Commentary Magazine


Defaming the Jews

People should be taught what is, not what should be. All my humor is based on destruction and despair.

Lenny Bruce

Some clichés become so hallowed by usage that they can serve as a cover for the worst kinds of crassness and stupidity. This seems to be increasingly the case with the familiar notion of Jewish humor as the time-honored way for Jews to laugh with shrewd candor at their own foibles. “Self-deprecation is, after all, a classic form of Jewish humor,” Alex Portnoy tells the burly kibbutz girl with whom—or rather on whom—he is unable to perform sexually; but one may legitimately ask what are the limits of self-deprecation, where and how does it slide into a rather different psychological stance toward the self.

Such questions have in fact been raised as a matter of public discussion by Ernest Lehman’s film version of Portnoy’s Complaint. It is interesting to note that there was some nervousness about the film even in its pre-production stage. Richard Zanuck declined to make the film for 20th Century Fox, reportedly because he didn’t want to be involved in another X-rated movie, though a ranking 20th-Century-Fox executive privately admitted a personal sense of relief at escaping the responsibility for putting such a terrible Jewish mother on the screen. The rights were subsequently picked up by Warner Brothers, and Lehman, at Warner Brothers, when questioned by letter about his intentions by the Jewish Film Advisory Committee, retorted quite properly that he insisted on “the same freedom of artistic expression” accorded writers or directors dealing with non-ethnic materials. He also affirmed that he would do everything he could “to make the picture as tasteful as possible without doing fatal violence to the spirit of Philip Roth’s novel.”

Though it is not my intention here to write a movie review, it seems to me important to keep clearly in mind that Portnoy’s Complaint is a dismal failure as a film, for its ethnic embarrassments are intimately related to its artistic ones. It is an extraordinarily uncinematic film, static in its use of camera, trite and unimaginative in its conception of scene and in its editing, mechanical in its lengthy transcription of passages from the novel, with wooden performances in the lead roles by Richard Benjamin and Karen Black. The good taste Lehman promised exhausts itself in strategies for edging the film from an X-rating to an R-rating. This is accomplished mainly through visual ellipsis in sexual matters while most of the verbal explicitness of the novel is retained. To wit, the Monkey, Portnoy’s polymorphously passionate mistress, is filmed in the throes of cunnilingual climax from the shoulders up, her burrowing lover and her bodily charms safely off camera. A similar notion of good taste seems to have guided Lehman in his treatment of Jewish materials, although here the ellipses, when they occur, are verbal rather than visual. Thus, we are regaled with Sophie Portnoy ranting to Alex about the dangers of eating “their” French fries and “their” hamburgers, but the words kosher and traif are not pronounced, and Portnoy’s reflections in the novel on the psychological impact of dietary prohibitions are omitted. (The less theologically loaded chazerai is introduced, though I am mystified by Lehman’s failure to make Richard Benjamin pronounce it correctly.) Inevitably, Portnoy’s frantic desire to break away from the constricting circle of his Jewish family is made clear in the movie, but his relentless sexual obsession with shikses, that lust for otherness tinged with ethnic envy and hostility, is played down, especially since the film version makes no reference to either of his two extended affairs with proper Wasp girls before he meets the Monkey.

In any case, these efforts of discretion on Lehman’s part seem to have been unavailing, for the Anti-Defamation League reports that its offices all over the country have been getting complaints about the film, and when Fred Hechinger flatly described it as anti-Semitic in a New York Times piece (July 16, 1972), he received a spate of emphatic supporting letters. Although Hechinger’s conclusion may be open to question, he makes several shrewd observations about the movie, and in particular about the effect of transfering the novel to the medium of film. “Roth’s characters,” Hechinger notes about the original Portnoy, “were the figment of a deliberately distorted and distorting imagination . . . the exaggerated vision of a childhood unhappily remembered.” Because Lehman fails to find any adequate cinematic equivalent for the psychological refraction of the novel’s monologue form, “All that emerges is a vulgar and offensive portrait of an unpleasant cast of Jewish characters.” Commenting further about the general lifting of taboos on both anti-ethnic humor and on the rendering of bathroom and bedroom activities, Hechinger contends that what has resulted is, alas, not a new unfettered creativity but a new wave of vulgarity, the racial theme regressing “to the minstrel and watermelon level of insights.” He aptly observes that Jews are the most inviting target in this new atmosphere of permissiveness “because their greater political sophistication and tolerance make them less likely to strike back than other ethnic power groups.” We are, in other words, not yet on the verge of a black Portnoy’s Complaint.

