Asian role. But when gentiles are cast as Golda Meir or Mrs. Maisel or Ruth Bader Ginsburg, there is little blowback. The superb indie comedy “Shiva Baby” tackles explicitly Jewish themes, but the fact that the lead is played by a Catholic stand-up, Rachel Sennott, barely raised an eyebrow.

On her podcast, Sarah Silverman has spoken passionately about how Jewish characters are regularly played by gentile actors, specifically lamenting the lack of meaty roles for women. “The pattern in film is just undeniable,” she said, “and the pattern is — if the Jewish woman character is courageous or deserves love, she is never played by a Jew.”

She delivered this sharp monologue with an ambivalence that also resonated with me. Acting requires an empathetic leap of imagination. Like Silverman, I know that great performers of any religion can and have brilliantly played Jews, and it’s easier to pass as Jewish than, say, African American. But is experience as a Jewish person irrelevant to playing Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” (as Alfred Molina, who was raised Catholic, did on Broadway) or to embodying Joan Rivers in a biopic? (Before the project fell apart, the gentile Kathryn Hahn was slated to play her.) I think it matters. When a gentile plays a Jew, the results are often more affected, the mannerisms pronounced, which can often mean the difference between someone playing Jewish vs. inhabiting a Jewish character.

In his book “Jews Don’t Count,” the British comic David Baddiel argues that casting is one of many issues in contemporary discourse that illustrate how antisemitism is far more acceptable than other forms of bigotry. One need only point to the career of Mel Gibson to find evidence. Part of the reason, Baddiel explains, is that at a time when we are particularly sensitive to power imbalances, what distinguishes antisemitism is that the bigot imagines Jewish people as both low status (rats, venal) and high status (running the banks, part of a globalist conspiracy).

Jewish people have clearly been tremendously successful in Hollywood, on Broadway and in comedy, among other artistic pursuits, but that doesn’t erase the specific discriminatory shadow hovering behind their rise. Silverman points to the number of famous Jews who have changed their names. “If Winona Ryder had stayed Winona Horowitz, would she have starred in ‘The Age of Innocence’?” Silverman has asked. “She wouldn’t.”

Behind the discussion of gentiles in Jewish roles is the long history of Hollywood anxiety that a work will be “too Jewish,” words that have haunted Jewish artists for generations. The first time Jerry Seinfeld appeared on a sitcom, on “Benson” in 1980, he played a courier trying to sell a joke for the governor to use in a speech. When one flopped (“Did you hear about the rabbi who bought himself a ranch? Called it the Bar Mitzvah”), he asked: “Too Jewish?” Nine years later, a Jewish NBC executive dismissed the pilot for “Seinfeld” as “too New York, too Jewish,” and while it was picked up, the network ordered only four episodes.

In the most memorable joke of his breakthrough 1986 Broadway comedy, “The World According to Me,” the comic Jackie Mason said, “You know what’s going to happen after this show: The gentiles are going to say, ‘It’s a hit.’ And the Jews are going to say, ‘Too Jewish.’” Mason delivers this cheerfully, but there’s a bristling undercurrent, a finger wag about self-loathing.

Mason has always been a kind of guilty pleasure for me. Compared with my favorite comics, he seemed impossibly old-fashioned, not just in his borscht belt rhythms, but also in having bits centered on how fundamentally alien gentiles were to Jews. But listening to him again more recently, I detected a defiance that was, in its own way, radical, even countercultural. His accent itself, which if anything got thicker as he got older, represented a bold refusal to assimilate. The Jewish artists who found mainstream success didn’t sound like him.

And when he died last year, with a modest amount of media attention paid to his legacy, it made me wonder about the obstacle course of Jewish success in a country where we are a tiny minority. But I also thought about the role played by Jewish people measuring the degree of acceptable Jewishness, the kind Mason was talking about in his show.

WHEN REPRESENTATION IN CULTURE is discussed today, what’s often emphasized is how valuable it can be when children from minority groups see or hear someone like them and how that can expand their horizons. I have never felt this was an issue for me, because there seemed to be an abundance of Jewish people in the arts. Sure, some changed their names or played down their background, but we could tell. I never questioned the idea that Jews had been well represented in popular culture until I read Jeremy Dauber’s book “Jewish Comedy: A Serious History” and learned that not one leading character on prime-time television clearly identified as Jewish from 1954 to 1972 and again from 1978 to 1987.

That came as a surprise and made me reconsider my 1980s childhood diet of pop culture. Back then, this mainly consisted of the offerings of three television networks, along with the occasional PG movie. This was the era of “The Cosby Show” and “Family Ties,” and I couldn’t think of a single Jewish character on a show I watched until I became a teenager. But a major shift for Jewish representation took place in 1989. That’s when “Seinfeld,” “Anything but Love” with Richard Lewis and “Chicken Soup” with Mason all premiered. (It’s also the year of “When Harry Met Sally.”) What’s striking about this influx of Jewish characters is that only one kind was allowed: A male stand-up with a gentile love interest.

