Shouts and Murmurs (and grumbles): Why I am A-OK with Lena Dunham’s Jewish Boyfriend or Dog Quiz

First, it is important that you know this. I read Jordana Horn’s fair and thoughtful reaction to Lena Dunham’s New Yorker piece before I read the actual piece. The entire time I read it, I tlena dunhamhought, Right on! Yes! This! And was about to write as much on the comments thread when I took a step back and realized I had not yet read the piece and made up my own mind about it.

Way to go, me.

So, I read it, understanding that I was supposed to get really up in arms with each passing quiz question. I am a Jewess. I went to Brandeis, for G-d’s sake. (I hyphenate G-d.) I have a Jewish husband. Okay, I feel so-so about dogs. (Love them, over-personify them, like it when they wear glasses, but don’t want one of my own.)

Here is the thing. I was not offended. Lena Dunham loves her dog AND her boyfriend and it shows. This is not the historic Jew=dog equation everyone is so concerned about. The stereotyping itself is done with such tongue-in-cheek irreverence that it turns the stereotype on its head. Really. This is a loving piece written by a controversial person whose Judaism we are questioning for what reason exactly? Because she rubs us the wrong way, because she has tattoos, because she makes us itchy in our own skin when she plays pool naked on television?

This is what art is, and for sure this is what writing is—and comedy is art. Many others have said this already, but here I go: this is specifically what Jewish comedy is. (Everything Jackie Mason has ever said, comes to mind.) So, when we indict our own people, our own champions, our own artists and thinkers, frankly, for saying what is on their mind—we are, as New Yorker Editor-in-Chief, David Remnick has said, “howling in the wrong direction.” Over and over again, I hear people invoke the “what if it had been Dog or Black boyfriend?” What do they mean, what if? How about what happened when? Because it has been done. Over and over again, Chris Rock, Wanda Sykes, Leslie Jones, Tyler Perry, etc. have dug into their own experiences and come up with comic gold, at once setting us on edge and shifting our points of view as we slap our knees, snorting because it is funny and because their humor comes from a place of understanding. We laugh with them. Not at them.

My own husband has said, “well sure, she’s allowed to say whatever she wants.” Amen, Jewish husband! But then this: “I just don’t understand why she would want to put it out there.” We, as Jews, are terribly afraid that if we do ourselves in, others will jump on that particular bandwagon, that others will say, “look, even she thinks Jewish men are cheap mamas boys,” and that might be true. They might think that, but they also might not.

They might just think it’s funny and relatable and shouldn’t that be what we’re hoping for here? Everyone is so worried that the world might see us as dogs, when I think it is a lot more likely from the piece like this, that the world will see us as human. This points to the complicated relationship we have with our own self-image.

But let’s please face another fact. The people who hate us, the people who put signs on their windows, shutting us out, the kids who put swastikas on the Facebook pages of Jewish kids, they are—first of all, not reading Lena Dunham or the New Yorker, and second of all, not going anywhere.

It is better if we all come to terms with this. If someone hates Jews, it is not because they think we are cheap and love cream cheese. It is because they are haters and come from a long line of haters and are probably looking for someone to blame for their lot in life. For their unhappiness. For the rest of time, there will be people who hate Jews and it is better we and our kids know how to handle this matter and not spend time, talking as I did with my own children about the Lena Dunham controversy.

My curious ten-year-old daughter went through the list herself, taking the quiz literally: cream cheese=dog, overbearing mother=could go either way. We had an interesting conversation, in which I had to explain why the cream cheese thing might be a Jewish reference, but mostly she was confused and I had a hard time explaining it to her.

That’s when I realized there was nothing to this—if it isn’t obvious enough to explain to a child who wants desperately to understand what we’re all talking about, I’m making my own quiz.

Lena Dunham, or fourth grader: a quiz. (Hint: I love them both.)

“The Sort-Of Sequel to Knocked Up”

I am going to be 40 this year. And life’s been good to me so far. I have two children who have grown into the kind of people I most enjoy in the world, a kind and bright husband, and a career that is budding–bursting sometimes, but budding now with new ideas and new things that make me think positive thoughts about the future. I am lucky.
But 40, ah, that is something else. And a few months ago, I turned to my husband and said, “9 months til 40. I can either have a baby or a plan a party.” He looked up at me over his book and squeezed my hand and I smiled at him, grateful that he didn’t say no to either.

And the exchange, of course, got me thinking about what it means to have a new baby. What it feels like, what state of mind and being is required to go there in the first place, or again. When you give birth and especially for the first time, it is a lot of things—energizing at first and then quickly exhausting, frightening, maddening, and on and on the complicated list of new feelings goes. Achy and shocked maybe from the trials and exhilaration of labor and delivery, the flush of it all starts to wear off somewhere in between your arrival home and the arrival of your baby’s first fussy period.

But there are a few things it is not—relaxing, centering, confidence-boosting. These feelings are reserved for others, for other things usually—work, friendship, Cross-Fit. But for me, these are the very feelings that swept over me the first time I held my newest niece in the hospital room. And at that moment, I felt I was there for a reason. 
There is a groundedness that comes over me when I hold my newborn niece, when I am able to hold and handle her in ways her parents can’t yet. Her parents, who are so strong and calm and funny about the whole matter—so much more so than I was, by miles—have not yet found that easy, secure way a more seasoned caregiver handles a tiny baby. It takes experience, it takes your first child crying it out and your second rolling off the sofa at two weeks old, to fully realize and acknowledge in your soul, the resilience of these creatures. “They bounce,” my father once told me, hysterical about the aforementioned second child on the floor. And they do, but they won’t, because you get so good at it being with them—cradling them in one arm, gliding around the house, baby in one hand, one million other things in the other—making coffee, filling a Brita, flipping a pancake, tending to another child, squatting down to pick up one of one million things that have fallen on the floor that day.

The newborn period is so short, so very fleeting for the people on the outside of it, for the aunt. For the new parents, it is an eternity and it is dark and lonely in ways you forget about the way you forget about the tearing and trauma of childbirth the minute you are healed. In a few more weeks, when she is more sturdy, and when her parents’ shakiness has worn off into a competence they didn’t know they had, I’ll go back to what I was doing. But for now, for this bunch of weeks, this is what I can offer them. 5-ish months away from 40, this is the one thing I’ve earned that feels steady and exciting and enough. Being an aunt is something to behold—so much love and admiration and affection in both directions–easy giving, nothing at all given up.

I am lucky to have the dreamiest and most interesting collection of nieces–each of them with a brightness and wit that infects each and every FaceTime and real-time visit with something special and close. Lucky also to have a brand-new nephew that could move mountains with his thinking eyes. But being an aunt who is both far away enough from my own kids’ babyness and geographically nearby enough to be helpful in the very same ways a baby nurse is helpful but better—with sisterly love, deep understanding, and nowhere else to be—is the best gift any 39.7 year old mother of school-aged kids could ask for.

 So, yeah. I’m going with the party, but the babies are invited.