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Hechinger’s analysis seems to me generally correct, though I would be less certain about applying the anti-Semitic label to the film if we assume that anti-Semitism implies an active hostility toward Jews as a group and an active intention to vilify them. I would rather suspect that the film-maker, working with a literary text that surely expresses a troubled relationship to its Jewish materials, permitted himself through his own dearth of imagination to be trapped by the logic of the medium into magnifying the more unpalatable aspects of his Jewish subjects. A literary fiction is an elaborately mediated representation of experience, allowing through the very nature of the printed word a large intervening distance for the play of the reader’s imagination, his private fantasy world, his faculties of judgment and interpretation. In a movie, by contrast, the viewer is caught in the immediate presence and temporal rhythm of the projected image. As it looms in front of him on the screen, he is not free the way a reader is to set it at will in a system of his own perspectives, to invent it behind his own eyes, to manipulate it or redefine it. When we read Roth’s novel, we can, through a congeries of printed signs, watch Portnoy looking back at Mama, and there is thus a Tightness in her towering over him, say, with the bread-knife, as the all-powerful figure of a vulnerable child’s experience, while she remains distanced from us by two removes. In the film, on the other hand, Sophie with her anxious nagging about what goes in and comes out of her son’s alimentary canal, Jack shuffling off to the toilet for another futile struggle with his constipation, are unalterably, abrasively present, and their heavy vulgarity, their oppressive actualization of negative Jewish stereotypes, do make one distinctly uncomfortable in a way the book does not. Precisely the same element of discomfort, in fact, accompanies Lehman’s translation of sexual material from the book to the screen. It is one thing to read about the adolescent Alex’s marathon of masturbation; it is quite another actually to see the adult Richard Benjamin—incredibly got-up as a fifteen-year-old—with his face buried in purloined female underpants, supposedly trembling in onanistic ecstasy, though photographed “tastefully,” of course, from the shoulders up. The effect is that peculiar sort of artistic embarrassment which seems close to a social embarrassment as well (like inadvertently stepping into an occupied bathroom at a party), and I think it illustrates how we tend to perceive cinematic characters and scenes as much closer, more intrusive, approximations of the social world we inhabit than the images and actions we conjure up for ourselves in the experience of reading fiction.

This quality of insistent immediacy in Lehman’s literalistic translation of novel to film tends to strengthen an unfortunate effect which is at least implicit in Roth’s novel: the rasping Sophie, and Jack Portnoy with his tired adenoidal whine, loom in our field of vision as though they were definitive portraits of the Jewish mother and father, and as though the parental characters they embody, the psyche-crushing pressures they exert, were uniquely Jewish social pathologies. Some years ago, at the height of the vogue of literary Jewishness, I had occasion to complain in these pages1 of a sentimental myth of the Jew which encouraged people to think of certain admired qualities as uniquely Jewish when in fact they were the common property of many groups and cultural traditions. In the changed mood of the past four or five years, a negative complement of that sentimental myth seems to have gained at least limited currency, and we are at times encouraged to perceive as distinctively Jewish certain destructive character-types or qualities which are merely specific Jewish instances of a very widespread human heritage of blight and consternation.

