DECEMBER 15, 2019
RACISTS AND COMICS share a lot of material: stereotypes, misapprehensions, and a sense of grievance at the status quo. As Dave Chappelle pointed out explicitly in a recent Netflix special, and as many current comedians can tell you to their cost, there’s a thin line between laughing at a specific person and bitterly mocking an entire people. And sometimes, depending on the audience and the topic, that line can move as you approach it.
In this context, it was a strange experience to read the new book by Dave Barry, Adam Mansbach, and Alan Zweibel, A Field Guide to the Jewish People. Just a few years ago, I would have seen the book as a piece of harmless fun, with my only real complaint being that the jokes about fulfilling the publisher’s mandated word count rang a little too true. But today, a year after the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh, and with an administration in Washington that often traffics in the most arrant antisemitism, a book that pokes fun at the Jews and their self-described oddities prompts me to recall a familiar phrase: “Is this good for the Jews?” As an editor of Jewish media, I am constantly haunted by this refrain. And, in this case, it’s not a trivial question. Power is important. Situation is important.
In 2008, when Mansbach published his well-regarded novel The End of the Jews (a couple of years before he wrote the killer lampoon of kids books, Go the F**k to Sleep), you would have been shunned as a nihilistic dystopian had you suggested that, by 2019, Jews or Latinos might be under threat from the American government. When Barry, the atheist son and grandson of Presbyterian ministers, won a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1988, he might have been surprised to learn that, 30 years later, he would have a Jewish wife and a bat-mitzvahed daughter, and would have been the “sandek or baby-holder, for the bris [circumcision] of [his] grandson Dylan.” And when Zweibel was writing for the original Saturday Night Live, he would have presumably been bemused by the idea that, in his 70th year, he would be writing books of rabbi jokes with a priest’s son.
But that’s where we are. Depending on whom the “we” refers to.
In Field Guide, Barry, Mansbach, and Zweibel follow the success of their amusing Passover book For This We Left Egypt? (2017) with a new funny-Jew title. As a comparison of the subtitles suggests, “Who they are, where they come from, what to feed them, what they have against foreskins, how come they carry each other around on chairs, why they fled Egypt by running straight to a large body of water and much more. Maybe too much more,” has a broader aim than “A Passover Haggadah for Jews and Those Who Love Them.” Not just the quirks of Passover, but the peculiarities of an entire people, history, and culture, are now up for commentary. The new title, you will notice, also moves, rhetorically, from “We” to “They.”
For engaged Jews like myself who are well versed in the facts of normative American Judaism, Field Guide is a funny book, based on surprisingly solid research. It only slightly annoys by its deployment of false assumptions to get to jokes. But reading the title and the introduction — “We hope you like it. More important, we hope you paid for it” — made me uneasy. This jokey guide to Jews raises important questions: Who are the authors? What is the tone? Who is the intended audience?
There’s an inbuilt idea to any Field Guide — defined by Merriam-Webster as “an illustrated manual for identifying natural objects, flora, or fauna in nature” — that the subject is part of natural history. Yes, the title is obviously a joke about how to identify free-roaming Jews as seen in nature, but again it raises a question of the intended audience. Who cares enough about the Jews to read a whole joke book surveying their history and culture (well, that of mostly Ashkenazi American Jews)? Either you care enough because you are already an engaged Jew, or you care enough to learn more about them (and there is lots to learn from Field Guide) and would rather learn through humor, leavened with some comic untruth, than sift through an accurate but dry history.
You’d have to bet that there are more of the former prospective readers than the latter. According to a 2013 Pew survey, a full 70 percent of the United States’s Jews attend Seders, while only 23 percent attend synagogue regularly. Once you include the number of non-Jews who also attend Seders, in order to bulk up the initial figure, and then take regular synagogue attendance as a rough proxy for being Jewishly literate enough to be interested in Field Guide, the change in audience between the Haggadah and its sequel becomes drastic. It’s much smaller, more engaged (hence, perhaps, all the research), and, like the authors, older and maler.
The book’s opening contains a lot of goofing off across a number of small set pieces: dedications, foreword, introduction, prologue. These are designed to help the three authors establish a rapport and a public relationship: Mansbach and Barry display mutual appreciation across the generations and a fondness for Zweibel as an incompetent doofus who doesn’t fit in or pull his weight, and who moreover has an absurd appearance — “Alan is very sensitive about the size of his head, which is enormous, like a UPS truck with ears. The less said about it the better, is my feeling. And by ‘it,’ I mean ‘Alan’s gigantic head.’”
But all this stop-starting, in-joking, adducing of invented rabbis, and use of hoary old stereotypes doesn’t establish an effective tone. A better option might have been to move to the front a question-and-answer session included at the end of the book, which does a better job of back-and-forth repartee. This would certainly have been preferable to starting off with three full pages of “Common Biblical Names,” along with their putative translated “Meaning[s]” — e.g., “Queenie: Looks kind of like that girl in that movie; Quentin: Has a podcast; Quinn: Fraught; Richard: Self-cleaning oven.”
So, given that the book is not pegged to a specific occasion like Passover and, despite its title, features plenty of knowing winks to a Jewish audience, what do we do when we encounter a rupture of this insider shtick? Near the beginning, just before the list of names, there is a section called “What Are the Different Types of Jews?” Illustrated by three kinds of Jewish men (Jews in this book are, by default, men), it distinguishes among Jews based on a joke about how they would treat this conundrum: “So, let us say that it is Saturday, and lying on a sidewalk in front of a synagogue is a delicious broiled pork chop. […] Here is how, according to the tenets of their respective denominations, each type would behave.”
In this list, the authors, startlingly, include Messianic Jews as if they were just any other denomination. Yes, there are strands of Messianism in the ultra-Orthodox Chabad sect, but “would pick up the pork chop with a pair of tongs […] [to] mail […] to a Gentile friend on Monday morning” is neither worth the gag nor the ensuing discussion of those Lubavitchers who believe the Rebbe was the Messiah. It’s not clear why this joke was included when there is barely a single Jew in any of the other denominations listed who would accept as Jewish anyone who believes in the divinity of Jesus. But I guess that the Field Guide would not be an authentic American Jewish artifact if it didn’t provide sufficient opportunities to kvetch.
In short, a perfect Hanukkah gift.
Dan Friedman is the director of content and communications at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. He is also a contributing editor to 8by8Mag.com and the author of an ebook about 1980s rock group Tears for Fears.