Jewish humor, like all ethnic humor, is built upon stereotypes, and these stereotypes can often be found in anti-Semitic discourse. There is a fine line between ethnic comedy and outright bigotry, and its reception depends as much on context as on authorial intent. Ever since the early 1960s, when Lenny Bruce went public with his “obscene comedy” and Philip Roth was branded the purveyor of “self-hating Jewish literature,” the American Jewish community has been vigilant in policing representations of Jewishness in popular culture. “Shhh! Not in front of the goyim,” is an adage that should be familiar to anyone who has ever told a Jewish joke in mixed company.
As a history professor, I teach seminars on Jewish humor at a college in North Carolina, where it is rare for me to have more than two or three Jewish students in any given semester. On one occasion, after a rather graphic discussion of Roth’s novel “Portnoy’s Complaint,” the lone Jew in the course approached me and asked: “Are you sure it is OK to be teaching these works, replete with despicable Jews, to a predominantly white Christian audience? Don’t you think they will leave your class, believing that Jews are really like this? Don’t you think they will believe it is OK to make fun of Jews in public?” I tried to reassure my student that we are using ethnic comedy as a means to understand history, that context is everything, that the alternative would be to censor important aspects of Jewish culture, that we cannot be governed by fear and political correctness.
Perhaps I was being too confident, because it was with great horror that I read Mark Oppenheimer’s piece, “The Specifically Jewy Perviness of Harvey Weinstein,” published in Tablet earlier this week. Oppenheimer likened Weinstein – now accused of numerous instances of sexual assault and other perverse behavior – to Roth’s infamous character Alexander Portnoy. The satirical Portnoy suffers from what may be called a Jewish sickness: trapped by the burden of excessive Judaic ritual, an inherited persecution mentality, and an overbearing mother, he yearns to escape from the shackles of oppression through debaucherous behavior. As a teenager, Portnoy incessantly masturbated, because furiously grabbing “his battered battering ram” was his sole means of asserting control, of achieving freedom from his mother, the embodiment of Jewish repression. But this was a mere rehearsal for his true objective: to have relentless sexual intercourse with as many gentile women as possible. Portnoy yearned to transform into his antithesis, the proverbial goy, because the goys could do anything, they “know absolutely nothing of human boundaries and limits.” He was in awe of their beauty; their strength; their virility. Portnoy thus becomes a sexual predator, because seducing shiksas is empowering: “What I’m saying,” boasts Portnoy, “is that I don’t seem to stick my d—k up these girls, as much as I stick it up their backgrounds – as though through f—king I will discover America. Conquer America…”
Oppenheimer argues that Harvey Weinstein was living out an Alexander Portnoy fantasy and this marks him as “a deeply Jewish kind of pervert,” one who even “made a woman watch as he masturbated into a potted plant.” He is not merely a sexually depraved Hollywood mogul, but a dysfunctional diasporic Jew, who, unleashed from the constraints of his stifling Jewish lineage (one might even use the apposite Yiddish term yichus here) is performing the role of a cultural stereotype).
“Portnoy’s Complaint” was published nearly five decades ago, but the imagined hypersexual Jewish male out to racially defile Gentile society (or white Christendom) has a long genealogy in anti-Semitic literature and in Jewish humor. It was widely believed in Victorian England that Jack the Ripper was an eastern European Jewish immigrant; the ideologues of Nazi Germany accused the Jews of miscegenation (Rassenschande) and, accordingly, passed the Nuremberg laws to impose Jewish segregation and ensure Aryan purity of blood. By the time “Portnoy’s Complaint” was published in 1969 it seemed that, in the United States at least, anti-Semitism was a thing of the past; that Jewish stereotypes were now fair game for humorists; that one could satirize the American Jew, who had achieved unprecedented social mobility yet remained haunted by the ghosts of his European past. Alexander Portnoy has had numerous successors in literature and in popular culture. Woody Allen built much of his early film career on the Jewish quest for shiksas. And perhaps the most famous recent incarnation of Alexander Portnoy is Howard Wolowitz, a Jewish aerospace engineer on “The Big Bang Theory.” Wolowitz’s achievements include the construction of the Mars Rover, yet rather than celebrating his celestial conquests, he obsesses over conquering the equally alien earthly bodies that surround him in Los Angeles, female bodies of the shiksa variety.
The tenacity of the Portnoy archetype makes it a fascinating subject for scholarly analysis, and I take great pleasure in deconstructing its history and significance in my research and with my students in class. But to depict Harvey Weinstein as the incarnation of a Jewish stereotype is, to put it mildly, unethical — fodder for anti-Semites. The white supremacist march on Charlottesville was a wakeup call to many complacent Jews about the persistence of anti-Semitism in America. Has the heightened xenophobia of the Trump era forced us to revive the archaic “Shhh! Not in front of the goyim” adage? Although we are not quite there yet, I fear for the future.
Quite predictably, Oppenheimer’s piece sparked a huge outcry from American Jewry on social media, prompting the author to issue a public apology. I will continue to teach “Portnoy’s Complaint” in my class. It is an important text in the Jewish literary canon and to remove it from the curriculum would constitute a form of censorship in the name of political correctness I could never condone. But I will now be assigning it in conjunction with Mark Oppenheimer’s essay, since it forces us to consider the limits of ethnic humor and the harm it can cause when it is removed from its proper context and irresponsibly deployed in public.
Jarrod Tanny is Associate Professor of History and the Charles and Hannah Block Distinguished Scholar in Jewish History at the University of North Carolina — Wilmington.