Perhaps I can make the point clearer by citing another striking instance of the archetypal Jewish mother in contemporary fiction. The story I have in mind includes two grown sons, one of whom is an obvious cousin to Alex Portnoy—thirtyish, bald, thin and nervous, futilely intellectual, hopelessly unable to extricate himself from his dependence on his powerful possessive mother. He dreams of going off to Paris or Rome but stays at home commuting to the second-rate university where he teaches. When he even mentions his thoughts of an escape abroad, his mother’s cutting response is predictable: “You’d go to those places and you’d get sick. Who in Paris is going to see that you get a salt-free diet? And do you think if you married one of those shikses you take out that she would cook a salt-free diet for you?” The castrating Yiddishe mamme here happens to be a true-blue Southern Protestant in a story by a Catholic, Flannery O’Connor (“Greenleaf”), but the only liberty I have taken with the text is to substitute shikses for the phrase “odd numbers.” In any case, the shabby genteel Mrs. May in Flannery O’Connor’s story pronounces “trash” with pretty much the same accent of contempt and self-protective prejudice that one detects in the use of goyim by the elder Portnoys, and one gets the distinct impression that the main difference between the mothers is a matter of local terminology, not substantive psychology. The palpable possibility of a Sophie Portnoy on a dairy farm in Georgia—or for that matter, in a worker’s flat in Detroit or behind the counter of a hardware store in Sioux City—may suggest that a film like Lehman’s on top of a novel like Roth’s could exercise a certain limited accuracy of social observation and nevertheless have regrettably misleading implications.

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As distasteful as such representations of Jews may be, I would hesitate to label them anti-Semitic precisely because our century has seen such abundant and vivid examples of truly anti-Semitic literature and art, in which all Jews are represented as loathsome, subhuman creatures (the rats in Eliot’s “Burbank with a Baedeker” gnawing at the foundations of European civilization) whose vile, life-denying, and actually conspiratorial activities would make it a virtue to cleanse humanity of their presence. Most recently, of course, such images of the Jew have been rolling off the presses of Cairo and Damascus, Kiev and Warsaw, but it may well be a sign of our own troubled atmosphere that this sort of obscenity is again in public circulation in America. I refer to a kind of popular culture in comparison with which a film by Ernest Lehman looks like austere high art—birthday cards, supposedly comic posters, and “party jokebooks” in which Jews are consistently represented as prickly-bearded, hideously hook-nosed, money-grubbing, sordidly scheming slobs.

It is not clear what audience these materials could be aimed at or how many people they reach at all. Their mere visibility, however, offers support for the often-asserted claim that a tacit moratorium on vocal anti-Semitism after the Holocaust is now definitively over. It is also not clear to what extent Jews themselves have had a hand in producing this vileness, although the so-called jokes are decidedly those of an outsider, and the specifics of vilification seem weirdly anachronistic as a style of hatred (all Jews drive huge Cadillacs, are physically grotesque, are constantly counting their money, etc.). One prime document, a pamphlet called It’s Fun To Be Jewish, purports to be the work of a Beverly Hills Jew named Roger Lamanski, but if this is really the case, the production merely illustrates the full perversity of the psychology of self-rejection, how a Jew can bring himself to lap up the poison spread by his own haters.

Lamanski predictably invokes in a preface the age-old self-mockery of Jewish humor as a defense of his pamphlet, but the kind of nastiness he purveys conforms to nothing so much as the classic literature of European anti-Semitism. Here is what he passes off as Jewish humor: “Q . What’s the difference between a German Jew and a Russian Jew? A. Nothing—it depends on what language you want to get gypped in.” Or, still worse: “Q . Why do old Jews have crooked backs? A. From picking up pennies off the sidewalk.” The one noticeable addition to the usual formulas of anti-Semitism is the vehemence of hostile attention directed against Jewish women, who are consistently depicted as garrulous, thick-lipped, fat-assed bitches. Thus: “Q . Why do Jewish women close their eyes while they’re making love? A. They can’t stand to see their husbands enjoying themselves.” If this sounds vile, I can only say that the Stuermer-style cartoons accompanying the gags are far viler, the written text often seeming merely an excuse for the release of a much greater energy of vilification in the drawings.

