What I admire most about the Jewish people is their capacity for self-examination. I believe this is one of the reasons why Jews generally are a vibrant, intelligent and progressive people. Christendom has benefited from this Jewish trait for self-examination. Christianity whether of the Protestant ilk or the Catholic persuasion has adopted stringent self-examination in practice and in some sects have formalized it in sacrament. The figure who embodies this trait for self-examination is the Jewish prophet. The modern popular notion of the prophet’s function is his capacity to foretell certain future events. This is only partly accurate. The office of the prophet is to act as the conscience of the Jewish people. Last November, in his comedy monologue on dating in concentration camps during the Holocaust, the comedian and TV producer Larry David is functioning in the role of a Jewish prophet.
The history of self-examination may be traced back to the prophetic history as depicted in the Hebrew Scriptures, especially the books of the prophets. These Hebrew writings eventually became part of the Christian Bible. One of the greatest heroes celebrated in the Bible is King David, an ancestor of Jesus who is the head of the Christian Church. What is remarkable about the story of King David is that his human flaws are recorded in detail in the Bible. David was King of Israel and a mighty warrior celebrated by his people, yet he was also an adulterer who arranged to have the husband of his lover Bathsheba killed on the battle front lines, an act which also made David a murderer. The God of David then sent a prophet Nathan to tell David a story of a rich man stealing from a poor man that aroused in David righteous indignation against the rich man in Nathan’s story. Then Nathan turned to David and said, “Thou art the man.” When David realized that the tyrannical rich man was himself, he underwent a spiritual conversion for the better.
In recent times, a Jewish linguistic professor Noam Chomsky ruffles feathers when he defends the right to free speech of Robert Faurisson, a French professor who has denied the Holocaust ever happened in history. It is not a viewpoint approved by the political orthodoxy nor by Chomsky, but he supported Faurisson’s right to free expression, especially in academic circles. For this, the mainstream media vilifies Chomsky as psychologically unstable, even accusing him, a gentle soft-spoken man, of being a brutal alpha-male. He is also often critical of the Israeli government, even accusing it of committing crimes of the state, and for this, both Jews and non-Jews in America alike condemn him for not towing the pro-Israel line. Because he speaks out against political orthodoxy that is pro-Israel, he has been accused of being a self-hating Jew or even an anti-Semitic. Chomsky is merely speaking consistently for fundamental rights in a democracy and speaking out against the powerful over the weak, even if the immoral behaviour happened to be committed by other Jews. Speaking out against the wickedness of kings (governments) and defending the poor is a recurring theme of the Jewish prophet. The flow over time of numerous other similar stories remind a Jew of the need for self-examination.
I have personally encountered Jewish people who demonstrated acute awareness of their own personal shortcomings. Waiting in line outside the famous delicatessen Schwartz’s in Montreal, two Jewish middle-aged couples stood next to me. One of the ladies asked me what I did for a living. Embarrassed I was not employed, I grew awkward at the question, but after some hemming and hawing, I gave in and confessed that I was not employed. Her husband quickly interjected and shared the story of how his cousin screwed him in a business enterprise. Sounded like he lost everything. Not sure how his story and my story are related but it was as though we were sharing our economic failures. I was brave enough to share my real story and he responded in kind. The sharing of personal failures seemed natural for this Jew and he welcomed me into his world albeit briefly.
This propensity for self-examination seemed to have stalled lately as evidenced in the Jewish response to the comedian and Seinfeld producer Larry David who is Jewish. He pushed the envelope a tad too far when he did a stand-up routine on Saturday Night Live (November 4, 2017) about dating in a concentration camp during the times of the Holocaust. Reactions on the Internet ran the gamut from moral outrage with vows never to watch anything of Larry David ever again to a few brave souls who welcomed his stand-up routine as a stroke of comedic genius. The vast number of the responses on the Internet though leaned heavily in the negative against Larry David. The erudite blog Schlemiel Theory by Menachem Feuer took a middle ground in which he writes of the schlemiel persona that Larry David put on in comedy routines or roles and how this schlemiel has entered a region where no man or woman has ever travelled before David’s Saturday Night Live routine. (To read Menachem Feuer’s blog or see video links to the above-mentioned episode of SNL, go to Schlemiel Theory blog.)
Perhaps, comedy and the Holocaust will never go together, much as water and oil can never mix. Feuer’s blog on Larry David has hinted at that impossibility. He notes that Larry David has a history of attempts at squeezing in Holocaust humour throughout his comedic works. Feuer first examines the sexual schlemiel figure in an attempt find some redeeming feature in the Larry David schlemiel. He quotes from David Biale’s Eros and the Jews: “Yes, David’s entire act is predicated on projecting discomfort in his audience, forcing them to watch characters disgraced beyond redemption.” This is in reference to David’s alter ego George Costanza in his hugely successful TV show Seinfeld. Whether it is with regard to the George Costanza schlemiel, the Wood Allen schlemiel or the Philip Roth’s narrator in Portnoy’s Complaint, Feuer finds the redemptive nature of such sexual schlemiels as very tentative and elusive.
