The Body of Jewish Comedy
by Menachem Feuer
Because I have accepted being identified as Jewish, I’ll have to accept the responsibilities, limitations, and consequences. If I ever want to get away from that, it’ll be an uphill battle that will require, among other things, a larynx transplant and some major hair removal.
– Sarah Silverman
I am a Jewish man trapped…in the body of a Jewish man.
– Charles Bernstein
While Sarah Silverman jokingly tells us that her Jewish identity has more to do with her body than with the “responsibilities and limitations” that come with “accepting being identified with being Jewish,” the poet Charles Bernstein writes with comical flair that he is a “Jewish man trapped in the body of a Jewish man.” The Jewish body, in both of their statements, is deemed comical. Its comical portrayal is the basis of their Jewish identity. But what does the “body” of Jewish comedy look like? And why is the Jewish body…funny to look at or think about? Shouldn’t we worry about the possibility of anti-Semitic caricatures of the Jewish body? After all, the Nazis used caricatures of the Jewish body to not simply laugh at Jews but to reduce them to subhuman creatures; or, as this image from der Giftpilz, a book designed to win over children to anti-Semitism, suggests: poisonous mushrooms with big noses and fat lips.
Sander Gilman, in his book The Jew’s Body, argues that what is called for in discussing images of the Jewish body is not to speak about the “reality” of this or that stereotype so much as to look into the “ideological implications associated with the image of the Jews…as ‘different’”(2). The “difference” that comes along with the Jewish body is determined inside and outside of the Jewish community. And the fact of the matter is that, today, the “body” of Jewish comedy in American culture (“high” and “low”) is iconic. Whether it is Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Joan Rivers, Sarah Silverman, Jack Black, Larry David, or Seth Rogen, the Jewish body usually makes us laugh. It is often presented as awkward, out of place, uncomfortable, and yet…endearing. The “difference” of the “Jewish” body, conveyed via comedy, speaks to “insiders” and “outsiders.” It can be read in a negative manner (as we see with anti-Semitic representations of the Jewish body) or positive (as we see in American culture, depending on your critical position).
Regardless of your reading, however, when we talk of the Jewish body we are trading in stereotypes. As Gilman notes, “no one who identifies, either positively or negatively, with the label “Jew” is immune from the power of stereotypes”(3). And an important aspect of the comical stereotype of the Jewish body’s appeal is the fact that it draws on a kind of social awkwardness and weakness that is at once imagined and real.
When it comes to Jewish comedy, there is a rift between those who see Jewish comedy – specifically the Yiddish and Jewish-American kind that appeals to wit and language – as a challenge to the host society and an affirmation of power in the midst of powerlessness and those who see Jewish comedy – specifically the American kind, which appeals to the body – as pandering to society. The latter think it reduces Jewish identity to the body rather than to a strong sense of what makes Jews…Jewish. The tension between these two views of Jewish comedy has come to an apex in today’s culture since, on the one hand, most of today’s Jews lack cultural literacy and a sense of Jewish history and, on the other hand, because we live in a visual culture which is obsessed with images of the body. As Steven Shaviro puts it in his book Connected, or What it Means to Live in a Networked Society, in a networked society “to be is to be seen”(78). And every web cam or image “incessantly repeats the same monotonous exclamation: ‘Look at me! Look at me!’ Here, the medium really is the message”(79).
Given this tension between text and image, how do we read the Jewish body? What is the difference between an insider joke and one that is mainstream when the focus is on the body of Jewish comedy? And what is the difference between Jewish comedy which appeals to wit, intelligence, and textuality as opposed to one that appeals to body and image?
Let’s start with what we know best: the correlation of comedy and the Jewish body in visual culture. After taking note of this, we will travel into the space of literature which, when it becomes focused on comic mannerisms and odd body parts, becomes what Cynthia Ozick would call “sociological” or Irving Howe would call “vulgar.” But literature need not do this: Jewish comical literature can also put forth a sense of Jewishness that is not focused solely on the body or mannerisms but on what Ozick and Ruth Wisse would call “Jewish literacy.”
The Body of Jewish Comedy in Visual Culture
Maurice Berger, a Jewish Studies scholar, argues that Jewish men, for nearly five decades after the advent of TV, have “seen their identities disguised, their mannerisms mocked, and their masculinity voiced as the quiet peeps of a mouse.” Until the early 90s, Jewish men were represented – by way of bodies that were weak – as “mice” rather than “men.” They were “assigned” a negative identity that, he argues, drew on anti-Semitic stereotypes of the male Jewish body.
