Another Note on Sarah Silverman’s Jewishness

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For the longest time, the claim that someone is a “Self-Hating Jew” has given vent to a lot of attacks on comedians, filmmakers, writers, etc.  It often comes up when something is said by this or that Jew which isn’t, as the saying goes, “good for the Jews.”  And it is often used against people who are radical critics of Israel.  Instead of calling people who claim that this or that person is a self-hating Jew a name, I just want to point out that, although many people may deplore it, it comes from a place of concern.  And that concern 1) emerges out of centuries of oppression and anti-Semitism against Jews (which culminates in the Holocaust) and 2) with the sense that Jews have of themselves as a people which, in spite of all the negativity against them, are proud of their Jewishness.

It would be amiss to think that Jews alone have such a concept and make such accusations.  For instance, the African-American community also has a notion of selling out one’s relation to “blackness.”   A person who leaves it behind is described and defined, most recently, by the MSNBC host, Toure and Eric Dyson, an sociology professor at Georgetown University Michael Eric Dyson in Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness: What It Means to be Black Now.  (To be sure there are countless books on this topic.)    By mentioning this, I don’t wish to excuse the act of accusing this or that person of being a Self-Hating Jew so much as to show its relation to suffering, history, and ethnicity.

In Sander Gilman’s book, the Jews who he includes under the title of (possible) Self-Hating Jews include figures such as Karl Marx, Ludwig Borne, and Heinrich Heine who had a (or some) negative attitude toward their Jewishness (or Jewishness in General) and saw it as a barrier to their assimilation or to progress.  However, most recently Paul Reitter has written a book entitled On the Origins of Jewish Self-Hatred which traces the origin and genesis of the concept of Jewish Self-Hatred.  He argues that it didn’t begin after the Enlightenment so much as after WWI.  Reitter argues that Anton Kuh and Theodor Lessing popularized the term but did so as to actually work through Jewish self-loathing.  However, though this book changes the perspective we may have on the meaning of Jewish Self-Hatred, it also creates a whole new problem for understanding the meaning of the term as used by Sander Gilman and others.  I suggest looking Amos Bitzan’s exceptional review of the book, which explains this problem in more detail.

Reitter and Gilman’s take on Jewish Self-Hatred can help us to better understand what is at stake in understanding Sarah Silverman’s edginess with respect to the claim that she might be a self-hating Jew.  I began and ended my last note on Sarah Silverman’s Jewishness with a discussion of the Jewish “trait” as it relates to what Sander Gilman and others have called “Jewish Self-Hatred.”  The point I was trying to make is that Silverman is playing with the notion.  And this makes her work, as it pertains to Jews, edgy.  I am certainly not accusing her of being a self-hating Jew.  Rather, I’m pointing out how she evokes herself as a possible target of such an accusation while, at the same time, allaying such suspicions.   Let’s call this moving back and forth from target to non-target her comic strategy.   And her act of employing it may work to diffuse or expose this complex phenomenon.

We see this in the chapter entitled “Jew,” from her quasi-autobiography, The Bedwetter.  As I noted in the last entry on this topic,  Silverman begins the chapter by acting ‘as if’ (hence the irony) the editor’s call to have her write on her Jewishness was an embarrassment.  She then goes on to note how she doesn’t even “look” Jewish.  Here, she plays on the trait.  However, later in the chapter, she confesses that she cannot not think of herself as Jew; her traits betray her Jewishness:

Growing up, the only way I really sensed I was a Jew was by dint of the fact that everyone around me was not.  My dark features and name both scream “Jew” like an air-raid siren.   Most people in New Hampshire have names like Lisa Bedard (pronounced Beh-daahhd) or Cheryl Dubois (Boo-boyz).  I was the only one with hairy arms and “gorilla legs.” (220).

She then goes on to note that when she was in Third Grade, one boy, Matt Italia, threw “pennies and nickels at her feet” as she “stepped on to the bus.”  In jest Silverman notes that it “wasn’t as bad as it sounds” since she made “52 cents!”  But she doesn’t see Matt’s affront as anti-Semitic; rather, she thinks that Matt and others “were just trying to wrap their heads around the differences between people.  Matt didn’t hate me when he threw change at my feet any more than he loved me when we were boyfriend and girlfriend”(220).

Some people may read this and argue that, in this serious reflection (minus any irony), Silverman doesn’t want to call anti-Semitism by its real name. Regardless, Silverman does admit that she cannot escape her Jewishness.  But it is not the object of hatred so much as a childish confusion over what it means to be different.