The majority of the commentaries, following the airing of the controversial Larry David routine of dating in concentration camps, were highly critical and negative toward his comedy monologue. Jeremy Dauber, author of Jewish Comedy: A Serious History poses a common question about the Larry David episode: Is the Shoah (Holocaust) ever appropriate to joke about it? In his article in The Atlantic, he offers a wide perspective, examining which jokes of Larry David are appropriate in their use of the Holocaust. Larry David’s use of the Holocaust is groundbreaking, starting in 1999 in an HBO special, continuing through his production of the Seinfeld TV series. Dauber claims David is responsible for the word “Nazi” entering into mainstream casual usage. The brand of Larry David’s comedy is his ability to make you laugh at uncomfortable situations. The Holocaust is merely the extreme backdrop used to make an audience uncomfortable.
Dauber examines how well an audience receives a Holocaust joke. He does so by looking at the ethical stance of the joke. He cites the episode from Curb Your Enthusiasm in which David continues to hire a foul-mouthed chef because David mistook the chef’s tattoo of lottery numbers for a concentration camp survivor’s identification number. Dauber also refers to “a dinner scene where a Holocaust survivor faces off against a contestant from the reality competition show Survivor”. He notes that Larry David is relatively prolific in his use of the Holocaust throughout his comedy career. When not inventing afresh his own brand of Holocaust humour, Larry David takes on projects involving a Holocaust theme, such as a stage role in Mel Brooks’s The Producers. In comparing Larry David with Mel Brooks’s use of the Holocaust in humour, Dauber asserts the moral objective of Brooks’s method, which in the case of The Producers, is to show that an audience can laugh at and even enjoy a stage musical about Hitler if the object is mockery of the Third Reich. He makes this clear: “Nonetheless, the original Producers movie is at its core all about the issue of whether or not an audience would accept a work like The Producers and the kind of comedy it offered.”
In contrast to Mel Brooks’s usage of the Holocaust in comedy, Larry David’s trademark humor is at heart amoral. Dauber notes: “But a part of the reaction to David’s concentration camp joke, perhaps, comes from one of the wellsprings of his uncomfortable comedy: its amorality.” In the following, Dauber is onto something:
In this sense, David’s SNL joke is not precisely about the Holocaust; rather, it is the ne plus ultra of the sort of humor his alter egos embody: What is the most inappropriate and extreme situation in which this sort of thing could occur? But because the joke is using concentration camps as a throwaway—rather than thinking or feeling deeply about it, or using it for other arguably principled purposes—it’s easy for viewers to think, You’re invoking this? Just to get a laugh for that? [Italics Dauber’s]
The key takeaway from Jeremy Dauber’s Atlantic article is that usage of the Holocaust in comedy is amoral and a mere prop to evoke the most uncomfortableness in the audience. But I say that to evoke the most uncomfortableness in an audience is precisely one of Larry David’s goals. If his past record is any indication, David wants to make you squirm in your seat. That his dating in concentration camps monologue is also funny is the conundrum. There is even a moral thrust to it as well.
Here I will pause for an aside. A quick perusal in the Twitter sphere or a few inquiries among sophisticated middle class folks will reveal that many people will likely say Larry David’s take on romance in concentration camps is not worthy for even a snicker or words to that effect. They may even be quick to question how anyone can make fun of the worst event in human history. I must confess I laughed when I first saw the SNL episode in question. Even now, I cannot shake the image of Larry David casually delivering his lines:
“I’ve always been obsessed with women, and I’ve always wondered, if I’d grown up in Poland when Hitler came to power and was sent to a concentration camp, would I still be checking out women in the camp? I think I would,” joked David in his monologue.