These stereotypes of the Jewish body were “cynically designed” to “undermine the authority of the Jewish subject”:
Some of the stereotypes that marked Jewish masculinity in nineteenth and early twentieth-century culture and science were also appropriated for TV, and they too fit into distinct categories – the exotic or vulgar ethnic, the subordinated or passive schlemiel, the validated Jew, the neurotic, the inferred Jew, and the feminized Jew – cynically designed to undermine and ameliorate Jewish manhood. (94, Too Jewish)
The passive, “subordinated” schlemiel is intimately related to the feminization of the Jew. And even when Jews cross dress on TV, this, according to Berger, often perpetuates “longstanding stereotypes” that “feminize” the Jewish body. The Odd Couple, The Jack Benny Program, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show all illustrate the comic “stereotype of the unmanly, powerless Jew.” According to Berger, Harry Gould in Rhoda stands out in this regard. He is “continually henpecked by the Jewish female, the Jewish father is shy, quiet, and usually unopinionated; he is often berated by his wife and children, who overrule him and undermine his authority.”
He calls this a “stereotype of social obedience – in which minority men must make themselves less threatening in order to assuage the fears of the dominant culture.” The networks didn’t want characters to be “too Jewish”:
These character relationships exploit two stereotypes simultaneously: the undesirability of Jewish women and the need for wimpy schlemiels to be validated …The validated Jewish male (that is, the schlemiel) is usually shy, self-deprecating, and generally attractive and sweet –the quintessentially nice Jewish boy. His love interest is most often cool and critical; she demands respect and often makes her partner beg for her affection.
David Biale reads Woody Allen’s earlier schlemiels – which he calls “sexual schlemiels” – in a similar manner. He notes how they neutralize what were originally anti-Semitic stereotypes of the Jews. These characteristics, with Woody Allen’s films (like Annie Hall), become “charming.” Biale (and a few other scholars who follow his lead) argues that these characteristic become part and parcel of American comedy. And instead of challenging the status quo, which is what Ruth Wisse said the Yiddish schlemiel did, the American schlemiel is the status quo. The novelty is that the American schlemiel’s self-deprecating non-masculine body becomes an American one.
Whether it is Seth Rogen or Gary Shteyngart, Biale and Berger would read their schlemiel bodies in terms of a new kind of emasculated status quo. Daniel Itzkovitz calls this kind of schlemiel the “new schlemiel.” And in this status quo, it seems as if the bro and the emasculated Jewish body have become the norm.
Even Lena Dunham is joining in with this chorus. Most recently, she wrote a comedy piece for The New Yorker entitled “Dog or Jewish Boyfriend” that reinforces these kinds of distinctions. The portrait she draws of her “Jewish boyfriend” is that of the nebbish-schlemiel. He is, like Philip Roth’s Portnoy or Bruce Jay Friedman’s Stern, wounded and weakened by their over doting mothers:
This is because 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.
Moreover, he, like many Woody Allen characters, comes from therapy “restless and unexpressive.” He apologizes for everything, like the nebbish-schlemiel. And his body traits have much in common with Seth Rogen. Following the publication of this piece on March 23, 2015, there was a long discussion on Reddit about why this piece might be offensive. Several people caught on right away that this was a “Woody Allen caricature.” However, others thought they were being too harsh. This split was reflected in the slew of articles that followed in the wake of her piece for The New Yorker.
Regardless of their differences, we can see that the body of Jewish comedy is central to Dunham’s comical reflections. The person she describes has no Jewish literacy whatsoever. Rather, he has a set of mannerisms that define him. And the punch line is that she would rather have a “dog” than a “Jewish boyfriend.” The dog would be less trouble than the neurotic, whining schlemiel. But “he” (the dog/Jew) is not without his or rather its charm.
From Fat Jew to Seth Rogen: Bodies of Jewish Comedy
Josh Ostrovsky, aka, “Fat Jew” is a sensation on Instagram (he has 3.5 million followers), on Twitter (he has 218 thousand followers), and on Facebook (he has 268,000 “likes”). He features images of his Jewish body – oftentimes naked or half naked with a chai – in varying comedic configurations. Hundreds of thousands of people “like,” “retweet,” or share them on a daily basis. He seems to be showing us his body from some kind of insider culture. Is it Jewish: Heebster or Hipster? In these images, we don’t see what Berger would call the “mouse.” In fact, we see a person who wants to be seen as both a fat “Jew” and as a “fat” Jew. He seems to be inverting an anti-Semitic stereotype of the “fat” Jew or the Jew as Nebbish.