In the next section, entitled “Seriously, Though, New Hampshire was not Especially Jewish,” Silverman goes on to talk about yet another way she had a sense that she was Jewish; namely, her difference from Christians.  She notes that she went to Church with her friends on Sundays after “Saturday-night sleepovers” and that sometimes her friends would come to temple.  But, regarding the temple and the church, she notes:

Both places of worship seemed to be these bizarre forums where authority figures told fucked-up ghost stories between spurts of loving encouragement. (221)

Her assessment of religion indicates that, for her, Jewishness (her traits, differences, etc) means more to her than Judaism.  To this end, she notes that, when she was sent to a “local convent” – while her mother went to school to get a degree – she was treated differently than she was in her Jewish home.  There, Silverman learned that she would be punished if she didn’t finish her PBJ sandwich; at home, there was no such pressure. That difference, for her, constitutes some sense of her Jewishness.

The following section, entitled “Unlike Jesus Christ, I am Embraced, Rather Than Murdered, by Jews, for Flapping my Yapper,” employs her strategy of flipping back and forth between making herself a target of Jewish Self-Hatred and effacing it.  The very title bespeaks the claim; namely, that Jews killed Jesus.  This is a claim she plays with in her Jesus is Magic (2005) film.

Silverman turns from Jews and Jesus to speaking explicitly about her Jewishness. She validates it by noting that her sister Susan – who visited Israel, went to seminary, and became a Rabbi – loves Judaism.  And Silverman jokingly notes that the proof of her sister’s love can be found in the fact that her sister added an extra Jewish name (her husband’s) to her own. She became Susan Silverman Abramowitz.

After noting her sister’s turn to Judaism, Silverman notes that she hasn’t pursued Judaism but “the faith has sort of pursued me”(224). But I wouldn’t say Judaism has pursued her so much as Jewisness. She notes that she has now “been deemed ‘good for the Jews’ and from that there seems to be no going back; the Jews have spoken”(224).  By stating this, Silverman is making it clear that she doesn’t think there is any reason why she should be called “self-hating” – after all, she has been “deemed ‘good for the Jews.’”

But here’s the punch line.  Immediately after saying this, she states (ironically):

I could do anything now and I’ll still be considered good for them.  I could, for example, accept Jesus as my lord and savior.  I could deny the Holocaust.  I mean, when you think about it, the proof isn’t exactly overwhelming – what, a couple of trendy arm tattoos and some survivor testimonials filmed by Steven Spielberg?  Um, Steven Speilberg? The guy who made E.T.?

Here, she works out her strategy which is to play around with the Jewish Self-Hatred card.  The punch line, in this statement, is that Silverman uses her charm (she knows about E.T. after all) to get the joke past the gates of Jewish Self-Hatred.

All of these seemingly self-hating jokes, Silverman tells us, are similar to those told by fat people to put people around them at ease about their “differentness”:

The smart fat kid will be the first to make a fat joke as a protection from whatever insults the other kids might hurl at him, and, as a smart Jew, I did likewise.  Joking about my differentness seemed to put the people around me at ease.  Even though I actually knew almost nothing about being a Jew other than that I was one.  (226)

This claim casts another light on her strategy.  Silverman jokes about Jews appeal to allaying fears of others (regarding her “differentness”) and to playing with the claims of Jewish Self-Hatred.

I’ll close with the last section of her “Jew” chapter since this section ends on the note of the trait, which reminds us that Silverman’s Jewishness is still caught up in allying the possible negativity her name, physical traits, etc may evoke. The essence of that negativity would be her Jewishness.

In this section, Silverman turns to the Jewish name change and notes that Winona Ryder changed her name from Winona Horowitz.   She says that the name change was a “sneaky Jewish move” and adds, perhaps pridefully, that she didn’t change her name (231).   Silverman admits that her name may create some “limitations” on the work she would get in Hollywood, New York, etc.  And she can see that there is some bias.

However, Silverman then turns it all around and shows us that the thought she had about not changing her name had nothing to do with pride; rather, she kept her name because the name Silverman sounds less “ethnic and more graceful than Horowitz.”   Following this, she says that she can’t imagine Jon Stewart as Jon Leibowitz. Why?  Because it sounds “too Jewish.”

These statements, of course, may evoke the claim of Jewish Self-Hatred. And she knows it. For this reason, she employs her comic strategy in the last paragraph of the section to allay it all. But the punch line returns us to the Jewish trait and the problem of Jewish Self-Hatred:

Whether I like it or not, I am, at least from the world’s point of view, Jewish.  And yes, I admit I draw on my Jewishness when comically advantageous, though nothing I have even done, or plan to do, will be about advancing any kind of Jewish agenda….Because I have accepted being identified as Jewish, I’ll also 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.  (232)

In the end, it is the physical ethnic trait that identifies Silverman as “Jewish.”  That seems to be the punch line.  Her Jewishness, perhaps to the chagrin of those who make accusations of her being a self-hating Jew, doesn’t seem to be based on pride so much as difference.  And her comic strategy, it seems, plays on these accusations as well as her sense of Jewish difference.  Silverman knows she is targeted, and like many comedians she evokes and plays with this comic targeting in several of her (Jewishly oriented) routines.

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