9 comedy bits Lena Dunham critics need to call anti-semitic
It was disappointing, but not surprising that the Daily Show’s incoming host, Trevor Noah, was labeled anti-Semitic. He’s not, but that’s never stopped the Anti Defamation League. Of his 8,828 tweets, three have been called anti-Semitic—that’s .0003 of his twitterfeed. In fact, one jokes about Israel’s hawkishness ( not Jews’ ), one joke references the Holocaust (which he acknowledges and does not endorse), and one tweet makes fun of Jews running the rap music industry. While Noah says his mother is half Jewish, he is not perceived to be Jewish, for several reasons, including some quite racist ones. And as a perceived non-Jew, he lacks the Member of the Tribe protection that goes along with mocking your own.
The same cannot be said, however, of the other major alleged anti-Semite in the headlines, Lena Dunham. The outraged response to Lena Dunham’s Dog or Jewish Boyfriend: a quiz, which was published in the March 30 New Yorker, would have you believe Dunham penned a chapter in a modern-day Mein Kampf. The comedian and writer is far from anti-Semitic. Dunham is doing what so many comedians have done and will continue to do: mock their own. When Larry David or Woody Allen do it, they are geniuses. When Lena Dunham does it, she’s an anti-Semite. Dunham, who was raised in a very New York secular Jewish world (much like I was—full disclosure) and her mother is Jewish. So, she is between fully Jewish and half Jewish, depending on how you define Jewishness. Religious Jews say you’re a Jew if your mother’s Jewish. My own standard is JEH, Jewish Enough for Hitler. Dunham’s boyfriend is Jack Antonoff, the lead singer and songwriter of Bleachers and lead guitarist of the indie rock band Fun–and a Jew.
The piece opens by asking, “Do the following statements refer to (a) my dog or (b) my Jewish boyfriend?” Some of the statements are endearing descriptions: “The first thing I noticed about him was his eyes…We love to spend hours in bed together on Sunday mornings.” Some have nothing to do with her boyfriend’s Jewishness but play on the similarities between dogs and boyfriends of any background: “It hasn’t always been easy, but we currently live together and it’s going O.K…. I wish he were more excited about spending time with my friends.”
Some of the statements are based on Jewish stereotypes, like our propensity towards bagels and schmear: “He’s crazy for cream cheese.” Or our cheapness: “He doesn’t tip…. And he never brings his wallet anywhere.” Some of the stereotypes are more Jewish gender-specific like the delicate and hypochondriac Jewish male: “He has asthma… He has a sensitive stomach and has to take two Dramamine before entering any moving vehicle…Every week it’s some new health issue: urine crystals, sprained foot, beef allergy.” Or the overbearing, self-sacrificing, self-pitying, overly-involved Jewish mother:
he comes from a culture in which mothers focus every ounce of their attention on their offspring and don’t acknowledge their own need for independence as women. They are sucked dry by their children, who ultimately leave them as soon as they find suitable mates.
Or the particularly spoiled son: “As a result of this dynamic, he expects to be waited on hand and foot by the women in his life, and anything less than that makes him whiny and distant.” Or the heterosexual Jewish male’s attraction to non-Jewish looking women: “One spring afternoon, we ran into my friend Jill…. She’s really slim and well dressed, in an all-American, J. Crew-model sort of way. He was immediately all over her, panting and making a fool of himself.” Or the heterosexual Jewish female’s insecurity about not looking like non-Jewish women: “It was humiliating. Because here’s the thing: I am not a Jill. I will never be a Jill. And if that’s what he is looking for—some anorexic hipster with a glossy braid and freaking Swedish clog boots she sewed by hand—he should never have set his sights on me in the first place.”
Jordana Horn, who used to be a correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, not surprisingly, gets credit for being the first person to speak out against the shandeh that is Lena Dunham, writing at the hub of cultural criticism that is The Kveller,
I suppose Lena Dunham feels that she has some sort of humor EZ Pass, and The New Yorker has indulged her in that thinking, “You know, because apparently Jews are a group you can make fun of and it is deemed kinda intellectual and funny to do so.”
If you take issue with what I’m saying, then do me a favor and imagine this same essay entitled, ‘Dog or Black Boyfriend? A Quiz.’ Much easier to imagine that essay running in a Ku Klux Klan newsletter than The New Yorker, am I right? But somehow, a piece like this running in The New Yorker in 2015 is supposed to be OK with us.
It’s hard to take this critique seriously. Neither this EZ pass joke, though HILARIOUS!, nor the analogy works because it fails to even pretend to examine the identity of the author. Moving on.
Abraham Foxman, the National Director (still, though he announced his retirement over a year ago) of The Anti-Defamation League said: “Some will certainly find Lena Dunham’s stereotypes about cheap Jews offensive. Others will take issue with the very idea of comparing a dog and a Jewish boyfriend. The piece is particularly troubling because it evokes memories of the ‘No Jews or Dogs Allowed’ signs from our own early history in this country, and also because, in a much more sinister way, many in the Muslim world today hatefully refer to Jews as ‘dogs,’” Note to Abe: Comparing Jews to dogs to justify barring them from establishments or calling them dogs to insult them is a little different than comparing your adorable boyfriend to your adorable pet, both of whom you love.
