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Do ‘Jewish jokes’ need to be updated?

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By Danny Bloom

Danny Bloom

CHIAYI CITY, Taiwan — When I first began to write “The Silverman Manifesto (2012)”, I had some qualms about how it might or might not go over among American Jews, and whether it might be or might not be accepted. Still, struck by some of the God-awful humor that has made its way into so-called “Jewish humor” over the years — most of it good and life-affirming, but some of it tasteless and sexist and even feeding into the Internet hands of neo-Nazis and anti-semites — I decided to push on with the manifesto in order to raise some issues that I hope thoughtful people will address, pro and on. I have no agenda here, and I am all ears. I am sincerely interested in hearing from all points of view on this, and I will censor no one.

The manifesto below is an alarm bell, I hope, a wake up call for Jewish writers, comedians, film directors, artists, screenwriters, producers, actors and others to re-examine the state of Jewish humor in 2012 and where it’s headed. And a look back to the past might not hurt either.

When I proposed this oped commentary to a Jewish editor in California, he told me that it was a good idea but that it needed some work.

“How about interviewing some Jewish comedians on this topic, and perhaps some sociologists and psychologists as well, and give me a report on why some Jews paint false pictures of themselves,” the editor suggested.

What set me off a few weeks ago was the opening of a new play off-Broadway titled “Old Jews Telling Jokes” that was based on a popular video website that was launched in 2008 by some Jewish dudes with good credentials. The website was and is hilarious, and if you’ve never seen it yet, by all means go and check it out. The videos consist of elderly Jewish men and women, over 60, telling one minute jokes they like to tell. Some of them work. Some of them go over like a lead balloon. But all of the videos on the website are fun and funny and offer an interesting window into Jewish life in America.

I was one of the first to sign up for the free weekly website pitches, and I’ve been a fan ever since. I love humor, especially Jewish humor, and I love old people. I’m the bloke who wrote “Bubbie and Zadie Come To My House” in 1985 and I got some street cred, too. But when the website morphed into an off-Broadway play, and I read some of the reviews, I began to worry that maybe the play was going too far with old, out-dated Jewish jokes that are sexist, vile, tasteless and sometimes even defame Jews as a people. So why, I asked myself, are Jews still putting out this dreck, when there is another way that Jewish humor can go in the 21st Century and that is toward life-affirming, positive, constructive, empathetic, loving humor that is at the same time “all in the family” and fun?

So I sat down and wrote The Silverman Manifesto:

”Enough of this self loathing and self hating! Enough of Jews themselves denigrating themselves in public shows of comedy or books! Enough of dysfunctional families and ghetto Jews from the past!

”We are now living in 2012 and we are no longer dysfunctional people nor do we live in dysfunctional families anymore and Jewish mother jokes and Jewish Princess jokes and distasteful Joan Rivers’ Anne Frank jokes should be thrown out the window.

”The Bronx and Brooklyn ghettoes are things of the past. Wake up, fellow Jews and cast off your self loathing and self hatred with these terrible jokes about dysfunctional mothers and weak fathers and antisemitic tropes that are sometimes even worse than Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice schtick! Wake up, people!

”We are a normal people now, successful, middle-class, no longer in the New York City ghettoes where much of the old sick humor came from. Sure, in the 1930s, those jokes had a purpose. Sure, in the 1950s, after the war, maybe some of those jokes still had a purpose. But now, in 2012, they have no purpose! Those jokes should be retired and you know exactly what jokes I am talking about!

”We don’t live in dysfunctional families anymore and we have success stories all around, in an entirely new and loving way. It’s time for Jews in America to wake up and smell the new air of happiness and life. It’s time to stop the self loathing and self hating Catskills and Borscht Belt jokes of the 1950s and celebrate the joyful reality of 2012.

”Stand up and create a new kind of warm, life enhancing and positive humor that goes beyond the old stereotypes of yore. Rise up and rejoice, O Jews of America, you have nothing to lose but your long-suffering neuroses. We are  no longer a neurotic people. Stop the Jewish mother jokes, stop the JAP jokes, stop the sick Anne Frank jokes (and books!), stop the dysfunctional family jokes, stop the victimization. We are no longer victims. We have made it. Wake up and celebrate success, joy, happiness, normalness.

