I once heard Sarah Silverman tell a joke about the pride Jews inevitably take in the accomplishments of other Jews. To paraphrase, she said there are even Jews out there who will state, with nodding satisfaction, “You know the Son of Sam killer? A Jew!”
It does seem that for us Jews, every accomplishment casts a glow of achievement on the community as a whole. Albert Einstein didn’t revolutionize our understanding of the mechanics of the universe—we did! Maybe it’s because there simply aren’t many Jews out there—just under 14 million globally, as compared to, say, 1.2 billion Catholics—and every triumph strikes us as a feat of chutzpah over demographic gravity. Or maybe it’s because Jewish history is pocked with so many attempts to terminate Jewish history, every Nobel Prize or even Golden Globe stands as an affirmation that not only are we still here, but, hey look!, we’re thriving. I can’t fully explain the phenomenon, but I certainly share in it. And I believe it’s one of those particularly Jewish traits that cuts across all flavors of Jewish identity. When a Jewish child wins a spelling bee, it’s like every Jew from Boca to Crown Heights to Beijing wants to both give the kid a hug and brag about what great spellers the Jews are.
I touched on this collective pride in individual achievement in my novel, The Book of Jonah, in describing the protagonist’s outlook on his own Judaism. The Jonah of my book, an ambitious young lawyer who is suddenly beset by inexplicable visions, never goes to synagogue and has only the vaguest ideas about God. Not atypically, though, he still thinks of himself as fully Jewish: “He liked the community of Judaism: the instant bond he felt toward any -berg, -man, or -stein he encountered—the connection he could claim to the familiar litany of distinguished Jews*.”
The familiar litany of distinguished Jews is what I want to try to catalogue in this post: the go-to list of folks that Jews most often name when they’re blowing the shofar of Jewish accomplishment. These names get tossed around so often in synagogue and at BBYO regional events, there really ought to be a Passover song for them—maybe to the tune of Chad Gadya. I can’t offer that, but I can at least compile their names. Think of this as one’s man’s effort to chisel out the Jewish Mount Rushmore.
(One caveat: I chose to limit myself to Jews who made their mark in the 20th century or later. I did this, first, because the names I most often hear fall into this category, but more so that so that I wouldn’t get angry Tweets from rabbis for including the Rambam but not the Ran or something.)
Albert Einstein: The undisputed champion of the world of Jewish pride. I mean, he’s popularly regarded as the smartest man who ever lived: That’s going to win you some acclaim in the tribe.
Sigmund Freud: The father of psychoanalysis. You really can’t overstate the impact Freud has had on the way we think—and if you disagree, I think you have daddy issues, and ought to be in therapy.
Golda Meir: Before there was Hillary, before there was Margaret, there was Golda, one of the first democratically elected female heads of state, and further proof that yes, your grandmother could if given the opportunity win a war.
Sandy Koufax: In the galaxy of Jewish athletes, Sandy Koufax is the sun and seven of the planets. Bonus points for that time he didn’t pitch on Yom Kippur.
Bob Dylan: Probably the most accomplished musician of the twentieth century, Robert Zimmerman also owned his Jewfro like no one before or since.
Philip Roth: On the short list of greatest American writers of the last century and the source of innumerable awkward book club conversations.
Stephen Sondheim: Okay, okay, I know this is an idiosyncratic choice, but if you care about Broadway, you—right, moving on.
The Coen Brothers: Even the movies you forget when you’re listing all their movies (Barton Fink, Raising Arizona, A Serious Man) are classics. Walter Sobchak gives them the edge on this list over Woody Allen. Shomer Shabbos!
So, that’s my list. Who did I leave off?
*I made a slight edit to this sentence to avoid redundancy, but hey, it’s my sentence, right?
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Some of the literary works I deal with in Unclean Lips are relatively well-known—Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep (1935) and Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), for example, are two of the most widely read novels by and about American Jews. But some of them even most scholars haven’t heard of.
Here’s a short recommended reading and listening list, in case you’re eager to learn more about the literary encounters of American Jews with taboo language and explicit discussions of sex.