The defamation here of Jewish women, one might observe, jibes nicely with the recent treatment of the “Jewish Princess” as a comic butt on television and in print. Julie Baumgold’s New York magazine piece on the subject (March 22, 1971), like the Mel Brooks television slurs on which it builds, is infinitely more “sophisticated” than the Lamanski pamphlet, but its snide contempt for its subject is quite relentless, and the effort to make a blanket case against Jewish women in general links it with the defamatory jokebooks and cards. The intensity of spitefulness is as strong in the magazine piece as in the less reputable literature of defamation. “For one thing,” Baumgold writes of the Jewish Princess, “she expects. No bum in fingerless gloves ever picked through a trash basket with more expectation.” At least a bit of such a character, we are asked to believe, exists in “every Jewish girl,” now and in all times, from the haughty daughters of Zion in Isaiah to Durrell’s Justine, Marjorie Morningstar, and beyond. Like the anti-Semitic pamphleteer, Baumgold lays stress on the vocation of the Jewish woman as a calculating sexual with-holder. Her approving quotation of Mel Brooks on this subject typifies the tone and substance of her own attack: “[The Jewish Princess] is familiar with the nuances of the Kama Sutra and the Story of O . . . but a finger on a private part is punishable by death.”

It is worth noting that these self-styled exercises in Jewish humor, whether conducted by Jewish or Gentile anti-Semites, very readily move into the conspiratorial notions that lie at the heart of classic anti-Semitism. The grasping old Jews—they must be old, for reasons Norman Cohn has made persuasively clear in his Freudian interpretation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion—grasp not only for themselves but for some sinister network of Jewish capital. Thus, a birthday card that uses mostly the same material as It’s Fun To Be Jewish answers the question, why are Jews so interested in politics, with “They hold a mortgage on the White House,” a joke that plays not only on supposed Jewish avarice but also on the idea, as in the Protocols, that Jewish wealth exerts secret power in the highest places. A specifically racial fear of a Jewish takeover is reflected in the same card’s attribution to all Jews of a secret ambition to turn St. Patrick’s Cathedral into a synagogue and make Sammy Davis, Jr. the cantor. The reference to St. Patrick’s might be a clue to the ethnic origin of this particular joke, but in any case the attempt at humor reveals a real uneasiness over the prospect of a contaminating influx of mingled inferior races, kikes and niggers, into the sancta of white America.

The most perfect illustration I have seen of the persistent conspiracy theory, old poisons reheated for new political situations, is a poster with the caption, “Ski Israel—Matzoh Mountain Country,” issued by Action Decal and Silkscreen, a Chicago firm, and signed, D. Booty. In a graphics style worthy of the infamous Soviet anti-Semitic publication, Judaism without Embellishment, a simian, cigar-smoking, hang-lipped, potbellied Jew in military attire is represented riding down a slope using two prostrate, tearful Arabs as skis. His pocket is stuffed with bonds, on his chest he wears a decoration labeled “Iron Beygel,” and he is shoving into the faces of the hapless Arabs a huge submachine gun (it appears to jut out from between his legs) with “Marx” clearly lettered on the barrel. As the manifestations of paranoiac hatred of the Jews have by now taught us to expect, the international Jewish conspiracy is imagined as a hydra-headed thing, easily embodying the most contradictory opposites—here, not only Communism and capitalism but neo-Nazism to boot.

