Sitting in the audience at a recent performance of Not That Jewish, Monica Piper’s one-woman show exploring contemporary American-Jewish identity, I felt the strange sensation of observing a cultural artifact from the perspective of someone living in the near future.
Piper, a hamish sitcom writer who got her start on Roseanne, chronologically squeezes heartwarming pastiches of Jewish upbringing, single girldom, adoptive motherhood, and cancer survivorship into her 90-minute act. The nouveau-Borscht Belt jokes are of the sort that rhyme baygeleh and faygeleh in the punchline. For the goys in attendance, the program contains a helpful glossary called “Yiddish 101,” containing definitions for terms like farbissina punim, shpilkes, and facacta (and strangely, cockamamie, which derives from French).
Piper starts and ends with the question of what it means to “be” Jewish. Is it religious practice that determines whether someone is a Jew? Adherence to a set of secular values? That American Jews have even had the luxury to ask such navel-gazing questions of themselves, as opposed to feeling forced to hide or lie about their Jewishness, confirms that the country has indeed been the goldene medina, or promised land of lore. The closest thing to anti-Semitism that Piper encounters is when her gentile (soon to be ex) husband—a tall, blonde, blue-eyed WASP—tells her that she reminds him of the stereotypically JAPpy wife played by Jeannie Berlin in The Heartbreak Kid whom Charles Grodin unceremoniously dumped for the shiksa goddess played by Cybill Shepherd.
Yet with all that’s going on in the world right now—and it’s been going on, frankly, since the start of the new Millennium—Not That Jewish already feels like a relic from the past, the vestige of a time when being Jewish in America was, at worst, anodyne, if not the object of admiration and envy. To take but one of the many foreboding developments characteristic of this dark moment, aides to the German Chancellor currently feel the need to express public alarm over the proximity of fascists to the president of the United States. Earlier this year, Tablet instituted an entire section called “Trump Watch,” devoted to monitoring the “political monstrosity” that is the President-elect and the nefarious forces emboldened by his rise.
Focusing exclusively on the return of traditional right-wing anti-Semitism, however, is to miss the ideologically ecumenical nature of the threat. As Tablet Editor-in-Chief Alana Newhouse recently wrote, “The blatantly racist and anti-Semitic alt-right movement that emerged during Trump’s campaign in fact mirrored the insinuating anti-Semitism that had already captured a prominent sector of the progressive left during the Obama years.” Few remember the anti-Iraq War speech that a then-unknown Illinois State Senator delivered in 2002, denouncing “the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats.” By choosing to condemn two, relatively obscure Defense Department officials who just happened to be Jewish, as opposed to, say, senior officials and cabinet secretaries like Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, or Dick Cheney, future President Barack Obama employed a key trope of the anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that has increasingly found a home on the left. Today, the Democratic National Committee is seriously considering appointing as its leader former Nation of Islam member Keith Ellison, who as recently as 2010 alleged Israel “governed” American foreign policy.
I wish I could have enjoyed Not that Jewish independent of this worrying context. The fact that I could not is through no fault of Piper, a clever writer and engaging performer. Maybe I’m overthinking things. Or maybe my tsuris is well-founded.