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 thought, 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.)