Many years ago, when humor was legal, I wrote a Seinfeld episode in which Jerry suspects his dentist converted to Judaism purely so he could make Jewish jokes.
A priest: “And this offends you as a Jewish person?”
Jerry: “No, it offends me as a comedian.”
Anyway, not that my religiousness inspired the episode, but I’ve always been pretty much in it for the jokes.
To wit: When white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting, “Jews will not replace us!,” my thought was “That’s silly. Of course we won’t replace you. It would mean taking a huge pay cut.”
All in all, I’ve enjoyed a devout life of jokey atheism, dotted with moments of religious joy, like this one in 2005: “Oh, wow … Scarlett Johansson’s Jewish.”
Now it’s 2022 and: “Oh, wow… President Zelensky’s Jewish.”
But truthfully? I pumped the brakes a few hundred times on this one before gushing with pride. Not because Zelensky isn’t great. But because so many Jews in the recent spotlight have been so incredibly not great.
O.K., I need to stop here. In a time when Americans stare at screens just begging to be offended, religion is a more lethal subject than ever. Discussing it demands cogent, tactful insight. I have none of that going for me. So, seeing as Jews were ultra-touchy way before it was cool, I apologize in advance for any thoughts that shouldn’t offend anyone but will.
As an olive branch, here’s a nontoxic, unfunny backstory: At 14, I learned that my uncle did business with a man named Robert Goodman. My father said something like “How does he go on after what happened to his kid?” Curious, I read up on Goodman’s son Andrew. Along with Michael Schwerner and James Chaney, Andrew was murdered by the Klan while registering Black voters in Mississippi. Evidence indicated he was shot, then probably buried alive in an earthen dam.
My revulsion was offset by pride in knowing that a Jewish kid risked his life to do the right thing. That’s all it took to conclude that, despite our laws against pork not applying at Chinese restaurants, American Jews were righteous. Despite our flight from Ellis Island to Scarsdale, Shaker Heights, and Beverly Hills, we championed the downtrodden.
For years, my image of Jewish do-gooderism held up. Defending the Chicago Seven, exposing the Pentagon Papers, designing jeans that made Brooke Shields an icon? All so affirming.
The odd junk-bond king shipped off to prison camp? Eh, a few bad apples.
Joking about Jews was easy when we were confident and noble. But when confidence wobbles, humor co-wobbles.
Well, as Bob Dylan mumbled, things have changed. The media we allegedly control has justifiably feasted on Jews bankrolling illiberal causes, ignoring systemic injustices, and starring in perp walks. Now, as heads on MSNBC lament a decline in American exceptionalism, I’m mainlining Pepcid over the decline in Jewish-American exceptionalism.
Even worse—well, not worse but still bad—my laugh-based religiosity is curdling. Joking about Jews was easy when we were confident in our nobility. But when confidence wobbles, humor co-wobbles.
I started feeling the creeps, oh, let’s say noonish on January 20, 2017. That day, an acquaintance who raises money for the spectacularly prosperous state of Israel bragged that 71 percent of Jews had voted for Hillary Clinton.
I calmly flipped out: “You think it’s good that 24 percent of Jews voted for a racist, self-confessed sexual predator? The last time Republicans nominated someone this bad, Lyndon Johnson got 90 percent of the Jewish vote.”
Seven months later, Charlottesville happened. A total stranger/Facebook friend bragged about the number of Jews employed by the White House.
“You think it’s good that only one, Gary Cohn, considered resigning after the infamous ‘fine people on both sides’ statement but stayed on purely to give overprivileged people tax cuts?”
About a year after Charlottesville, a Twitter contact with two followers trumpeted how the U.S. had an Orthodox Jew negotiating on behalf of Israel.
“You think it’s good that Kushner just got $2 billion from his Saudi Prince/buddy who dismembers journalists? Believe me, Israel would be better represented by a gentile. Any Gentile.”
