On Thomas Pynchon’s 80th Birthday, Celebrate His Greatest Jewish Moments

The famously enigmatic novelist Thomas Pynchon, whose works include “Gravity’s Rainbow” and “Inherent Vice,” is a WASP; one of his ancestors rode into England with William the Conqueror. Still, some of the National Book Award winning author’s most memorable moments have been Jewish. In honor of his 80th birthday yesterday, here they are.

1) When he almost shared a latke recipe on “The Simpsons”

“The Simpsons” can land cameos of which other television series can only dream, Pynchon among them. The author has appeared twice, both times wearing a paper bag over his head; in his second clip, discussing a buffet with Lisa Simpson, he comments on some chicken wings “I’ll put this recipe in the ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ cookbook, right next to ‘The Frying of Latke 49.’” The joke, which referenced Pynchon’s book “The Crying of Lot 49,” was suggested by Pynchon himself. We could kvell.

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2) When he sent a Jewish comic to accept his National Book Award

By 1974, when Pynchon won a National Book Award for “Gravity’s Rainbow,” his distaste for the spotlight was well known — and, as a result, not many people knew what he looked like. When a man took the stage to accept Pynchon’s award at the ceremony, some in the audience assumed he was Pynchon.

It was, in fact, Jewish comedian Professor Irwin Corey, who Pynchon’s publisher Thomas Guinzburg had arranged to accept the award on Pynchon’s behalf. Corey, who The New York Times noted billed himself as “the world’s greatest expert on everything,” delivered an impassioned series of, as the Times reported, “bad jokes and mangled syntax.” At the end of his speech — of course — a streaker ran through the audience. Corey called the man “Mr. Knopf” — another Jew?

To cap the whole episode off, that year Pynchon shared the National Book Award for Fiction with Isaac Bashevis Singer. The latter accepted his award by sending a speech from Israel. Corey didn’t stick around to deliver it.

3) When he chronicled the ills of “Obsessive Yenta” syndrome

Pynchon’s 2013 novel “Bleeding Edge” prompted The Paris Review’s Gary Lippman to ask “If Bill Clinton was our ‘first black President,’ can Pynchon now be declared our most Judaical WASP?” Lippman noted that the novel featured the aforementioned “Obsessive Yenta syndrome,” characters appealing that one another “mensch up,” and most bizarrely, a nod to the distinction between Ashkenazic Yiddish and the German Hochdeutsch, or mother tongue.


Talya Zax

Talya Zax

Talya Zax is the Forward’s deputy culture editor. Contact her at zax@forward.com or on Twitter, @TalyaZax.

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On Thomas Pynchon’s 80th Birthday, Celebrate His Greatest Jewish Moments

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