But Fat Jew’s body is one of many Jewish bodies that we have recently seen in our visual culture. Over the last two years the Jewish body of Seth Rogen, the “Stoner King of Comedy,” has repeatedly been seen on TV, movies, youtube, and on the cover of magazines like Rolling Stone, GQ, Playboy, Vanity Fair, and even…Vogue. No, sorry, that was a photoshopped spoof of Kanye and Kim.
The body in this image speaks more to what Maurice Berger discusses in his essay regarding the emasculation. And Rogen and Franco’s parody of Kim and Kanye’s Bound II music video repeats the gesture on a larger scale. It conflates the male Jewish body with the female body. Is this a parody of manhood or its effacement? What role does the Jewish body play in this parody?
We have seen more of Rogen’s body – which is most of the time naked or half naked – than the body of most Jewish comedians. Take, for instance, his performance in Neighbors which grossed more than Amazing Spiderman II on its opening week and prompted Rolling Stone and Time to call Rogen the “King of Stoner Comedy.”
In many scenes in the film, we see Rogen with his shirt off while he is speaking to his neighbors, watering the front lawn, or…having sex. It is, of course, awkward to watch this; in one of the sex scenes he and his wife turn the baby around so they can have prove to themselves that they are still young and can have spontaneous sex. But, to their chagrin, the child turns around and catches them in the act.
In this scene, Rogen is half naked and his overweight, hairy body is in contrast to his wife’s, which is small, thin, nimble, and not Jewish. The contrast is clear. But in the second sex scene, we see him fully naked. Because Rogen’s body is stretched across more than half the screen shot and smothers his wife who lay beneath him, the body of Jewish comedy overwhelms us and takes on a grotesque kind of aspect. Rogen’s grunting and movements are – like many Ben Stiller or Jason Biggs sex scenes – awkward, comical, and beastly. This representation of the Jewish body isn’t pornographic so much as parodic.
But his wife’s body is not the only one to which Rogen’s Jewish body is juxtaposed. Throughout the film, Rogen does something that has become a trademark of his comedy: he juxtaposes his male, Jewish body to a more masculine or “attractive” body. In Neighbors, it is the body of Zack Efron.
Throughout the film, these bodies comically clash. But near the end of the film, we have the culminating scene when he and Efron become bros. And what seals the deal is Seth Rogen dancing outside of a store, half-naked, to win over Efron. The theme, though trite, is simple: bros may have different bodies (and the Jewish body is most distinctly “different”) but, ultimately, don’t make distinctions based on body type. If you are a bro, all bodies are fraternal (regardless of age or weight). That’s the bodily punch line of the film. (And it is the punchline in many of Judd Apatow’s films, as well.) But it doesn’t end there.
While making Neighbors, Rogen dropped by the set of Workaholics with Zac Efron. The episode basically pits Efron against Rogen in order to see who gets into the Cubicle with Adam, Blake, and Anders.
When he is downcast and on the verge of crying, Rogen, out of a sense of desperation, calls Efron names such as “kiss ass.” But Efron keeps on charming them. All of them nod in agreement when Efron says that he thinks they can “all (excluding Rogen) work well together.”
When Rogen seems to have totally failed in pitching himself, he pulls a Jewish joke (three minutes in): “I think if you had a Jewish person, you could probably be more edgy because you have a minority in your group.” This quip seems to work. They pause. But Efron steals Rogen’s Jewish wind when he says, “Here’s a bombshell, ‘I’m Jewish.’”
At this comment, they are all astonished and are more excited by this “unlikely” possibility than by Rogen’s proposal. How, they wonder, could a Jewish body be young, ripped, and goodlooking? Playing on the negative Jewish-body stereotype that Efron is trying to challenge, Rogen retorts: “You don’t look Jewish.”
Seeing that this isn’t working, Rogen demands to see if Efron is circumcised: “Let me see your dick…If you’re really Jewish, you will show me your dick”(4min in). Adam, Blake, and Anders echo the request and the Jewish test by saying, together, while clapping, “we’ve got…to see that dick.” In this moment, we slip into homoeroticism, which Rogen appeals to a lot in his latest film, The Interview. As in that film, homoeroticism is the thin line between being a “bro” (and getting into the cubicle with Adam, Blake, and Anders) and being “gay.” And here homoeroticism is associated with the Jewish body.
