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November 17, 2017  RSS feed

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But is it good for the Jews?

Emilie Socash

I fondly remember the episode of Seinfeld (season 8, air date April 24, 1997), in which Jerry’s dentist Tim Whatley (played by Bryan Cranston) converts to Judaism for the jokes, and the show culminates in a fellow dentist standing up for Whatley in calling Jerry an “anti-dentite bastard.” (For die-hards, this is also the episode that introduces “yada-yada-yada”). The entire episode was a light-hearted romp emphasizing how Jewish humor was becoming mainstream. Some 20 years later, I have to ask, Is it good for the Jews?

Jordan Klepper – a long-time featured correspondent on The Daily Show, first under Jon Stewart and later with Trevor Noah – recently branched off to develop his own show, The Opposition, in which he presents a “fringe-friendly” version of the truth that seeks to “rise above the partisan hackery of the mainstream media.” I haven’t seen the show, but regularly see the ads on Comedy Central. In one, Klepper notes that Trump has reduced something or other by 90 percent, and snarks, “That’s one hell of a bris!”

From what I can find, Klepper doesn’t describe himself as Jewish (or at least, his Wikipedia page doesn’t). What I did find, however, is that the last name of “Klepper” is German and means “gossip,” and also is a word used for the person who would call people to synagogue by rattling a stick. Chances are high that the guy who jokes about the bris has had one.

Why I found this particular show promo so notable is that the word “bris” isn’t as commonplace as many other Jewish concepts that have invaded the commonplace vernacular of modern-day America. I’m used to hearing about someone self-identifying as a klutz, complaining about how far they had to schlep their kids here or there, noting that the party tonight is really just a big schmooze-fest, and judging someone for having the chutzpah to suggest cash-only gifts for their wedding. But “bris?” Have we entered an age in which circumcision is getting its time in the comedic (and everyday) spotlight? What’s next?

Entertainers have a special role in introducing and shaping concepts in the mainstream mindset, and I’d argue that those in the majority (primarily those of non-Ashkenazi European descent) get their socially acceptable cues from those in the minority (Jews and non-white individuals) when we talk about our own cultures. In other words, if Klepper uses “bris” to joke about a reduction, the non-Jews out there will start picking up on the trend.

Another case in point: Sarah Silverman, acclaimed raunchy-squeaky comedienne-actress has a long track record of offering insightful-yet-caustic, far-left liberal ideas in her stand-up and televised comedy. About a month back, she launched a new weekly show called I Love You America, in which she sets out to bridge divides between political viewpoints and place the spotlight on commonalities in an upbeat way. Knowing that she’s the type that pushes the envelope, Shane and I watched the first episode with trepidation. I could live with the two naked people in the front row; with the brazen reference to the man-behind-the-desk as a source of comfort for those seeking a traditional late-night show experience; and even with the rambling anti-format format. But over the course of two full episodes and part of a third, which we turned off, I realized: there’s a certain undertow in this show that feels bad for the Jews.

It’s not her guest line-up: in fact, this is the area where her show excels. Gracing her couch have been Meghan Phelps-Roper (who left the Westboro Baptist Church), DeRay McKesson (social activist with Black Lives Matter), Sen. Al Franken, Mary Gauthier (songwriter with a social activism message), Father Greg Boyle (who founded Homeboy Industries to help L.A. gang members), and Christian Picciolini (former Neo-Nazi).

Rather, it’s in her segments. Shane put it best: “If someone is on the fence about liking Jews, they’ll hate us after watching this show.” Why? Silverman’s schtick is abrasive, raunchy and meddlesome – all to be expected – but pairing this with serving as a representative of the Jewish people in places where Jews aren’t known or understood (ahem, parts of the South she visits on her show) leaves me more than a scant bit worried.

This topic weighs heavy on my heart since I’m a long-time fan of Silverman’s work, but my stand on it really became clear after Larry David’s appearance on Saturday Night Live on Nov. 4. In David’s monologue, two problematic themes emerge: a reflection on the very current issue of sexual misconduct among many of Hollywood’s elite men (many of whom are Jewish) and the impossible-to-contemplate idea of how to pick up women in a concentration camp.


David was suitably strung up in the media in the days that followed, shining a light on his insensitivity and misplaced relationship between Jews and sexual misconduct. Beyond shaking my head, I still find myself wondering how far the ripple effect reaches after one of our own normalizes language and concepts into the mainstream mindset. How can we expect others to respect us, to understand us, and to want to stand with us in our shared values when we publicly (and shamefully) speak out against our own?

The broader issue is recognizing that the Jewish people is made up of all of humanity’s best and worst. We are a people – like every other people – who have tremendous capacity for good. We have tremendous temptation for bad. Yet unlike many other peoples (but not all), we have more to prove, more to work for, and have seen how badly we can lose when deprecation becomes the norm, and the norm then defines our identity as a deficient people.

Liked it? Loathed it? Want to react? I would welcome your feedback and can be reached at

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