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I do not mean by citing these documents to suggest that there is anything like an incipient wave of mass anti-Semitism in America, though it does seem to me worth noting that the most potent expressions of anti-Semitism do exist in some manner as a contemporary American phenomenon, much as we like to consign them mentally to past eras or to the hate-spewing propaganda machines of Arab and Communist dictatorships. It may well be that the resurfacing of jokebook anti-Semitism has been encouraged by the same indulgent climate in which some film-makers, journalists, television writers, and comedians have felt free to capitalize at length on negative stereotypes of Jews. Nevertheless, the existence side by side of the two phenomena points up their essential difference, for to magnify recognizably unpleasant aspects of certain kinds of Jews is different in intention and generally different in effect from turning all Jews into odious vermin insidiously infecting mankind. The Lehman-to-Lamanski spectrum in any case raises a problem of practical response. One surely wants to excoriate misrepresentations of Jews that are venomous and destructive, and it is equally legitimate to state one’s emphatic objections to representations that are merely quite distasteful and potentially damaging, but the last thing we should think of as Jews is to try to impose an unofficial censorship, that is, to try to discourage all forms of criticism, including what might be genuine self-scrutiny. The line, of course, between criticism and denigration is not always clear, is likely to depend in some degree on where you stand when you try to look at it, but to get a balanced view of this whole question, it may be helpful to consider a couple of examples on the other side of the elusive line of distinction.

Lenny Bruce’s famous bit about Christ and Moses making the West Coast Reform temple scene—“drive-in shul, Frank Lloyd Wright shul . . . West Coast Reform shul, Reform rabbi; so reformed they’re ashamed they’re Jewish”—is a knife-thrust that has a sharpness and purpose quite beyond all the current humor about Jewish parents hovering over toilets and Jewish women munching overstuffed sandwiches. The crucial difference begins, I suspect, with some positive sense of involvement, not entrapment, in the Jewish condition. Out of his own unabashed Jewishness, out of his working knowledge that being a Jew could provide him certain distinctive resources for seeing and saying things as they are, Bruce perceived that what makes Jews really contemptible is their lust to deny themselves. To expose Jewish vulgarity or even Jewish parochialism is to engage with surface phenomena that in any case cover only part of the surface of American-Jewish life; to expose the dishonesty of Jews about their own historical identity goes to the root of the uneasiness underlying Jewish existence in this country. Bruce’s satire can be merciless, but it usually seems clean and right because it moves to the essential point. Thus: “Not many Jews feel hostility towards Gold-water cause he is Jewish and changed his religion. See, all Jews did that.” Or, more poignantly, at the end of the West Coast Reform temple routine: “Moses is depressed. The shuls are gone. No more shuls. He breaks open a mezuzah—nothing inside—gevalt !—but a piece of paper that says, ‘Made in Japan.’” Now, Bruce was by no stretch of the term a religious Jew, but he was capable of realizing imaginatively that the essence of being a Jew historically was not a particular configuration of family life or a particular set of social mannerisms but a people’s ongoing commitment to a covenant with God. In the light of that awareness, he invents a perfect symbol for the painful contradiction of being a Jew without faith who maintains the pretense of unbroken continuity with the past—a mezuzah that encloses not divine words inscribed on parchment but a printed label, “Made in Japan.”

Bruce also directed his satire on occasion at the more strictly social failings of Jews, but even in these instances I think the tenor and tone of his critique are something very different from denigration. Here it is important to stress that what counts most is not the social fact observed but how it is stated. Thus, the jokebooks and greeting cards work over the my-son-the-doctor cliché in a way that is flat as humor and sour as social commentary (“Q . Why are all Jews either doctors, lawyers, or dentists? A. It sounds funny saying, ‘My son Irving the truckdriver.’”). By contrast, Bruce exploits an element of sharp surprise in alluding to the same social fact in a manic counterattack against Christians who ask Jews why they killed Christ—“We killed him because he didn’t want to become a doctor, that’s why we killed him.” This is wonderful precisely because it is so outrageous, and the outrageousness cuts in two directions, both of them reinforced by the unblushing use of the Jewish “we.” On the one hand, the sudden punch line suggests, we crucify our children when they do not conform to our expectations, and under the high compression of wit, there is all the anguish of a Portnoyesque son suffering parental insistence and cultural coercion. The historical issue, on the other hand, is also underscored by the absurdity of the statement: Jews, whose characteristic “crime” has been to want too restrictively for their children, have been murderously pursued over the centuries by a Christian world that denounced them as Christ-killers. Either way, what comes across is not a sneering put-down of “all Jews” but a shrewd perception of the moral discrepancies of the Jewish predicament made out of a clear involvement in that predicament.

