Insecure Immigrants, Americans, and Jewish Comedians

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Is there a unique relationship between America and Jewish comedy?  And is the immigrant experience the only source of Jewish culture, comedy, and literature?  Irving Howe held that the immigrant experience was the high point of Jewish culture and literature.  And he feared that as the Jewish immigrant experience faded into the past and Jews assimilated, the basis for Jewish fiction, humor, culture, and identity would also disappear.

But as I have pointed out in my blog entries on Gary Shteyngart, this is an issue that concerns us today.  What I found in Gary Shteyngart is something that Lawrence Epstein – in his book The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America – also finds in the Immigrant experience; namely, the “insecure immigrant” who lives within the uncomfortable place between being an outsider and wanting to be an insider.

What interests me most about Epstein’s argument is 1) his description of this insecurity and 2) the proof he brings to the fore when he argues that Jewish immigrants to America, who happened to become famous comedians, managed this anxiety.  According to Epstein, Jews drew on their own history, language, and optimism to make a unique contribution to American culture and, in the process, created a new kind of Jewish identity that could only have been devised by Eastern European Jews who were turning to comedy rather than religion for security.  But this identity didn’t come out of a vacuum: Jewish humor evokes, as the title of his book suggests, a “haunted smile.”   Insecure immigrants-who-became-comedians were not just fighting with the insecurity of being an immigrant or with a religion that no longer seemed to grant security; they were fleeing a horrible and impoverished life.  And America motivated them, in Epstein’s view, to address all of these anxieties and create something new.

At the outset of this book The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America, Lawrence Epstein cites the New York Times columnist Frank Rich who states that the “very basis of American history was that insecure immigrants came to settle that land.”  Adding to this, Epstein notes that the Jews were the “most insecure” and could “serve as a symbol for Americans as they could for no other people.”

Epstein marks out why, historically, Jews were unique.  Epstein thinks that the great generation of Jewish comics emerged from the immigration at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.  During that time, the largest number of immigrants came from Eastern Europe (at that time the majority of the world Jewry lived in Eastern Europe and Russia; but that changed with immigration and history):

In 1880, there were 80,000 Jews living in New York. By 1910, that number swelled to 1,250,000.   By one estimate, a typical block consisted of 2,781 people – and no bathtubs. (11)

This wave of immigration emerged out of an insecurity that developed out of thwarted hopes and the horrors of history.  Jews had, since the 18th century, been forced to live in the Pale of Settlement.  Jews were often at odds with the Russians.  And although the Haskalah movement (The Jewish Enlightenment) made its way from central Europe to Eastern Europe and gave Enlightened Jews hope that Russia would one day become a democracy, the laws against Jews and forced conscriptions flattened the optimism of many.  But during the time of Czar Alexander II of Russia, there was a small window of hope (of a few decades in the middle of the 19th century) when Jews were allowed to leave the Pale of Settlement for Russian cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg.  Jews were allowed to enter universities and take on typical professions.  This prompted many Enlightened Jews to imagine that they had finally become equals.

But this was short lived.   Alexander II was assassinated and Jews were blamed and this led to Pogroms and violence against the Jews.  His plan was to solve Russia’s “Jewish problem”:

One third would emigrate, one third would be converted to Russian Orthodoxy, and one third would starve to death. (6)

Following this, Jews were killed in mass during several different pogroms and were forced to give their children over for military conscription.  In the midst of this horror, America offered some form of hope.   Epstein describes the trip across the Atlantic in detail so as to show how difficult it was and how Jewish immigrants were willing to go through all of these difficulties in order to live a better life.

This desire met with an America that was looking for a way to deal with “changes in American society itself.”  Epstein makes the case that Jews used their ingenuity to address American anxieties about these changes:

Searching for a way to deal with the emerging anxieties of the modern age, America turned to the Jews, the masters of handling history’s troubles.  Jewish humor, so useful in helping generations of anxious Jews, was called to action to serve the similar needs of the wider American community.   An immigrant generation found in the Jews a people repeatedly practiced in starting over again in a new place while feeling marginal and scared.  (xii)

Epstein’s reading suggests that Americans and Jews were, at this time of history, a good fit since both were “insecure.”  And what Jews had to offer to a fledgling America (which lacked the history of Europe and its internal coping mechanisms) was a humorous means of dealing with modernity and radical historical change.

