Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Jewish professor says Jewish humor does need to be cone down from the mountains and get 'updated'

In late May, I penned a commentary here titled ''Do ‘Jewish jokes’

need to be updated?'' which challenged Jewish comedians on stage and

in

movies to make modern Jewish humor in the 21st century better mirror

Jewish culture today and leave the Catskils and Borsch Belt behind.

Adding the text of a kind battle cry I called "The Silverman Manifesto

(2012)," I noted that 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 asked

readers to look at my ''manifesto'' in order to raise some issues that

I hoped thoughtful people would address, pro and on.



The manifesto, I emphasized, was meant merely as an alarm bell, 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.



Now, two months later, Professor Ted Merwin at Fairleigh Dickson

University in Pennsylvania, and a regular drama critic for the Jewish

Weekly in New York, has

answered my call independently, with his own take on what's right and

what's wrong with Jewish humor today. Reviewing the current

off-Broadway revue titled

"Old Jews Telling Jokes" (which has gotten many very good reviews by

the way, and only few critical reviews).



Merwin is direct and to the point, noting: "[The play] essentially

transports its audience 'up the mountains' (as my grandmother would

say) to the Catskills. In Borscht Belt jokes, Jewish men always felt

murderous toward their wives, non-Jewish women were secretly more

attractive to Jewish men than Jewish women were, rabbis always offered

ridiculous advice, and gentiles occupied a rarefied realm that Jews

could never hope to enter. The dated quality of the show is summed up

in two of its most inspired routines, which are Susman’s heavily

Yiddish-accented, solemn rendering of “Ol’ Man River” and a sing-along

with the audience of Tom Lehrer’s “Hanukkah in Santa Monica,” a song

about Jews discovering that Jewish life can (big surprise!) actually

take root outside of New York.''



Merwin adds: "To compensate for their nagging sense of outsiderness,

the show implicitly suggests, Jews turned to humor -- in particular,

dirty jokes. Either sex or scatology is thus the underlying theme of

almost every gag. Jests about masturbating teenagers, blushing brides,

under-endowed grooms, priapic desert-island castaways, lascivious old

ladies, flaccid old men, aphrodisiac Jewish foods -- the sex jokes go

on and on. Same with the jokes about bodily functions, which embrace

everything from women stuck on toilets to men with prostate and bowel

complaints."



''This is where one needs to wonder if the show, despite having plenty

of heart, has a soul," Merwin writes. "A non-Jew who wandered into the

theater could be forgiven for thinking that Jews, despite being

renowned for their intellectual attainments, are in reality obsessed

with their lower bodies. Or that upwardly mobile Jews remain stuck in

a low-class or unassimilated Jewish past that they have only

transcended on the outside, but still inhabit in some nether region of

their deepest selves.''



Merwin concludes that he wishes the revue ''didn’t insult its

audience’s intelligence quite so much," adding that he was "reminded

of Bryan Fogel’s and Sam Wolfson’s phenomenally successful “Jewtopia”

(which played at the Westside Theater in 2006), which trotted out

every Jewish stereotype and excretory joke in the book, as if paradise

for Jews is an eternity on the toilet."



The professor's final verdict: "Perhaps I’m asking too much, but I

wish that “Old Jews Telling Jokes” afforded some kind of new

perspective on the place of humor in Jewish life, rather than yet

another guilty peep into the bedroom or bathroom window.''



Professor Merwin did not read the article I wrote here on May 24, nor

did he read "The Silverman Manifseto." He does not know me, and I have

never known of his work before either, having

lived outside the USA for almost 20 years. Still, our views are very close

regarding ''some kind of new perspective on the place of humor in

Jewish life."



I was heartened to read his review in Jewish Week.

1 comment:

dan said...

‘Jewish humor’ should not be confused with dirty jokes