When Efron pulls his penis out, they all marvel at how big it is and that it is also… circumcised. Rogen joins in and says that its “gorgeous” and, in all astonished seriousness, asks if “Leonardo DeVinci circumcised” Efron. Following this rhetorical question, Rogen exclaims, “it’s beautiful.” This exclamation gets everyone excited; but, at a certain point during the excitement, Rogen realizes he has lost and yells at Efron to put it away. He then realizes that what just went down was wrong. In a last ditch attempt to beat Efron, he appeals to Adam, Blake, and Anders masculinism: “you don’t want his dick overshadowing yours.”
To win them over, he risks it all by telling them that “his dick,” not Efron’s, is the one they should want in their cubicle and, without their asking, he pulls it out for them to assess. The response to seeing Rogen’s member is shock and fear (which suggests a negative age-old stereotype going back to Paul and his epistles in the New Testament about the circumcised penis as a mangled monstrosity), but this alternates into levity. We bear witness to a routine that takes Rogen’s circumcised penis as a “little baby.” It is “cute, cool, and funny.”
After thinking that his penis’s charm has won them over, Rogen asks which “dick do you want to share the cubicle with.” But, in the end, Rogen fails because, as they tell him, his “personality is still dogshit.” Upon hearing this, Rogen is clearly humiliated and saddened. He is now, officially, the odd one out (officially the schlemiel). They want the “Jew” with the “good vibe” and the “big dick,” not Rogen. He is “different” not simply by virtue of his “personality” but by virtue of his Jewish body.
Rogen is playing to the modern anxiety about looking too Jewish. However, even though the idea of one body competing against another is, as in the film Neighbors, shown to be silly, there is a utopian kind of wish that lingers in all of Rogen’s films. It is the desire to be and remain a bro regardless of differences in age, body type, and personality. It is born out an anxiety about the Jewish body.
But can we say that these differences, in being caricatured in this clip or in Neighbors, are diffused? Or is it, rather, the case that the sexual schlemiel, as depicted by Rogen, will always be the odd one out? Rogen, as schlemiel, isn’t desired; the other Jew is.
Rogen is not alone in using this strategy. It was also recently used by Gary Shteyngart in a clip he did with James Franco to advance his memoir, Little Failure. And, it seems, it will be used again when Ben Stiller turns Shteyngart’s book into a TV series for Netflix.
Shteyngart, like Rogen, is playing the Jewish body (a weak, old, failed one) to Franco’s more handsome and fit body. The self-mockery in this piece – as in Rogen – is at the expense of the Jewish body. Regardless of this juxtaposition, a recent episode of Naked and Afraid, starring Rogen and Franco, shows he wants to improve his relationship with his Jewish body. Rogen jokingly says that although he is afraid of being naked on camera, he wants to overcome this fear. He believes that being comfortable with his nakedness on camera will enable him to be more comfortable with himself… and his comical Jewish body.
This, I would argue, is a half-truth and not just a joke. As we have seen, Rogen, in countless TV and film appearances, puts himself out naked or half naked in front of a camera. This suggests that his main comic task these days is either to mock or to come to terms with his body. But this can only be done by way of a distinction between his body and those of people like Zac Efron and James Franco. This is at once ridiculous and serious. Could this really be Rogen’s main comedic interest? And does it have anything to teach us about the schlemiel’s future vocation. Will the schlemiel, regardless of his relationship with his body or age, always be, as Shteyngart would say, a “little failure?” Will he always still be the guy who, as Rogen suggests in his Workaholics episode, has the “little (circumcised) dick?” And will he, as Shteyngart and Rogen both seem to suggest, always be caught up between being a bro and being gay? Or is it, rather, the Jew’s body that is in a constant identity crisis.
What is the “language” of Jewish comedy?
Most of the “differences” we have seen so far are to be found in how the Jewish body comically appears in images and on screen. It is a view from the outside. In contrast to what we have just said about visual culture and the Jewish body, our analysis is uncharacteristic of how Jewish comedy has been viewed by scholars. To be sure, language has been the main focus of most Jewish comedy theorists in the 20th century. And this is especially true about scholars who discuss the Jewish character otherwise known as the schlemiel. It is a character that belongs in a comedy trio: he spills the soup on the schlimazel while the nudnick asks what kind of soup it is. They all experience, generate, or exacerbate bad luck, but in doing so, wittily make it funny and….good for the Jews. In schlemiel humor, wit trumps the bad luck Jews experienced through the worst times of history. This is the crux of the inside joke.
