Jewish comedy is Jew comedy — it’s all about the J word

The word ‘Jew’ describes who we are — but it’s a signal of racism, as well as being the foundation of much of the self-deprecation that is the basis of traditional Jewish comedy

July 22, 2021 11:11

Some of you — possibly not that many, given that its box office receipts were a tad lower than, say, Toy Story 3 — may know that in 2010 I wrote a film, called The Infidel, about a Muslim who discovers that he was born a Jew. Even fewer of you will know that in 2014, with Erran Baron-Cohen, I wrote a musical based on that film, that ran for some time at Stratford Theatre Royal. One of the big numbers from that show was a song sung to Mahmud, the hero of the piece, at the point at which he discovers his biological identity, entitled You’re A Jew. The chorus went “You’re a Jew/Yes it’s true/Don’t get in a stew/You can always go into cabaret and revue/Yes I know it’s shit but get used to it/And don’t you try to fix/People saying you pull the strings/Behind the scenes of politics…”

A masterpiece, you’re thinking. Thank you. But one thing absolutely key to the funny of that song is that it’s called You’re A Jew, rather than You’re A Jewish Person. And not just because that would make it harder to scan. It’s because of all the complexity the word packs into that one short syllable.

Non-Jews, I’ve noticed recently, are confused and sometimes anxious about the coinage. A fellow comedian, Phil Wang, very much not someone who obsesses nervously over the linguistic labels of identity politics, sent me a Whatsapp message recently — because I seem to have become a kind of go-to person for this kind of info — asking me if using the word in his soon-to-be-published, and very funny, memoir about growing up mixed-race in Britain and Malaysia would be considered “OK”.

At some level this is strange. Because most discomfort around the nomenclature of minorities these days concerns slang. Most minorities have had to suffer being called negative epithets. Some have reclaimed these and turned round their meaning. But Jew — that is actually what we are. It’s not, or doesn’t on the surface seem to be, a word made up by the majority culture to denigrate us.

And yet: in my novel The Secret Purposes, a British woman is trying to translate a Nazi who uses the word Judinnen, and realises she can’t get the contemptuous tone right — either by using Jewesses, or Jewish women. Then she realises how, and writes it down: Jew women. Which more than does the trick. I can’t think of another word that operates like this: a word that simply removing the suffix completely reverses its moral compass. It is the same for any noun you attach to. A Jewish banker — A Jew banker. A Jewish boy — A Jew boy. The grammar reveals the racism. Because to say a man is a Jewish banker implies that the man is a banker who happens to be a Jew, but saying that the same man is a Jew banker implies that he is primarily and always will be a Jew, whatever his job — the word itself will not change because he and all the others that share his race will never change.

As this is not a slang word, it shows, I think, the intense — to coin a phrase — structural racism embedded in Judeo-Christian culture. Slang words for Jews, although those also exist, hardly need to be made up, because the deep negativity is baked into the word already.

But here’s where it gets really complex, because that’s what makes the word funny. If you watch any Jewish comedy, whether it be mine, or Mel Brooks, or Larry David, or Sarah Silverman — yes, I’m placing my name alongside them, get over it — the word crops up repeatedly. Jewish comedy — Jew comedy — is deeply self-deprecating, and part of that comes simply in the way many Jewish comedians land on the word: heavily, with irony, with knowing. With knowing, that is, the toxic power contained within, and owning it, laughing about it. A comedian I cannot remember the name of — my bad — once began his set “I blame the Jews. It’s quicker that way” and all that is in there, including, again the use of the single word: the joke would shrivel if he’d said “Jewish people.”

I told Phil Wang to go ahead and use it. He isn’t Jewish, but I’m not of the opinion that it’s a word that only Jews can use. I’m after a more general reclamation, a cleansing of the word by the whole culture. Not one iota of shame should surround the word, whoever it’s used by. You’re a Jew. Don’t get in a stew.

David Baddiel’s tour, Trolls: Not The Dolls, restarts in September,

July 22, 2021 11:11

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