Over the weekend, someone told me that a Rabbi praised Joan Rivers for having a “6M” tattooed on the inside of her arm in the memory of the 6 million who died in the Holocaust. Although the Rabbi noted that Jews are, according to the Torah, forbidden to have tattoos, he noted that what she did was an exception. Apparently, she did this right near the end of her life and, according to this Rabbi, her public support for her fellow Jews in Israel was of great importance. She had, in his mind, become a saint-of-sorts and it didn’t matter if she had a “6M” tattoo.
Hearing this, I immediately went on line in search of the tattoo. But when I did a google search I found no such “Holocaust tattoo.” Rather what I found was an episode of “Joan and Melissa: Joan Knows Best?” (Season 2, Episode 9) where she goes to get a tattoo of a “bumble bee” on her derriere. This, apparently, was her “first tattoo.” But instead of going through it, she gives up in the process. Reflecting on the failed attempt to get a tattoo, she kvetches: “I wanted a bee and I got a freckle.”
Eventually, I found a few articles that mentioned her “6M” tattoo. The reflections they offered were meager. The most I found was a statement she made about it in an interview where she notes that:
“Being Jewish has always been important to me,” she reiterated and to prove it she got a tattoo last year. “I now have 6M tattooed on the inside of my left arm. It’s only a half-inch but every time anyone sees it they’re reminded of the six million who perished, and so am I.”
In pursuit of something more reflective, I was fortunate enough to find a “diary entry from her last book, published this year, in which she talks about the tattoo within the context of a two jokes.
In her Diary of a Mad Diva (2014) Joan Rivers writes, in her June 2nd entry, of her “6M” tattoo. But before she discusses her tattoo and its relation to the Holocaust, she writes of something she’s “always wanted to do: I went shoplifting with Lindsay Lohan.” But this is a joke. And this joke is the preface to her confession about something much more serious:
Today I did something I’ve always wanted to do: I went shoplifting with Lindsay Lohan. Ha, ha. No, that’s not a joke. In my own way I have been stealing for years. I have bath towels with big Ns on them from the Ark. However, I would never steal with Lindsay Lohan, as she is not smart. She keeps putting things down the front of her dresses even though she wears see through dresses. Once I was told she stuffed a sofa into the back of her Spanx but was caught when she waddled out of the store with a huge butt. They thought she was Jennifer Lopez.
What I did do today was I got t a tattoo! To honor the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust, on my left forearm I had them tattoo a little blue “6M.” Surprisingly it hardly hurt, so next week, I’m planning to get a “12M” to honor the twelve million Jews who refused to buy retail, and if that doesn’t hurt, I’ll get a “26 ½ M” for all the Jewish business men whose second wives are blond shiksa goddesses.
What I love about this reflection is that she couches her confession about her tattoo – the only one she really went through with – in a series of jokes about the other tattoos that she will get. Each of the numbers she rattles off hit on classic jokes about Jews in America and their love for a good deal and “blond shiksa goddesses.”
These jokes, so to speak, take the edge off of what she really did on June 2nd. The book was released one month later. Her death wasn’t far off.
And while one can see the pattern of her “bumble bee” tattoo on her but, which never came to be in reality, one can’t find the tattoo of the “6M” on her arm on google image search. It’s there, but we can’t see it. She also decided not to record her getting this tattoo as she did with the bumble bee (attempt-at-a-tattoo). And this is telling. It seems that she wanted to keep the image of this tattoo to herself. She could talk about it, as we have seen above, and she shared it with a few people here and there; but she didn’t want to make it into an icon. Her reminder was something…that would remind herself primarily….Or so it seems…..
During the week of Robin Williams death, I wrote a piece on his role in Jakob the Liar. As I pointed out, Williams didn’t shy away from the challenge of bringing humor to the Holocaust. To this end, he decided to take on the role of the schlemiel, Jakob, who did his utmost to distance the Lodz ghetto from its impending doom. He and Roberto Bengnini – who wrote and played the main role in Life is Beautiful – turned to the schlemiel and both were duly criticized for this since, “after Auschwitz,” Theodor Adorno and several Holocaust scholars who follow in his wake argue that humor, much like poetry, might be thought to be unethical when it comes to representing the Holocaust. However, what makes the schlemiel interesting is, as Sidrah Ezrahi suggests, that its brand of comedy “revolts” against the world so as to preserve hope. But that revolt is in the name of innocence.
While Bengini and Williams took to the schlemiel in the face of the Holocaust, Joan Rivers took more to a comic style that was in the spirit of Lenny Bruce (who, arguably, made a major impression on Rivers and changed her way of doing comedy). These jokes do not preserve innocence so much as the spirit of revolt itself. They strike at the civility that is at the core of the west. And, as David Biale argues, Lenny Bruce created a new sense of Jewishness as a position that was not so much American as marginal, counter-cultural, and against the status quo. And because Rivers is “Jewish,” perhaps in Bruce’s sense, her Holocaust jokes take on another aspect.