But things seem to be changing. Ruth Wisse, a recently retired professor of Yiddish literature at Harvard University, noted in her latest book, No Joke: Making Jewish Humor, that she has recently reconsidered her earlier claims about the schlemiel and its relationship to language. In her 1972 book, The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, Wisse makes the case for the relationship of the schlemiel to language by way of the most celebrated of all Yiddish writers, Sholem Aleichem:
Sholem Aleichem generally employs the technique of monologue, on which the epistolary form is but a variation, to convey the rhythms and nuances of character, and to underscore the extent to which language itself is the schlemiel’s manipulative tool. Through language the schlemiel reinterprets events to conform to his own visions, and thereby controls them, much as the child learns to control the environment by naming it. One need only read Menachem Mendl’s joyous, and incomprehensible, explanation of the stock market to appreciate how proficient handling of language can become a substitute for proficient commerce. (54)
The operative word in Wisse’s account is “substitute.” In the following sentence, she calls this use of a language a “compensation for the poverty it describes”(54). It can take the “sting out of…failure itself” and represents a “spectacular verbal triumphs through wit”(54). And if we “measure life, and language, by intensities of experience rather than objective tests of achievement, the schlemiel is no loser”(55). His verbal victory, since it is not objective, is ironic (47).
Sidrah Ezrahi, another prominent schlemiel theorist, also notes the power of Jewish humor vis-à-vis language in Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination (2000). She argues that the schlemiel (reflecting the Jewish people in exile) doesn’t have power. And since the schlemiel doesn’t have power it seeks to establish a “substitute sovereignty” through comic language. In the midst of powerlessness, it draws on language and power of Jewish wit in order to preserve Jewishness (Yiddishkeit).
This reading is not confined to Yiddish literature or literary criticism; it can also be applied to cinema. For example, the power of wit over physical strength is found in many of Woody Allen’s earlier films such as Bananas, Annie Hall, and Play it Again Sam. But it doesn’t preserve Jewishness so much as wit-as-such. But in his first film of the new millennium, Anything Else (2001), Allen reverses his position on wit and its relation to power.
When Woody Allen, who plays a character named Dobel, and Jason Biggs, who plays a character named Falk, are accosted by two big goons who steal their spot, we see big bodies and little bodies (a big car and Woody Allen’s small car). Allen and Biggs, at first, cower down. When they leave, Allen tells Biggs that he wants revenge. Biggs, in response, tells Allen that there is no way that two schlemiels can match two big guys like that. Their victory is by way of wit not physical power. Allen turns around and shows us that he is done with that kind of substitute for power.
Like Allen, Wisse turns her position around in her book No Joke. But she does so begrudgingly because Jewish identity and Jewish humor have, for centuries, been tied to language, intellect, and wit:
I once underappreciated the physical potential of Jewish comedy, I may have overestimated its refinement, or, rather, the essential nature of its refinement. In a Yiddish joke on this subject, two Jews traveling by wagon along a narrow road see boulders blocking their path. They stop to consider what to do, and as they sit there, a wagon approaches with two peasants. The Gentiles get out, roll up their sleeves, and shove the rocks away. “There’s goyish thinking for you,” says one Jew to the other: “always with force.” Historically speaking, at the point in the road where Jews began to take measure of themselves in relation to their neighbors, they were constrained to recognize invidious features of the comparisons; the joke was on them if they expected to get anywhere without putting shoulder to the boulder. Yet in telling the joke, even as it pokes fun at Jewish impracticality, Jewish self-mockery registers pride in its subtler and keener nature. Jewish humor grew coarser only once Jews got out of the wagon to get the job done themselves. (231-232)
According to Wisse, the “decisive challenge” to her “association of refinement with Jewish humor came with the 2006 movie Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glourious Nation of Kazakhstan”(232). But before discussing the bodily aspects of the film, Wisse notices how the Borat – like Blazing Saddles – employed a key “insider joke” by way of Borat’s Kazak language: it doesn’t sound Jewish but, for those who know what Hebrew sounds like, it is. But if you don’t know Hebrew, you’ll miss the wink. For Wisse, this insider joke gives the film its Jewish element.
Unlike other films that are dirty through and through, the “film’s vulgarity” is not for its own sake. Rather, it is meant to “expose vulgarity”(233) and its “slapshtick” is used “to make fun of slapstick”(233). This is where the physical element comes into relation with Jewishness:
Borat and Azamat, arguing over the charms of a woman, fall into a naked wrestling match that exceeds in its loutishness any physical comedy filmed for a commercial feature film. If pornography uses nudity for sexual arousal, this anti-porn goes beyond impropriety and mere indecency, spoofing homoeroticism in the same what that Borat’s anti-Semitism mocks anti-Semitism. Rude anti-Jewish behavior becomes a new form of Jewish comedy for viewers who are no longer bound by inhibitions of physical modesty. (233)
Although she applauds Coen’s film for its reversals and challenges, Wisse notes that the reason more and more comedians turn to Jewish physical comedy is because of “declining Jewish literacy”(233). And this left “Jewish comic writers with less indigenous material to work with.”
