When three comic-writers take on the tribe and all things Jewish

When the writers say one of the hallmarks of Judaism is that “there is no one ‘right way’ to do things, there are only many wrong ways” they make an excellent point

PULITZER PRIZE-WINNING photojournalist Michel duCille (left) with Pulitzer Prize-winning humorist and syndicated ‘Miami Herald’ columnist Dave Barry in Miami in 2013 for the newspaper’s relocation party. (photo credit: ANDREW INNERARITY / REUTERS)
PULITZER PRIZE-WINNING photojournalist Michel duCille (left) with Pulitzer Prize-winning humorist and syndicated ‘Miami Herald’ columnist Dave Barry in Miami in 2013 for the newspaper’s relocation party.
(photo credit: ANDREW INNERARITY / REUTERS)
In the 2019 book A Field Guide to the Jewish People, three comic-writers – Dave Barry, Adam Mansbach and Alan Zweibel – took on the entire history and culture of the Jewish people to produce a fairly slim volume (244 pages) that, with the great illustrations of Ross MacDonald, goes down easily and produces more than a few laughs. The work is amusing, and at times even insightful, but as one progresses through the pages, one cannot help but ask – who is this for, exactly?
The language is plain and the authors are not bashful about sprinkling their prose with explicit language, which at times lends the book the airs of a work written by teenage boys for other teenage boys who just had a bar-mitzva. Which should not be a surprise seeing that Mansbach’s bestselling 2011 book was called Go the F##k to Sleep.
This comment on the style of the book should not be seen as prudish; explicit language can and had been used masterfully by comedians such as Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and George Carlin. Yet in this book, it often seems the writers use it for shocks and guffaws. This blends in with the writers constantly saying they googled things, looked them up on Wikipedia, or instructing the reader to do so if he or she (Gasp! Shudder!) actually wants to learn something.
To top it off, the book is extremely hostile to Mel Gibson, going so far as to have an illustration depicting a couple dancing on his grave due to his antisemitic outbursts in 2006. There is also joking that Ivanka Trump converted to Judaism on Tisha Be’av, making her conversion a tragic event in a line of (real) historical events such as the destruction of the Temples and the expulsion of Jews from Spain. The book also makes fun of her father, US President Donald Trump, by comparing him to Herod who “like many sociopaths drawn to politics... was good at building things.”
The issue I have with all of this is that Gibson may very well be an antisemite, but he is also genius director. Wishing for someone’s death is a very low thing to do. How would the reader feel if the same illustration were used with, say, “The Jewish State” written on the tombstone? As for Ivanka Trump, I do get the joke, but I don’t think it’s a good one. It’s a cheap shot at a person who, as a convert, should not be ridiculed using this particular point.
THIS, PERHAPS, is what is so odd about this book. It’s a book with very little scholarship or even curiosity in it about Jewish people. I first picked it up with hope. Too many writers wish to focus on the incredible historical wealth of the Jewish experience by presenting the reader with outlandish examples of it. Jewish pirates, Jewish gangsters, Jewish pornographers – all of them valid subjects for study and publication. Yet it is equally true that this is not the experienced reality of most Jewish people in the US. Which is why a book that pokes fun at Jewish bar mitzvas for costing an arm and a leg, Jewish weddings, bagels and even the roles Jews played in the formation of Latin Jazz in the Catskill mountains is a good thing – these are things most Jews actually know. If only the book brought something more profound to the table than elephant jokes!
The book is not without insightful moments about its subject matter. When the writers say one of the hallmarks of Judaism is that “there is no one ‘right way’ to do things, there are only many wrong ways” they make an excellent point. Other worthwhile insights include the metaphor that the writing down of the Mishna was like the invention of the Walkman, in the sense it made Jewish culture into a portable one. The joke that “Jews are all over the map, which led Henry Ford to coin the term International Jewry,” is even punchier today after Trump decided, for his own reasons, to speak of the late Ford’s “good bloodline.”
Other smart concepts include an English/Aramaic translation of the Ketuba in which the sappy and romantic English is presented in a very “contract” like fake-Aramaic, the idea Jewish people are so invested in humor because their religion began with making someone, Sara, laugh when she was informed she will become a mother at her advanced age, and (my personal favorite) describing Mordechai sitting “on a mountain of cocaine” because the King wanted the world to know if this is how he treats his homies. Even The Jerusalem Post is mentioned on page 120 as part of a larger gag.
Why then, did I leave the book less than thrilled with the end result? Comedy, after all, is difficult to write and it seems unkind to focus on the jokes that didn’t appeal to me and forget all the ones that did. The book makes for an easy read and is hard to put down, it would be nearly impossible to write jokes that work for all readers. If the book is meant as a bar mitzvah gift or a Christmas present to non-Jewish friends, it does its job well. Heck, it even makes a little more fun out of Reform Jews than I expected and is fairly supportive of Israel and Israelis. Much more so than, for example, Harvey Pekar's Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me, which is likely to be the other book gift a modern Jewish person would consider to get a teenager ahead of a Jewish rite of passage.
I think the reason I was a little bummed by the book is that it offers such glib responses to issues. In a stand-up show that would be fine; when comedian Moshe Kasher described his childhood and how his mother fed him using food coupons, which is “so rare for a Jew I’m pretty much a unicorn,” we laugh because it’s in context. In a book about, say, Jewish-Americans and money, such a one-liner printed on a page would seem pretty much out of place – if not cruel toward Jewish people in America who suffer from poverty.
Every few years, it seems, a book comes out that attempts to explain Jewish people to both non-Jews and Jewish people who did a great job assimilating into modernity and now find themselves at a loss. In 1998, it was The Gifts of the Jews by Thomas Cahill, in 1959 it was This is My God by Herman Wouk and in 1836 it was 19 letters on Judaism by Samson Raphael Hirsch. If the reader should point out these books did not intend to be funny, I should like to point out that the 1922 anthology of Jewish humor by Alter Drujanow still packs quite a punch, despite the century that passed since it was first printed. The motto that Drujanow opened his massive work with can also fit here as a closing remark, “There is no generation that does not have clowns in it” (Jerusalem Talmud, Shekalim 11:2).
A FIELD GUIDE TO THE JEWISH PEOPLE
By Dave Barry, Adam Mansbach and Alan Zweibel
Flatiron Books
244 pages; $25.99