Thou Shalt is a Jewish advice column for anyone navigating a Jewish situation about which they are unsure. Which is understandable: For thousands of years, Judaism has been rolling through time and space, picking up everything in its path. Which is awesome and beautiful and great, but also means that we’ve inherited a tradition with a complicated and often confusing mix of rituals, identity markers, red lines, and ways to practice. The peculiarities and particularities of the diverse Jewish world have tripped up many well-meaning Jews and non-Jews alike, and the goal of Thou Shalt is to create a space where we can all help decode our Judaism for one another, and the world.
No Laughing Matter
I teach screenwriting at a small university in a small city, where there are very few Jews. Last week, I had students rewrite a scene as an in-class assignment, and every group got a different genre to rewrite the scene in. The team that got “comedy” called me over as they were working, and asked if it was OK to be offensive in their comedy scene. I asked who they would be offending. “Jews,” they answered, and told me they wanted to rewrite the scene by making the family in the scene Jewish, and making them all be very cheap. I was startled and asked if either of them were Jewish. “No,” they said. I then told them I was Jewish. They both looked surprised and uncomfortable and said they wouldn’t write the scene that way. It was clear to me in that moment that they had not anticipated that I, or anyone in the class, was Jewish.
I moved on, and taught the rest of the class, but I’m left feeling dissatisfied. I feel like there are larger questions here. Can non-Jews make fun of Jews, and make fun of Jewish stereotypes? Does a university professor have an obligation to feelings, sensitivity, and stereotypes that a comedian doesn’t? Is making fun of Jews being cheap somehow different than making fun of Jewish mothers being overbearing or Jews all being lawyers or something? The cheap thing feels especially stinging. I want to address this next week in class, but I’m not sure what to say. I don’t want to make it about me, but it feels like it shouldn’t go unaddressed. At the very least, comedy is a big part of screenwriting.
Not So Funny
The general line on comedy is that if it’s offensive, it has to be funny; the stereotype has to be earned, in some way. You definitely should address this with your class, but don’t make it about you. Make it about how to use stereotypes in comedy, and how to consider writing about people or groups different from oneself. Your students didn’t actually offend you—unlike if, for example, they had made fun of how you dress. Instead, what strikes me about the incident you describe is that your students used a Jewish stereotype in place of humor, assuming that the mere set up of Jews being cheap would be in of itself funny, especially to a group of people who don’t know Jews. That says something really bad about their conception of Jews. It is also thoughtless and lazy writing. Even if one of the involved students had been Jewish, I would still be shaken. Being offensive isn’t funny, and the best kind of satire relies on unexpected details or insights that come from intimately knowing a group or a situation. And I’m with you that the cheap thing feels different. The Jews I know and love can be many things, but I just don’t think we’re cheap. And it’s hard for me to think that anybody who did know the Jewish community would have evoked that stereotype, simply because it feels less true, and is thus less funny, and further indicates your students were aiming for offense in place of comedy. That’s a problem, whether or not their professor is Jewish. In the moment, I wish you had asked them why they thought Jews were cheap, and how that would have made the scene comedic.
I don’t want your students to feel like they can never write about characters who are different from themselves. But I do want your students to interrogate what makes stereotypes funny, and how satire will land with different groups, and the kind of rigorous research and thought which turns stereotypes into comedy, and not just hate speech.
My sense is that a very frank, non-personal, and even-keeled discussion will be of tremendous value to your class. Allow them to ask their true questions, but hold a firm line on what you believe, and why some scenes which draw on stereotypes can be funny, and why others don’t work in the genre. Maybe bring in some examples of satire, and even some examples which make fun of their own identities. Ask them where they’re information on stereotypes is coming from. Consider the relationship between the content of a joke and the person saying it, and how that changes the humor (in all sorts of ways—a grown man and a small girl saying the same thing would land very differently as comedy). In this way, I think your role as a comedian and a professor are the same: Education. Don’t dodge this opportunity.
