November 19, 2018

Did You Hear About the Book on Jewish Comedy?

In “Jewish Comedy: A Serious History” (Norton), author Jeremy Dauber makes it clear that — at least in his opinion — Jewish jokes are no laughing matter.

“The story of Jewish comedy was almost as massive in scope, as meaningful in substance, as Jewish history itself,” Dauber writes about what he discovered when he started teaching a course on Jewish humor at Columbia University, where he is the Atran Professor of Yiddish Language, Literature and Culture. “The story of Jewish comedy — what Jewish humor did and meant for the Jews at different times and places, as well as how, and why, it was so entertaining — is, if you tell it the right way, the story of American popular culture; it’s the story of Jewish civilization; it’s a guide to an essential aspect of human behavior.”

I hasten to add that the book is always lively and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. Dauber’s sources range from the Preacher of Dubno (an 18th-century Chasidic rabbi) to Sholem Aleichem (“the man who invented Tevye”), from Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce to Howard Stern and Amy Schumer. Indeed, although Dauber proposes that roots of Jewish comedy go all the way back to the Bible — he uses the Book of Esther as a touchstone of Jewish humor — he also argues that America is the place where Jewish humor reached its highest expression, with Yiddish literature its seedbed.

“As the lingua franca of Eastern European Jewry, Yiddish was the vehicle for the most somber eulogies as well as the earthiest jokes, lyrical poetry along with shaggy doggerel or comments about gastrointestinal distress,” he explains. After Jews carried Yiddish to America, it became an ethnic marker for American comics such as Lenny Bruce, who once described his banter as a mixture of “the jargon of the hipster, the argot of the underworld, and Yiddish.”

Dauber finds a weighty subtext in every variety of Jewish humor.

Most impressive of all is Dauber’s ability to create a sky chart in which every Jewish comedy star can be fixed in place, not only Jerry Lewis and Danny Kaye — both of whom were tummlers in the Borscht Belt — but also such highly sophisticated comics as Mike Nichols and Elaine May. He includes not only practitioners of low comedy like Mel Brooks and Sid Caesar but also such elevated humorists as Jules Feiffer and Joseph Heller. And he reminds us of fading or wholly forgotten personalities like Mickey Katz and Belle Barth, while pointing out that the Jewish founders of Mad magazine “created that seminal countercultural satire by framing it Jewishly, through Yiddishized parody.”

Dauber repudiates what he calls “the lachrymose theory of Jewish history” and reminds us that Jewish humor always has sustained Jewish life, even at the grimmest moments. Writing shortly after the end of World War II, Irving Kristol argued that “Jewish humor died with its humorists when the Nazis killed off the Jews of Eastern Europe.” But Dauber proves that Kristol was wrong. Larry David, Sarah Silverman and Sacha Baron Cohen, all of whom have dared to tell jokes about the Holocaust, “mark the position of confidence and strength Jews have in American culture,” he writes.

Dauber finds a weighty subtext in every variety of Jewish humor. He describes Philip Roth, for example, as “our great comic cosmic writer of the modern period, the one who understands that telling jokes is in no small part a way of trying to deal with staring into the void, of grappling with the crisis of meaning.” Even Tony Kushner’s play about AIDS and homosexuality, “Angels in America,” he insists, “has its share of Jewish comic elements: the stereotypical Jewish male jokes, the use of Yiddish as punch line, and the transformation of the God-arguing tradition into something mixing the sublime and the ridiculous.”

“Jewish Comedy: A Serious History” is intended to be a work of scholarship.  Dauber, however, never takes himself or his subject too seriously.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing  attorney, is the Jewish Journal’s book editor.

Gary v. Shuli

Shuli Egar

On the March 15, 2017 Stern Show there was a knock-down drag-out fight between producer Gary Dell’abate and show writer Shuli Egar that made my morning 30-minute commute seem like a minute and a half.

In a sentence, Gary blew up at Shuli for constantly nagging him to get on air with Howard. Shuli countered that Gary stonewalled Shuli’s initiative and ideas at the expense of the show. Howard, their boss, sat back like an emperor at the Coliseum and let the two fight almost to the verbal death.

Right afterwards I called my friend and fellow Stern Show fan Drew Kugler. Drew is an executive and leadership coach who works with tech and entertainment companies, non profits and Fortune 500 companies to foster better leadership and communication.   Needless to say, he had a take. Below is our talk, which we did via email:

Rob Eshman:   I guess my first question when I hear a fight like that is, isn’t that all for the show? As raw and funny and real as it seems, I can’t help think they must have more professional ways of hashing out employee conflicts off air.

Drew Kugler:  They’re just like most workplaces, except they’ve figured out a way to make a show out of it.  The place has its dysfunctions and its fears and Howard is astute and savvy enough to have put it out to the world for entertainment. And they’ve have really deep grooves of habits, some created and practiced for 30 years that make them really good at being screwed up.  Just like a lot of their listeners.  Find me a place where people professionally hash out ways for real conflict resolution.  You’ll have a rare find indeed.

