thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

On Lena Dunham and Modern Jewish American Identity

In Uncategorized on March 31, 2015 at 5:28 am

Sarah Todd

People have a right to feel offended by Lena Dunham’s recent New Yorker column, “Quiz: A Dog or My Jewish Boyfriend.” But to focus solely on the question of whether or not it’s offensive is to ignore knottier and more nuanced issues.

The Anti-Defamation League has condemned the article for relying on anti-Semitic stereotypes. (Dunham’s theoretically humorous quiz includes such descriptions as, “He doesn’t tip. And he never brings his wallet anywhere.”) New Yorker editor David Remnick rose to Dunham’s defense, arguing that as a Jewish woman she is operating within a longstanding tradition of insider humor and self-deprecation as typified by artists like Sarah Silverman, Lenny Bruce and Philip Roth. Bloggers and Twitterati are taking sides.

Although I found Dunham’s humor piece neither upsetting nor funny, I’m sympathetic to both sides of the debate. (I’m also a white, Jewish, middle-class woman, for what it’s worth.) It’s true that some of her jokes reference harmful stereotypes about Jewish people–and men in particular–as miserly, coddled and physically weak. And I understand why the ADL is troubled by the historical implications of equating a Jewish person with a dog.

Like Remnick, however, I think Dunham’s status as a member of the tribe informs the piece. Even if her jokes fail to land, it seems likely that she intended it as an affectionate send-up of her own culture. (Part of the problem may be, as Phoebe points out, that Dunham fails to extend this brand of insider humor to herself–the quiz mocks the “Jewish boyfriend” but avoids self-scrutiny.)

But far more interesting to me than the issue of whether the column is inappropriate is the critical conversation it has spurred about American Judaism and cultural specificity.  

Writing in The New Republic, Phoebe Maltz Bovy makes the case that Dunham was wrong to treat Jewishness as a distinct identity. “Humor about Jewish Otherness is not only difficult for Jews to relate to, but also out of keeping with a greater awareness of issues of diversity and representation,” she writes.

Bovy’s argument seems to be that Jews have become so assimilated into generalized U.S. whiteness that any attempt to distinguish the population is both insulting to Jews and damaging to broader conversations about diversity. “It’s not tenable for a group of ethnic whites—even an often-discriminated-against one—to represent racial difference in this country,” she continues, although to me Dunham’s column seems to treat Jewishness more as a ethnic and/or cultural identity than as a racial one.

Bovy goes on to conclude that “the perception that anti-Semitism is on the rise” means that “any reference to Jews as anything other than undifferentiated Americans is more troubling now.” It’s unclear to me why Bovy supplies the continued existence of anti-Semitism as a reason to cease self-representation of Jewish culture, when bigotry would seem to call for exactly the opposite response.

I want to be fair to Bovy and acknowledge that I may be missing some piece of her logic here. But it seems to me to be manifestly untrue that the Jewish-American subculture has been rendered obsolete, and I bristle at the implication that Dunham and other artists should refrain from producing any work that treats Jewish-American identity as something unique, just as people from Catholic or Muslim backgrounds might also deem their upbringings culturally specific.

It’s certainly true that many Jewish people benefit from white privilege. (I say “many” rather than “all” because not all Jews are white: the 2005 book In Every Tongue estimates that roughly 7% of Jewish people in the U.S. are black, Hispanic, Asian or Native American.) And I agree with Bovy that there are plenty of Americans who are “technically” Jewish according to their matrilineal heritage but who have no special relationship with Jewish culture.

But there are many others who, like me, were raised to understand Judaism as a specific culture encompassing varying levels of religious observance, brisket-making prowess and zest for Mel Brooks comedies. Jewish people who are white may reasonably identify both as white and as members of an ethnic, religious or cultural subgroup. I see no need to keep Jewish comics from participating in the long line of artists who engage with their heritage—ugly stereotypes included.

After all, many groups that experience discrimination humorously engage with stereotypes in order to expose and undermine them. The problem with Dunham’s column is that she fails to do anything interesting with the received ideas she draws upon.

Of course, some of the Jewish stereotypes Dunham is working with are increasingly passé, as noted by both Bovy and Mark Oppenheimer in Time. As the U.S. conceit of whiteness has expanded to encompass once-excluded groups like Jewish, Italian and Irish Americans, jokes that hinge on differentiating characteristics like overbearing Jewish mothers have become stale.

But Judaism remains an identity with which many people have distinct associations, some of which may be embraced by Jewish people themselves. Daniel Smith writes in the New York Times about American Jews’ tendency to celebrate a tradition of neuroticism with “ironic, self-deprecatory ethnic pride.” (Oppenheimer, on the other hand, claims that Jewishness and neuroticism are now unlinked in the popular imagination. These conflicting views only underscore the multiplicity of perspectives on Jewish identity, which means that Bovy’s thoroughly assimilated culture may well be alive and well in other people’s books.)

Other stereotypes about Jewish people are more vicious and damaging, feeding into anti-Semitic sentiments and violence that targets Jewish populations today. If we deny Jewish artists the right to suggest their background carries any particular meaning, we leave it up to others to define what it means to be Jewish today.

In the end, Lena Dunham’s attempt at humor was clearly a misfire. But that’s no reason to put a kibosh on Jewish jokes.

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