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Jews can be a good deal rougher on themselves than this without any governing impulse of self-hatred. In order to make the general principle clearer, I would like to offer a more elaborate example in which criticism is far more vehement, obviously much closer to the line of denigration. To set against that hideous joke about old Jews bending over for pennies, I shall quote a passage from the master Yiddish and Hebrew satirist, Mendele Mocher Seforim, that also attributes a mercenary character to the Jews. This satiric set-piece occurs in a Hebrew story called “Unease in Jacob,” first published in 1892. Language, unfortunately, is absolutely essential to Mendele’s satiric method, so my translation can give only a dim approximation of Mendele’s opulently allusive Hebrew, with its sudden twists from mock-sublime diction to rude familiarity and grotesquerie. The story portrays a conniving shtetl potentate named Jacob who has risen from a mere creeping thing—“Thou worm, Jacob”—to power in the community, a seat by the east wall of the synagogue, and the honorific title, Reb Yakov.

Gold has plugged up his heart and his brain. The faculty of memory was now filled by a silver shekel, and in every single place in heart or brain where there had once been a little honesty, a particle of compassion, a trace of human feeling, the slightest creaturely understanding, there now lay—a coin. Every one of his five senses was served by the coin: he saw, heard, tasted, smelled, felt only the coin, and his soul was one beaten work of pure gold. This is the way of Jews, the nature imbued in them from time immemorial, that whenever they see a fellow with a gold coin, let him be what he will, even a calf, a beast in human form—he becomes their god, and they bow down to him, dance and frolic before him, giving glory to his name. His followers praise him in the town, calling him Reb Yakov!, and all the people answer after them in awe, “Blessed be his glorious name,” and they, too, say, “Reb Yakov!”

All this is done so abundantly with the stylistic zest characteristic of Mendele that it is not easy to separate the energy of searing contempt from the delight in sheer play with language, but a few particular observations can be made. The shtetl society was in fact one in which social victimization of the penniless by the wealthy and economic parasitism (Reb Yakov’s sycophantic followers) were very prominent features. To these Mendele responded with a deep sense of moral outrage, typically expressing it, as here, in that cadenced rhetoric of formal denunciation, heavily wrought with anaphora and explicit appeals to feeling, which was often the vehicle of social indignation in the 19th-century novel (in English one thinks of Dickens). The open assault on Reb Yakov, the very type and figure of the exploitative rich Jew, is relentless—in the story, it goes on for several pages more. The question about this sort of animus in Mendele, a question in fact raised by some contemporary Hebrew critics, is whether it is not anti-Semitic, denigrating our East-European forebears by fixing to them the very accusations invented by their persecutors. The passage we are considering, after all, even moves on from its immediate satiric target to a generalization about the readiness of Jews from time immemorial to abase themselves in the presence of gold.

I do not want to argue that the mere fact of writing in a Jewish language guarantees some sort of moral hechsher, some seal of rabbinic approval, for there are surely striking documents of self-hatred in both Hebrew and Yiddish. If, however, as I have suggested, a key to the distinction between denigration and criticism is a sense of positive involvment in the group being criticized, the choice of a specifically Jewish language will at least make such a sense considerably more likely, both because of the implied audience and the minutely ramified implication of the language in the historical experience of the people. In the passage from Mendele, the controlling metaphor is of course the biblical episode of the worship of the golden calf, and the way that is handled seems to me to make the passage finally different in kind from the anti-Semitic cartoons of money-counting Jews. Mendele’s use of the golden calf is properly homiletic, or midrashic, the biblical experience serving as a paradigm for how Jews through the ages have been prone to subvert their own highest values. Yet it is precisely in behalf of those values that Mendele conducts his attack, stigmatizing Jewish subservience to wealth as a despicable idolatry in which the sort of adulation appropriate to God alone—“Blessed be his glorious name!”—is given to undeserving man, all the people answering after the bootlickers of the rich in awe as the holy congregation of Israel once answered after the high priest when he pronounced the ineffable Name.