”Enough already. We are normal. We have arrived. Leave the past alone. Where it belongs. Stop the Jews are cheap jokes; some of the most philanthropic people on Earth are American Jews: they build hospitals, museums, fund scientific research, professorships, educational initiatives. Focus on the good and the positive; leave the past where it belongs: in the past!

”Wake up and smell the sunshine. We don’t all live in the Bronx or Brooklyn anymore, or Queens or Beverly Hills. American Jews must evolve. Be nice, all ye who are comedians and humor writers. Respect yourselves. Respect what we have become now in 2012.

”Stop the old, out-dated stereotypes. We can write a new chapter in American Jewish history in the creative arts of comedy and film and literature and it does not have to be Portnoy’s Complaint anymore. Nor does it have to be Old Jews Telling Jokes off-Broadway anymore. Mirror the present, stop mirroring the dysfunctional ghetto past. Get past the past! Embrace the now!”

Okay, maybe I repeated myself a few times here and there, and I was writing fast and can correct the repetition later on. For now, I just want to issue this wake up call and get feedback, pro and con. I have no agenda and I have no dog in this fight. I just feel, I just feel, it’s time to move on. We are no longer living in the ghettoes and we are already third and fourth generation American Jews. Do we still have to wallow in old, stereotyped jokes that were written by comedians of the past?

I asked around, as my wise editor asked me to, and here are some of the comments I got back so far. More to come in the future, as this manifesto finds its footing.

“The jokes, like many of the comedians, might be aging, but a lot of their point is anachronism, and a lot of that humor originated when the movement out of the ghetto neighborhoods began,” a Princeton scholar in his 60s told me. “Read Arthur Miller’s autobiography, ‘Timebends’, about growing up on the Upper West Side and seeing the chauffeur-driven limousines of his father and other factory owners waiting to take them to the garment district, for example.”

“A lot of older Jewish humor from the past is also positive and refers to aspirations for children to be (or to marry) professionals with a good income — in order to aspire get out of the Bronx or Brooklyn ghetto neighborhoods,” he continued. “What you’re referring to with your manifesto is really part of a broader nostalgia wave — itself old by now, and in part the work of Jewish entrepreneurs like Ralph Lauren. You might also compare Jewish humor to Larry the Cable Guy, who is actually from Nebraska and a college graduate but who created a redneck character. You could say that redneck humor came into its own only with the rise of the Sunbelt. It’s certainly okay to attack the trend of negative Jewish humor, but to me the real objection is that this stuff is getting stale by now. Things are more complicated with black comedians, who took over edgier stuff from their Jewish colleagues.”

And not being able to resist a good Jewish joke, and one I approve of, as this is the essence of life-affirming and positive American humor, my Princeton pal adds: “By the way, Danny, did you know what joke Rodney Dangerfield said always got the biggest laughs for him?  Goes like this: ‘A new hire meets with boss, who tells him among other things to keep his salary strictly confidential, replies, “Don’t worry, I’m as ashamed of it as you are.”‘

Peter Kubicek, a 80 year old Holocaust survivor from Czechoslovakia who spent time in six Nazi labor camp as a child and now lives in New York, and a mensch among mensches, agrees with me but also disagrees, saying: “This manifesto is fine, but I think you go too far. Some of the traditional Jewish jokes we here all the time are simply self-deprecating and indicate that we do not have to take ourselves so seriously all the time. Lighten up, Danny.”

When I queried a respected Jewish professor at Michigan State University for her opinion on the sentiments contained in the manifesto, she wrote back to me in Internet time: “So sorry, Danny. My schedule now is crazy — I’m afraid I cannot read this and don’t have time to respond.”

[I love busy professors who don't want to get involved in the very issues they profess to profess about. That's life in the manifesto lane!]

