Jewish-American Style: Philip Roth and the Mischief-Making Tradition in Jewish Culture


Now and then we all like a little mischief.  Growing up, I always associated this with breaking the law.  If mischief was going on, it was behind people’s backs.  And if it was going on, I never imagined it was something that Jews did.  It wasn’t – as professor Daniel Boyarin notes in speaking about the humble and effeminate Jewish man of the Middle Ages  – “Yiddisheh nachas” – mischief was “goyishe nachas.”

But, just today, I noticed that Phillip Roth uses the word “mischief” to describe a certain form of Jewishness.  I found this excerpt from an interview in the 1990s which is quoted by Andrew Furman in his essay “The Imagination of Melvin Bukiet.”  It comes out of Roth’s explanation as to why Jewish humor is “flourishing.”  Roth reads Jewish humor in terms of a reaction – in some way – to an “abundance of prescriptions” (Halachot – Jewish laws – which Jews have, throughout their history, kept), the negative history that was endured in keeping them and living apart, and what he calls the “exaggerated seriousness” of “thoughtful Jews.” In other words, the “flourishing” of “Jewish mischief” in Jewish circles comes out of a collective desire of many Jews to free themselves from all of this “weight”:

Perhaps because of the abundance of prescriptions both internally and externally generated by Jewish history, perhaps because of the singular sort of care that living as a Jew has generally required, perhaps because of the exaggerated seriousness with which a thoughtful Jew is often burdened, Jewish mischief – as couched, say, in the inexhaustible jokes about their peculiarities that Jews themselves so much enjoy – flourishes, surprisingly enough, in even the most superdignified Jewish circles.   

This is an interesting set of suppositions.  As it suggests that Jewish humor is produced and flourishes for internal and external historical reasons that are existential – in the Nietzschean sense of “lightening” the load of the law.

But there is more to the story.  Roth repeats the age-old dichotomy between law and freedom that was recited by Paul, Augustine, and countless others who followed in the footsteps of the Church Fathers.  And in this there is a metaphysics of the will at work which privileges freedom as that which defines the self by way of an act of rejection and distinction.  (What Nietzsche called the act of “individuation.”) However, it is Freud who speaks loudest here: humor as the release of psychic energy, a kind of catharsis.

I’m not going to throw Roth’s presumptuous (Pauline) baby out with the bathwater.  Roth is on to something.  There is a connection of mischief to history.  The roots of the word mischief point the way.  The Oxford Dictionary defines mischief as “playful misbehavior or troublemaking esp children.” The origin of the word comes from “late Middle English” and it he denotes “misfortune or distress.”  The root of mischief is the root of the schlemiel: the misfortune or distress of history.

But how do we read Jewish humor in terms of a history of bad luck?  This is the question of the hour.

Andrew Furman, in his essay on Bukeit, draws on this interview by arguing that there is a “mischief making tradition in Jewish culture” that challenges “Jewish law.”  Furman’s description of this tradition of mischief is telling since it brings us face to face with what he thinks the purpose of Jewish humor is:

Now, there is mischief and there is mischief. That is, certain Jewish mischief like the countless jokes to which Roth refers – brings immeasurable joy to Jewish audiences (while often eliciting only nervous laughter from non-Jews).   Jokes about the nebbish Jews, the cunning Jew, or the parsimonious Jews, told by Jews, subvert the dominant culture’s use of these stereotypes. (52)

Furman adds that this subversion had one goal: “They did not so much challenge the veracity of the stereotypes as they stripped them of their venom through appropriation.”   This suggests that Furman would read the schlemiel and jokes about the schlemiel as an act of subversion which would make it easier for Jews to live in the American space of the dominant culture.

Ferman argues, in addition, that there is a spectrum: some mischief is enjoyed by what Roth calls “superdignified Jews” but “other” kinds of mischief are not. And this leads us to Phillip Roth, whose Portnoy’s Complaint and Goodbye Columbus created that “other” kind of mischief. Furman cites Irving Howe’s “landmark essay” entitled “Phillip Roth Reconsidered” as an example.  Howe called Roth’s characters “merely caricatures – the product of Roth’s ‘thin personal’ culture.”

Howe objected to Roth’s “mischief” and so did many others Jews in Howe’s Jewish circle: “in short, Roth’s brand of Jewish mischief was considered by many to be bad for the Jews.”   Ruth Wisse sees it differently.  Near the end of her Schlemiel as Modern Hero, she argues that Roth wanted to reject the schlemiel.  Sanford Pinsker argues the same in his Schlemiel as Metaphor book (there are only two academic books on the schlemiel; hence my project: schlemiel theory).   For Pinsker the proof is in the pudding: all of Roth’s novels following Portnoy do not have schlemiels.  In them, there is mischief of another sort, the sort that I associated, above, with “goyishe nachas.”

Let’s pause for a moment and think about what is going on in Roth and Furman’s reading.  What happens in this kind of reading is that it situates the meaning of “mischief” in legal or cultural terms.  Furman and Roth’s presumption is that modern Jews turn to humor because they ultimately want to leave the law, exile, and history behind so as to feel comfortable in America.  Jewish mischief flourishes because Jews want to live as Americans.

But what happens when the law is left behind and Jews are fully assimilated?  Will Jews still “need” Jewish humor?  This theory of the Jewish need for humor presupposes that they won’t need it….some day…when stereotypes disappear and Jews are embraced as equals.

The proof is in the pudding.  Does a tradition of Jewish humor exist in a post-assimilation era? And if the schlemiel is a cultural icon today….if everyone loves schlemiels like Seth Rogen or Adam Sandler….not so much for their Jewishness….as for their being schlemiels, what does this mean?  This seems to lead us to another set of melancholic questions – which I’ll end with:

When there are no laws or stereotypes for Jews to subvert, what will be left of the tradition of mischief – that is, the Jewishness spoken of by Furman in relation to Roth?  Does no mischief mean no Jewish autonomy or Jewishness?  Do we live in such an age?

Is it too late?

Is the Jewish tradition of mischief no longer Jewish but…American?

Am I being too serious?  Of course, you’re a schlemiel theorist.  Enough already…mischief, anyone?  post-law-post-stereotypes-

…..mischief, Jewish-American mischief? ((((NU!)))))

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