In late May, I penned a commentary here titled ''Do ‘Jewish jokes’
need to be updated?'' which challenged Jewish comedians on stage and
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
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
''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
I was heartened to read his review in Jewish Week.