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The View from New York

by David Katz

David Katz  |  Winter 2006/2007  -  Number 204


It’s a truth universally acknowledged that the Jews are ‘funny’, both in the sense of possessing a distinct sense of humour and in the sense of simply being, well, peculiar. What other people’s contributions to the cultural gene pool range so broadly from the sublime to the ridiculous? For every Sigmund Freud (‘Sometimes a cigar is only a cigar’), there is a Henny Youngman (‘Why don't Jews drink? It interferes with their suffering’). For every Albert Einstein, a Woody Allen; for every Spinoza, a Seinfeld. There are the two Berlins - Isaiah and Irving – and, of course, Karl Marx, the inventor of Communism, and Groucho Marx, the inventor of the seven-cent nickel and Lydia the Tattooed Lady. The morbid but irrepressible Hebrew talent for distilling the comic from the catastrophic is often cited as one of the major factors in a resilience that has enabled Jews to survive exile, massacre, oppression, persecution, pogrom and genocide for nearly 3,000 years. To paraphrase one of the most determined antisemites in history, Friedrich Nietzsche: whatever doesn’t kill me, makes me funny.

The most recent entrant to the pantheon of Jewish jokesters is Sacha Baron Cohen, a scandalously gifted mimic, an Orthodox Jew who doesn’t answer his mobile phone on Shabbat, and the creator of three severely syntactically challenged screwball reporters: Ali G, a dimwitted UK rapper; Borat, a sex-crazed, antisemitic buffoon from Kazakhstan; and Bruno, a gay Austrian fashionista with a Nazi fetish. All work hard to bring out the worst sexist, racist, homophobic, jingoistic and especially antisemitic propensities of the unsuspecting celebrities and common folk they interview. The ‘victims’ of Cohen’s madcap interrogations come off as everything from mildly befuddled, totally clueless or flabbergasted by the cosmic stupidity of his questions. Ali G once asked astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, what it was like to walk on the sun. Aldrin looked at G as if he had escaped from a lunatic asylum, before patiently explaining to him, in all seriousness, that walking on the sun would be impossible, because it was so hot you would burn to a crisp!

Watching Borat report on ‘The Running of The Jew’, in which giant papier-mâché heads of two Jews (one called ‘Mrs Jew’) are chased and beaten by a mob of cheering Kazakhs, or asking an American gunshop owner what firearm he recommends for killing Jews (a .45 or a .22 is good, the proprietor replies calmly), I must admit to squirming amid the laughter at a crowded Manhattan cinema last week, where a high percentage of the audience consisted of my co-religionists. It occurred to me that, whilst being among the funniest people on the planet, Jews are also probably the most tolerant of a self-deprecation often so virulent it borders on the much celebrated self-hatred Jews are fond of accusing each other of. While we guffaw at Borat’s moronic antics, do we really believe that ‘other people’ (read: the goyim) will see through the slurs to the barbed satire beneath?

Jews take self-mockery to a level that is sometimes barely distinguishable from actual antisemitism. Mel Brooks’s The Producers features a rapacious Jewish impresario who stages a sure-to-bomb musical about Hitler in order to swindle his backers out of their money. The New YorkTimes recently ran an article about Jewface, an album of songs salvaged from wax cylinder recordings and scratchy 78s, examples of a century-old genre known as Jewish dialect music, which was performed in vaudeville houses by singers, usually Jewish, in hooked putty noses, oversize derbies and tattered overcoats. The CD includes a 1916 number by Irving Berlin entitled ‘Cohen Owes Me Ninety-Seven Dollars’, about a businessman on his deathbed who cannot stop fretting over a debt still owed him. And what about Larry David’s highly rated and very funny cable sitcom, Curb Your Enthusiasm? One episode finds David (the creator of Seinfeld) buying tickets for the High Holy Days from a scalper, cleaning his glasses with his yarmulke during services, and attempting an affair with the divorced Orthodox wife of his dry cleaner. When he shows up at her house with both his dry cleaning and a sheet with a hole in it, the extremely sexy, and very Semitic, Gina Gershon asks him if he wants his suits cleaned or he wants to screw. It’s hysterical - but is it good for the Jews?

In Russia, birthplace of the infamous Protocols of The Elders of Zion, they’re taking no chances: Borat, due to open in 300 cinemas in November, has been banned for potentially humiliating various ethnic groups and religions, making it the first film to be banned since the downfall of Communism - another invention of those crafty Jews!

David Katz has written for a variety of publications, including High Times, East Side Review, Rap Express and Girls Over 40. He lives in Manhattan.

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