Lena Dunham and the Three J’s: Jokes, Jewishness, and Jewish Literacy

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After writing my blog essay on Lena Dunham, which was posted on Facebook, Tweeted, Retweeted, Favorited, and published, again, by Queen Mob’s Tea House, I received some interesting comments that have prompted me to return to what I wrote.   One of the most compelling responses to what I wrote suggested that Lena Dunham doesn’t – as David Remnick suggests – fit within the context of Jewish comedy. And the reason provided by at least one commenter is that, although she is Jewish, Dunham doesn’t have an understanding of what it means to be Jewish.

In response to this, I noted that the reason I quoted Irving Howe’s review of Portnoy’s Complaint (“Portnoy Reconsidered”) was because Howe slighted Roth for writing a novel that reduced and caricatured the complexity of Jewish-American life. I’ll re-quote it here:

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.

What Howe is suggesting here, by way of his concept of “vulgarity,” is not that Roth was talking dirty – Howe has no problem with that – but that he submitted the “rich substance of human experience, sentiment, value, and aspiration to a radically reductive leveling or simplification.” And this, to be sure, is the risk one takes when one writes, like Lena Dunham, comedy.

But there is a fundamental difference between Roth and Dunham which speaks to the issue raised by some readers; namely, Roth should have known better since he, unlike Dunham, has a rich understanding of Jewishness and has Jewish literacy. To be sure, this is what Irving Howe makes clear in his first major review essay on Philip Roth (on his book Goodbye, Columbus).

In effect, Howe’s two readings of Roth provide – indirectly – a set of standards that he draws on in reading Jewish American literature and humor. For brevity’s sake, I’m going to call them the three J’s. For the Jewish joke to work, and to avoid becoming what Howe would call “vulgar,” the joke or the writing needs to evince a sense of Jewishness and Jewish literacy that doesn’t absent-mindedly caricature things Jewish.

If one is to tell a Jewish joke that engages in self-mockery, simply being a Jew is not enough these days. Dunham is clearly not an anti-Semite, as several online sites and magazines have claimed; rather, she simply lacks a sense of Jewishness and Jewish literacy. But, then again, many Jewish comedians or Jews who drops a comic line about Jews here and there also don’t seem to be aware. Stereotypes and caricatures of Jews are all over Hollywood but, for some reason, only Lena Dunham is being put up on the stand.

If critics are going to be critical of her Jewish jokes, are they going to apply the same severity with other Jewish popular icons? And is this fair given the fact that many writers and filmmakers also don’t seem to have a sense of Jewish literacy – much like the majority of Jews in America?

This, it seems, is the main issue.

Irving Howe was troubled by the gradual assimilation of Jews into American culture and the attendant loss of Jewish literacy. For Howe, the farther we move away from immigrant Jewishness, the worse the condition becomes. Nonetheless, given what many critics have been saying, both joke writers and the public need to know how to tell a Jewish joke. We may not need to know about Jewish history or Judaism in general; but, still, there is another type of literacy that seems to be called for: the knowledge of Jewish stereotypes and caricatures.

The problem with this kind of reading is that comedians are hard pressed to abandon stereotypes about Jewish mothers, nebbishes, and whiny Jews.   And this kind of scrutiny may go out of control. What, for instance, will critics say of Larry David. Is his New York kind of Jewishness problematic and stereotypical or is it real? Are the caricatures we see in a film like Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg problematic, too? He claims to have read Bellow’s Herzog and Roth’s Porntoy many times before making the movie.   But are his readings just lazy repetitions of old stereotypes that we find in these novels?

What may be called for is also a way of looking for what’s positive in schlemiel humor – or Jewish humor – instead of only what is negative. (Both are necessary, together.) For instance, is there anything special about the absent-mindedness of the schlemiel or schlemiel humor? Does it appeal to hope, optimism, or its failure? How does it relate to being Jewish?

Without doing something like this, instead of laughing at comedians we may shout at them. We will all become comedy-cops on the lookout for bad or suspicious behavior. But, to be sure, isn’t it one of the main tasks of comedy to push the envelope and to play around with lazy stereotypes so as to expose them? Self-mockery is essential to comedy, but where do we draw the line?

Apparently, the line between comedy and what Howe calls “vulgarity” can be drawn by a comedian or writer making it evident, in some way, that they know the stereotype and are playing with it. If they don’t, then, it seems, they are guilty as charged. Jews can’t appeal to self-mockery anymore unless they know what it means to be Jewish and, from that position, are able to tell when Jews are being mocked. But to do that, don’t they need to know what’s Jewish (in a positive sense) and what’s not (in a negative sense)? Or do they just need to know what’s not Jewish?

Ultimately, with Lena Dunham, we have a case of the three J’s: jokes, Jewishness, and Jewish literacy.   But, unfortunately, many cultural critics have not, thus far, been able to articulate it. They are better at calling her out than in explaining what the basis of their criticism is. What standards should a Jewish comedian subscribe to and why? The more people descries the transgressions of Jewish comedy, the more these questions will have to be addressed.

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