Whereas Jewish comedians of the Borsht Belt once delivered punch lines in Yiddish…the progressive evaporation of language yielded only the thinnest residue of rude terms like putz, klutz, and schmuck”(233-234). From lines like these, we can see that Wisse is acutely aware of this historical shift away from Jewish language and literacy (which the Holocaust and massive assimilation in America has facilitated) and is not crazy about it. She ends her section on “slapshtick” by noting that while we have comics who can manage this shift like Coen, with Sarah Silverman we have the opposite.
According to Wisse, Silverman, in one routine, mocks her “lesbian niece who ‘loves Hebrew school’ and comes home with the information that Hitler killed sixty million Jews.”(234). And “when Aunt Sarah interjects, ‘I think you mean six million’, the niece shrugs: “Whatever”(234). A “big laugh follows” but, for Wisse, this is (as the title of her book says) no joke:
Ostensibly intended to ridicule the contemporary Jew’s miseducation, routines like these make it hard to distinguish the degeneracy of the mocker from the mocked. (234)
In these words, we can see that Wisse is not happy with the decline of Jewish literacy and the descent into vulgarity and the bodily rather than more intellectual humor (which draws on Jewish history and language). For her, this fall from cultural greatness and Jewish history is nothing to joke about. It also demonstrates her ambivalent attitude toward the body of Jewish comedy. Is the body the final frontier of Jewish comedy? Must one “appear” Jewish “to be Jewish?” Or is the emphasis on the body of Jewish comedy a mask (or rather, substitute) for the loss of Jewish literacy and wit?
Outside/In: James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom
An interesting counter-pose to what Wisse and Ezrahi say about Yiddish literature and to what we have seen of the Jewish body in visual culture, is the representation of the Jewish body by non-Jewish fiction writers. James Joyce’s initial characterization of Leopold Bloom in Ulysses is a significant example of how the conflation of the Jewish male with the feminine need not be negative. However, the association of the Jew with physicality – which has ancient roots in Paul and Augustine’s notion of “carnal Israel” – is still troubling. When we are introduced to Bloom, we see how he eats like an animal. He eats what many middle class people would consider waste rather than food:
Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, friend hencod’s rose. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine. (65)
As Bloom “moves,” we learn that “kidneys are on his mind.” He is interested in food, driven through the city of Dublin by a wild appetite, and what he eats what has a “fine tang of faintly scented urine.” His Jewishness inheres in the fact that he is “bodily,” like Freddy Mallins in “The Dead.” But Bloom fundamentally differs from the wild drunkard and party animal, Mallins, because, we don’t see Bloom from the outside. We see through him, from the inside of his consciousness. When he imagines how he looks through a feline’s eyes, the reader can clearly see how Bloom imagines himself through the prism of animals and the feminine. Joyce tries to capture a moment of embodied, male Jewish consciousness; it is heteronomous, male, feminine, and beastly. This all comes together when he “wonders” how he looks in her eyes.
-Milk for the pussens, he said.
– Mrkgnao! The cat cried.
The call them stupid. They understand what we say better than we understand them. She understands all she wants to. Vindictive too. Wonder what I look like to her. (66)
Ultimately, Bloom’s body and mind, as we see in the novel, are utterly different from Stephen Daedelus’s. They look different and think different; one is more body and the other is more mind. One is more conscious and abstract; the other less so. Although this may be construed as an illustration of classic Christian theological binaries and allegories (which associates the Jew with body and the Christian with the mind), Joyce gives the comical body and materiality of Bloom a leading role in his famous novel. To be sure, Daedelus has more to learn from Bloom than Bloom has to learn from him. Bloom has a lot to teach a society that has become too cerebral and scholastic. Moreover, even though Joyce is not Jewish, he draws on Jewish literacy and language so as to keep Bloom from becoming merely a caricature of Jewishness. Bloom is not a body or a mind, he is modern (Jewish) consciousness.
Inside/Out: Ozick’s Jewishness and John Updike’s Physical Caricature
In a powerful essay by Cynthia Ozick, we learn that Joyce was not alone in characterizing Jews in terms of the body and materiality. With John Updike, whose reputation in America parallels Joyce’s, we find a similar gesture. His novel, Bech: A Book is a case in point. But where Joyce succeeds, Updike fails. Ozick argues that Updike reduces the Jew to bodily mannerisms and gestures. She calls this a “sociological” kind of Jewishness and argues that it is consistent with a kind of theological view that we find buried in Updike’s work.
