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Turning Our Sorrow into Laughter: Comedy and Antisemitism©

Rabbi David Baum

Chayyei Sarah 2022/5783

Two Israelis, Chaim and Moshe, are sitting on the beach in Tel Aviv, reading.

Chaim has two newspapers, Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post, Moshe was reading Der Stürmer , an infamous Neo-Nazi newspaper translated into Hebrew. Chaim turns to Moshe and asks: "Why on earth would you read that antisemitic filth?!?”

Moshe answers: ”I used to read a quality paper like you, but I couldn't handle it any more – the rockets from Gaza and Hezbollah getting stronger every day and the Iranian nuclear program and the suffering economy and growing antisemitism across Europe, and now, in America!” He points to the new Neo-Nazi rag and says: “Now I read this and I feel much better as a Jew (pause). It turns out there is actually a Jewish global conspiracy and we control the entire world. What an amazing people we are!”

If you listen to the news lately, you would be under the impression that Jews dominate almost every industry even though we are so few in number; whether it’s playing the role of the mysterious person behind the seat of power; that we run the entertainment industry, and worldwide banking. Even though we aren’t very athletic, according to many, we also run sports.

But, there’s another industry that isn’t being talked about yet, but I’m sure it will be soon: comedy.

Mark Horowitz wrote the following in a review of the book: Jewish Comedy: A Serious History:

“There are plenty of theories to explain Jewish humor — most devised by Jews. Saul Bellow, channeling his inner Kierkegaard, thought Jewish humor combined “laughter and trembling.” Freud believed Jewish humor was a defense mechanism: a form of sublimated aggression that lets victims of persecution safely cope with their condition. Or as Mel Brooks put it: “If they’re laughing, how can they bludgeon you to death?””

I love comedy, I really do, and I’m not completely against comedy that offends.

Seeing the late Jewish comedian, Mr. Warmth himself, the Merchant of Venom, Don Rickles, perform was on my bucket list and I was able to see him perform before he passed. Rickles was the quintessential insult comic, and he wore his Judaism on his sleeve; he made fun of himself, his fellow Jews, and almost every race or creed on earth. But he always did it out of love - he would end almost all of his sets with showing the love and respect he had for all humanity, and it was also said that he would buy champagne and flowers to the victims of his set afterward.

But does it make me a hypocrite then to be critical of Dave Chapelle on SNL who devoted his entire SNL monologue to the Jews?

As I watched Dave Chappelle’s much-discussed Saturday Night, I wanted to give it a chance, but with each passing minute, after I laughed, I felt a lurking feeling of uneasiness.

I think it speaks to a voice that, no matter how secure we may feel as Jews, is always a voice in the back of our heads telling us: “You don’t belong here. It may feel like you’re accepted as an equal here, but the time will come when you have to pack your bags and leave. You’re not welcome here.”

I think we see a hint of this in this week’s parashah, Hayyei Sarah. The parashah opens with a story of purchasing real estate. Considering the antisemitism tropes we hear, it is surprising to read that Abraham seems like a terrible negotiator and businessman! Ephron, the land owner says, take the land for free to bury your dead. Abraham insists on paying, and although Ephron seems like he still wants to give the land away for free he says, “Ok, if I must sell it, I guess 400 shekels of silver would be ok.” Abraham doesn’t bargain - can you imagine that! He pays the full price, even if it wasn’t a bargain.

The question is, why does Abraham break all the rules of negotiating?

Abraham knows he is promised the land, but he also knows that he must act on that promise, and he also carries insecurity with him.

We can see this in how Abraham presents himself to the people present:

גֵּר־וְתוֹשָׁב אָנֹכִי עִמָּכֶם תְּנוּ לִי אֲחֻזַּת־קֶבֶר עִמָּכֶם וְאֶקְבְּרָה מֵתִי מִלְּפָנָי׃

“I am a resident alien among you; sell me a burial site among you, that I may remove my dead for burial.” (Genesis 23:4)

I am a stranger.

He bows before the people, not just Ephron. This is another show of not belonging - he needs not only for Ephron to understand him, but every single person present.

The Midrash notes that Abraham insisted on buying the land so that the nations of the world cannot say that the Jews have stolen property. The Midrash here is reacting to an antisemitic theory - Jews are sneaky, they steal your money and land. Abraham bows to the people as if to say to them, “don’t be scared of me, I’m part of your neighborhood, just like you.”