RE:  So, let’s assume it was real.  Gary’s central complaint was that Shuli comes to him too much.  Shell’s argument is that Gary’s job is to field pitches and pick the best.  Who’s right?

DK:  Both were right. And wrong. Right because neither of them left the argument with any discernable change to work on.  So they each “prevailed.”

If, though, they had an iota of interest to improve things for, as Gary said on the Wrap Up Show, “real life in the office,” both of them and Howard failed miserably.  And Gary provided the sick topper at the end of Wrap Up: “I just want to act like nothing happened.”  In working relationships especially, that’s the prescription for a slow and painful downward spiral.  It’s the epitome of wrong.

RE:  I want to take Gary’s side for a second.  He’s been the producer for 30 years.  The show is great, maybe better than ever. He must know what he’s doing, right?

DK: For the most part, he, like Howard, Fred, and Robin  is a master at the vocation he’s deeply experienced at: producer of the show. He is integrally responsible for its success.  Does he know what he’s doing as the leader of the office? That’s a tougher one, especially when he got pushed.  His response was to call Shuli a “fuc*%&g c@nt.”  Great entertainment, but don’t you wonder how much all of the dysfunction aka ball breaking has taken  a genuine toll on him, let alone the rest of them?

RE:  So what would you tell Gary?

DK:  There’s nothing that Gary (or for that matter, any of them) does or says that signals he wants any advice.  That’s the mistake so many people make;  giving advice where it’s not asked for.  For all the years they’ve been working on delivering the experience to us listeners and getting such great results, why does he need advice?  He and the others seem to have a pretty singular goal: to deliver great radio.  As Gary said on Wrap Up, for years Howard has worked to balance great fighting with what it does to the office. Listening as we do, we know which is more important to them.  I have no advice for good radio fighting.  They have invested deeply in edgy. Probably too deeply to get out of their own way.

RE:  What about Shuli?  He is talented, funny, but clearly he has an agenda beyond just “helping the show.”  What does he need to hear?

DK:  It’s pretty simple, especially after hearing him goad Gary to let him have it.  He has a thick enough skin developed maybe from stand up and parenting, that he is happy to take whatever Gary puts in front of him as long as he gets to the end of the rainbow in the studio where his hero affirms he’s funny. Like Gary, he feels it’s working.  Professionals who feel that are the last people you want tell that they need to do things differently.  The only question he asked with a shred of real curiosity was to Howard about, did he think he was funny. Howard said yes. At that point, Shuli was done.

RE: It seems to me Howard, as the boss of these two, could have stepped in a lot sooner.

DK: Of course he could of.  But he was (at least seemingly) letting it play for both great radio and a chance (as many people take on a regular basis,) to avoid constructively dealing with the conflict.  By all indications he has offered listeners over the years, he hates it.  Even his verdict at the end affirmed things the way they were before the fight.  His goal never seemed to be to step in at all.  He offered three options rather than a healthy resolution: JD as resolver, Wendy as judge, and the “handcuff for 24 hours” game.  Again, all great radio. All leaving Howard exactly where he wanted to be; quietly conducting the battle.

RE: So Howard doesn’t really want to make things better between them?

DK: It depends.  Does he care enough to create some different conversations that for once would show people how to turn things like simple respect into a more productive working environment?  I admit I have no way of telling for sure, but ball busting, screaming,  fear, and belittling  as acceptable, encouraged behavior at their work has to cost something to the people who engage in it. How can it not?

RE: Howard does have an innate sense of which employee fights make good radio.   But do you think it’s healthy for the organization to literally air them for all to hear?

DK: Maybe it’s like pro wrestling.  Everyone knows it’s mostly fake, but look at the damage it does to the wrestlers.  Worse, this might not be fake.

RE:  When you are listening to a situation like the shuli-gary fight that you have spent your career dealing with, do you scream at the radio?

DK: Nope. My career, like being a father and being married, has taught me that very few things are worth screaming about. This certainly is not one of them.  It has also taught me the incredible wisdom of Hyman Roth in Godfather 2.  As he explained to Michael as to why he doesn’t get upset even when his friend got murdered: “This is the business we’ve chosen.”  Howard and the rest reap the benefits and pay the costs for the business they’ve chosen.



Lena Dunham: Howard Stern looks like a ‘cartoon of a Jewish female horse’

Once upon a time, shock jock Howard Stern said some not nice things on his radio show about Lena Dunham. Specifically that Dunham is “a little fat girl who kind of looks like Jonah Hill” who was “raping his eyes.”

It took a good year, but Dunham finally hit back. According to Page Six, the “Girls” creator took the stage at Stern’s 60th birthday party Friday night and spoke her mind.

