For many years of my life, I worried about American poetry and German philosophy. Now that I have kids, I worry about more pressing things. Like religion. Like ethnicity. Like cartoons. Since it’s August, and everyone is on vacation, my editor is feeling more permissive than usual. It seems like a good time to pose a question that has been plaguing me for months: If Michael Landon and Kirk Douglas are Jews, why can’t we claim Bugs Bunny as well?
Here’s the thing: The spirit of Jewish vaudeville inhabits Bugs’s slight frame, down to the lightning puns, double-meanings and gloriously underhanded tricks that he’s lifted from folks like Groucho and Chico Marx, as well as the manic physical mayhem that typified acts like the Ritz Brothers. (And Bugs’s threat, “You know, this means war,” was lifted right from Groucho himself.) Nor should we forget the dead-on parodies of high art in “Looney Tunes” shorts such as “The Rabbit of Seville” and “What’s Opera, Doc,” which made mincemeat of postwar German productions of Wagner. They all seem happy to indulge in that gleeful Yiddish sport of cutting pretension down to size, of treating all contenders like Moishe Pipik. Bugs also has that gift for mimicry that antisemites, most notably Wagner himself, have always attributed to Jews. This ability is central to Bugs’s success in undoing Elmer’s most nefarious plots. Bugs, who is particularly good at cross-dressing, is, as the saying goes, remarkably “passable.”
But hold on, buddy. Comic books might have been created by Jews; Hollywood might have been invented by Jews; the Warner brothers who put out the “Looney Tunes” shorts might themselves have been Jews, but the creators of Bugs Bunny were not. Sure, Mel Blanc, “the man of 1,000 voices,” was Jewish, as was the director Friz Freleng, but we have to concede that most of the writers and directors were decidedly not. Look at their names: Chuck Jones, Michael Maltese, Tedd Pierce. Look at Tex Avery, a director with an exquisite sense of both timing and the gloriously absurd. No self-respecting Jew, not even Kinky Friedman, ever called himself “Tex.”
As if this weren’t enough, Bugs’s creators originally tried to call him Happy Rabbit, a totally goyish name. (Think Happy Rockefeller.) Thankfully, Mel Blanc suggested “Bugs Bunny.” “Bugs” as in crazy. As in crazy like a fox. As in — just maybe — Bugsy Siegel.
Can we find the rabbi in the rabbit? As far as I can tell, Bugs never uses a word of Yiddish, but he does have a yidisher kop. He has the gift of gab as well as a fine command of Acme products. Poor Elmer — was there ever a Jew named Elmer? — never stands a chance. Of course, it is well known that Bugs comes from a long line of tricksters. He is an Eastern Anansi, an American Hershele Ostropoler. He’s even distantly related to Isaac Babel’s Odessa gangster, Benya Krik.
But as a genius of the genus lepus, his most important relative — father? uncle? — is, of course, Br’er Rabbit, though he’s Br’er Rabbit with a New York accent. And that accent turns out to be the most important clue to his identity because in that great imaginary melting pot that was Hollywood in the 1940s, there weren’t a lot of overtly Jewish characters. To find the covert traces of yidishkeyt in the movies of the period you have to look for the barely visible markers, like accent.
During the golden age of Warner Brothers cartoons, the only other characters with marked accents were Pepé Le Pew and Speedy Gonzales, and they were foreign. The rest of our banner favorites — Elmer, Tweety, Sylvester and their ilk — tended to have speech impediments. (According to Chuck Jones, Sylvester’s lisp was actually a take-off of the much-disliked producer Leon Schlesinger. Schlesinger didn’t get it.) Bugs is pure New Yawk, a fine mixture of Brooklyn and the Bronx. Not for him the posh elongated vowels of a Roosevelt (“I hate wahhhhhhr”). Rather, his are the clipped nasal sounds of a smart-aleck rabbit of the streets (“Ain’t I a stinka?”). Nothing patrician there. Bugs is a bunny of the people, a working-class hero who clearly isn’t Irish and is hardly Italian.
Let us, therefore, take very seriously Lenny Bruce’s great taxonomy of things goyish and things Jewish. New York is always Jewish. And the outer boroughs — particularly Brooklyn — are the most Jewish of them all. On the other hand, Disney, for all its brilliance, is strictly goyish. Godmothers, princesses, Prince Charming — all this is pure goyishe nakhes. William Steig made this abundantly clear by recasting the chivalric fairy tale as a gross-out story in his classic kids’ book “Shrek.” The “Shrek” movie franchise has continued this gambit with its straightforward attacks on Disney’s saccharine pieties. “Looney Tunes” and “Merrie Melodies” were never susceptible to that kind of treatment because they were too fast, furious and just plain funny to be pious in the first place.
Rabbits ain’t kosher, but what does it matter? The “Looney Tunes” shorts in which Bugs appears are always structured around extinction and endurance, the two great poles of Jewish thought and dream. They are purimshpiels in which Haman is played by an amiable stooge with a rifle that chronically misfires. What more do we need? Seventy years is surely long enough. It is time to embrace the Bunny.
David Kaufmann teaches literature at George Mason University.