1. Adele Wiseman’s Crackpot (1974), an extraordinary novel about an obese Jewish prostitute in Winnipeg, Manitoba. It’s brutally, unsparingly frank, and radically feminist, too—and it earns a mention in Ruth Wisse’s The Modern Jewish Canon.
2. Theodore Dreiser’s The Hand of the Potter (1918), a four-act play by one of the most prominent (non-Jewish) American authors of the early 20th century, which tells the tale of a young Jewish man who can’t resist raping and murdering little girls. (It’s actually not anti-Semitic.)
3. Some people remember Robert Rimmer’s novel The Harrad Experiment (1966), which was marketed as “the sex manifesto of the free love generation” and sold millions of copies. But people don’t tend to remember how much of the novel focuses on a Jewish character, Harry Schacht, and his traditional Jewish family. (Turns out his great-grandmother posed for nude photographs.)
4. The short stories by the American Yiddish playwright David Pinski that were translated into English under the title of Temptations in 1919 were censored thanks to the efforts of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. But you can read the book online now, including Pinski’s story about the time that Rabbi Akiva had to resist a couple of prostitutes sent to seduce him.
5. Lenny Bruce wasn’t the only Jewish comedian who got busted on obscenity charges; in the same years, Belle Barth was telling filthy stories on stage, with some punchlines in English, some in Yiddish. You can hear her circa 1960 album If I Embarrass You, Tell Your Friends online, and don’t worry if you don’t speak Yiddish: “There’s only two words you need to know in the Yiddishe language,” she tells her audience, “and that’s gelt and shmuk: ’cause if a man has no gelt, he is.”
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The radio was playing ‘Easter Parade’ and I thought, But this is Jewish genius on a par with the Ten Commandments. God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and then He gave to Irving Berlin ‘Easter Parade’ and ‘White Christmas.’ The two holidays that celebrate the divinity of Christ—the divinity that’s the very heart of the Jewish rejection of Christianity—and what does Irving Berlin brilliantly do? He de-Christs them both! Easter he turns into a fashion show and Christmas into a holiday about snow.
It is old hat to point out that the story of America is of the melting pot, and that the tension is between the assimilators and those who cling to their old identities. But as Roth describes above, the Jewish story in America has represented a distinctive twist on that. Yes, there has been plenty of overcompensating gestures toward Americanness, as all of those Jewish babies named Norman, Lionel, and indeed Irving testify. But just as frequently, and more prominently, Jews have stepped in and changed the culture—have moved the mountain to themselves rather than moving to the mountain—and did so in such exciting and obviously appealing ways that everyone else followed their lead.
In music, Berlin de-Christed Christmas; George Gershwin jazzed up the joint; and the musical was practically invented by Rodgers, Hart, and Hammerstein, and brought to glorious fruition in the work of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. Many non-Jews have made astounding contributions to American popular music, too, of course, but they worked in a rubric devised by these Jews.
Hollywood, famously, was “An Empire of Their Own,” to quote the title of Neil Gabler’s book, a dream-factory created by German Jewish moguls and nurtured into an art form by a group of emigre auteurs who fused Weimar-era seriousness with Yiddish humor. It is amazing to think that 1920s filmgoers who rushed to see The Jazz Singer, the first sound picture ever, saw Al Jolson (born Asa Yoelson) singing “Kol Nidre” at the climax.
In literature, Saul Bellow created the template for a brash new voice, with Norman Mailer and Philip Roth close behind. Roth himself once identified the swaggering tone of Bellow’s Adventures of Augie March with “the same sort of assertive gusto that the musical sons of immigrant Jews—Irving Berlin, Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Jerome Kern, Leonard Bernstein—brought to America’s radios, theatres, and concert halls by staking their claim to America (as subject, as inspiration, as audience).” When John Updike—a great novelist who is as not-Jewish as they come—wanted to create a sort of alter ego for himself, he created Henry Bech, because obviously his fictional Great American Novelist would have to be a Jew.