Speaking of Gentiles: When immigrant Jews feverishly assimilated into American society, working hard and changing their names from Betty Perske to Lauren Bacall, they used the Yiddish expression “shanda to the goyim,” referring to a Jew so gauche as to cause shame (“shanda”) in the eyes of Gentiles (“goyim”). The fear was that the embarrassing Jew would lead to the rest being deported back to the bad old country. Over time, that morphed into the facetious “Is it good for the Jews?,” a question tossed off by people secure about belonging in the unruly lobster pot of American life.
Which reminds me of another rant: “You think it’s good that Stephen Miller, a descendant of refugees who were welcomed to America so he could one day be free to look like an extra in The Passion of the Christ while carrying an attaché case in the halls of Santa Monica High School with no clue as to why he was being picked on, masterminded a policy of separating immigrant children from their parents and caging them?”
Those “You think it’s good … ?” tirades reflect my fears of Jews relapsing into our mentality of not eating at America’s adult table. Then toss in the family who endowed a medical faculty in Israel while causing epidemic opioid addiction in America, and the uninvited-guest attitude we’d locked away long ago suddenly seemed up for parole.
Then again, even as an Audi-driving Jew, maybe I’m over-sensitive to this stuff. Maybe, out of 332 million Americans, 324 million non-Jews focus only on the religion of shining lights, such as Colonel Vindman, Congressmen Schiff, wide receiver Julian Edelman, Wonder Woman, and, and, and …
And hey: Maybe Tennessee evangelicals are too deep in rapture to read about the attention-addicted lawyer who whined to the press about no longer being invited to parties on Martha’s Vineyard. And maybe the Church of NASCAR Floridians didn’t note the dead-giveaway Jewish name of the former Seminole County tax collector indicted on 33 counts of everything. (But guess what? The guy’s not even Jewish.)
If 99 percent of Americans were faith-blind to those news items … well, lucky them. I need under-the-counter drugs to read about Hollywood’s and New York’s most infamous sexual predators.
While some Jews react to these scandals by whispering, “Bad optics,” I go with “Apocaly-optics.” But I have lots of free time and over-priced technology. If you want a pristine look at those you suspect of putting the anti- in anti-Semites, you can’t beat a TV with eight million self-lit pixels.
Speaking of anti-Semites: sometime around the day rioters defecated on the floors of our Capitol, I saw a swastika tattoo on the sleeveless arm of a man at a deli in Santa Monica.
Why did I mention that? It’s not like I can prove his tattoo was inspired by the Jews hosting two of America’s biggest ultra-right-wing podcasts.
O.K. All this sounds pretty grim. But (But!) you’ll be happy to know that Zelensky makes me hopeful. Who knows: When we settle on one spelling of his name (Zelenskyy? Zelenskiy?), I could become giddy. Every speech by the Ukrainian badass nudges me toward focusing only on other pride-inducing Jews again: Jamie Raskin, Fran Lebowitz, Alana Haim … even the refurbishing of lawyer-henchman Michael Cohen is oddly gratifying.
To encourage these puffs of hope, I took action: a) Telling young Jews about Andrew Goodman; b) Bumping support for the sane one of the two major Israel lobbies, and c) taking an MSNBC sabbatical.
(c) paid off immediately. In lieu of watching Lawrence O’Donnell, I went to a dinner with friends during which I credited Seinfeld with helping the image of Jews more than the U.J.A., A.D.L., A.J.C., Jonas Salk, Sandy Koufax, Sammy Davis Jr., and Mrs. Maisel combined.
Until the converted-dentist episode, I avoided all things Jewish in my Seinfeld writing. Why? No idea. I should talk to Malcolm Gladwell: I’ve put well over 10,000 hours into being Jewish and still lack any expertise in it.
Anyway, I pray Zelensky inspires American Jews back to the values that made a 14-year-old proud, to return to being people who stood beside M.L.K. and Cesar Chavez, backed the women’s and anti-war movements, contributed to the New Deal, Fair Deal, New Frontier, and, and, and …
And, seeing as Zelensky was a comedian, maybe Jews can help return America to being the benevolent nation that allows people to pursue their religion purely for the jokes.
Peter Mehlman is a writer and stand-up comedian in Los Angeles. His novel #MeAsWell was published moments before the pandemic began