From Abraham to today, we live with that insecurity, and that’s why a conspiracy-filled comedic act that did have some funny lines makes us squirm. Yair Rosenberg, a journalist with the Atlantic, wrote:

“As I watched Dave Chappelle’s much-discussed Saturday Night Live monologue poking fun at recent anti-Semitic incidents involving Black celebrities, I finally figured out why I no longer felt comfortable cracking jokes about anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

In his 15-minute appearance, Chappelle, a habitual line-stepper, deliberately mocked the presumptions of both anti-Semites and their critics, with little concern for where the chips fell. He closed his potent performance with a pronouncement: “It shouldn’t be this scary to talk about anything. It’s making my job incredibly difficult, and to be honest with you, I’m getting sick of talking to a crowd like this. I love you to death, and I thank you for your support, and I hope they don’t take anything away from me—whoever they are.” In context, this felt like a cheap but clever attempt to immunize himself against criticism—say nothing, and his comedic choices go unchallenged; say something, and you’ve proved him right.

That said, Chappelle is correct that it’s become more difficult to poke fun at anti-Semitism in front of an audience, but not because some censorious Jewish cabal is looking over the shoulder of Netflix’s multimillion-dollar man. The problem, I realized, is that as anti-Semitism and related conspiracy theories become more normalized in our discourse, it becomes harder to laugh about them, because you never know who might not get the joke.”

The jokes were based on conspiracy theories, and it is those conspiracy theories that have led to the persecution and mass murder of Jews throughout our history.

On November 9-10, we observed the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass. Honestly, I have never really connected to the day because looting and the murder of a couple of hundred Jews paled in comparison to the atrocities that were to come. But, I think Kristallnacht gives us the opportunity to delve deeper into how the horrors of the Holocaust came about. Historian Alon Confino in his book: A World Without Jews: The Nazi Imagination from Persecution to Genocide revealed a little-known fact about Kristallnacht: for the first time in Europe, there was a focus on burning Torah scrolls. Recent evidence shows that Torah scrolls were unrolled in the streets as people trampled over them in front of assembled Jews. This was a shift from the past as Christian Europe would burn the Talmud, but they held the Hebrew Bible as sacred. Confino writes of the effect of the desecration of the Torah:

“Burning the Bible stirred emotions and imaginations. A history of the Holocaust must include the history of emotions and imagination of Germans during the Third Reich, for the fundamental reason that the persecution and extermination was built on fantasy, in the sense that anti-Jewish beliefs had no basis in reality. In persecuting and exterminating the Jews, Germans waged a war against an imaginary enemy that had no belligerent intentions toward Germany and possessed no army, state, or government. The essential motivations for this war were not practical, for Germans and Jews did not have a conflict over territory, land, resources, borders, or political power that often characterizes cases of ethnic cleansing and genocide in the modern world. In the mind of the Nazis, this was a war about identity. Nazi anti-Semitism was all fantasy: nothing about it was driven by a desire to provide a truthful account of reality. Yet it was nonetheless believed by many Germans and therefore was for them real and truthful.”

The burning of the Torah was the culmination of over a thousand years of conspiracy theories against the Jews - and it was the moment when the Nazis destroyed the scrolls where they told the world: we can finally extract the Jews from our story.

Our response during these difficult times must come before the violence; it must come at the root of antisemitism: conspiracy theories.

It isn’t easy to be a Jew and have to stand up constantly to these ridiculous charges. I have seen Jewish journalists and Jewish comedians asked about these recent incidences and they squirm, even defend antisemitic behavior, as if they are saying to themselves, “I don’t want to seem too upset, because then I’ll be taking the fun out of everything, or, ‘if I stand up and defend Jews, I won’t be taken seriously, how can I demand censorship when I value free speech.”

All of us have those moments of insecurity, of not really feeling like we belong - this is precisely why we need to speak up against veiled antisemitism, especially to those who are our friends, both personal and political. We must explain why these stories and theories are hurtful to us, and act as ambassadors for good.

The truth is, people respect authenticity - they respect confidence. Our voices must be heard, we cannot be embarrassed to speak out against antisemitism even if it seems benign.

For those who want to take an active role in combatting antisemitism, I invite you to join us on Tuesday, November 29, as we discuss our new Kulanu initiative through the Anti-Defamation League.

I’d like to end with the words of Mel Brooks once said:

I know it’s tough out there, but the one thing we can never do is stop laughing, to stop bringing joy into the world. More than anything, turning our mourning into celebration might be the greatest gift we’ve ever brought the world.

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