The most recent joke Joan told about the Holocaust was on Fashion Police. In this joke she likens the “hotness” of Heidi Klum’s ass in a dress to the hotness of Germans “pushing Jews into the ovens” in concentration camps:
On CNN she was asked if she regretted telling the joke. She starts off by saying that it’s “just a joke,” notes that a large part of her husbands family died in the Holocaust, and finishes up by saying that her joke prompts this generation to think about the Holocaust (simply because it’s not on their minds and this will spur them to think). After being asked again if she will apologize, she notes how her Jewishness keeps her from criticism: “Why don’t you worry about Mel Gibson? Why don’t you worry about the anti-Semites out there?” But the clincher is that the main thing is to laugh because if you can laugh “you can deal with it.”
This principle, it seems, is nearly identical to the one used by Begnini and Williams in their use of the schlemiel. It is not simply revolt for the sake of revolt. It seems that Rivers is suggesting this and the fact that it can spur people to think about the Holocaust.
In her interview with WSJ live, she says something a little different. She begins by saying the joke is on the Germans; they and not the ADL and Abe Foxman should be upset. And she finishes off the discussion by noting what Dick Cavett said via Mark Twain: “Against the assault of humor, nothing can stand. Don’t flinch, Joan.” In other words, comedy is pure revolt. Perhaos Cavett is suggesting the same thing as Lenny Bruce: Jewish comedy should always be in revolt. She says it’s a brilliant comment (several times, in fact).
This year Rivers began her appearance on Jimmy Fallon (the first return to the Tonight Show for decades – since she was “banned” from the show) made a Holocaust joke about how if the German’s could successfully kill millions of Jews at least they could make cars that work. Its interesting that, in following up this joke, she told a joke about her getting vagina rings, and then she turned to a joke dealing with ethnicity and emotion. The joke is an inside/outsider joke. She asks Fallon if he is Irish. He says yes and then she says that she and Fallon get this but WASPS (White Anglo Saxon Protestants) don’t. (This initial insider/outsider joke hearkens back to Lenny Bruce’s jokes about what’s “Jewish” and “Goyish,” meaning WASPish.
Her Jewish/Goyish kind of routine with Fallon sughests that she us in the same camp as all ethnic comedians who fight to succeed in a WASP culture. This seems to authorize her to tell jokes about anything, even the Holocaust.
“I hate people who say they’re ‘workaholics…There is no such thing. Hitler put in a lot of hours. Would you call him a workaholic? People who work 24/7 are not ‘addicted’ to work … they either hate their families or don’t have basic cable.”
On Anne Frank:
“They only order half a chicken, take two bites, then put it in a doggie bag to take home, where it lasts them for six months. Anne Frank didn’t hoard food like this, and that bitch was hungry.”
And in Larry King’s interview with her in 2010, King asks Rivers about Holocaust humor in 5:49. He asks her if there is any “area you will not go to?” And she says, “No. If I think I want to talk about, it’s right to talk about.” And she goes on to say that if she were in “Auschwitz she would tell jokes just to make it ok for us.”
And she concludes, as she did three years later, that if you make something funny you can deal with it. Both statements are telling, but the first is more telling since it has resonance with the films made by Begnini and Williams. Both of them play characters who also tell jokes to help make it ok for us. But the “us” is different and so are the jokes. The humor that Robbins and Begnini use is the humor of the schlemiel. It’s purpose is to make fool younger people so as to preserve their innocence. In contrast, one can imagine that River’s humor, inside of Auschwitz, would have been much different. Instead of prompting Jews to live “as if” the good still exists (and preserving innocence), one can imagine that her jokes would be anything but innocent. However, they would work in the same way: they would make things ok for us (for fellow Jews who were suffering in the Holocaust). And this suggest that Rivers would use humor to revolt against the world. By saying no to it, things would be “ok for us.”
One may disagree with this approach – and many Holocaust scholars and the ADL have. But one needs to ask not just whether humor is tenable after Auschwitz but whether it is tenable during Auschwitz. This is what Rivers suggests to Larry King. And, unlike Williams and Bengini, she saw the Jewish humor that subscribes to vulgarity as more powerful than the humor that subscribes to the schlemiel when it comes to the Holocaust. And this difference also shows us a difference between two trends in post-Holocaust Jewish-American humor: one leaning toward Lenny Bruce and the other toward the traditional schlemiel that we see in I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool.” In the face of Evil, Gimpel acts “as if” good exists. In contrast, Rivers, in contrast, laughs at Evil. And perhaps her revolt is the demonstration (instead of an acting “as if”) of what’s best in humanity.