The idea of a people subverting its own values, even repeatedly, over the centuries, implies that those values still have some imperative claim on the people. The language itself embodies that claim in its allusive structures that point to a world of realized monotheistic devotion and lend themselves to ironic reversal directed against the godforsaking cult of man and self. In other words, what Mendele’s satire, however abrasive, suggests is a dynamic interplay between powerful forces of corruption and the commitment to decency within Jewish society. In truly denigrating representations of Jews, by contrast, the negative attributes are considered as fixed and absolute: Jews are crass and money-grubbing because that is a characteristic of the species, like the fact that moles live underground; all Jewish mothers smother their children with vulgarly possessive love because that is what they are by definition, as all marsupial mothers by definition carry their young in pouches. Mendele’s oeuvre does try to develop a generalized characterology of shtetl society in a manner not at all in keeping with the practices of modern fiction, but the very attempt to represent a whole society from within means that he can see in it a wide range of types, an interplay of opposing forces, even if the lopsided, precarious socioeconomic structure of the society repeatedly bred certain characteristic social ills. Unlike the entrapped Jew struggling resentfully to break away from his Jewish origins, or the detractor standing outside, Mendele sees Jewish social evils as process, not as static, unchanging fact. The struggle between Moses and the worshipers of the calf may be reenacted in every generation, but the essential idea of struggle is implicit in the biblical tale; even Reb Yakov began with some human feeling, his progressive dehumanization being set forth as the product of a process he allowed to occur.

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Obviously, no artistic representation of a manifold social reality can give us the whole truth about it, especially not when the art is satiric and thus bent on exposing what is most reprehensible in its subject. It could be, for example, that Norman Jewison’s film version of Fiddler on the Roof—at the opposite pole from Lehman’s Portnoy and, interestingly, made by a Gentile director—faithfully renders certain endearing qualities of shtetl life whose existence could not be guessed from reading Mendele. The cinematic Fiddler, I should say, is not nearly so sentimental as one might have expected and retains a surprising degree of Sholem Aleichem’s realism: there is a real pogrom (if a rather tame one), real poverty (though Tevye’s house does not look nearly like the hovel it should be), real erosion of traditional values. At the same time, one gets a strong, even convincing sense of the warmth and fellow-feeling, the distinctive humor, the family solidarity, that made inner survival possible under those dire circumstances and that for the most part lie outside the Juvenalian lash of a satirist like Mendele. What I would stress is that we cannot dispense with either kind of truth. The truth of celebration may justifiably kindle a warm glow in the breasts of Jewish audiences, but Jewish life was not altogether a poignant parade in technicolor dazzle accompanied by Isaac Stern on the violin, and so a harsher truth is also needed.

“People should be taught what is, not what should be.” Bruce’s simple formulation is apt, for one might note that there is a negative as well as a positive “should be,” denigration of any group tending to elevate its supposed negative qualities to the level of unchanging myth. Things as they are may often be bad enough, and their exposure could in fact open the floodgates to “destruction and despair.” When the exposure, however, is shrewdly accurate, when it is not made out of a sense of alienated withdrawal from the objects of the satire, the destruction effected is the kind on which perhaps something may still be built, for the tearing down is a moment of painful self-knowledge as well.

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Footnotes

1 “Sentimentalizing the Jews,” September 1965.

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