A Note on Sarah Silverman’s Jewishness

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Sander Gilman’s book, The Jew’s Body, points out how, since Jews became modern, they were often identified with negative stereotypes based on different body parts such as the nose, the ears, lips, and even the feet.  Jews were also identified with negative psychological traits.  What interests me most about Gilman’s work is not how non-Jews looked at Jews in these ways so much as how Jews have looked at themselves by way of these bodily and psychological stereotypes.   The discomfort some Jews have had with others Jews has to do with the fact that, for them, these Jews would look or act “too Jewish.”  When it is extreme and expresses itself as a form of repulsion, it may be called Jewish Self-Hatred.

Over the last two decades there has been a move by some “New Jew” comedians, artists, and writers to play around with the fine line between humor and “Jewish Self-Hatred.”

An interesting case for seeing how this works itself out today can be found in the comedy of Sarah Silverman.  Oftentimes, she plays on the discomfort she feels about her own Jewishness and the Jewishness of others.

What does Jewishness mean to Sarah Silverman?  There are many different places where Silverman puts her Jewishness at the forefront of her routines.  And if anyone wants to get a sense of this he or she should look at each of these routines and ask a number of important questions.  I can’t touch on all of them in one blog entry, nor do I want to, but I’d like to take a look at least two instances.  And, in future blog entries I will return to this topic and look into more. These reflections are preliminary at best.

Let’s start with Silverman’s cover for Heeb Magazine in which she appears naked beneath a sheet with a hole in it.  The image blandishes an insider joke which involves the urban myth that some Hasidim have sex with their wives through a hole in a sheet.

Playing on this urban myth, and making herself the pornographic target of the Hasid, Silverman is shown naked behind a white sheet with a deviant “bad girl” look on her face.  This suggests much for those who like Louis CK, think of Hasidim, comically, in terms of sexual transgression.  The point of these jokes or images is obviously to go against the grain of what one would think a religious person would do.  Silverman, like Louis CK, is playing up this stereotype for comic affect. This type of image puts Silverman in an adversarial-comic-relation to the Hasidic other and gives us some sense of her Jewishness (which is “modern,” which can poke fun at a “pre-modern” Jewishness).  But, to be sure, the adversarial aspect of this image is effaced by her charm and innocence.   And that’s the trick. The clash between rudeness and innocence is what gives her comedy its “New Jew edginess.”

But it would be amiss to leave out the fact that, historically, Jews in Germany of the 19th and 20th century (before the Holocaust) found Ostjuden (Eastern European Jews) of the Hasidic variety to be repulsive, dirty, and smelly.  Gilman and others have written extensively on this topic and one wonders how this historical relation between modern German-Jews and their neighbors in Eastern Europe passes on to American Jews.  Silverman, obviously, doesn’t go as far as they did; but she does find an otherness in them that she, like Woody Allen and others, plays on.  Nonetheless, she does so for a reason: she plays on the otherness of their practice to demarcate a boundary between her Jewishness and sexuality and theirs.

Silverman also tests her “edge” on Jewish Bubbies (grandfather (in Yiddish)  = Zadie; grandmother – Bubbie ) in Florida – as she did in her viral video which promoted President Obama: “The Great Schlep.”

She begins the video by saying, in a way that plays on anti-Semitism, that (at :35) “if Barack Obama doesn’t get elected President, I’m going to blame the Jews.”  After saying this, we se see an image of a Jewish nose in the right corner of the screen.  The nose is the punch line.

But to make her reading acceptable, she notes the Jewish grandmothers have a lot in common with African-Americans.  Silverman sits between the two on a couch (a very “homely” gesture of American everydayness) and makes the comparisons.  Each of them plays on stereotypes to get a comic affect: some comparisons are harmless; others are not.  They both wear track suits, like Cadillacs, etc.  But, after saying that both the African-American gentleman and the Jewish Bubbie have many friends who are dead, the African-American gentleman leaves the couch.   This joke, she realizes, was shameful.  And this is the point: at one and the same time, the joke-comparison brings up a social-racial issue and then admits to a feeling of guilt.  It’s as if Silverman is defining her Jewishness not just in terms of her being kind-yet-rude but also in terms of her being ashamed and being a supporter of Barack Obama.

More important, however, is the subtext: namely, that Jewish grandmothers and grandfathers in Florida don’t get along with African-Americans and need to be convinced if they are to vote for Barack Obama.   But, as the video ends, it is the grand-children who must convince their bubbies in Florida.  And they must, ultimately, do so by way of threats, not reasoning.  (And this implies that the Jewish grandparents are likely to be very stubborn and settled in their ways.)  The threat: If the grandparents don’t vote, they will not be visited this year.

The joke is on them, really.  Silverman’s video is not about the bubbies so much as about the grandchildren who are watching the video; it is their Jewishness, a comic-edgy Jewishness, that she wishes to cultivate and turn toward a political end. But this Jewishness is based on cultivating an awareness of traits and in fostering an attitude which is progressive and political.

I’d like to end this blog-post with a brief reflection on the chapter entitled “Jew” in Silverman’s quasi-autobiography, The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee.  It brings Silverman’s acute awareness of Jewish traits and her own Jewishness to the forefront.

In a chapter entitled “Jew,” Silverman addresses her Jewishness in her characteristic charming-yet-rude quasi-naïve style.  To begin with, her chapter title takes on the negative practice of calling someone a “Jew.”  The one word, with its anti-Semitic history, tells all.   But she plays on this edge by saying she doesn’t know what it means to be Jewish:

I don’t remember if I mentioned this to you before, but I am Jewish.  If my publisher had a sense of decency, they would have printed that disclaimer prominently on the book cover.  Otherwise, how would you necessarily know?  I mean I can’t think of anything about me that really says “Jew!!” (217)

After noting this, she goes immediately to her physical traits and notes that she doesn’t even “look” Jewish.  She points out how, in a visit to Iceland, she “blended in with the Gentile population seamlessly.”  And then, in an allusion to anti-Semitism, she writes “although there was an incident…”   But, as we learn, the incident had nothing to do with her being a Jew so much as her black hair which an “intoxicated Icelandic shepherd mistook” for a scouring pad.

To be sure, Silverman says it flatly (and, of course, ironically): she doesn’t like to be faced with her Jewishness and worries that it will bother the reader:

It’s just not fun to be reading and thoroughly enjoying a book and then you get close to the end and discover that the thing was written by a member of an ethnicity that disgusts you.  I write this chapter somewhat begrudgingly. (217)

But, in the end, she does write and admits not so much to her mission so much as to a Jewish trait she can’t stand:

To be honest, I would like to go about my life exploiting the subject of Jewishness for comedy, and not be saddled with the responsibility to actually represent, defend, or advance the cause of the Jewish people.  Nevertheless, my Jew editor convinced me to write a chapter on Jewishness by using one of our culture’s greatest tools of persuasion: relentless nagging. (218)

Although this is obviously a joke, one cannot walk away from it without asking why it works.  It works because Silverman is banking much of her Jewish comedy on identifying this or that physical trait or habit with Jewishness and mocking it.  Silverman’s discomfort with her own Jewishness makes it “edgy.”  But it also breaches questions as to what Jewishness is. Do we share the same understandings of Jewishness with Silverman and is that why some of us may find her Jewish dis-comfort laughable?  Or do some of us, when reading this, sigh?   Is she making fun of people who feel uncomfortable when Jews talk about Jewishness, is she laughing at herself, or is she half-serious?  Most importantly, why does Jewishness have to reside in this or that Jewish “trait”?  Is Jewish comedy attached to the trait whether it wants to be or not?

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