In order to not be too Jewish in the popular culture of my youth, you had to be a funny man interested in someone from another background. For a funny Jewish woman, you had to wait until “The Nanny.”

How much did it matter that as a boy I saw no Jewish couples on television? I’m not certain — draw your own conclusions about the fact that I married a non-Jew.

But one thing I surely developed as a young Jewish culture vulture were the tools to enjoy work by antisemites. The most formative artists I loved as a kid, from Roald Dahl to Ice Cube to H.P. Lovecraft, have track records of hateful comments toward Jews. I knew this even then.

Once I got older, and studying Shakespeare led to a lifelong love of theater, I never thought, as many do, that the greatness and humanity of the playwright’s characterizations transcended his portrait of Shylock in the antisemitic classic “The Merchant of Venice.” But I also found tossing aside this incredible play because of it an overreaction. To be a young Jew hungry for and alert to the best of culture sometimes meant learning to live with some antisemitism.

To be honest, this wasn’t hard. I have never felt impeded or defined by prejudice against Jews, even though I could certainly tell a version of my life that would seem like it. I have a laundry list of what are now known as microaggressions, from a childhood friend who refused to believe I was Jewish and then stopped hanging out with me to a comic online dismissing my positive review because the subject was Jewish. But these didn’t traumatize or even faze me. This is not a boast. If anything, only recently have I questioned the downside of not lingering on these events. Has a coping mechanism prevented me from seeing the world clearly?

Of course, one reason some Jews don’t make a bigger fuss about discrimination, one reason they feel comfortable laughing at it, is that they — we — feel safe. It’s easier to laugh at antisemitism when it happens in an unthreatening place. The feeling is: There are worse problems in the world.

In her acclaimed book “People Love Dead Jews,” Dara Horn takes fierce aim at this blasé attitude, at the downplaying and rationalizations that Jewish Americans make, whether it’s the strained lengths intellectuals go to to argue that Shakespeare transcended bigotry in his portrayal of Shylock or to take comfort in the story of Anne Frank’s faith in the goodness of people (before bad people killed her).

Horn’s bracing argument is that there is a cost to denial, that the rise of antisemitic incidents and hate crimes against Jews — including the deadliest antisemitic attack in American history at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh — is directly tied to the fading of the stigma of bigotry against Jews. Hatred of Jews is not unusual, she argues; it’s the years after the Holocaust when that was socially unacceptable that were the anomaly. “Historically speaking, the decades in which my parents and I had grown up simply hadn’t been normal,” writes Horn. Now, she writes, normal is back.

For Jews like myself with family photos featuring relatives murdered in the Holocaust, this point stopped me cold. There are signs of a new, more sober attitude toward antisemitism among younger Jewish artists. The 26-year-old Hannah Einbinder, who has integrated a long Hebrew prayer into her stand-up set, has said she stayed off Twitter in part because of antisemitism and always wears a Star of David necklace for political reasons.

The comic Alex Edelman, 32, built his extremely funny Off Broadway show “Just for Us” around visiting a white nationalist meeting in Queens, having conversations with antisemites that eventually culminate in confrontation. His show is pointedly pessimistic about the ability of comedy to combat bigotry.

AS I MULLED OVER THE TENSION between the twin Jewish traditions of being on guard against antisemitism and of finding humor in it, I thought back to my first adult job, as a copy editor at the Jewish newspaper The Forward in the late 1990s.

One of my responsibilities was typing the hard-copy letters to the editor into the computer system, and in filing one from a woman offering feedback on a story about Hebrew schools, I made a typo. What she wrote in reference to her childhood peers was: “We knew exactly why Micah told us first to do justice, then to love mercy.” In a catastrophic mistake, I transcribed it as: “first to do justice, then to love money.”

It didn’t take long before I was summoned to the editor’s office and fired. My first reaction was shock and panic. What will I do now? How will I pay the rent? But upon reflection, what stands out is how quickly my anxiety transformed into a kind of delight. I lost a job but gained a terrifically funny story that I would surely tell for years. And I did. It has gotten a ton of laughs. Long before social media, my story went viral offline, so much so that someone told it to me at a party not knowing it was about me. In my version, the woman who wrote the letter and the editor who fired me were guilty of a ridiculous overreaction to an honest mistake. Couldn’t they just laugh it off?

In 2014, after a Pew study revealed that 42 percent of American Jews described having a good sense of humor as “essential” to being Jewish (more than twice as many as those who cited “Observing Jewish Law”), The Forward asked me to return to speak to its editorial board about comedy. In exchange, I asked if I could find the letter with my typo from the archives. I made a copy, framed it and put it above my desk. More recently, I took it down and put it in a file.

I wish I could say that considering these issues has led to a dramatic epiphany, that it has radically changed me as a critic and a Jew. That would make for a better ending to this essay. But the truth is that I remain ambivalent, as uncomfortable with being defined by prejudice as with ignoring it, living up to the stereotype of the neurotic Jew.

Though I still find that story of being fired to be funny, now the outraged response doesn’t seem ridiculous. Joking about dark things is one of the great joys in life. But some laughs should stick in your throat.

Audio produced by Tally Abecassis.