“He asked me if I was intimidated because my boyfriend could be getting a much hotter piece of ass,” Dunham said after reminding the crowd of the Jonah Hill/raping lines. “At the time, I didn’t have the wherewithal to ask if you were intimidated because [your wife] Beth could definitely be with someone who doesn’t look like a cartoon of a Jewish female horse.”

Howard Stern and his wife Beth Ostrovsky Stern (Janet Mayer/PrPhotos)

Obviously, though, it was all in good fun. Dunham was at the guy’s birthday party, after all. Plus she closed out with some kind words, including that Stern is a “champion for women in the arts.”

What with all of this friendly banter, we can’t help but imagine Stern, an admitted “Girls” fan, guest starring on the HBO series, possibly as Ray’s dad. Just a thought, casting people.

Letters to the editor: North Korea, Howard Stern, nachas and more

North Korea’s Familiar Struggle

I am writing to give you a heartfelt thanks for the cover story on the human rights situation in North Korea (“Holocaust in the Hermit Kingdom,” Jan. 24). I was born in the United States, my parents are South Korean immigrants, and in my family tree, I have relatives who are in North Korea, most likely dead, maybe some are alive.  I first heard about Shin Dong-Hyuk several years ago and it was nice to get a recent update on him. Most importantly, I want to thank you for being a concerned citizen of the world, and for bringing this travesty to greater awareness. Thank you and please extend my thanks to the writer of the cover story as well. He did a wonderful job.

Yurie Ann Cho via e-mail 

I just had to respond to the excellent article “Auschwitz in North Korea” (Jan. 24). I first became aware of this situation when Shin Dong-hyuk was interviewed on “60 Minutes” a few years ago. Americans (Jews) should do whatever we can to try to put a stop to it.  There is an excellent book, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, called “The Orphan Master’s Son” by Adam Johnson. It is the hardest book I have ever read.  [It is] about a camp in North Korea, I highly recommend it. Thank you Jewish Journal for making your readers aware of the cruelties Kim Jong-un is inflicting on his people.

Barbara Polisky via e-mail 

For the Love of Stern

As a fellow Stern superfan, I am always overjoyed when I read your columns about Howard, especially because I know you “get it” (“Howard Stern’s Secret, and Ours,” Jan. 31), and so few who do “get it” are willing to step up, and even more so, you did it before it was popular to do so. I know that your work has been acknowledged on the Stern show and one thing I would give anything to see would be Don Buchwald or Gary granting you a one-on-one interview with Howard for the Jewish Journal.

Ron Rimmon via e-mail

Thank you so much for making me feel vindicated after so very long.

Forever, whenever I mentioned Howard Stern, how funny, brilliant, and great he is, I was met by rolling eyes and disapproving words, to the point that I stopped bringing his name up.

Yes, he is the greatest interviewer today.  And Jay Leno, who I once thought was the greatest stand-up comedian of our time, is the worst interviewer in the media.

And I always loved when someone called to complain about how “the Jews” rule the world and own the media. Howard would ask them, “Do you think anyone gave them anything?  Don’t you think they worked for it?  Instead of griping about it, why not go out and make something of yourself, and work to take it back.”  I loved that, even if he is only half-Jewish … (I’m joking.)

By the way, don’t forget Robin, who really makes the show work.

Marvin Bluth via e-mail

A Month Later, Praise Still Flowing … 

I loved your editorial on “Wolf of Wall Street” (“ ‘The Wolf’ and the Jewish Problem,” Jan. 3). You raised important questions that tie into the national debate of wealth inequality. Will you be publishing more on this subject? I certainly hope so. I’ve only started reading your paper in the last few years.  The range of discourse is unlike any other publication and I love that. It would interest me to read the opinions of your various columnists and others on the issue of wealth and responsibility. I’m not a member of a temple and haven’t found a rabbi to be in awe of since Jack Stern at Westchester Reform Temple, where I was confirmed. I’m now thinking the Jewish Journal can be my guide!

Bruce Green via e-mail 

Nature vs. Nachas

Thank you Dennis Prager for writing “What is Nachas?” for the Jewish Journal (Jan. 24). If parents get nachas from their children, the children realize it and it has a positive effect on them. Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber are not behaving in a way peaceful to their parents, but in accepting country music’s Pinnacle Award last November, Taylor Swift said, “My parents are not just crying, they are bawling at this point,” and Swift’s mother gave Swift’s father a hug on hearing her daughter say this.

A lack of nachas can have a snowballing effect on parents and children alike. Cyrus and Bieber and their faimilies figure to have rough sledding finding peace. The opposite of peace can be war and wars usually get nastier the longer they go on. The behavior of Cyrus and Bieber will probably worsen.

Joe Colville, Torrance


The correct contact information for Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills’ Jan. 10 Shabbat Shira,  the Shabbat of Song event (Calendar, Jan. 3),  is (310) 409-4634, 

Howard Stern’s secret, and ours

On my way to work every morning I listen to Howard Stern. I’ve been listening for 20 years.