Another friend of mine, who live on Long Island and is a longtime observer of Jewish culture from the perspective of the publishing field and is himself the son of Holocaust survivors, tells me: “Danny, you don’t know my relatives. Normal is not in their vocabulary. Here’s the thing, who’s normal? Jews are as normal or as abnormal as most other civilized ethnic groups. We tend to have a lot more inbreeding than other groups, but what the hell. I just don’t see having to tell anyone that we are now ‘normal’ in 2012 helps any argument. We all have our ways at looking at the same things and not necessarily seeing the same thing. That’s that makes us interesting. And by the way, Danny, just so you know, my opinion is my opinion, and I know I could always be wrong. It’s just that I know I’m right.”

Wayne Hoffman, a drama critic, said this about the play, which he loved, by the way: ”All the usual topics are covered: Jewish mothers, impotence, digestive problems, death, doctors, assimilation, and, of course, oral sex.”

A very good friend in the Berkshires, a novelist, who knows more about Jews than I will ever know, and has the books behind him to show it, tells me: To be honest, Danny, this manifesto is one of your crusades that simply does not grab me.  Popular culture has so little lasting impact that it’s not worth your intelligence or energy to go down this path.”

Says a 93 year old friend of mine in Australia, not Jewish but a longtime newspaperman: ”I support your viewpoint, Danny, but I fear you will have an uphill battle with this manifesto!”

Jewish Princess jokes? Are they still around or did they get the axe? Says a Jewish newspaper editor from Manhattan: “Danny, I don’t see what your manifesto is driving at. I myself haven’t heard a JAP joke in 20 years. I suggest you look for a topic that is more current and relevant to these times.”

So maybe those old stale and often tasteless and sexist JAP jokes have been jettisoned. Good! I always hated those JAP jokes and I am glad to hear they have been retired. Still, Marilyn Stasio, reviewing the play for variety, wrote: “By the time the show moves from Birth and Childhood, through Dating and Marriage and Business and Money and lands between Doctors and Death, Weston has tried on more accents than Jewish American Princesses do shoes.”

So the stale and sexist JAP joke is not dead, it seems, thanks to Ms Stasio, who may or may not be Jewish herself (not that it matters, or does it?)

But what about those stale and anti-female Jewish Mother jokes that are still around and even make their way into the Peter Gethers and Daniel Okrent co-production of “Old Jews Telling Jokes”?

Ms. Stasio, again for Variety, writes: “Marilyn Sokol  …applies her genius for physical comedy to the adorably named Bunny. Her verbal forte is Jewish mother jokes (Question: “Why don’t Jewish mothers drink?” Answer: “They don’t want to dull the pain”).”

Stasio lands one more Jewish Mother punch: “Lenny Wolpe … is the genial guy, the funny uncle who can make even a Jewish mother laugh.”

[Ms Stasio, please! It's 2012, not 1912? Jewish mothers are doing fine, now. Stop the stereotypes!]

Says one critic of the play, Elisabeth Vincentelli, a native of France who has been living in the USA for the past 20 years, and who liked most of the jokes but had some reservations about some of the material: “Unlike the Old Jews Telling Jokes Website, which you can leave after a ba-dum-bump or three, the off-Broadway show holds you hostage. And no matter how funny the material is here, 90 minutes worth of doctor visits and “oy, my wife!” is exhausting.”

Another critic, also a woman, Jessica Shaw, was more critical: “This play, now playing at Off Broadway’s Westside Theatre, [is an add-on] to the simple website concept’s successful franchise and you’ve got a lot of jokes about overbearing wives who don’t want to have sex with their shlemiel husbands…In fact, the performance I attended left the mostly geriatric audience in stitches, often repeating punchlines for their hard-of-hearing seat-mates…Too often, ‘Old Jews Telling Jokes’ feels like a night of community theater put on for an Upper West Side nursing home.”

And another critic, again a woman, Eleanor J. Bader, said she liked the show for “its funny — and yes, sometimes corny — stuff” but added a note of caution: “Occasionally, however, the sexism is glaring and the Jewish mamma stereotypes are more annoying than amusing.”

Got that Gethers and Okrent? The sexism was glaring and the Jewish mother jokes were more annoying than amusing. Eleanor J. Bader, who liked the show as a whole, said that. It’s important to listen to her, too.