And this appeal to comedy – in the face of disaster – harkens back to what Walter Benjamin once said of Franz Kafka: “the only thing Kafka was certain of is that only humor helps. The question, however, is whether it can do humanity any good.”
The death of Joan Rivers has left its mark. Many of us have been searching for words. And, as with any death, we try to remember the best things about her. So many things come to mind, but how, I wondered, could I find words. This was too much. After Robin Williams death, I was besides myself and now Joan. All of the joy they brought to my life, the life of my friends, and my family. It felt as if it was all gone.
As soon as I heard the news of Joan’s death, I went immediately to twitter to check the comedians I follow for insights into who she was and what she did. After learning of her death, Mel Brooks tweeted: “Joan Rivers never played it safe. She was the bravest of them all. Still at the top at the end. She will be missed.”
Something about Brooks’ words resonated deeply in me. Yes, he was right. She never played it safe. She was the bravest of all. Her bravery, however, didn’t have to do with the comic boundaries she broke with her words so much as with her person. As a female comic, she took risks that broke boundaries for other women comics. And this, I thought, is what Brooks meant when he said she was “the bravest of them all.” And this needs to be recognized and remembered in the wake of her passing.
Lawrence Epstein, in his book The Haunted Smile, gives Joan her own chapter. The title of the chapter and its subtitle suggest that with female comedy had radically changed Jewish comedy in America: “Kosher at Last: Jewish Women Comedians.” Epstein begins his chapter without mentioning Joan’s name. Joan is presented as a woman without a name (“she”):
She was still struggling for recognition as a comedian. Billed as “Pepper January – Comedy with Spice,” she was faced with a hostile audience. The raucous men seated at the tables had a very definite set of ideas about the men and women who stood in front of them to provide entertainment: the men were supposed to tell jokes, and women were supposed to take their clothes off. Here, though, was this thin, loud woman trying to tell them jokes. The audience members began booing. (253)
After writing this description of “her” act, Epstein tells us her name: Joan Molinsky. As with many Jewish-American comic artists (and artists in general), she had to change her name. She went to her agent, Tony Rivers, and he told her that in order for her to get recognized as an American artist she had to change her last name to Rivers. From then on, she was Joan Rivers.
But the name change wasn’t enough. As Epstein notes, after World War II Borsht Belt humor, which Brooks, Reiner, and Allen (amongst many other famous comedians) participated in, “instilled a deep hostility toward women and mothers”(254). But these comedians weren’t doing something that went against the norm. Epstein tells us that they were a part of a “wider American culture” that was changing radically and was anxious about its identity. They, like many Jews, wanted to assimilate as they moved from the city to the suburbs. Given this situation, male comedians, argues Epstein, were worried that women comedians could “retard their entrance into American society.”
Within such a cultural milieu it was hard for a woman comic to survive unscathed.
And while men had an easier time assimilating, Jewish women, argues Epstein, were the “new Jews, the unaccepted minority, the people seeking power who were not allowed to gain entrance into society, in this case the society of comedians”(257).
For this reason, Epstein argues that women comics, like Totie Fields and Joan Rivers, were “unable to engage normal comic subjects.” As a result, a woman comedian was “stuck making fun of herself”(257). Totie Fields was the first to do this.
And Joan Rivers “built on Fields’s success.” Her humor, like Fields’ was based on self-deprecation.
However, she was also adept at speaking whatever came to her mind and this helped her to become more independent. However, Epstein argues that it wasn’t until she saw Lenny Bruce perform in 1962 that she became radically independent:
The real turning point for her…was in watching Lenny Bruce perform in 1962. She saw in Bruce a sort of comedy she wanted to perform, a comedy that came from personal, intimate experiences, a direct and honest approach. Rivers was not interested in the political and religious confrontations that came to dominate Bruce’s material, but she was deeply impressed by his delivery style. She transformed his blunt obscenity into softer words such as tramp or slut. She also made a deliberate choice. She went for the large lower middle class. (258)
Epstein characterizes her transition as a “change from self-mockery to self-assertion.” She talked about subjects women never talked about. For a woman to do this was heroic and courageous.
What I find so interesting about Epstein’s reading is that it parallels, in many ways, the reading of David Biale in his book Eros and the Jews. But in Biale’s book, there is a different trajectory which moves from the male “sexual schlemiel” to Lenny Bruce.
