And Now Back to Our Regularly Scheduled Pogrom...
by John Kendall Hawkins
You don't know me from the wind
You never will, you never did
I'm the little Jew
Who wrote the Bible
- Leonard Cohen, "The Future"
In Woody Allen's Stand Up Comic, a compilation of his early stage gags, there's a joke in "NYU," that's emblematic of the Jewish experience in America, circa 1965 -- way before the Internet, and about two years before the Six-Day War -- where he sets up the audience by describing his marriage to a Jewish woman -- "against my parents' wishes" -- who, not long after the days of consummation, becomes increasingly "weird," joins the philosophy department at Hunter College and takes to wearing "black clothes and no make-up, and leotards," and soon pursues syllogistic take-downs of his nebbish personality, leading to a need for divorce. (His partner seems drawn from his "clinically berserk" Louise Lasser years.)
He breaks the news to his 'Old World' parents, with hilarious results:
I came home on a sunday...my father's watching... the Indiana Home for the Criminally Insane Glee Club on the Ed Sullivan Show. And my mother is in the corner, knitting a chicken, y'know. And I'd said that I would have to get a divorce, my mother put down her knitting, and she got up, and she went over to the furnace, and she opened the door, and she got in. Took it rather badly, I felt.
Devilishly funny -- and full of resonances and cultural information that no gentile could successfully impart to the audience without committing career suicide. Furnace -- Jews -- Holocaust -- bad chicken soup for the soul.
Another zany Allen take on the Jewish experience in America is the 1973 dystopian parody film, Sleeper (featuring a Wilhelm Reich-like orgasmatron). In this film, Allen seems to play on the fear of liberal, progressive Jews taking over America with their far-fetched socialist values steeped in archetypal humanism. And stuff. America is changed overnight when a Jew obtains a nuke and blows up democracy, leading to a police state. The Jew, one Albert Shanker, is the name of a real life New York unionist for teachers. Rebels blow him up, leaving nothing left but his nose, which the totalitarians preserve in order to clone back Shanker. Allen joins the rebels, kidnaps the nose, and eventually assassinates it by tossing it under a road roller. The culturally-identifying stereotypical Jew's nose as a "race-based deformity" is essentially double-tapped by Allen for humor.
Like many goy Americans I've grown up getting my peek into American Jewish culture largely through the lens of Woody Allen, and other artists -- Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Shabtai Zisel ben Avraham, Don Rickles, I.F. Stone, Spinoza, Leonard Bernstein... So much of Allen's stand-up shtick and films are autobiographical, often to the point of solipsism. Through him, we learn of his Jewish childhood, marriage, religious concerns, existentialism, psychology, dating, entertainment, and how not to cook lobsters.
But even though I've had Jewish friends over the years, I haven't always felt like I understand the culture as well as I would like. There has at times seemed to be some Secret Cultural Business going on with my Jewish acquaintances that I'm not privy to. A lot of this should be written off as mere ordinary cultural insularity. But I have believed such insularity has made it difficult for goyim to understand the nuances of, say, Israel/Palestinian politics. What do you know, goyim, about Israel's politics with Arabs? can seem to be the message.
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