You know you’re in a real Jewish restaurant when the waiter comes to the table and asks, “Is anything alright?”
The tendency to kvetch (complain) about everything is a standard character flaw for Jewish jokes to riff on. But, what exactly is a “Jewish joke”?
For me, there’s at least three very different kinds: the jokes Jews tell each other, the jokes Jews tell non-Jews in an effort to be disarming, and jokes non-Jews tell to gauge if a listener shares their prejudices. The victims of all the gags are Jewish stereotypes so they’re often difficult to tell apart and yet there’s a world of difference.
There’s a joke Woody Allen tells in Stand Up Comic: 1964–1968, “I’m very proud of my gold pocket watch. My grandfather, on his deathbed, sold me this watch.”
But try telling that same joke in the third person and it takes on an ominous antisemitic tone. The image of the money-pinching Jew, who can’t take it with him and yet can’t stop his avarice, plays right into antisemitic notions. So just being able to tell certain jokes inoffensively becomes a badge of brotherhood.
Even if, as Freud pointed out, “sometimes a cigar is just a penis,” a Jewish joke is almost never, just a joke.
There’s an old one about a couple of Hassidim walking down a dark alley when they see two thugs coming the other way. One whispers to the other, “Quick run. There’s two of them and we’re all alone.”
Cultural self-deprecation is used as a sort of charm to ward off hatred. Disarming bullies by victimizing yourself before they do is an age-old survival tactic and infuses much Jewish humour. It’s like trying to reduce the level of threat you represent so the hatred might pass you by. Punching yourself in the face before anyone else does.
The minefield of subtleties and cultural anxiety that gets lost in the catch-all term “Jewish Joke” applies equally well to the term “Jewish”.
If “Jewish” just meant a set of beliefs, a joke about a Jew would be no more racist than a joke about the Pope. But the trouble is the term also signifies a race, an ethnicity and, for some, a conspiracy of wealth and power, or a political ideology about Palestine, or even drinkers of the blood of Christian babies.
The Labour party, a movement that prides itself on its inclusivity, has seen member after member being called out for antisemitism and is still struggling to understand why. How could an anti-racist party keep on being accused of racism? The Right, a more traditional home for antisemitism, is having a field day as left-leaning England’s lazy confounding of Israeli-Palestine atrocities and an entire race conspiring to back it, bubbles out with humiliating regularity. Corbyn himself tries to differentiate between “Jewish people” (presumably the nice guys in funny hats) and “Zionists” (Palestinian murdering scum) but then doesn’t understand why nobody is fooled. He doesn’t seem to understand how transparent his Semitic semantics are.
He seems unable to comprehend how acutely attuned Jews are at listening for the slightest whiff of antisemitism. It stems from a collective anxiety that informs so many things from the jokes told to the neighbourhoods picked to the side of the street walked.
Why? Because that’s how it starts; the Jew as other, as different, as non-white, it’s that first subtle step towards open hostilities. Allow that to go unchecked and the next steps seem inevitable. Few Jews live totally free of the fear that it could all kick off again at any moment.
It “positively shrieked with antisemitic tropes; the long-nosed goblin, his natty suit, clawed fingers caressing a pile of gold coins. When I positioned a Gringotts shot alongside a series of cartoons from Nazi Germany’s Der Stürmer, it did not seem out of place.” wrote Marianne Levy.
She’s right. The picture is also somewhat reminiscent of the mural Freedom for Humanity in the East End which Corbyn couldn’t understand the need to remove. It depicted hook-nosed fat Jewish bankers playing monopoly on the backs of starving black people. Sitting beneath an illuminati eyed pyramid the symbol of global economic conspiracy.
Is this just being touchy? Is it being oversensitive?
Personally I was relieved to see someone else had noticed. I gave up reading Harry Potter to my kids after the first book because: Roald Dahl had done the grotesque Dursleys so much better in Augustus Gloop or James’s (Giant Peach) aunts Spiker and Sponge; Jill Murphy had been more original in her Worst Witch boarding school of witchcraft; and at least Enid Blyton, when she adopted the traditional fairy-tale ersatz Jews, the goblins, as the hook-nosed money chasers of Noddy’s Toy Town, was writing in an era that was so awash with racist stereotypes she can’t be entirely blamed for her lack of “wokeness”.
Even so it surprised me that 21st century reboots of Noddy excised Golly from his garage as if he was bringing the Toy Town house values down, but were happy to keep perpetuating the criminal antics of Gobbo and Sly. I tell myself that it was Rowling’s derivative storytelling, lazy stereotypes and humour bypass that made me put her book aside but part of me knows that it was her short, sinister, big nosed, money hoarding Griphook the goblin that was just too much for me.
Is Rowling an antisemite? Is Corbyn? Probably not, almost certainly not consciously. And yet by repeating the tropes and letting them slip through, they are just feeding the long established unconscious biases rather than challenge them.
Sensitivity to antisemitism is a life-skill nurtured from birth so it will probably never be something that non-Jewish politicians can truly empathise with. Even the most assimilated of Jews get their moments of paranoia, that history could repeat itself. You don’t, I guess, go through a couple of millennia of wandering and persecution without evolving a sixth sense for trouble. The Yiddish word for it is shpilkes (needles), “a state of impatience, agitation, anxiety, or any combination thereof.” The character of the neurotic, paranoid, Jew is well-trodden in comedy, and so is the feeling that as long as there are Jews there will always be antisemitism… like the old joke:
Moishe and Solly are passing a Catholic church and see a sign that reads “Convert to Catholicism, £50 Cash.” Moishe turns to his friend Solly and says, “Hey, I’m going to try it.” He enters the church and returns a few minutes later.
“So, did you convert? What was it like?” Solly asks.
“It was nothing,” says Moishe. “I walked in, a priest sprinkled holy water on me, and said ‘you’re a Catholic.’”
“Wow,” says Solly, “and did you get the £50?”
Moishe looks at Solly, “is that all you people think about?”