What Franklin Foer and I learned in the course of editing Jewish Jocks is that sports, too, is a realm in which Jewish innovations ended up influencing everyone else. The no-look passes and backdoor cuts of basketball trace their lineage to turn-of-the-century New York City, where smaller Jews devised ingenious strategems to defeat squads representing more physically endowed ethnicities; as Rebecca Newberger Goldstein notes in her essay on Barney Sedran (the shortest player in the Basketball Hall of Fame), Coach Harry Baum imported some of those commonplace concepts from lacrosse. In football, Benny Friedman and Sid Luckman (profiled by Rich Cohen in our book) invented the modern quarterback position as we know it; Howard Cosell (whom David Remnick wrote about) was the reason many fans tuned into Monday Night Football, which helped make that sport the massive spectacle it is today; and as Jonathan Mahler notes in our book, Daniel Okrent, by inventing fantasy sports, turned us into a nation of number-crunching Jewish sports fans. Cue the closing strains of “Rhapsody in Blue.”
This past May I published an essay in The New York Times titled “Do the Jews Own Anxiety?” Not long afterward, I received an email from a reader I will call David C. David C. began his email by quoting my essay — “We, the Jews, have encouraged the world to think of us as anxious” — and proceeded over the course of 240 headlong words to berate me for being one of those “self-absorbed, highly neurotic” American Jews who are “quick to internalize the inferiority cast upon them by the gentiles.” The email ended in a particularly indignant fashion with the following lines: “With Jews like you, who needs anti-Semites? Kol tuv, boychik.”
I attended Hebrew school and was Bar Mitzvahed. I went to Brandeis, which has a prominent and esteemed Hebrew department. I have been to Israel. Yet I have no knowledge of the Hebrew language beyond a smattering of common words. I had no idea what kol tuv meant. I had to Google it.
All the best.
Kol tuv, boychik: All the best, young man.
David C. correspondent was sneering at me.
It wasn’t a pleasant email to receive, but I wasn’t surprised. I’d been expecting a note like this sooner or later. In fact, I was almost glad to receive it. David C.’s resentment was its own sort of Bar Mitzvah, its own coming of age. I had already been initiated, up there on the bimah twenty-one years ago, into the tribe of Jewish men. Now I had been initiated into the tribe of Jewish writers who get in trouble for discussing what is commonly referred to as “Jewish neurosis.”
The main reason I wasn’t surprised is that when I was in my late teens and twenties, I developed a passion for the work of Philip Roth. I had read, in the basement of the Brandeis library, Roth’s precocious 1959 debut, Goodbye, Columbus, and later his memoir The Facts, which he subtitled “A Novelist’s Autobiography.”
Roth was only twenty-six, an austere and brilliant literary novitiate, when he published Goodbye, Columbus. He was happy, no doubt, for the praise and adulation lavished on his book, but he was wholly unprepared for the angry criticism that came in the wake of success. In The Facts he tells the story of the “most bruising public exchange” of his life. He was appearing alongside Ralph Ellison and the novelist Pietro Di Donato on a panel at Yeshiva University when the audience turned antagonistic, then threatening. How, they insisted, could he have written about such unsavory, conniving, unethical Jewish characters? (They were especially upset about his short story “Defender of the Faith.”) Where was his tact? His compassion? His self-love? Where was his loyalty? As Roth tried to leave the hall, the most hostile of the audience members began to surround him and shout. Roth writes:
“I listened to the final verdict against me, as harsh a judgment as I ever hope to hear in this or any other world. I only began to shout, ‘Clear away, step back – I’m getting out of here,’ after somebody, shaking a fist in my face began to holler, ‘You were brought up on anti-Semitic literature!’ ‘Yes,’ I hollered back, ‘and what is that?’ – curiously wanting to know what he meant. ‘English literature!’ he cried. ‘English Literature is anti-Semitic literature.'”
In short, Roth had been trained in self-loathing. His critics deemed him a “self-hating” Jew. Or as my correspondent David C. asked: “With Jews like you, who needs anti-Semites?”
I don’t intend to compare myself to Philip Roth. (Perish the thought, sweet as it is.) I mean only to say that when one is a Jew who writes about his tribesmen in a way that can, in even a small way, be construed as undignified or unsavory, one has to be prepared for anger and insults — and sneering. David C.’s was only the first such response. I don’t expect it will be the last.