Lena Dunham’s Old/New Schlemiel Humor and the Caricature of the Jewish Male

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Since being published last week, Lena Dunham’s recent “Jewish boyfriend or dog” joke for The New Yorker has received enormous attention and most of it has been negative. The first major hit was an article that came out three days ago by Kveller – a site that is written by Jewish women and is acutely aware of things Jewish.   The title of this article, written by Jordanna Horn, bore the judgment: “Lena Dunham Equated Jews to Dog’s and That’s Not Ok.”   And the first sentence drove in the nail by stating, outright, that the joke is “anti-Semitic.”   (And the ADL (Anti-Defamation League) called out the “anti-Semitic” nature of the joke immediately.) The article goes through and briefly explains several stereotypes which pop up in Dunham’s piece.   The target of Dunham’s joke is not the Jew so much as the Jewish male: it portrays him as a “weak and winy whimp.”

In response to a slew of negative articles and the ADL’s charge against Dunham, David Remnick of The New Yorker asks that we situate Dunham’s humor within the context of Jewish humor which draws on stereotypes vis-à-vis self mockery. He wrote, via Twitter:

The Jewish-comic tradition is rich with the mockery of, and playing with, stereotypes. Anyone who has ever heard Lenny Bruce or Larry David or Sarah Silverman or who has read ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ knows that. Lena Dunham, who is Jewish and hugely talented, is a comic voice working in that vein. Richard Pryor and Chris Rock do the same about black stereotypes; Amy Schumer does it with women and gender. I don’t mind if one reader or another didn’t find the piece funny. People can differ on that. But considering all the real hatred and tragedy in the world, the people getting exercised about the so-called anti-Semitism of this comic piece, like those who railed at Philip Roth a generation or two ago, are, with respect, howling in the wrong direction.

Remnick is correct to situate Dunham’s joke within the context of Jewish humor.   Of all the people mentioned in his Tweet, Philip Roth is the most relevant. His portrayal of the Jewish male as a schlemiel was criticized by many literary and cultural critics including Irving Howe who, in the 1950s wrote a positive and encouraging review of Roth’s Goodbye Columbus. But he changed his mind about Roth when he read Portnoy’s Complaint.  Howe didn’t think this novel was anti-Semitic so much as vulgar. In his 1972 essay for Commentary entitled “Philip Roth Reconsidered,” Howe wrote:

The cruelest thing anyone can do with Portnoy’s Complaint is to read it twice. An assemblage of gags strung onto the outcry of an analytic patient, the book thrives best on casual responses; it demands little more from the reader than a nightclub performer demands: a rapid exchange of laugh for punch-line, a breath or two of rest, some variations on the first response, and a quick exit. Such might be the most generous way of discussing Portnoy’s Complaint were it not for the solemn ecstasies the book has elicited, in line with Roth’s own feeling that it constitutes a liberating act for himself, his generation, and maybe the whole culture.

Howe slights Roth for his stereotypes and what he calls a “claustrophobic” view of Jewishness and argues that the denigration of the Jewish male we find in Roth’s book is “vulgar.” And though he would affirm the vulgarity of someone like Lenny Bruce, he draws the line with Roth because Roth doesn’t seem to be drawing on Jewish life at all so much as drawing on a life-already-caricatured:

It is very hard, I will admit, to be explicit about the concept of vulgarity: people either know what one is referring to, as part of the tacit knowledge that goes to make up a coherent culture, or the effort to explain is probably doomed in advance. Nevertheless, let me try. By vulgarity in a work of literature I am not here talking about the presence of certain kinds of words or the rendering of certain kinds of actions. I have in mind, rather, the impulse to submit the rich substance of human experience, sentiment, value, and aspiration to a radically reductive leveling or simplification; the urge to assault the validity of sustained gradings and discriminations of value, so that in some extreme instances the concept of vulgarity is dismissed as up-tight or a mere mask for repressiveness; the wish to pull down the reader in common with the characters of the work, so that he will not be tempted to suppose that any inclinations he has toward the good, the beautiful, or the ideal merit anything more than a Bronx cheer; and finally, a refusal of that disinterestedness of spirit in the depiction and judgment of other people which seems to me the writer’s ultimate resource.