In the beginning, I didn’t tell anyone. Polite society dismissed Stern as a crude, sexist, racist “shock jock.” Putting “shock jock” before someone’s name is an instant denigration, like saying “discount surgery.”

I came out of the closet several years ago, first by writing a column, then launching a blog, which I titled “Serious Stern.” The blog examined Stern’s social impact. Its name played off Stern’s move to the censorship-free world of Sirius satellite radio.  My blogging flagged. His show got better and better.

And in the years that followed, something remarkable happened: Howard Stern got respect. The New Yorker’s David Remnick and media critic Jeff Jarvis were the first to remark on how Stern wasn’t just changing radio but also our culture. Major celebrities lined up for a chance to speak with him. News cycles revolved around his on-air conversations with politicians.  

He is the single best interviewer in any media today, period. (One reason why? He’s the single best listener.)

The dirty secret of Hollywood, as comedian Rob Corddry said, is that everybody listens to Howard Stern. A generation has been raised on his brand of humor, and it is somehow heartening to hear them come into the studio, one after another, and tell Howard how much he has influenced them.

“Either you’re a Stern fan or you’re gonna be one,” the cultural critic Bob Lefsetz wrote, “or you just don’t know it yet.”

Howard turned 60 earlier this month. On Jan. 31, he will be celebrating with a birthday party/show at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York to be broadcast on the radio and for free on the Internet.

The guest list is pure Stern: On the one hand, yet-to-be-named politicians and cultural icons like David Letterman and Sarah Silverman. On the other, an assortment of freaks Stern has made regulars — Elephant Boy, Bobo, Marianne from Brooklyn. At press time, it’s unclear whether Eric the Midget will show up.  One can only hope.

How to explain Stern’s success, his victory over the forces of censorship, his move from the perennial outsider to the ultimate insider? 

The answer occurred to me while I was reading last week’s much-discussed New York Times Sunday Review piece, “What Drives Success,” by Jed Rubenfeld and Amy Chua. 

Why have some ethnic groups succeeded far beyond the norm in America, the authors asked, while others lagged behind?

“Jewish success is the most historically fraught and the most broad-based,” they wrote. “Although Jews make up only about 2 percent of the United States’ adult population, they account for a third of the current Supreme Court; over two-thirds of Tony Award-winning lyricists and composers; and about a third of American Nobel laureates.”

And, of course, Howard Stern.

Looking at Jews along with the Chinese, Mormons and Indians, Chua, who is Chinese-American, and Rubenfeld, her Jewish husband, pinpoint three traits that account for success.

“The first is a superiority complex — a deep-seated belief in their exceptionality,” they say. “The second appears to be the opposite — insecurity, a feeling that you or what you’ve done is not good enough. The third is impulse control.”

That, I saw immediately, explains it. Because the Stern show is essentially Howard talking for five hours a day, and his persona is to give us the most honest and revealing version of himself possible; the show is a living laboratory for this self-revelation. 

He is, on the one hand, the “King of All Media,” a title he took on as a goof but which betrays his sense of ego and mission. He is also constantly tearing away at himself, which explains his twice-weekly visits to his psychoanalyst. 

As he (or his shrink) might say, Stern is equal parts his mother’s total investment in her son’s glory and his father’s nagging doubts that the kid will amount to anything. He is the messiah, and the nebbish.

And, finally, Stern is driven. His loose, raw show hides the enormous planning he and his staff do every day. Improvisation, it turns out, takes a lot of preparation. He’s gotten up at 4 a.m. for 30 years — how’s that for impulse control?

It is no coincidence that the great Jewish comedians — Woody Allen, Larry David, Mel Brooks — all share these exact traits: massive self-loathing, tremendous self-assurance, unstoppable effort.

And there is one more thing about Stern, a trait Chua and Rubenfeld don’t mention: He didn’t run from his past, or try to hide it, or pretend to blend in. In fact, the more particular his humor, the more universal his appeal. The more he has embraced his identity, the more successful he has become.  

There’s a good lesson there for us all. Happy birthday, Howard. 

And thank you.

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

We are Carlos Danger

By last Wednesday, thanks to the magic of the Internet, I had seen as much of Anthony Weiner’s private parts as if I had spent the afternoon with him in the shvitz.

The former congressman and New York mayoral hopeful had sexted the pictures to his 23-year-old crush, Sydney Leathers, and she, either disillusioned by his newly crafted family guy image, or just aching to get at least as much airtime as a congressman’s genitals, posted them for all to see.  

By Thursday, I got the whole story from Leathers herself, when she sat for an interview with Howard Stern. For me the telling moment came when Stern asked Leathers why Weiner used the screen name “Carlos Danger.”

Leathers said she never asked; she just assumed it played into his fantasy that he was living some exotic, adventurous double life.

“I think he thought we were in some sexy telenovela together,” she said.

This has been one Wet Hot American Jewish Summer, with an I-405-worthy pileup of Jewish sex scandals.

