If there is one lesson to be learned from the sad, strange tale of the firing of Ben Frisch, it is surely this: If you want to make a Hitler joke in the classroom, do it at a Jewish day school.
“On Feb. 14,” The New York Times reported Sunday, “Ben Frisch, in his 34th year teaching at Friends Seminary, a private school in downtown Manhattan, was seeking to demonstrate an obtuse angle in an 11th grade math class. Straightening his arm and pointing it outward, he mimicked the Nazi salute and said, ‘Heil Hitler.’” Given the current vogue for rapid termination, we can guess what came next: “Not long after the incident, Mr. Frisch received a call … there had been complaints … some students were offended … A period of limbo preceded a suspension, and on March 9 … he was fired.”
To his students’ great credit, they have rallied around Frisch, a beloved teacher “considered one of the most spiritually serious members of the faculty at the school.” They apparently refuse to believe that their teacher is a covert anti-Semite who, after three decades of successfully hiding his bigotry, was, like Dr. Strangelove, betrayed by a Nazi-inclined arm with a mind of its own. So they have rallied to this side, and their petition was signed by 190 of the 279 students in the upper school.
Whatever happens to Frisch, the incident has revealed numerous ironies, not only about our political moment but about our religious landscape. One might call this whole episode the triumph of Waspy good intentions over Jewish common sense.
To begin, Frisch is himself Jewish; while his mother’s family are Quakers, his father was “an Austrian Jew who suffered traumatic anti-Semitic attacks as a child in Poland before World War II”; Frisch “lost his grandparents in the Holocaust.” But of course Quaker schools—and Quaker camps, like the one I once attended, and Quaker meetinghouses—are, these days, pretty Jewish places. The Times article has a burlesque feel, with a bunch of Jewish students and alumni performing in Quaker-face: “Abraham Levin, a senior, organized a student walkout … ‘Ben is an exceedingly gentle soul and, to many, was a representation of the Quaker spirit of Friends,’ Jordan Barowitz, a former clerk of the alumni council told me … [Alas, t]he school has developed what Philip Schwartz, who retired from Friends in 2014 after 48 years on the faculty called, ‘an edifice complex.’”
Levin and Barowitz and Schwartz, oh my! What is this, a Catskills review? As one old joke has it, Quaker schools are where Episcopal teachers teach Jewish students. Except the Episcopal teachers have pretty much disappeared. All of which raises the question: given the strong Jewish tradition of imitating Hitler in order to mock him, a tradition that runs from Kubrick through Mel Brooks (with Paul Mazursky) and Barry Levinson (with Mel Brooks) and Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder and Jerry Seinfeld and beyond, with permission extended to haimish Gentiles including Ricky Gervais—given the fact that the Sieg Heil has proven itself one of the funniest and most enduring gestures in post-war Anglo-American comedy—why was anyone exercised by a Jewish teacher making that joke?
The simple answer has something to do with the political culture of 2018, where the urge to take offense, or to fake-take offense to prospectively be on the right side of those who might take offense, guarantees regular, thoughtless, itchy-trigger-finger pink-slipping. But a deeper, more troubling answer is that well-meaning philo-Semites and assimilated Jews, the kind of people who run schools like Friends Seminary, have more respect for imagined Jewish sensitivities than for Jews’ actual history and culture. (I so far have not reached school principal Bo Lauder.) The administrators will fire a Jew who made a joke—a Jew who lost family in the Holocaust—rather than reckon with the comedic tradition he was entering, one of his oppressed people’s timeless survival strategies, one of its lasting gifts to the countries that gave them refuge. We Jews survive because of Hitler jokes, and other similar jokes. If Friends Seminary truly wanted to honor Jewish sensibilities, it would have made Mr. Frisch the grand marshal of a Jewish-comedy film festival.
But there is yet another reason that Frisch lost his job, one in which, alas, he is complicit. Quaker schools have Quaker sensibilities. I can say, having hoed some rows with the Friends, that while they are mostly like Jews and Lutherans and atheists and Pentecostal Christians—because people are people—the Quaker premium on peace, love, kindness, tolerance, etc., etc., can overrule, shall we say, their sense of humor. They exalt simplicity, civility, decency. And quiet: the Quaker practice of silent worship can disposes its practitioners against the loud, bawdy, contentious discourse that infuses Jewish culture. I’m not making claims about individual Quakers—I can introduce you to perfectly hilarious Quakers, some of whom interrupt even more than I do—but at their institutions, the values that come to the fore are Gene Sharp not Gene Wilder. In their earnestness, Quaker schools are David Brooks not Mel Brooks. You get the idea.
The fact that Ben Frisch, whose family suffered so much for its Judaism, came to find his home among the Society of Friends is not so unusual, or surprising. Given his history with violence, why would he not seek out a people known, if somewhat erroneously, for its pacifism? For someone who has lived in extreme tumult, why should he not seek silence and order? I wish Frisch all the peace in the world. But more than that, I wish him his job back. And I believe that had he worked at a Jewish school, where a little off-color humor would be seen for the laudable, culturally indigenous tactic that it is, he would still have his job. And his students would be laughing, rather than protesting.
UPDATE (March 27, 2018): A spokesman for Friends Seminary later sent me a copy of an open letter from the principal; in the letter, principal Lauder says that after Frisch’s suspension, the school “started receiving calls and emails about other equally inappropriate and troubling actions by Ben,” which Lauder did not name.
Mark Oppenheimer is a Senior Editor at Tablet. He hosts the podcast Unorthodox. He has contributed to Slate and Mother Jones, among many other publications. He is the author, most recently, of Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood. He will be hosting a discussion forum about this article on his newsletter, where you can subscribe for free and submit comments.