As Howe also notes, this kind of caricature and vulgarity are a part of a larger context. Unfortunately, Howe spends more time discussing literary and not cultural context. To be sure, Roth’s novel was reflecting cultural trends that had been, for years, active in American popular culture. And it can be argued that Dunham’s humor also be placed in this context. Perhaps it is a symptom rather than an aberration.

In an essay that looks specifically at the emasculation of the Jewish male in Jewish humor in general and schlemiel humor in particular, Maurice Berger 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 when Jews cross dress on TV, this, according to Berger, perpetuates “longstanding stereotypes” that “feminize” the Jewish body. The Odd Couple, The Jack Benny Program, and The Mary Tyler Moor Show all illustrate the comic “stereotype of the unmanly, powerless Jew.” According to Berger, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Brooklyn Bridge stand out in this regard: “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 by shiksas. 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 in 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 Jews. These characteristics, with Woody Allen’s films (like Annie Hall) become “charming.” And Biale (and a few other scholars who follow his lead) argue 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 American schlemiel’s self-deprecating non-masculine body becomes an American body.

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 has become the norm.

Lena Dunham’s “Dog or Jewish Boyfriend” should be seen in this context since it 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, Bruce Jay Friedman’s characters (see his novel Stern and A Mother’s Kisses), and countless other schlemiels that we have seen on TV and film, lavished with too much love from his Jewish mother. What Dunham says is merely a reflection of a widely circulated stereotype:

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.

Kveller is correct, Dunham  portrays the Jewish male as a “weak and winy whimp.” But this is nothing new in American culture. It is a symptom and not an aberration. Dunham’s is the portrayal of the Jewish male as a schlemiel of the worst sort. Please note that schlemiel theory – this blog – and my own work ventures positive and negative readings of the schlemiel and this is not the one that interests us most.   The schlemiel tradition of humor – and its portrayals of the Jewish male – which we see in writers like Sholom Aleichem, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and I.B. Singer – amongst many others – is much more positive and it has a deeper relationship with what Irving Howe finds most relevant and compelling about being a Jew. These books may include elements of “self-mockery,” which is a key element of Jewish humor, but they do so with a deep sense of what’s important and needs to be remembered. This is much different from the reduction of the Jew to mannerisms and what Cynthia Ozick calls the sociological Jew.

In closing, I just want to note how James Joyce (who was not Jewish like Dunham, Roth et al), in his portrayal of Leopold Bloom, makes a positive relationship between the schlemiel and the feminine. And instead of a dog, he puts the Jewish male in relation to a cat. It is through her eyes that Bloom, at the outset of the novel, sees himself. However, this doesn’t make him into a caricature so much as a character with, as one Joyce commentator notes, a person who is deeply concerned with the other.   That is his comedy and associating his masculinity with a cat poses deeper questions about the comedy of relation.

What’s even more of interest is what happens when a woman is portrayed as a schlemiel. We see this in Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? where the main character, Sheila Heti, in an act of self-mockery portrays herself with all the failings of a male schlemiel. But her representations are endearing and insightful. The mockery has a silver lining. And the biggest irony of all is that Lena Dunham’s name can be found on the front cover of Heti’s book. Dunham characterizes Heti’s book as “a really amazing metafiction-meets-nonfiction-book.”   But what really sticks out most in Heti’s novel is not simply the metafictional and nonfictional element so much as the use of comedy and self-mockery to bring about reflection on the comedy of relation. In Dunham’s piece, we don’t see that. We see the mockery of the other and the other’s failure to meet the standards of a Jewish woman because he is…a schlemiel.    But..so is she.

2 thoughts on “Lena Dunham’s Old/New Schlemiel Humor and the Caricature of the Jewish Male

    • No. Philip Roth was also a Jew and the majority of people who produced the TV I mentioned were also Jewish. For Howe or Ozick, there is a lot at stake with how American Jews represent Jewishness

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