Weiner is the most late-night worthy, but right behind him is San Diego Mayor “Headlock” Bob Filner, whose female co-workers and colleagues, past and present, have accused him of very inappropriate touching.

Oh, and Eliot “Black Sox” Spitzer is back. After he was caught consorting with expensive prostitutes in 2008, he shamefacedly resigned as governor of New York. Now he’s running for New York City comptroller.

Spitzer claims he is a new man — which would be much more believable if Weiner hadn’t claimed the same thing after he was caught, the first time.

In a New York Times essay this week, Jodi Kantor wondered with great portent how the Jewish community was facing all the salacious news. When Jews go down to scandal, it’s usually of the financial sort — Madoff, Abramoff, the Spinka rabbis, etc. Weiner, Filner and Spitzer — which sounds like the name of the world’s creepiest law firm — have shown that Jews can also excel in an area once reserved for hypocritical televangelists and deeply closeted congressmen. 

Kantor’s thesis is that the hyper-sexual Jew depicted in Philip Roth’s 1967 novel “Portnoy’s Complaint” has, finally, dybbuk-like, inhabited the bodies and upended the careers of our erstwhile political heroes.

“Nearly half a century after the publication of ‘Portnoy’s Complaint,’ politics is finally catching up with fiction,” Kantor wrote, “as libidinous, self-sabotaging politicians are causing grimaces among fellow Jews and retiring outdated cultural assumptions — that Jewish men make solid husbands and that sex scandals belong to others.”

That’s her thesis, and I think before it enters the culture as some kind of fact — this is The New York Times, after all — it bears some unpacking.

Yes, some Jews are indeed feeling embarrassed by the improprieties of their landsmen. That we would utter a small, collective “oy” really isn’t that much of a mystery if you think of Jews not as a religion or a race, but as a family. We take undue credit when one of our own achieves fame — 187 Jewish Nobel Prize winners and Scarlett Johansson! — and we feel unwarranted embarrassment when a Jew, like any human, stumbles. 

But let’s be honest, it’s a pretty low-grade sense of shame — mixed with a shpritz of schadenfreude. Weiner was a cocky congressman — his own brother once called him the d-word (look it up, this is a family newspaper) — so his comeuppance isn’t exactly heartbreaking.

And as to Kantor’s assertion that somehow these scandals now dispel the idea that Jewish men make solid husbands or are above sexual scandal — those are two very different points, and the response is, yes, Jewish men make solid husbands, and no, we’re not above sexual scandal. 

Statistically, Jewish marriages last longer, according to demographer and blogger Pini Herman.

In a study of divorcing couples, each partner was asked to list their religion at the time of the divorce. Jews married to Jews had the longest median time married before divorce, according to the study.

“That is a [one-]third longer marriage among couples where both were Jewish, who eventually filed for divorce,” Herman wrote. 

Of course, that might just suggest that Jews suffer longer in bad marriages than others — but, hey, we try.

As for sex, Roth’s Portnoy merely gave free voice to the desires  that every American male, Jewish and not, secretly harbors.

“The perfect couple,” mused Portnoy about a lover, “she puts the id back in yid, I put the oy back in goy.”

That cri de crotch has been echoed by successive generations of Jewish entertainers, from Woody Allen to Howard Stern to Sarah Silverman to Lena Dunham, all of whom have unleashed their libidos through their art and, in the process, made what was dark, secret and forbidden the stuff of stand-up and sitcoms. The difference between the Jewish libido and the gentile one is we talk about ours.   

So, yes Ms. Kantor, like all men, every Jewish man fantasizes, at one time or another, about being a seductive man of mystery — Carlos Danger! — in a sexy tryst. But the vast majority of us know we do much better to take that fantasy and turn it into comedy — before our lives become the punch line.

Seth MacFarlane: Not an anti-Semite

No one sends out press releases to announce that something is not anti-semitic. 

That’s why this morning’s media is full of reports that host Seth MacFarlane’s Oscar performance last night was just shy of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s U.N. speech. 

The Anti-Defamation League was first out of the gate, calling MacFarlane, “offensive and not remotely funny” — which in and of itself is funny, the idea that the ADL is not just the arbiter of anti-semitism, but of humor.

Then came a press release from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, seeing the ADL’s umbrage and raising it to world-historical levels.

“It is unfortunate that at a time when anti-Semitism is so prevalent throughout the world,” said the Center, “that Seth MacFarlane used the pulpit of the Oscars, before an audience of more than a billion people to contribute to the myth that Jews own Hollywood.”

[ANOTHER TAKE: Oscars win awards for sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and racism]

I found these reactions more annoying than MacFarlane’s comments, which varied from the very funny to the remotely funny, but never came close to anti-semitism. 

Seth MacFarlane was joking.  He was poking fun.   He was mocking the widespread understanding that Jews are disproportionately represented in the entertainment business.  This fact comes as a shock to exactly no one, and the idea that joking about it “feeds” anti-semitism misunderstands both the nature of humor and of anti-semitism.