Okay, my friendniks: time to close the curtain on this broadside. Here are four jokes from the play to end with, with my comments, and you, dear reader, please, tell me which ones you like or don’t like:

* A Russian man, a French man and a Jewish man are lost in the desert. The Russian says, “Ach, I’m tired and thirsty — I must haf a wodka.” The Frenchman says, “Mon dieu, I am tired and zirsty, I must have some wine.” The Jew says, “Oy, I’m tired and thoisty — I must have diabetes.” [So Jews in 2012 are more likely to be hypochodriacs than other people?]

* I told my mother I was finally getting married. She was thrilled! She wanted to meet my fiancée so I said, “Ma, I’m gonna play a little game with you. I’m gonna bring in three women and you have to guess which one’s gonna be my wife.” She said fine, so the next day I brought in three beautiful women. My mom talks to each of them for 15 seconds and then she turns to me and says, “The one in the middle.” I said, “Ma, that’s amazing! How’d you do that?” She said, “That’s the one I don’t like.” [So Jewish mothers still act like this in 2012?]

* A man goes to see his rabbi. He says, “Rabbi, I think my wife is poisoning me. I don’t know what to do!” The rabbi says, “Give me a chance to talk to her and I’ll get back to you.” The next day, the rabbi calls the guy and says, “I had a long, long talk with your wife. Three hours at least.” The man says, “Yes, yes, so what’s your advice?” “Take the poison.” [This is funny? In 2012? In 1962, yes but now in 2012?]

* Zipkin and Weinstein walk by a Catholic church. A big sign says, “Convert to Catholicism and Get $50.” Weinstein says, “I’m gonna do it.” He strides into the church and comes out 20 minutes later with his head bowed. Zipkin says, “So, did you get your $50?” Weinstein looks at him and says, “Is that all you people think about?” [So Jews, who contribute in major ways to philanthropic organizations that help all people, not just Jews, are still cast as cheap? In 2012?]

Jason Zinoman of the New York Times puts it this way, in reviewing the play: “Of course, the world and its stereotypes have changed, making some wonder if assimilation threatens the future of Jewish humor,” adding: “This show is more interested in honoring the past than refreshing it.”

Then again, Zinoman is the Times man who thinks tasteless and vile Anne Frank jokes are so funny and that Shalom Auslander is a great Jewish writer. He wrote in his review of “Old Jews Telling Jokes: “Exciting new spins on Jewish mother jokes do exist. Shalom Auslander’s inspired novel “Hope: A Tragedy” is a book-length version.” What? That book is sick! Jewish critics have dismissed it for what it is. Wake up, Jason Zinoman!

I emailed the producer of “Old Jews Telling Jokes,” Daniel Okrent — a Daniel to Daniel email exchange (and we are the same age, 64, same generation, but I am third-generation American Jewish man, and he is apparently a second-generation American-Jewish man and that’s a big difference! — and Dan is a friendly and warm man, about my concerns, and he always answered my emails in a warm and pleasant way, and he said: “Danny, please – you and I are on different wavelengths. I’m not going to persuade you, and you’re not going to persuade me. We’re simply going to disagree.”

And with that, let’s end this commentary, and let the comments begin!

And I don’t expect everyone to agree with me here. In fact, I don’t expect anyone to agree with me. But a man’s gotta say what a man’s gotta say. There: I said it.

As for that new off-Broadway play being talked about, “Young Jews Telling Jokes,” I wonder if it will be an improvement, or what? And will anyone in that new play take the advice of “The Silverman Manifesto”?

*
Bloom is a Jewish American freelance wrwiter now living in Taiwan.  He may be contacted at [email protected]

5 Responses to “Do ‘Jewish jokes’ need to be updated?”

  1. Eva Gallant says:

    I loved reading this, and though I am not Jewish, I still love the jokes. I’m probably politically incorrect, but I love Frenchman jokes and Polish jokes, too! (And I’m French!)

  2. Richard R. says:

    ”Danny, this statement THE SILVERMAN MANIFESTO was incredible, and I agree with you completely… Seriously, just a perfect piece,……. I too have these same concerns. There’s so much in Yiddishkeit that is funny without being degrading, and usually untrue!
    ”Genoogshein mit” the self-deprecating jokes, we don’t have to try and “fit in” anymore! ‘ – says Richard my new FB friend on Facebook after reading this.

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