Lest you need any proof that many of the Dunham critics are motivated by sexism, check out this gem which Ruthie Blum wrote for Israel Hoyam and which the New York Observer re-posted. In her op-ed, titled is “Anti-Semitism or emasculation?,” Blum warns that the real elephant in the room, or maybe the even bigger elephant standing next to the smaller anti-semitic elephant, is the man-hating one! And nobody is talking about it!
Most striking about this enraged response was what they did not include: The impunity with which women are allowed to express contempt for members of the male sex, while cloaking their own neediness and hunger for love in outdated feminist lingo. Indeed, nobody calls them out on things that men could never get away with saying, certainly not in print. As for Dunham’s joking about Jewish mothers, the only mothers Dunham and her ilk know about, according to ___, are Feminazis! “the Jewish mothers she is referring to are baby boomers — the children of Marxist-feminists or those who were influenced by their ideology. Dunham was also raised in a feminist climate.”
Blum then diagnoses why men like Antonoff tolerate women like Dunham: “It is precisely the “enlightened” — emasculated — Jewish male, conditioned to accept the bullying of women waving their ‘minority status’ in society like a machete, who dares not unleash the beast. In Antonoff’s case, it didn’t help. But that’s what he gets for shacking up with one.”
Wow! I’ll have to ask my bearded Jewish psychiatrist of a father to analyze that! OK, Blum is right that gender is related to the Lena Dunham story. But driving the Dunham scandal is the utter double standard which condemns Dunham as anti-semitic for doing what male comedians have built their careers around.
Heather Gold, with whom I co-host the show Morning Jew was the first person to bring this story to my attention and the first person to really nail just how sexist the critique of Dunham is. “I think you get to mock your own,” Gold said when we discussed the issue on last week’s show. Male comedians certainly do get to do that–female comedians, not so much, as Gold pointed out: “If you mock Jewish women, you’re a good American, in fact as a Jewish male comic that’s how you fit in, but if you mock a Jewish man, you mock all Jews. Like, Jewish men stand for all Jews, Jewish women are just women.”
So, Heather and I decided to compile some examples of comedy performed and/or written by Jewish male comedians and writers who have built their careers on mocking Jews and playing with Jewish stereotypes. To clarify, in many of the cases, we do not consider the comedy to be anti-semitic. We do, however, have a problem with the fact that those who are so quick to condemn Dunham say nothing about these men.
1. Larry David: Mocking Orthodox Jews.
In this hilarious Curb Your Enthusiasm episode, Larry pretends to be an Orthodox Jew, speaking in a stereotypical Jewish accent and pretending to know Yiddish. On the same episode, Larry pretends to keep Kosher.
2. Larry David: Comparing Holocaust survivors with contestants from the reality TV show Survivor.
In this hysterical episode of Curb, Larry’s rabbi asks if he can bring his friend, “a survivor” to a dinner at Larry’s house. Thinking the rabbi is referring to a Holocaust survivor, he invites his father’s friend an actual Holocaust survivor. Then two survivors engage in a fight over whose “survival” was harder.
3. Jerry Seinfeld: Mocking Jewish men’s lust for non-Jewish women/ or shiksa appeal.
Here Seinfeld makes fun of the way Jewish men go for non-Jewish women, or shiksas.
4. Mel Brooks: Making light of the Inquisition.
This musical number from History of the World Part I speaks for itself.
5. Mel Brooks: Making light of the Holocaust.
This musical number “Spring time for Hitler” from The Producers also speaks for itself.
6. Mel Brooks: Mocking JAPs, or Jewish American Princesses.
The character of Vespa, described as a “Druish Princess,” in an obvious refernce to the stereotype of the Jewish American Princess, or JAP, who is spoiled and obsessed with huge hairblowdryer…
… and her hair.
7. Nick Kroll: Mocking Jews for being lecherous, racist and effeminate.
The two characters from The Kroll Show are hysterical and play on stereotypes about Jewish men being perverted, easily scared, liking non-Jewish women, once again.
8. Woody Allen: Mocking the overbearing, overwhelming, oppresive Jewish Mother.
The title of the “Oedipus Wrecks” segment of the film New York Stories says it all.
9. Woody Allen: Mocking hypochondria
You may remember the trope of the hypochondriac Jewish male from the Dunham essay. It also appears in Hannah and Her Sisters. Also, a dash of neurosis.
Jewish comedians aren’t the only ones who make fun of their own. Chris Rock differentiates between Black People and N*&^$#@ in this famous standup rant.
If Dunham’s critics called these men anti-semitic, as they call Lena herself, they would still be wrong. But at least they could pretend to be consistent and not just sexist.