In the nineteenth-century, you couldn’t forward YouTube videos, but you could purchase and mail a wide variety of postcards with exceedingly mean ethnic caricatures on them. The ones that took the Jew as their subject usually depicted him as clumsy and androgynous — falling off a bicycle, dropping a rifle when drafted into the army, wrestling incompetently with another Jew, being upended by frolicking children — wailing, smiling goofily, groping for his glasses. This visual tradition matched a literary one in which authors described Jews as ‘cowed’ and ‘the least of any people addicted to military life,’ prone to calculation and incapable of ‘scuffles.’ This is not unlike the contemporary idea of the nerd.
The word ‘nerd’ doesn’t show up in print until 1950, but the old caricatures dating back to eighteenth-century England and Germany, suggest that the Jew played a similar comic role to our contemporary nerd. In fact, the paradigmatic Hollywood nerd character of the 1980s, Louis Skolnick, the Lenin of the great uprising imagined in Revenge of the Nerds, in which the nerds seize control of a college from the jocks and their allies, is to all intents and purposes a nineteenth-century postcard Jew: clumsy, limp-wristed, helpless in physical combat, with a big nose, glasses, and a toothy smile.
But of course no ethnic group is barred from nerdiness. The first nerd on American television was a WASP. Walter Denton, the model student on CBS’s Our Miss Brooks in 1952, spoke hyper-grammatically, in a neutered, puling whine. He favoured long, Greco-Latinate words over short, Germanic ones. He was essentially Tibby from Howard’s End: pompous, effeminate, socially useless but ethnically normal. The word ‘nerd’ didn’t make it onto television until the 1970s, when Fonzie, the greaser on Happy Days, used it as a synonym for ‘wuss’ or ‘chicken’, as in, ‘Don’t be a nerd.’ In the late 1970s National Lampoon published a quarter-page chart titled ‘Are You a Nurd?’ (The current spelling only became universal in the ’80s). There are the glasses held together with tape, the pocket protector, the bogeys, the soft pod for a body, the greasy dark hair, the loose papers covered with equations. An article this small and obscure was unlikely to have broad cultural impact, but by the end of the decade an enlarged poster of the article had become a hit; as a teenager, Paul Feig, the creator of the great 1999 American television drama Freaks and Geeks, hung it on his bedroom wall.
The Lampoon chart is of special interest because of the way it links the contemporary idea of the nerd to the Progressive-era idea of the ‘greasy grind’, one of the synonyms for ‘nurd’ provided in the Lampoon’s ethnography. Greasy grind was the insult applied to kids who got into top universities through super-rigorous studying rather than well-roundedness, or simply attending an elite private school. In The Chosen, a 2006 history of admissions at Harvard, Yale and Princeton, the Berkeley professor Jerome Karabel found that greasy grinds overlapped strongly with Jews, who were such a concern to administrators at those universities that they imposed quotas on their attendance, finding them unacceptably bookish and deficient in character and athleticism. It wasn’t that the idea of the greasy grind was created in response to Jews entering elite institutions; rather the influx of Jewish immigrants from Europe took place at a time when the American protestant establishment was obsessed with England’s Muscular Christianity movement, founded by Thomas Hughes and Charles Kingsley, and the cultivation of ‘vigour’ in young men, so that, like the British Empire, America could have a great destiny. The Jew and the greasy grind weren’t exactly the same thing, but they were intimately linked.
Beginning with Annie Hall, however, a different strain of Jewish nerd has emerged: the Jewish nerd as emotional relaxant and therapeutic aid. Of course, the association between Jewish men and therapy predates Woody Allen; psychotherapy was maligned as a ‘Jewish discipline’ in the first half of the twentieth century. But in the 1970s, when seeing a therapist became something you bragged about rather than concealed, it followed that you might want a Jew around to administer therapy constantly, in public, as a boyfriend. In Annie Hall, the eponymous WASP, Diane Keaton, is able to reveal her internal state to Allen’s Alvy Singer because he is so removed from the rules of conduct that prevail in her august Midwestern family. Alvy comes from a background in which nobody acquires the virtue of quiet fortitude, so prized by the Halls, enabling Annie to share her feelings with Alvy. Through this talk therapy, she grows into a more confident person. The ability to empower one’s partner through the therapist role opens doors; the visual gag that lends Annie Hall much of its charm is the vast discrepancy in conventional beauty between its two protagonists. The Jewish nerd in Todd Solondz’s movie Welcome to the Dollhouse, also invites confession, although in this case the genders are reversed. When the school bully calls her up and invites her to meet him after school so he can rape her (‘three’o’clock you get raped, kid’) what he really wants is to open up to her. As soon as they’re alone, he strikes a dramatic pose and tells her his troubles, as she nods and offers thoughtful advice. In order to use her as a therapist, he first has to convince himself he’s subjugated her, but, like the Woody Allen prototype, the therapist-nerd gains empowerment through the disclosure of the other.