Epstein’s account of what Jews bring to this situation – vis-à-vis their history – is worth noting.  He points out that “they drew on their heritage in ways they didn’t always understand”(xiii).  And this act was transformational: “As they used that heritage to find ways to express truths about America, they transformed American culture, making Jews and Jewishness acceptable, even enviable”(xiii).

The greatest feature that Jews can draw from their history is their sense of anxiety that is the product of living on the margins of history: “Jewish comedians could sense majority anxieties early and transform them into humor, giving these anxieties a shape and a name as well as a way to cope”(xiii).

In this situation, Epstein argues that the schlemiel fit perfectly: “One of the most famous Jewish comic types is the schlemiel, a clumsy, maladjusted, hard-luck loser”(xv).  The schlemiel addresses these majority anxieties.  But instead of citing the immigrant comedians of the early 20th century as an example, Epstein turns to Woody Allen:

Sometimes, as in the classical schlemiels created by Woody Allen, this poor character is profoundly neurotic,  His one liners reflect negative emotions (When we played softball, I’d steal second, then feel guilty and go back”) or a sense of being trapped by unfeeling institutions (“I went to a school for emotional disturbed teachers”). (xv)

Epstein says that his body and demeanor were a “standing sight gag” and that his “distinctive New York voice added the effect as he told his audience the story.”  The story he cites is the “moose joke.”

Following this, Epstein turns to the Marx Brothers and describes each of them in detail.  He contrasts them to Allen by noting that they – together – “created a different comic type, the free soul who doesn’t so much criticize all social mores as mock and ignore them.”   Epstein names a few other “types” (that range from the “fool” (Ed Wynn and Rodney Dangerfield), the “observer” (Jerry Seinfeld), and the Social Critic (Lenny Bruce), but ends on the note that all of these types emerge out of a history and culture that is “extraordinarily verbal”:

Words form the center of study, of prayer, and of entertainment. The emphasis of language and on the argumentative patterns of Talmudic reasoning provided Jews with a style of thinking.  (xviii)

And he even goes so far as to say Jewish comedy also emerges out of a “theology” in which Jews were “permitted, even encouraged to question.”  This includes the challenges made to God we find in the Torah, the Talmud, and the Hasidic tradition.  This challenge to authority is the “hallmark of Jewish humor.”  And “Jewish comedians were notable in their willingness to test their audiences’ sense of which subjects and words were acceptable”(xviii).

Taken together, Epstein argues that these aspects of Jewish history were of great interest to the insecure American majority of the post-Civil War and rapidly industrializing America of the early 20th century.  Jewish comedians, who emerged out of the uncomfortable space of immigration, were of interest as they gave Americans new ways of dealing with radical historical change.  And this way became the basis for Jewish-American identity.

Epstein goes so far as to say that Jewish-American comedy offered a new kind of secular Jewish identity that displaced the security offered by religion.  In America, Jews could be secure with their insecurity and use it as a basis of identity.  As a recent Pew Poll shows, Jewish comedy is still a major basis for Jewish identity.

But after pondering Epstein’s thesis which he makes at the outset of his book, I wonder how, historically, it is the case that the comic American-immigrant fiction of Gary Shteyngart is so popular.   Is it because America is and will always remain a country that can learn from “insecure immigrants”?  Will America always be insecure and in need of new ways of coping with crisis?  And will comedy always be in great demand for this very reason?  Epstein seems to suggest that this is so…

If that is the case, the major question for schlemiel-in-theory is to figure out what the every changing basis for “insecurity” is and how comedy comes to address it.   But is it the case that, as Daniel Itzkovitz in his essay “They are All Jews” (in You Should See Yourself: Jewish Identity in Postmodern Culture) claims, that Jewish comedy has become so common that it is indistinguishable from American comedy?  And what might this imply about the Jewish contribution to American comedy?  Insecurity may remain in America, but are Jews still really insecure about being Jews in America?  Are comic Jewish-Immigrant writers like Gary Shteyngart an exception?  And is Larry David’s comedy a product of his New York Jewishness which is out of place in Hollywood?  Is he an inter-American immigrant like Woody Allen was in Annie Hall (1976) when he went off for Hollywood at the end of the film and went back with his tail between his legs?

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