As Jew he is all sociology, which is to say all manners (acquired exilic manners); as a Jews he is pathetically truncated, like his name. So Updike finds Beck as so he leaves him. Updike comes and goes as anthropologist, transmitting nothing. (122).
Ozick doesn’t fully lay the blame on Updike, however, for this reduction of the Jew to “an alienated marginalized sensibility with kinky hair”(122). Rather, she says that Jewish-American writers encouraged him to do so. Updike “comes and goes as an anthropologist.” In contrast to these writers who influenced Updike, she suggests a way to rescue a Jewish character from becoming a caricature. If they want their characters to be Jewish, Jewish-American writers should make reference to their own theology and memory. She sees the struggle with the covenant – or covenantal theology – and its relationship to history and the Jewish people as the basis for Jewishness. God’s promise of justice and its frustration should, in Ozick’s view, be prominent in any Jewish character. Without it, we only have caricatures of Jewishness or what she elsewhere calls idols. Ozick’s iconoclasm starts and ends with the caricature of Jewishness by way of the Jewish body and its odd mannerisms.
With this in mind, one wonders what she would say about Jewish humor. Most likely, Ozick would side with Ruth Wisse’s earlier reading of Jewish comedy as a type of wit that struggles with the faith and skepticism. Of the Jewish bodies we have seen above, such references are missing. And Ozick would certainly call this kind of trajectory false. Ruth Wisse, in contrast, changed her position because she sees “slapschtick” as a way to emphasize difference and a sense of Jewishness. She sees an “insider” joke. Nonetheless, she, like Ozick, laments the loss of Jewish literacy and history. If the comical body is the final frontier of Jewishness, what happens to Jewish identity? What happens to its former grounding in wit, language, frustrated prophetic promises, and history?
Bodies, Eroticism, and Comic Strips
What does it mean to be a “Jewish man trapped in the body of a Jewish man”? Fat Jew shows millions of people a Jewish body. He is always naked or half naked. But is he physical like Bloom? Is he giving us a view from the outside or inside? Joyce, to be sure, seems to have more “Jewish literacy” than Fat Jew. Nothing Fat Jew shares has anything “Jewish” save for the Chai he sometimes wears in photos or his name Fat “Jew.” For our visual culture, he is a Jewish body that, besides being seen, can be “liked,” “retweeted,” “favorited,” and “shared” daily. But, like Joyce’s Bloom, when we see images of him, sometimes one wonders whether he, too, has “kidney on his brain” as he starts “moving.”
And this is not a question that is of no concern to Fat Jew. Here’s Fat Jew talking about “competitive eating” and why fat men can’t do it. His Jewish identity is, in many ways, subsidiary to “fatness”:
What about Seth Rogen? He likes porn, drugs, and partying. And he takes his shirt off, ultimately, because he wants to be one of the bros. The irony is that even though bros argue that bodies don’t matter, they do. As we saw above in the Workoholics appearance with Rogen, Efron, the surprise Jew, has the better circumcision because he has the bigger penis. In this clip and in nearly every Rogen film, pornography and the body – take notice, for instance, of the preponderant use of “honey potting” and “honey dicking” in The Interview – seem to have trumped the language of humor and Jewish literacy. But Rogen is certainly not a pioneer. Comical displays of the Jewish body have, in many ways, become the norm. If, as Shaviro says about the age of social networking, “to be is to be seen,” then, since Rogen and Fat Jew are so popular, their comical Jewish bodies have being and affective meaning for not just Jews but all Americans who follow them on Instagram or see them on Netflix.
With the spread of visual culture and pornography, “we,” like Bloom, all seem to have “kidneys on our mind” as we go about our daily routines. And as a result of the decline of Jewish literacy and the large influx of images via social media, Jewish particularity seems to have become something bodily, visualized, and comical.
But, in truth, it is self-mockery and charming blindness that ultimately give the body of Jewish comedy its particularity. Ask Art Spiegelman who, recalling when he first fell in love, shows us that he fell madly in love with Mad Magazine rather than girls or porn. Mad, to be sure, was at its best when it stripped deprived celebrity bodies of their pornographic power by way of caricature. Spiegelman took this iconoclastic lesson to heart. He has found a way to combine the caricature of the Jewish body with the literary and the psychoanalytic (Spiegelman calls this commix).
