Commentary: Take the Rambam, Leave the Knish
The story of the contribution of Jews to the high culture of their host countries in the diaspora has been told many times. The more surprising story is the one about the Jewish contribution to the low culture of their surroundings. It was Heine who taught modern Germany to love its folk poetry. But it is in America that the Jewish gift to national mythology has been the most prodigious. Consider only the roster of the first moguls (a fine Oriental term for people deemed alien) in Hollywood: Goldwyn, Laemmle, Lasky, Loew, Mayer, Zukor, Warner, Cohn, Thalberg, Selznick. Immigrants, or sons of immigrants, all. What uncanny talent for cultural intuition enabled these men to get off the boat and proceed to show America what it is? The first movie cowboy was born Max Aronson. The first movie vamp was born Theodosia Goodman. All this cultural clairvoyance is a beautiful mystery.
I discovered the mystery as a lucky boy in Brooklyn, where I had no idea that the uptown black experience described in the singles of the Drifters and the Ronettes and the Crystals and the Shirelles was actually the work of a bunch of fiendishly gifted Jewish kids in the Brill Building, some of them from my own streets. How on earth did they know what Spanish Harlem felt like? This was the first argument for universalism that I ever learned.
The prominence of Jews in entertainment is often attributed to their marginality and their victimization. Whatever this explained about Jews and entertainment once upon a time, it explains nothing now. American Jews are neither marginal nor victims. It is no longer suffering that makes them need to laugh. They must find a new excuse, and when they fail to find one, they pretend that the old excuse is still good. This is one reason why American Jewish culture is increasingly a culture of commemoration.
The happiest Jews in the world are the ones who have no basis for morbidity but continue to feel morbid.
The relationship of suffering to laughter is famously complicated. For the ancient rabbis, laughter was the cause of suffering. They warned that the wages of leitzanut—clowning or joking (or scoffing, as if they had foreseen the enormous quantity of negative energy that would attach to much Jewish comedy)—would be hardship, damnation and even the end of the world. Everybody’s a critic. Eventually the explanation was reversed, as we came to believe that hardship, damnation and the end of the world are the causes of our jokes.
But this, too, is an assault on the sensibility of pure play. Neither of these accounts of the relationship of suffering to laughter emancipates Jews for lightness.
When somebody described Groucho Marx as the “symbolic embodiment of all persecuted Jews for two thousand years,” he retorted, “What sort of goddamned review is that?” A mixed review, I would say.
By the grim measure of Jewish history, inner suffering is a luxurious kind of suffering; but still it is no less real than outer suffering. The security of American Jewish life should not require that American Jews become moronically content and grateful. The psychic wounds out of which much American Jewish entertainment is made cannot be denied. And yet much of this entertainment has lacked the force, the integrity, of genuine darkness. Lenny Bruce was anguished. But Woody Allen? He is merely needy.
The neediness of many of the American Jewish men who have achieved stardom is deeply unattractive. From Woody Allen to Larry David, American popular culture has rewarded American Jewish men for an interminable narcissism and an incomprehensible fear of women. To extenuate their own nastiness, they paint a nasty world. They ask two questions of the universe: “What do I want?” and “What do women want?” Neither of these questions is fundamental or terribly interesting.
The male heroes of American Jewish entertainment—not all of them, but a striking number of them—have been curiously lacking in character, as if character were incompatible with rebellion or amusement. Phillip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint is preternaturally funny and a masterpiece of “voice,” but the fictional clinical document is itself a nonfictional clinical document. We may not be as big as people who fortify themselves against persecution, but we need not be as small as people who fortify themselves against frustration. And over in the other corner, Zero Mostel. Against all the witty, horny analysands, there is the spiritual power of the meshuggener. He is the rarest, and the only really free, Jew in the business.
American Jewish Entertainment is made by, and for, mere ethnics. But we are not only ethnics. Jews demean themselves when they regard themselves only from the standpoint of ethnicity. They reduce Jewish identity to a collection of cherished quirks, to a sentimental anthropology. And the ethnic interpretation of the Jewish difference also leads to a kind of internal relativism, according to which all expressions of Jewishness are equally valuable. You love Maimonides, I love knishes, and cheerfully we are Jews together. Except that the disappearance of Maimonides would damage us, and our children, much more grievously than the disappearance (lo aleinu!) of knishes.
We are not what we eat. We are what we think. I am not saying that we always need the high and never need the low. Our culture, like every culture, must also be a system of enjoyments. So eat, eat. But we must retain a hierarchical assessment of our possessions. Loving the low must not have the effect of elevating it into the high. (Where, then, would we relax?) Relaxation is so foreign to the Jewish tradition that it could be enforced only by being sanctified. We permit ourselves to rest when God permitted himself to rest. Some rest! The pride of the Jewish community about its contribution to show business still displays an old apologetic tone. Behold our success, our influence! But in this instance we are boasting about our indispensability to some of the shabbiest and most shallow features of American life. The Jews always take on characteristics of their host culture.
Why should the Jews in America be any different? America is addled by entertainment, and so are America’s Jews. The cultural and even moral authority that American Jewry has granted to its actors and singers and comedians is ludicrous, a community-wide laxity. Could it be that Jewish popular culture waxes as Jewish high culture wanes? In no community in the history of the diaspora has Jewish high culture—I mean Jews knowing Jewish texts and Jewish traditions in Jewish languages—melted away as much as in America, and here we are pointing with pride to…Larry David. It adds up.
Why would you make fun of something about which you know nothing? To squash the obligation of knowledge, I guess. But a wicked joke about what one truly knows: There is no pleasure quite like it.
We recoil from some stereotypes and we revel in other stereotypes. The indefatigable but smothering Jewish mother, the noble but exhausted Jewish father, the angry and ambitious and aroused Jewish son, and so on: These, too, are stereotypes.
A portrait of Jewish life is not finer or truer or smarter because Jews produce it. (And not everything that a Jew expresses is a Jewish expression.) Our self-images can be just as crude and injurious as other people’s images of us.
It is redundant to celebrate popular entertainment in America, since so much of it already consists of a celebration of itself, and the same is true of Jewish popular entertainment. It does not need more worship.
The unimportant things in life are also important. That is perhaps the best defense of the centrality of entertainment in America. To which the reply must be made: The important things are also important.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic. This essay was published in A Living Lens: Photographs of Jewish Life From the Pages of the Forward (W.W. Norton).