A Hairy Situation
Is it okay if I switch barbers for the next few weeks? My barber is a very nice, and very chatty, guy who has started to become a lot more religious, and I know he will judge me for cutting my hair during the Omer. I wear a kippah, and we often talk about religion and being Jewish. He has strong opinions, and likes to think we’re both “on the same team” in terms of being observant. But I need a haircut, not a lecture.
Okay, quick recap for readers: The Omer is a seven week period between the second day of Passover and the holiday of Shavuot, during which each day is ritually counted with a blessing. Many Jews also restrict celebratory actions during this time, including cutting hair, going to concerts, and hosting weddings or big events. The frequently given reason for these mourning-like restrictions has to do with a lot of Talmud students dying in the 2nd century, but that’s for another time.
Back to the barber: I would totally understand if you went to someone else, just to avoid the drama and the judgment. That’s easier, and sometimes in life we just need things to be easier. You say you know he’ll judge you, and I’ll take you on your word.
I actually think it would be kind of cool if you went to him, regardless. There is something very liberating about owning our Jewish choices, and if he is becoming more religious, then it might be nice to remind him that not all kippah-wearing Jews are uniform in their Jewish practice. Don’t hide from him the fact that Jews of all kinds do all sorts of things, even cut their hair during the Omer.
The key here is humor, and being comfortable with your choice. Don’t be curt, or frustrated, or snap at him if he brings it up. Just give your reason: “I know, it’s the Omer, but I have to look neat at work. What can we do?” Or say, “Yes, that’s a thing many people do, but I still get haircuts.” Be affable, comfortable, and assertive. He has learned of one way to be Jewish, but there remain many other ways.
A Jewish colleague at work has been struggling with his dad not wanting him to date his evangelical Christian girlfriend. He’s taken to paralleling his father’s preference with Nazis’ Aryan preferences and belief in genetic superiority. What do you think is an appropriate response that is both sensitive to his pain and makes this important distinction between Nazism and something that I think is far from Nazism?
Step Away From The Holocaust
Dear Step Away,
This one is tricky, because we don’t actually know the substance of the father’s objection to the match, or this man’s general relationship with his family. For all you know, maybe his dad does keep making references to Jewish genetic superiority, or disparaging comments about non-Jews. None of that, in any way, justifies a comparison to the Nazis—and in general we as a society need to move away from using the Holocaust as our only barometer of wrongdoing—but it might explain some of his anger.
All of this sounds like too much for you to take on in the office. Work colleagues aren’t usually up for the kind of intimate, sustained conversation that would be needed to discuss this question, and it’s doubtful you can change his mind or perspective without some previous intimacy and trust. I bet too that he already knows the comparison is painfully inaccurate, and it’s just the one he knows will be most painful to his father. He’s hurt, and he wants his dad to be hurt too. Even if his father’s objections are rooted in wanting his son to build a Jewish home around shared religious values which honor his heritage, and not a belief that Jews are smarter than everyone else, you’re not the person to drive home that point.
Instead, focus on getting the Nazi comparisons out of the general conversation in the workplace. Next time he brings it up, you can say, “Matt, that sounds so hard. I don’t think it’s similar to Hitler, but it sounds really painful.” You can continue to assert the hyperbole of the analogy while affirming his sentiments.
How do I submit a question?
Questions can be sent to [email protected].
Are all questions anonymous?
Yes, no identifying information will ever be revealed or published about the letter-writer or their situation. Your email address will be seen by those monitoring the inbox, but won’t be published.
I’m not Jewish. Can I still submit a question?
Definitely. If your question touches on navigating a Jewish situation—be it attending a synagogue service for the first time or baking a welcome pie for your new Jewish neighbors—then this column is for you.
Shira Telushkin is a writer living in Brooklyn, where she focuses on religion, beauty, and culture. She is currently writing a book on monastic intrigue in modern America.