Robert Crumb, who isn’t Jewish, also mixes words and images in his comic-slash-pornographic portrayal of the Jewish body. The encounter we see between Yiddishkeit and the erotic body – the past remnants of old Europe and American prosperity and growth – in this comic strip (from The Snoid) is astounding.
In Crumb’s representations, big and small, old and young, are brought in to extremes. Jewish bodies are either too fat, too small, or too Jewish. But they are oddly juxtaposed in such a way as to cancel each other out in their extreme difference. Crumb’s comics are clearly expressing a kind of erotic relationship to bodies. And Jewish bodies are no exception. He is, so to speak, mad for caricature but in such a way as to release, in this particular comic strip, its erotic potential in relation to the body of Jewish comedy.
Perhaps we too are, like Spiegelman and Crumb, mad for caricature. Both of them – like Rogen and Ostrovsky and others we have discussed – travel the limits between pornography and Jewishness. But as we saw with Rogen, the pornographic body can displace the circumcised Jewish body. In truth, since visual identifications with the Jewish body require little to no knowledge of Jewishness in relation to Jewish tradition or Jewish history (save for a dirty word or two in Yiddish), the buck stops here.
While Speigelman’s Maus tries to remedy this lack by way of an encounter with Jewish history, memory, and the Holocaust that does the unthinkable (using comics to address the Holocaust), we ultimately end up seeing more of Rogen and Fat Jew than commix. It’s easier to identify with an image, but harder to read it. Reading an image suggests something more literary and is one of the most important ways – in our visual culture – of cultivating Jewish literacy.
Regardless, it seems as if Jewish literacy, today, has become visual and has become strapped to the Jewish body. Charles Bernstein testifies to this when he writes, tautologically, “I am a Jewish man trapped in the body of a Jewish man.” And if the body of Jewish comedy is the ground zero of Jewishness, today, it will likely have to, as we saw above with Efron and Rogen, tarry with the pornographic body.
Who Has The Last Word: Man, God, or YouPorn?
At the end of her comic Memoir, The Bedwetter, Sarah Silverman gives God the last word. He laments, cynically, that “human beings are of diminishing interest to me,” but in the midst of his lament, he reflects on how astonished he is by YouPorn.
They seem to have developed priorities other than copying themselves. Namely, they all just seem to want to be on television. I can’t make much sense out of this, because I made sex more pleasurable for humans than almost any other species, except rabbits. That’s not a cliche about rabbis – it’s the truth. They fuck like meth-fueled monsters, and it’s incredibly amusing to watch. But humans have taken advantage of copulating in such a way that they don’t reproduce. I was on YouPorn recently, and I was astonished by the places semen was landing – the hair, the eyes, the face, the toes, the reading glasses, martini glasses. If this is what is in fashion, why care about Darfur? The entire human race is determined to let itself die out anyway. (235)
However, after this lament, God’s mind drifts back to thinking about YouPorn and he forgets about the fate of humanity. This God – apparently, like the people he has created – is more interested in porn and the sexual orientation than in justice…or, for that matter, Jewish literacy. That’s the punch line. While, for Silverman and many of us, this is laughable, for a writer like Cynthia Ozick or a Yiddishist like Ruth Wisse, this is (paraphrasing the title of Wisse’s latest book) no joke:
Wait, just one more thing. I saw a video on YouPorn where two men managed to positions themselves in such a manner that they could penetrate the woman’s vagina simultaneously! Regardless of what they think, let me tell you where I stand on it: Let’s not touch balls in a situation where we’re working up to cum. But that’s just me. I’m not gay. (235)
About the Author:
Menachem Feuer has a PhD in Comparative Literature and a Masters in Philosophy. He teaches Jewish Studies and Jewish Philosophy at York University in Toronto. Feuer has published several essays and book reviews on philosophy, literature, and Jewish studies in several book collections and peer-reviewed journals including Modern Fiction Studies, Shofar, MELUS, German Studies Review, International Studies in Philosophy, Comparative Literature and Culture, Ctheory, and Cinemaction.
Feuer is the author of the Schlemielintheory a blog dedicated to the Jewish comic character otherwise known as the schlemiel. In addition to having guest posts by well-known writers, poets, comedians, and academics, Feuer regularly writes posts on the schlemiel. He is currently working on a book length treatment of the schlemiel. The book will address the diverse expressions of the schlemiel in contemporary literature, poetry, film, stand-up comedy and culture from the angle of Continental and Jewish philosophy. Besides doing work on the schlemiel, Feuer is also the subject of a 2011 documentary entitled Shlemiel by Toronto film director Chad Derrick.