One might think of these therapeutic Jewish nerds as opposites, or at the very least alternatives to, the angry Jewish nerds most famously rendered by Philip Roth. As Vivian Gornick wrote in Harper’s magazine this fall, what was striking about Roth and Saul Bellow at mid-century was that they ‘created so much influential prose out of so limited a sense of empathy.’ What mattered above all else was the scathing, rejecting voice of the outsider narrator asserting himself, bringing the world inside the mind of an angry Jew fed up with social alienation. Free from the fear of the previous generation, their literature was driven by the discovery of their own voice, and was not concerned with listening to the voices of others. The Jewish protagonists nowadays are still outsiders, but they find their place in the world through listening more than through aggressive self-expression.
In all these works, the Jewish nerd who elicits confessions from emotionally straitened WASPs in some sense represents the author: Allen’s Alvy Singer addresses the camera as the storyteller. The position of the writer and the position of the nerd are similar: both are observers rather than participants in the dramas of ‘normal’ people. The Jewish nerd becomes a device by which the subject of the story can have a conversation about her interior state with the author, and the author — full of Chekhovian tolerance for foible — can answer back. In this way the nerd, as a stand-in for the author, becomes a kind of stand-in for God. The nerd is the one who comes to know the other characters’ innermost thoughts. The nerd is the one to whom confessions are directed. Insofar as he is the author in disguise, he is the one who ultimately guides the course of events.
Contemporary literature offers us new sympathetic Jewish nerds who act as mediums for the writer. Keith Gessen’s recent novel All the Sad Young Literary Men is about ideologically-inclined young Jewish male writers who graduate from Harvard, live in New York City, temp in finance, and go to grad school in Syracuse. It is written by an ideologically-inclined young Jewish male who graduated from Harvard, temped in finance, lived in New York City, and went to grad school in Syracuse. In the case of the pudgiest of its three central characters, Mark, social exclusion and marginalisation are indistinguishable from his Jewishness. Going to the Palestinian territories to make up his mind about Israeli policy, he bonds with a fellow nerd, a Palestinian who carries a notebook full of photos of Gaza’s banished social democrats along with English vocabulary words. Even though Mark has set out to write an epic Zionist novel, he finds himself feeling closer and more sympathetic to the local underdog, in this case the Palestinians, than to his Israeli brethren. The American Jewish nerd can commune with the Palestinian, loser-to-loser. He may not be about to pick up a smuggled AK-47 and join their cause, but he’ll certainly sit down with them and talk through their problems.
What Jewish writers have done is to take the haplessness attributed to Jews for centuries and make it a cardinal virtue. In an age when sensitivity is a quality rather than a defect the limp-wristed boy falling off a bicycle can be recast as a man of dreams, or at least a guidance counsellor of dreams. The funny thing is, this is just what Hemingway bemoaned in The Sun Also Rises. In the wake of the Great War, a lost generation finds itself disillusioned with the old forms of logic and meaning.The aristocratic popular girl, Brett, hooks up with the ancy Jewish guy, Robert Cohn, while the red-blooded narrator stands by, rendered impotent by a highly symbolic but only vaguely described battle wound. The difference is that Hemingway saw this as a temporary state of affairs, a collective derangement, to be cured by watching bullfights and reestablishing a connection with the land and with things poetic and physical. But Hemingway’s temporary derangement has become everyday normality. The spiritual journey of the Bretts of the world is no longer to rediscover tradition and reconnect with one’s race. Their journey is now to discover their place among the outsiders, to admit their own incompatibility with convention. In our age of post-millenial global angst the Jewish nerd turned therapist is there to facilitate this process.
Benjamin Nugent is the author of American Nerd: The Story of My People. He has written for The New York Times Magazine, GQ, Time, n+1 and Nextbook.