“Of course, the problem is there are no good opening lines in a concentration camp. ‘How’s it going? They treating you OK? You know, if we ever get out of here, I’d love to take you out for some latkes. You like latkes? What, what is it? Me, or the whole thing?’” (Jack Shepherd, Independent, November 6, 2017)
I must also confess I am no anti-Semite, but why did I laugh at Larry David’s joke about dating in the Holocaust concentration camp? As I already mentioned, he was so casual, relaxed in his delivery. He reminds me of an uncle of mine. They belong to a time when men could strike a cool pose in late fifties or early sixties America (or Canada), one hand in a pocket and the other raised to make a point. He raises his chin slightly, “How’s it going? They treating you OK?” I just burst my guts at that point. Sure, it is the juxtaposition of the evil backdrop of the Holocaust behind the lonely male figure sweating out of nervousness, trying to be cool while asking a girl to go out with him. The scene of a nervous young man standing alone before a pretty, young woman is universal. It is the same I am sure with my uncle in China or Hong Kong courting a young woman, until my grandparents arranged a marriage for him. It is the same for every Jewish boy in the presence of some pretty girl. This scene of a man in the presence of a woman that Larry David set up in his “sick” joke is a picture of our humanity. I think that is why his monologue is so powerful and at the same time funny, because 85% of our humanity will feel the pain when the young woman rejects her suitor. Worst, she does not give him the time of day. David simply paints us a picture of life, and life is wonderful between a man and a woman despite the pitfalls of courting. The humour is magnified because this normal picture of boy meets girl is transported to a scene in a concentration camp. I believe that to find humour in a schlemiel failing to get the girl’s phone number in an evil setting is a snub to evil itself. The Nazi’s attempt to dehumanize the Jews has failed here. A Jewish boy still falls in love no matter where he finds the pretty girl. That like the 85% of us men that Jewish boy will likely fail for whatever the reason, but it is a story we men can tell our children after we finally find that right one meant for us.
I have found Menachem Feuer’s analysis of the schlemiel’s role in Jewish literature and film often enlightening and in this case of the Larry David monologue on courting in concentration camps especially helpful in appreciating Larry David’s unique schlemiel, although I think Feuer’s commentary falls short of the true nature of Larry David’s monologue on Saturday Night Live.
Strictly speaking, the schlemiel is “an inept clumsy person; a bungler; a dolt”. Menachem Feuer, a professor of Jewish Studies at York University, Toronto, researches and writes about the schlemiel character in Jewish culture, both real life schlemiels and fictional ones from film and literature. The schlemiel figure, as I learn from reading Feuer’s blogs on the subject, appears to have a sort of moral underpinning despite the schlemiel routinely causing unfortunate things to happen. It is a redemptive figure. In his November 6, 2017 blog entitled “Larry David, the Schlemiel, and Holocaust Humor“, Feuer describes Larry David’s schlemiel figure at times as the classic schlemiel as in his portrayal of Bernie Sanders. The York University professor notes that at other times, “Larry David’s schlemiel is different form [sic] anything we have ever seen in the Jewish tradition”. Citing Ruth Wisse and Varda Spiegel, Feuer points out that David’s schlemiel character is no longer winsome or charming, and that perhaps his attempt at self-deprecation is a failure that invites the anti-Semites’ derisive laughter and causes distress in Holocaust survivors.
Although not explicit, Feuer appears exasperated at Larry David’s schlemiel, because it doesn’t fit into the traditional mold of the schlemiel as the morally upright person who inadvertently causes bad things to happen to him, that the traditional end result of “laughter through tears” does not happen in the case of Larry David’s routine on courting in concentration camps.
I believe Feuer misses the mark by insisting on the use of the schlemiel figure as a metric on Larry David’s comedy performance on Saturday Night Live. While citing Thane Rosenbaum, Feuer claims that Larry David’s schlemiel persona is disgraced beyond redemption. Here I disagree with Feuer. The value of the image of the Holocaust is shock. Yet Larry David manages to make the Holocaust work for comedy when he juxtaposed it with another evil deed, namely rape. The literary figure or character that can evoke such a miracle as making use of the Holocaust in comedy is not the schlemiel but the prophet. And for the prophet, shock is his main tool and sometimes comedy is added for good measure.
We all can agree that the character in Larry David’s stand-up routine on the SNL episode last year is not the traditional schlemiel. Feuer ends his blog by making the claim, “Since we are witnessing so much judgment these days, I’m going to with-hold my judgment with this word perhaps. I’ll let you decide. All I can say is that Larry David is more like a schlemiel, a schlimazel, and a nudnik – altogether, at the same time. And that’s simultaneously funny, sad, and offensive.”
Dante may offer in his The Divine Comedy a possible resolution to how comedy may use the Holocaust. How does Dante reconcile comedy with Hell? As I have not read The Divine Comedy in its entirety and no expert in Dante, I defer to those better equipped to comment, but many of those who studied the topic have concluded Dante’s work is indeed comedy. If the Italians managed to make a comedy out of Hell, then why cannot the Jews do the same with the Holocaust? Of course, some may say we are comparing apples to oranges. The Holocaust is real life and Hell a fiction. (Some folks though in some circles do believe Hell is real.) I only bring up the comparison to Dante as a meager piece of evidence that it might just be possible that comedy may arise out of the ashes of the Holocaust. I give below a few more reasons why this is possible.
