By ZACHARY GOELMANExtract from a story in Issue 17, December 8, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Reportclick here.
An attempt to wring laughs from modern Jewish lifestyles falls flat.
"Now, there's only two things you can do with a stereotype. You can play on it, which makes you a pro, or you can play against it, which makes you an anti. There are some advantages both ways... The thing is, I know what I'm doing; most people don't." This observation by a character in "Inherit the Mob," a 1991 satirical novel by Ze'ev Chafets, explains why Jewish humor can work either way - as long as the author and the audience know that a stereotype is in play.
Storytellers and comedians use stereotypes because they are recognizable. When we see them, we think we know what's going on, and our entertainer can either stick to our expectations or surprise us.
Mel Brooks gives us what we expect (a "pro," in Chafets's view) and always plays on the stereotype, giving us, for example, Max Bialystok and Leo Blum of "The Producers."
Actor and still-rising star Seth Rogen portrays Jews cut from a different mold, which makes him an "anti." Rogen's characters' Jewishness is omnipresent, sometimes sprinkled lightly, sometimes shmeared all over, but always against the grain.
In "Superbad," he plays a puerile and heavyset cop with a handlebar mustache; when told that a suspect resembled him racially, his character says, "oh, Jewish?" In "Knocked Up," his character lives in a California collective of Jewish burn-outs in their mid-20s who mock the single Gentile member of their crew for being an outsider among them.
Lisa Alcalay Klug tries to be both Mel Brooks and Seth Rogen in her book, "Cool Jew." Subtitled "The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe," Klug has compiled cartoonish graphics and surrounded them with topical texts on spirituality, the Jewish calendar and traditional foods. The subject of her book, the "Cool Jew" is something she describes as an emerging new trend.
Klug's "neotype" - the Cool Jew, or "Heebster" - is "someone who loves being Jewish, who is not afraid to be a total dork but who also has that certain Jewish savoir faire that makes him or her hipper than hip." She defines this caricature in vague terms: "It doesn't matter what kind of Jew you are: Ashkenazi, Sephardi, a little religious, a lot religious, not religious at all, not Jewish, Jew-friendly, old, or young... Unbounded by age, geography, or even identification with Da Tribeâ€¦"
To demonstrate the trend, Klug calls attention to several phenomena: the tongue-in-cheek Jewish themed T-shirts bearing slogans such as "100% Kosher" and "I (Heart) Hashem" that are sold on websites like www.jewlicious.com and www.jewcy.com; to the satirical film "The Hebrew Hammer;" the beer "He'Brew;" and HEEB Magazine.
"Cool Jew," in fact, so overflows with references to these relatively few sources that it begins to feel like a catalogue of similarly-themed merchandise, suggesting to readers: "people who bought this book might also buyâ€¦"
The language Klug uses is consistent, blending contemporary Brooklyn slang with the Yiddish lilt of Hester Street of a century ago. She ends her short paragraphs lackadaisically with ideas suitable for bumper stickers, but written too long, "â€¦ as every bubbie knows, sometimes the true fix is a toasted boreka, bagel or bialy smothered in buttah (sic);" "The Jewish optimist sees the glass as only half-empty. It could, after all, always be much worse;" "Might as well milk it for every knish it's worth ... And if the thought of that combination gives you schpilkes in your gazektagazoink, you're in!"
However, while there may be a market for bumper stickers or T-shirt slogans on bumpers and T-shirts, it does not follow that there is a demand for a book of them. Klug seems to think that someone who has the words "Moses Is My Homeboy" silkscreened onto a stylish top will want more of the same, and will want it compiled in a book of edgy, if ephemeral, content.
Written like punchlines, these pseudo-
logisms bombard readers with their colorful, nonsensical delivery so continuously throughout "Cool Jew" that they form the essence of Klug's voice. This betrays the fact that Klug's handbook isn't merely a guide to a trend: It wants to be part of the trend itself. It also gives the unfortunate impression that Klug is an outsider who wants to get in with the cool crowd by aping their style.
Zachary Goelman is a reporter for the Ottawa Citizen.
Extract from a story in Issue 17, December 8, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Reportclick here.
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