Biale, to be sure, gives the schlemiel a fundamental role in the creation of American culture and a new, awkward sexuality which finds its best expression in the work of Woody Allen. He argues that the schlemiel doesn’t simply adapt to American culture; it also creates something new. The sexual schlemiel, with his “comic fumbling,” de-eroticizes “gentile America.” And in doing so, his comic fumbling and “sexual ambivalence infects gentile women and turns them into mirror images of himself: even gentile Americans become ‘Jewish’”(207). With this unique claim and powerful rhetoric (“infests,” “turns into mirror images”), Biale does something no schlemiel theorist has done before: besides noting how women become mirror images of the schlemiel, he also argues that America has become more “Jewish” by virtue of the schlemiel.
Biale goes on to elaborate that there is a “hidden agenda”(207) that goes hand-in-hand with this “mirroring,” which is “to identify American with Jewish culture by generalizing Jewish sexuality and creating a safe, unthreatening space for the shlemiel as American antihero”(207). And this identification illustrates what he means by “harmonizing” Jewish experience with American culture. By being the American anti-hero, Biale is suggesting that the “sexual schlemiel” plays an important role in a new American culture that, in many ways, emulates the anti-hero.
Biale’s choice of words is instructive as it suggests that this “unthreatening space” was prefaced by living in a space of cultural anxiety and a desire to get rid of it. In fact, he notes that in “America a deep insecurity about the Jews position in American culture seems to underlie this instinctive turn tot comedy”(207). Based on this reflection, Biale muses that the distance afforded by comedy may have relieved anxiety by winning over a “potentially hostile gentile audience”(207). For this reason, Biale ventures a hypothesis about how, if Americans can laugh at Jewish sexual neurosis and see such a neurosis as it’s own, then “perhaps the Jew will be accepted as an organic part of the cultural landscape”(207).
However, he notes that since Jews put such neurosis on the screen and in novels, one can argue that they weren’t too anxious so much as slightly anxious. Rather, he argues that they “assumed” that the “sexual schlemiel” was a “legitimate part of American culture”(207) And this prompted them to “generalize Jewish sexuality” by way of the schlemiel.
Biale notes that this generalization of Jewish sexuality by way of the schlemiel was challenged by another one; namely, that of Lenny Bruce. He, “perhaps more than any other comedian, broke with the tradition of the Jew as a sexual schlemiel in order to outrage conventional morality with Jewish eroticism”(216). While Roth and Allen have schlemiels who freely talk about sex, these characters don’t challenge the status quo. As we saw above, they create it by creating an identification between being a schlemiel and being an American.
For Bruce, being Jewish means to “be outside the American mainstream, both verbally (mouths) and erotically (bosoms). It means to identify with what was sexually liberated on the margins of American culture”(217). Biale’s reading makes it clear that the schlemiel – though an anti-hero – is a character that belongs to the American mainstream while Bruce’s anti-schlemiel does not. Bruce, in contrast to the schlemiel, is a part of and edgy and “hip” Jewish culture (217) which “was in as much conflict with Jewish convention as with Christian convention…and for Bruce the former was more sexually liberated than the latter”(217). This suggests a political reading of the schlemiel.
However, Biale notes that while Bruce was going against the American grain he was not a feminist. At the very least, he was “able to imagine a male Jewish counterculture that was subversively erotic”(217). Moreover, Bruce’s kind of comedy – in contrast to the schlemiel’s – taps into a working class ethos. It is Lenny Bruce’s brand of comedy that “captured the bawdy tumult of the Lower East Side culture, from the ribald Yiddish theater to the lurid tales of the Bintel Brief” (219). His work, along with the work of E.L. Doctorow (namely in his novel, The Book of Daniel), evinces a Jewish sexuality that refutes “America’s erotic and political hypocrisy”(220).
Given Biale’s reading, we can say that Rivers also passed from a self-deprecating schlemiel phase to a Lenny Bruce phase. She didn’t simply, as Biale says above, “mirror” the schlemiel. She left this comedic-type behind for a more aggressive kind of comedy. We can also argue that though Bruce was courageous for what he did, perhaps Rivers was even more courageous since she was a woman. And doing what Bruce did, as a woman, was much more difficult.
The question we need to ask is whether Joan Rivers created such a subculture as well. Epstein suggests she did in the sense that she created a space for women comedians to speak and for Jewish women to feel comfortable with being assertive and bold.
And in this, Mel Brooks was spot on. He suggests that she had more courage than all of them. This means that she had more audacity than the Borsht Belt comedians (who he was a part of) and Lenny Bruce. As a woman, she broke more boundaries then they did. And she led the way for comedy to where we are today with comedians like Gilda Radner, Sandra Bernhard, and Sarah Silverman.
We will miss you Joan. You opened doors for women that were closed and you changed the face of comedy. Your legacy lives on and you were…the hardest working woman in showbiz.