I believe Prof. Feuer and others try too hard to discover if there is any value in the Larry David schlemiel’s use of the Holocaust in comedy, much like serious cultural critics might analyze a sex scene to determine if there is any merit for it in a work of art such as a film or novel. I agree with the professor that the schlemiel and the Holocaust do not harmonize well together. There is another literary figure from the Jewish canon that works better with the Holocaust as background. I believe the literary figure that can make good use of the Holocaust imagery is the Hebrew prophet. The prophet of the Hebrew Bible uses strong language to warn his people of the consequences of their ways. He calls Israel a whore when its leaders revel in the women from peoples who worship the lesser gods than their Lord God. The Jewish prophet uses pornographic and derisive language to describe his own people in order to lead them away from immoral behaviour and back to God. Here is a sample from the prophet Ezekiel (16:36) directed at the people in Jerusalem: “Thus saith the Lord GOD; Because thy filthiness was poured out, and thy nakedness discovered through thy whoredoms with thy lovers, and with all the idols of thy abominations, and by the blood of thy children, which thou didst give unto them.”
At the start of his monologue, Larry David aimed his Saturday Night Live routine at his Jewish cohorts in the entertainment industry. They very likely include Harvey Weinstein, Brett Ratner, Dustin Hoffman and others. In the three, we have examples of extremely talented and gifted men: a producer, a director and an actor whose successes encompass both critical acclaim and box office hits. These men were born in the Baby Boomer generation–although Ratner maybe more like early GenX–which gave birth to the sexual revolution, euphemistically referred to as free love. They were one time the rebels that shook the establishment free of any remnants its 1950s prudish inhibitions. The consequences though of the sexual revolution may not be entirely good. The sexual revolution gave the illusion of unfettered freedom. The reality is quite the opposite of freedom. Ironically, a plethora of sexual predators arose in the movie and TV industries that created the illusion of freedom via free love. I would argue that the preciousness of the sex act itself has been devalued in the eyes of mainstream America over the decades since the days of hippies and free love. Sex has lost its sanctity, its spiritual nature in the mind of the public. Rape in the popular mindset is reduced to a cold, clinical phrase, “sexual assault”. Guilt is reduced to “did she say no” criterion, a binary flip of the switch. The words “traumatic” or “abused” are modern words the contemporary public use to express the damage done in rape, but honestly, such words just do not convey enough horror of what women really feel during and after a rape. What Larry David did in his comic routine was to dig up the most horrible event in human history and apply it as an analogy to the rape of a woman. Rape is Holocaust. Whether Larry David was conscious of this or not, I do not know, but that was what happened on SNL on that fateful Saturday night in early November last year. Can we equate the rape of a woman to the Holocaust of an entire race? As it stands now, without filter or alteration, according to Larry David’s comedic monologue on SNL, the answer is a resounding “Yes”.
The late author Iris Chang would agree that the atrocities committed in a genocide is the equivalent to a rape of a woman. The title of her book The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, the 1997 best seller, suggest as much. The book recounts the Japanese Imperial Army`s massacre and atrocities committed against the Chinese from 1937–1938. Like a hydrogen fusion bomb, Larry David brings together two images, one of rape colliding with another of the naked atrocities of the Holocaust. He juxtaposes the image of the fumbling schlemiel courting a pretty girl in a concentration camp with that of the men of power, the “Harvey Weinsteins,” committing rape in clean, plush hotel rooms during times of peace. This comparison shocks our sensibilities, underscoring the evil and repugnancy of the act of rape. As with Larry David, Iris Chang saw the equivalency. Rape is Holocaust. Holocaust is Rape.
With his Saturday Night Live monologue on courting in concentration camps, Larry David restores us to an earlier sensibility before we all became jaded with the hippie notion of “free love” and its evil rationalization on the casting couches or in the hotel rooms of movie and network TV producers and mega-celebrities. The traditional sensibility that is passed down to us through the generations, I believe, is the right one. That is, men should protect their women folk, their sisters and daughters, from those men who cannot be trusted to be alone with the fairer sex. As the trending “MeToo” meme proclaims the ugliness and the evil that is the act of rape, we need a guiding light to make sense of all this. The Jewish people have a long tradition of prophets rising up at the right moment to direct us and give us hope from the Hebrew prophets Nathan to Isaiah to Jesus, from Philip Roth to Noam Chomsky. On that note, Larry David is a Jewish prophet.
UPDATED March 17, 2018; 4:33 PM: In the last paragraph, the sentence, “That is, men cannot be trusted to be alone with the fairer sex,” is replaced by:
“That is, men should protect their women folk, their sisters and daughters, from those men who cannot be trusted to be alone with the fairer sex.”