One thing humor does well, even better than press releases, is difuse prejudice.  It does that through mockery, exaggeration and sometimes by just bringing prejudice to light.  That explains everything from Charlie Chaplain in “The Great Dictator” to Sascha Barron Cohen’s character of Borat,  who got hundreds of Arizonans at a rodeo to sing the “famous” Kazhakstan folksong, “Throw the Jew Down the Well.”   Cohen wasn’t out to whip up Jew-hatred, he was out to expose human — hmm, what’s the word? — stupidity.

MacFarlane doesn’t really believe you have to change your name or give to Israel to make it in Hollywood, he was riffing on the simplistic belief that that’s all it takes.

Billy Crystal could make a dozen Jewish references at the Oscars and no one would do anything but kvell. Granted, MacFarlane’s humor is more in-your-face — but it goes nowhere that Crystal, or Adam Sandler in his “Chanuka Song,” or Lenny Bruce in his Jewish/Gentile rift, or a hundred other comedians, haven’t gone before.

So why the outrage?  Maybe because against the backdrop of increasing anti-semitism in Europe and elsewhere, Jews are extra sensitive.  Maybe because an older generation of Jews is unfamiliar with a newer brand of Family Guy/South Park humor.  Even Amy Davidson, writing on the New Yorker blog, took offense — this from a magazine whose editor David Remnick once wrote a much-deserved, flattering profile of Howard Stern.  Stern's brand of satire paved the way for comedians like MacFarlane.   

Or maybe the outrage arises because Jews are still uncomfortable with the notion of being powerful.   But here's the fact: Jews are disproportionately represented in Hollywood.   The Jewish state has over 200 nuclear weapons and a hegemony of power in the Middle East. Jews are also disproportionately represented in government, finance, law, publishing and medicine.   Only Jews can read these factual statements and think, Oy!  I often wonder if our instinct to cringe and keep quiet, to not publicly own our power, as a self-help guru might put it, is also a way of avoiding having to think about what the responsibilities of that power are, what our true potential is, and what it means to be both Jewish and powerful.  

The ADL and the Simon Wiesenthal Center not only miss the humor, they are missing the opportunity.  MacFarlane’s jokes, like all good comedy can get people thinking, can open a conversation:  Why are Jews so prevalent in Hollywood?  How does their Jewish identity inform their creative choices?   How would Hollywood look if it were composed, disproportionately, of WASPs, or Thais, or anti-semites?

Hollywood is one of the Jews' greatest gifts to the world — why else would 2 billion people tune in to see “Lincoln” get robbed of Best Picture?   There is nothing to hide, and plenty to joke about.

Rob Eshman is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of the Jewish Journal. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

My lunch with Lefsetz

Do you know about Bob Lefsetz? 

He is a middle-age guru living in Santa Monica.  For 25 years, he’s been commenting on our culture in an idiosyncratic independent newsletter — first in hard copy, then in an e-mail newsletter and now in an online blog. 

I first heard of him through Howard Stern, who often reads aloud from The Lefsetz Letter on air. Stern is one of the most astute satirists and social commentators this country has ever produced, so I figured if he’s paying attention to Lefsetz, I should, too.

I started subscribing to Lefsetz’s newsletter, and now, every day, I get a concise essay in my in-box that helps me figure out where the world is going.

We all need that help. The old ways of communicating are irrevocably broken.  We all now music, radio, movies and newspapers will never be the same.  But what is also clear is that the digital revolution is changing the ways we organize politically—see Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street—and the way we organize in faith communities.

This week The New York Times reported that the most “Liked” page on Facebook is called the Jesus Daily, run by a diet doctor and visited by some 10 million people.  In an age when Jesus (or Moses) can pop into your in box before breakfast, when more than 43 million people on Facebook are fans of at least one page categorized as religious, the rules of how we transmit tradition are as ripe for rewriting as the rules for making it in the music business.

“It’s a brand new game,” Lefsetz wrote recently. “The Internet is not going away, we are not going back to three networks and no cable. There will only be more entertainment options. You can reach everybody, but it’s almost impossible to get them to pay attention. How do you get them to pay attention? By not doing it the same way everybody else does. By reinventing yourself.”

The wisdom of this struck me as hard-won and provocative — and true. I wanted to meet Lefsetz, but figured he lived in some kind of blogger’s lair in Manhattan. Then I Googled and found out Bob Lefsetz lives two miles from me, in Santa Monica.

When I invited him to lunch, he began by telling me he’s not that Jewish.

It happens all the time: I want to interview someone, and they feel they need to apologize for their level of religious observance.

I told Bob Lefsetz not to worry. All he had to do was talk, and to leave the Jewish up to me.

So we met in Brentwood.

Lefsetz is pushing 60, balding — imagine if Wallace Shawn were unafraid to seem “too Jewish.” He grew up in Connecticut, went to Middlebury College, then law school and did time as a music industry executive. He started the newsletter in 1986, and that’s where he found his niche: as insider/outsider, standing apart from the scrum, pouring his passion for music and culture into figuring out how it works best.

