Do "Jewish Jokes" Need to be Updated?
Author of "The Silverman Manifesto" argues that Jewish humor needs to be re-examined
When I first began to write “The Silverman Manifesto (2012)”, I had some qualms about how it might or might not go over among American Jews, and whether it might be or might not be accepted. Still, struck by some of the God-awful humor that has made its way into so-called “Jewish humor” over the years — most of it good and life-affirming, but some of it tasteless and sexist and even feeding into the Internet hands of neo-Nazis and anti-semites — I decided to push on with the manifesto in order to raise some issues that I hope thoughtful people will address, pro and on. I have no agenda here, and I am all ears. I am sincerely interested in hearing from all points of view on this, and I will censor no one.
The manifesto below is an alarm bell, I hope, a wake up call for Jewish writers, comedians, film directors, artists, screenwriters, producers, actors and others to re-examine the state of Jewish humor in 2012 and where it’s headed. And a look back to the past might not hurt either.
When I proposed this oped commentary to a Jewish editor in California, he told me that it was a good idea but that it needed some work.
“How about interviewing some Jewish comedians on this topic, and perhaps some sociologists and psychologists as well, and give me a report on why some Jews paint false pictures of themselves,” the editor suggested.
What set me off a few weeks ago was the opening of a new play off-Broadway titled “Old Jews Telling Jokes” that was based on a popular video website that was launched in 2008 by some Jewish dudes with good credentials. The website was and is hilarious, and if you’ve never seen it yet, by all means go and check it out. The videos consist of elderly Jewish men and women, over 60, telling one minute jokes they like to tell. Some of them work. Some of them go over like a lead balloon. But all of the videos on the website are fun and funny and offer an interesting window into Jewish life in America.
I was one of the first to sign up for the free weekly website pitches, and I’ve been a fan ever since. I love humor, especially Jewish humor, and I love old people. I’m the bloke who wrote “Bubbie and Zadie Come To My House” in 1985 and I got some street cred, too. But when the website morphed into an off-Broadway play, and I read some of the reviews, I began to worry that maybe the play was going too far with old, out-dated Jewish jokes that are sexist, vile, tasteless and sometimes even defame Jews as a people. So why, I asked myself, are Jews still putting out this dreck, when there is another way that Jewish humor can go in the 21st Century and that is toward life-affirming, positive, constructive, empathetic, loving humor that is at the same time “all in the family” and fun?
So I sat down and wrote The Silverman Manifesto:
”Enough of this self loathing and self hating! Enough of Jews themselves denigrating themselves in public shows of comedy or books! Enough of dysfunctional families and ghetto Jews from the past!
”We are now living in 2012 and we are no longer dysfunctional people nor do we live in dysfunctional families anymore and Jewish mother jokes and Jewish Princess jokes and distasteful Joan Rivers’ Anne Frank jokes should be thrown out the window.
”The Bronx and Brooklyn ghettoes are things of the past. Wake up, fellow Jews and cast off your self loathing and self hatred with these terrible jokes about dysfunctional mothers and weak fathers and antisemitic tropes that are sometimes even worse than Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice schtick! Wake up, people!
”We are a normal people now, successful, middle-class, no longer in the New York City ghettoes where much of the old sick humor came from. Sure, in the 1930s, those jokes had a purpose. Sure, in the 1950s, after the war, maybe some of those jokes still had a purpose. But now, in 2012, they have no purpose! Those jokes should be retired and you know exactly what jokes I am talking about!
”We don’t live in dysfunctional families anymore and we have success stories all around, in an entirely new and loving way. It’s time for Jews in America to wake up and smell the new air of happiness and life. It’s time to stop the self loathing and self hating Catskills and Borscht Belt jokes of the 1950s and celebrate the joyful reality of 2012.
”Stand up and create a new kind of warm, life enhancing and positive humor that goes beyond the old stereotypes of yore. Rise up and rejoice, O Jews of America, you have nothing to lose but your long-suffering neuroses. We are no longer a neurotic people. Stop the Jewish mother jokes, stop the JAP jokes, stop the sick Anne Frank jokes (and books!), stop the dysfunctional family jokes, stop the victimization. We are no longer victims. We have made it. Wake up and celebrate success, joy, happiness, normalness.
”Enough already. We are normal. We have arrived. Leave the past alone. Where it belongs. Stop the Jews are cheap jokes; some of the most philanthropic people on Earth are American Jews: they build hospitals, museums, fund scientific research, professorships, educational initiatives. Focus on the good and the positive; leave the past where it belongs: in the past!