Nice warm side of stereotyping

By Gerald Jacobs, July 16, 2012

Are Jews more prone to generalisation than any other people? (Think about it, it's a trick question.) Even to consider this is to enter a minefield. "Typically Jewish", we say, fondly, of the man or woman who answers a question with another question. And the question he or she answers with is also a humorously shared point of reference, whether by intonation ("What am I, a mind-reader?") or content ("Does the dinner really start at seven o'clock or is that a Jewish seven o'clock?")

But, of course, "typically Jewish" is a phrase that issues from foul and bigoted mouths, too. It is the thin end of the wedge of persecution. Consequently, many Jews are as uneasy with the positive stereotype ("Jews are clever") as they are with the negative ("Jews are mean").

This is logical and proper but it surely goes against human nature to suppress the satisfaction that inevitably flows from personal, familial or even tribal success. Isn't it a little odd to regard the high proportion of Jewish Nobel laureates as mere coincidence, or Mark Spitz as just another champion swimmer (even though his Olympic triumph nails a negative stereotype: the non-athletic Jew)?

Such questions have been brought on this week by the 75th anniversary of the death of George Gershwin, at the young age of 38. Strangely enough, this took me back to my one and only visit to Germany, in the 1990s.

It was no ordinary trip. I was one of a party of journalists of various nationalities being taken to a number of cities by the German authorities to show how the country was developing in the wake of reunification. The focus was on Berlin, where massive rebuilding was under way and our hosts were not shy of facing up to their nation's hideous 20th-century history.

The visit concluded in Munich, a short ride away from Dachau. On our last night, we were taken to see the original American cast's touring performance of George and Ira Gershwin's Crazy For You. At the close, the audience rose in a glorious, collective roar of acclamation. For me, this represented a triumphant riposte by two Jewish brothers to a place where, a few short decades earlier, the very wind had carried the smell of slaughter.

If any proof were needed, this would have convinced me that it is natural to be proud of Jews as Jews (and, concomitantly, to be ashamed of Jews as Jews - for Jews, too, are not exempt from ignorance, bigotry and other failings).

"Natural" because instinctive rather than prescriptive, derived from emotion rather than instruction. Reflective of the elemental, elusive character of Jewishness, never mind what the rabbis say. Rabbis like the American TV preacher, Daniel Lapin, who is unhappy with such definitions as "cultural" or "secular" Jew, or - especially - "a Woody Allen type of Jew".

According to Rabbi Lapin, Woody Allen "defames Jews", portraying them - rabbis included - as "loathsome liars, desperate psychotics, pathetic perverts, and ridiculously lecherous losers".

Rabbi Lapin is a naturalised American citizen, having been born in South Africa. He therefore exemplifies the great tapestry of his adopted land, a tapestry in which many Jewish threads are prominent, ranging from the dark shades of Meyer Lansky and Bernie Madoff to the bright colours of George Gershwin and Woody Allen. In that enormous melting pot, to take pride in some and shame in others is not to yield to stereotyping generalisation but to defy it.

So let me bring together the latter of the above-named pairings to rebut Rabbi Lapin. In Manhattan, Woody Allen uses Gershwin's evocative Rhapsody in Blue to create a touchingly comedic tribute to a city - New York - and its people. The film's memorable opening sequence, far from defaming Jews, irresistibly induces the sublime reminder that the two geniuses responsible for it are both Jewish. It's a good feeling. It's naches.

Last updated: 11:45am, July 16 2012