In defense of Larry David

The Jewish “thought police” were out in full force, shaming us for laughing.

Comedian Larry David (photo credit: MARIO ANZUONI/REUTERS)
Comedian Larry David
I laughed out loud, and I’ve never been a particular fan of Larry David.
My younger sister would sometimes force me to watch Curb Your Enthusiasm, and I never really “got it.” Just like I never really “got” Seinfeld. And I’m Jewish, the granddaughter of Auschwitz survivors on my father’s side.
Yet still I laughed when David joked about hitting on women in a concentration camp, wallowing in the insatiability of male desire after he castigated the Jewish sexual predators who elicited his “oy vey iz mirs.” I laughed – until I was told I wasn’t supposed to because, as many a Jewish pundit put it, he “crossed a line.”
The Anti-Defamation League led the charge, with its CEO tweeting: “He managed to be offensive, insensitive & unfunny all at same time.”
What am I missing? He didn’t joke about sexually assaulting or harassing concentration camp inmates, which would certainly deserve utmost censure.
In fact, men who even thought about mating in a concentration camp (as I’m sure some did) were probably more likely to survive. I wonder if Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, would agree that even hope for consensual sex – the purveyor of life – once the horror passed would be appropriate meaning to find in a death hole.
Effective comedy paints surreal, unexpected, lopsided scenarios, like the “pickup” scenario David set up. But immediately after Saturday Night Live gave me its first laugh-out-loud moment since the 1980s, the Jewish “thought police” were out in full force, shaming us for laughing.
Making us feel dirty and guilty for laughing.
Haven’t Jews suffered enough? I’m sure that had David told the joke in private Jewish company many would have chuckled at least, even despite themselves. But the joke was made publicly.
And that “crossed a line” because Holocaust humor might prevent non- Jews in particular from internalizing the gravity of the crime the way that descendants of victims have, as if there is still doubt that the imprisoning and gassing of millions of Jews – or any minority – is anything but a grave crime.
Dimwits and antisemites aside, the Holocaust is universally recognized as the most horrific crime of the 20th century and beyond. When we Jews make Holocaust jokes, it often means that we are empathetic with but metaphysically removed from the nightmarish events.
That we are not Holocaust victims anymore.
That wearing prison uniforms, being shoved into gas chambers, is not the essence of who we are as a people – and never was. That we are confident in our ability to overcome and prevent such atrocities, so much so that we can find humor in the insanity.
Almost 75 years have passed since the Holocaust. For how long will Holocaust humor be taboo? What is the threshold? 100 years? 200 years? And who decides? Do we need to get permission from every living survivor before a Holocaust joke is made? Could we just ask those we know? My brave, opinionated grandfather would have wanted me to speak my mind, I’m sure.
Allow me to play exegete and take some guidance from the Book of Exodus, which says: “The sins of the fathers visit upon the third and fourth generations.”
Holocaust perpetrators and survivors – those able to offer vivid, first-hand testimonies – are leaving this world. The fifth generation will likely not have any meaningful contact with any living adult from that era. That means by the fifth generation, removed by lineage, discourse will become more detached from the actual events.
And so it is up to us, the second through fourth generations, to atone and heal, to reflect and process, to flush out the evil and pain, enriched and informed by our proximity with those who lived to tell the tales of both heroism and evil, so that the fifth generation will be bequeathed with a meaningful springboard for discussion and reconciliation.
And that platform must include more than just Holocaust testimonies, more than just Holocaust museums enshrining images of “Holocaust Jews” that have, unfortunately, become cliché. We need to give them the freedom to ask difficult, even irreverent questions, which obviously don’t include “did it happen?” but which can include “what more could Jews have done to stop it?” or “how central should the Holocaust be to my identity?” or “at what point can we forgive?” We should not bequeath to them the sanctity of Jewish victimhood but the sanctity of our spirits.
Larry David has paved the way for that much-needed discourse about... Holocaust discourse, with laughter. Because we can’t always live in tears.
The Jewish people should have far more pressing targets for censure than a Jewish comedian’s funny – yes, funny! – standup routine about Jewish sexual desire persisting during the Jews’ darkest hour.
Let’s focus on the Holocaust in waiting and attempts at Jewish genocide happening today, the world over and especially in Israel, lest we have more dark hours with which to supply Jewish comics 75 years from now, because Jewish comedy will, thankfully, never die.
Larry David may have lost a few fans, but he has gained a new one. Unless, of course, he apologizes.
The author is a journalist and author based in Berlin covering German-Israel affairs. Her recent novel, Underskin, is a steamy Israeli- German romance.
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