“The pros make it look easy,” writes Lefsetz in a typical post. “But don’t believe it is. Even if you could hit the basket, try doing it during the playoffs, like Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant. They don’t choke under pressure, they’re even better in competition!”

Or this, from Lefetz’s advice to young musicians: “You’ve got to want it. It’s got to permeate every cell in your body. Because it’s just that hard to make it. The pitfalls are plenty. The setbacks are huge. The abuse is heaped upon you. You must have an inner light that keeps you going no matter what.”

Passion is the bottom line for Lefsetz — he admires it in others’ work, understands it as essential to success and embodies it when he speaks. Our interview took place at Mach speed, with Lefsetz stressing every sentence, veering into tangents and into cul-de-sacs, launching into arias.

We started talking about the impact of the Internet — I think — and he practically jumped across the table.

“This is why the Web is revolutionary!” he said. “There’s a Web site for every topic known to man. There’s someone who LIVES that. They are a bigger expert than anyone in the mainstream media. The mainstream media are generalists. In today’s era, when anybody can reach anybody, it’s an era of TRUTH.”

I’m not exactly sure what the Internet means, either. But, I asked Lefsetz, since we seem to be at a point where we can communicate anything to anyone, how do we do it effectively; how do we do it successfully?

Lefsetz’s metaphor-of-choice is the music industry, which I know nothing about, but his lessons are universal, apropos to all of us who are trying to get a message across. 

“The major labels were successful, because they had a monopoly,” he said. “In 1965, when the Stones released ‘Satisfaction,’ there’s nobody who didn’t know it. Now you don’t have to listen to anything you don’t want. 

“Now everybody gets to play,” he said. “But the stuff doesn’t sell. … So how do I reach more people? That’s the question. We’ve developed a culture that says everyone is entitled to a certain level of success. That’s just not true. The public decides. There’s less and less money in the niche … but it’s really about emotional connection, and that’s the stories you tell.”

Lefsetz took a breath, then raised his voice again.

“All that matters is emotional connection.”

I realized, then, that even though Lefsetz traffics in cultural ephemera — the 1’s and 0’s that make up digital music and media — he is keyed in to enduring, lasting values. Here’s this self-proclaimed barely-a-Jew whose newsletter is a kind of daily Midrash—a commentary on what really matters, amid all the noise and verbiage that doesn’t.

As I pondered my theory, Lefsetz took a bite of his burger, then started to explain Lefsetz.

“I had two peak experiences in my life,” he said.  “One I won’t mention. The other was going to summer camp. Camp Laurelwood in East Madison, run by the New Haven Jewish Community Center. My years there were one of the two peaks of my life — 99.8 percent of the kids were Jews, with a commonality of values. What I learned was you can question and still be a Member of the Tribe. I don’t want to be outside the world. But you can question and still be a part of it. That’s my philosophy of life.”

It’s fitting that Lefsetz’s remaining strong tribal connection is the annual High Holiday on Live365 Internet Radio from Temple Emanu-el in New York.  He likes his religion like he likes his music—digitally.

Passion, truth, persistence. Courage, loyalty and curiosity —  those are the truths The Lefsetz Letter illustrates time and again. Yes, it’s a new, new world.  But the only way to navigate it well is with the old values.

“We live in an era of assimilation,” Lefsetz told me. “But we also live in an era when everything our parents said was true.”

A truncated and far less adequate version of this column appeared in the 11/3/11 print edition of The Jewish Journal.

Emily Stern — Howard Stern’s daughter — on stage and off

Emily Stern is 6 feet tall and resembles her father, radio icon Howard Stern, but she does not aspire to a career in radio.

She says her interests lie in her spiritual and artistic endeavors: attending the Romemu (Jewish Renewal) synagogue and its Red Tent women's group in Manhattan; integrating Jewish practice into the Transcendental Meditation her entire family has practiced since she was young; studying the use of Balinese masks to create theater; performing and recording her original songs; and, currently, playing the lead in an offbeat science fiction rock musical, “Earth Sucks,” a meditation on global harmony.

In the musical — which runs Oct. 4-Nov. 2 at Art/Works Theatre in Hollywood — Stern, 25, plays Echo, an Earthling who falls in love with a fugitive alien and uses her music to save civilization from an evil pop diva. All the while, the character struggles with her relationship with her distant, if well-meaning, father.

“The element I like most is that the character comes to see things differently, and feels she has a voice and a place through her music,” Stern said during lunch. “And of course the relationship between the father and daughter … the elements of healing and wholeness that come through.” Stern's personal journey, in some ways, echoes that of her character.

She said she identifies with stories of transformation and revelation, in part, because she was raised in an atmosphere of “extreme concealment … a lot of things were private because it was the public eye.”

