How do you tell a “Jew” joke without being offensive? As Jews, the answer may lie in the way we react to the joke’s telling. But explaining that reaction — even to each other — is another matter. Then try explaining it to a non-Jew. As relatively prominent Jewish performers, we’ve recently found ourselves embroiled in very public conversations around this subject.
In a recent live-streamed online pun show, Midlands-based non-Jewish comedian Lovdev Barpaga told a “joke” ending with the slur “stupid Jew”. The joke wasn’t about Jewish people, the punchline simply needed to rhyme with “blue” — literally every other word was available, but he chose “Jew”, and for some reason added the adjective “stupid”.
In the footage, the other acts are visibly shocked and struggle for a response. The recording has since been taken down by the organisers, and Barpaga made an apology: “I did a highly offensive, inappropriate line… without even thinking about what I said on air.”
This initially received support from industry peers commenting that, despite not having watched the show, they were sure it wasn’t that bad / he didn’t mean it in that way / it’s an easy mistake / CAN’T THOSE SNOWFLAKES TAKE A JOKE? Even when presented with the full context, some of his defenders chose not to back down. Faced with the facts, they had no problem with the phrase “stupid Jew”.
Throughout the next few days a number of social media posts continued the debate, predominantly criticising the negative reaction of the Jewish performers.
These threads and a great many of their comments were arguably more problematic than the original triggering incident, including antisemitic tropes about money and privilege.
The dominant aspect seemed to be that we had all over-reacted to hearing the word “Jew” (the “stupid” was silent it seems) and this had allowed members of our industry to vent their feelings on the subject.
There are ongoing debates about the potency of the word “Jew”. In the Washington Post, American Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies Sarah Bunin Benor suggested: “A good tell is if the word ‘Jew’, a noun, is used as an adjective or a verb.” Bizarrely, “to Jew” can be found in some dictionaries, meaning “to beat down on price”.
Clearly the J-word is nowhere near as toxic as the N- or P-words. When rapper Kendrick Lamar performed in Alabama in 2018, he invited a white fan onstage to sing his hit M.A.A.D. City which contains the N-word 21 times.
Having sung that word three times the audience grew hostile and Lamar stopped the show, telling the fan to sing the tune again but saying “bleep” instead of the racial slur. He later explained that it was about reclaiming the term for black people, not the white community.
It’s an interesting choice to write lyrics that include words you’re not comfortable with every fan singing, but it’s a reminder that music is an artistic form of self-expression.
Comedy is as well, though by comparison it’s a more passive audience experience. Even our own mothers are unlikely to be able to quote our entire club sets. Which is a shame, as we’ve worked tirelessly to develop our material, thinking about the right words to use in each joke. For instance, Philip talks on stage about performing comedy around the UK and Googling Jews wherever he finds himself.
He experimented saying “Googling Jewish people” but this was never as funny when revealing his punchline that Googling Jews could become known as “Jewgling”.
Content can create levels of impact on a spectrum from laughter to distress, but intent is important too. Inspired by the famous Taxi Driver quote, we named our podcast Jew Talkin’ To Me?. Here “Jew” is a friendly, innocent play on words.
More controversial was Sacha Baron Cohen who, as his screen character Borat, famously sings: “Throw the Jew down the well.”
A deeper look reveals that this is a device to shine a light on the reactions of people hearing the song. It’s Gogglebox antisemitism.
Rachel’s solo show, It’s No Job For a Nice Jewish Girl, includes six “Jews”, whereas Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice contains 76.
Rachel feels hers convey pride in her identity, reclaiming the word from its pejorative use (much like Lamar), while Shakespeare’s is often felt to transform what originated as a comedy into an antisemitic tragedy.
Comedians of all faiths have told jokes using “Jew” or “Jewish”. US comic Jerry Seinfeld even refers to these as “Jew jokes”.
Often these are innocuous but for some, hearing those terms used, even by Jews, can have the same effect as the N- or P-words. That said, no one is seriously suggesting that we reframe it as the “J-word”.
But if we aren’t clear ourselves, how can we expect a comedian of different heritage to know what’s kosher?
We can choose to use the words “Jew” or “Jewish” intentionally and interchangeably, but they don’t have the same privilege. They simply need to be more Jew-dicious.
Rachel Creeger and Philip Simon are co-hosts of “Jew Talkin’ To Me?” podcast. Series 3 launches on Friday 9 April