Stern experienced her father as a loving, protective parent; she says she was not explicitly forbidden from tuning in to his program (famous for its naked women and other outrageous scenarios).

“But there was the sense of 'You wouldn't want to listen; it's not your father.'” The suggestion was that Stern's public persona was an act, and that the real Howard Stern was an intensely private family man devoted to his then-wife, Allison, and three daughters.

When Emily secretly watched the radio show's late-night TV broadcast, she was confused by her father's high-energy, improvisational performance.

“I remember being like, 'That isn't my dad.  Who is this?' Then once I reached the age when it was maybe acceptable to listen … it really just wasn't what I was interested in, in seeing my dad that way, and also the content.”

As a child, Emily first performed in the choir at her Reform temple in Roslyn, N.Y., where she sang at children's services and Jewish camp. She continued to perform in high school; but studying acting at New York University did not mesh well with her intuitive approach to theater, she said.

She further felt lost then, she said, because her parents had recently divorced: “All the time there was my dad on the radio with women, doing whatever, I had such a strong knowingness and belief in my parents' marriage,” she said. “The loss of that bond between mother and father — I can't tell you how shattering that was.”

Asked if she foresaw the divorce, the actress responded, “Living this character on the radio, there's only so much you can say, 'It's not me' before you embody it — I think that's a bit of what happened.” She said she has come to understand that her father has been in the process of “integrating all selves,” which is important for every person to do.

After graduating from NYU, however, Stern said she “was spiritually at a point of real distress.” Besides the loss of her family life — including the celebration of Jewish holidays with all her grandparents — she felt artistically uninspired until she was cast in the play “Kabbalah,” at the Jewish Theatre of New York. The religious satire touched on celebrity obsession with Jewish mysticism, and Stern was cast as the female lead, pop superstar Madonna. Since the play involved revelation, the cast was required to appear nude at the end of the show.

Despite her father's warnings that the press would have a field day if Howard Stern's daughter performed naked, she said she accepted the role because she loved the production. Then “Kabbalah” received a terrible review in The New York Times and nude pictures of her surfaced on the Web. Emily said the director broke his promise to her by using her image and singling her out as Howard Stern's daughter for promotional purposes. She quit the show, the director spoke out against her in the press and Howard Stern's attorneys threatened to file a lawsuit in order to stop the director from continuing to trash her, she said.

At the time, her father said the nudity was not the issue: “[Emily] made a deal with a guy, and he betrayed her,” he told Larry King according to a CNN transcript, adding “In a kid trying to find her own identity, it's got to be rough. She's got a father who's very infamous … And I think it would be difficult to figure out who you are in life and all of that. And I think she has done a beautiful job of it.”

Emily Stern is aware that in Los Angeles the spotlight will again be on her as Howard Stern's daughter; cruel remarks have already appeared on at least one Web site.

But, she said, “I don't necessarily have to be an image of any person. I can be a human being and that's a good thing…. That's huge for me to feel.”

Click here to read Emily Stern's blog.
earth sucks emily stern

Lucas Revolution and Emily Stern in 'Earth Sucks'

Roseanne’s Personal Ad

Actress and talk-show queen Roseanne is looking for a few good Jewish men.

Not for herself, but for her three unmarried daughters, the thrice-married and divorced actress says.

Roseanne’s pitch, delivered on her syndicated talk show and later on Howard Stern’s morning radio show, runs verbatim, as follows:

“Are you a normal guy? Are you a single, Jewish, successful, marriage-minded male who is free of any criminal record? Do you have most of your teeth? If you have answered yes to all these questions and you are not some money-sucking leech, then I have the perfect mate for you.

“I am looking for three normal, healthy, Jewish, single men who are psychologically sound and mentally stable and do not smoke. I have three, count ’em, three, beautiful, single daughters who someday I would like to see married and give me some grandchildren. But with the losers they keep bringing home, that doesn’t seem likely.

“If you like girls who never get up, always complain and who are lazy and smoke, I’ve got the girl for you. I require that you have a mother who you think I will get along with, and, since the objective is grandchildren, your mother must understand that I am the alpha-grandmother.

“I am asking you out there if you think you have what it takes to date one of my daughters. Please make a videotape of five minutes or less, telling me why you think I should let you date one of my beauties. Three lucky victims, I mean winners, will be chosen, and we will fly you out here to go on a date with my daughters. Good Luck!”

This talking matrimonial ad may be just a bit unorthodox, but it’s for real, affirms Roseanne’s publicist, Matt Labov. There actually are three single daughters — namely, Brandi, 27; Jessica, 23; and Jennifer, 22.

Applicants from outside the United States are welcome. “‘The Roseanne Show’ runs in 30 countries, so any man can enter, as long as he’s Jewish,” says Labov.

So far, responses have been limited. “I guess a lot of the guys are shy,” says Labov.

Interested nice Jewish boys are invited to mail their videotapes to Date My Daughters, The Roseanne Show, P.O. Box 48558, Los Angeles, CA 90048. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor