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On Bugs Bunny’s 80th birthday, how Jewish is that wascally wabbit anyway?

As we celebrate the 80th anniversary of the release of “A Wild Hare,” the first animated short starring Bugs Bunny, the question arises: How Jewish was the sassy, anti-authoritarian rabbit?

Since 1940, Jewish audiences have taken Bugs to their heart for his anarchic energy in lightning-fast short films of concentrated intensity and visual quality, especially those made before 1950.

Bug’s voice, created by the radio personality Mel Blanc (1908–1989) of Russian Jewish origin, was a blend of Brooklyn and Bronx tones. Blanc was such a virtuoso of melting pot sound effects that Milt Josefsberg, a writer on the Jack Benny Program, Blanc’s longtime employer, told his biographer that scripts routinely challenged Blanc to produce seemingly impossible accents. One such was a man on the street identified as an African American gay Jew (using derogatory slang terms of the time). Blanc faithfully reproduced this unlikely blend of tonal characterizations, so Bugs’ Bronx/Brooklyn mix proved no challenge to him.

The typical plot of Bugs Bunny shorts, in which the hare is pursued by an adversary, often the hunter Elmer Fudd, could also be seen as archetypically Jewish. Andrea Most’s “Theatrical Liberalism: Jews and Popular Entertainment in America” declares: “A remarkable amount of American comedy created by Jews features characters who are running for their lives.”

Bugs’ aggressiveness was a matter of concern to Looney Tunes films director Chuck Jones. Worried that violence wreaked upon opponents might repel audiences, Jones insisted that Bugs must first be endangered by antagonists before he reciprocated. Bugs’ catchphrase, “Of course you realize, this means war,” was lifted from Groucho Marx’s 1933 film “Duck Soup.”

Yet even when Bugs imitated Groucho’s stooping posture and waggling eyebrows in “Hair-Raising Hare” (1946) and “Slick Hare,” (1947) the effect was no more overtly Jewish than other visual vocabulary that inspired the filmmakers, such as Clark Gable’s gnawing on carrots in “It Happened One Night” (1934). Director Tex Avery claimed that the expression “What’s up, Doc?” was often heard in the Southwest during his youth.

Likewise, when Bugs reminisces in “A Hare Grows in Manhattan” (1947) and “What’s Up, Doc” (1950), about growing up on New York’s East Side, Irish American family life as described in Betty Smith’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” is parodied, not Jewish lore.

Over the years, enthused articles marked by wishful thinking that Bugs might be Jewish were overshadowed by the Jewish historian Elliott Horowitz (1953-2017.) In a 2004 article in “Jewish Studies Quarterly,” and an earlier 2001 article in “Annales,” Horowitz addressed the question of Bugs’ Yiddishkeit with scholarly panache.

Horowitz explains that hares appeared in the painted ceiling of the wooden synagogue of Chodorow, a shtetl in Galicia, Poland, recreated in the Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv, as well as the synagogue of Gwozdziec, a replica of which was installed at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw.

Boris Khaimovich of the Hebrew University’s Center for Jewish Art has analyzed the meaning of hares in East European Jewish tradition, pointing out that although rabbits and hares are non-kosher, hounds chase hares in early Jewish illuminated manuscripts. One book, the Kennicott Bible created in Spain in 1476, shows hares “punishing or ruling their enemies,” even “storming a fortress occupied by a wolf” in a Bugs-like retort to tyranny.

This treasure, now in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, was reproduced in Bezalel Narkis’s “Hebrew Illuminated Manuscripts.” Khaimovich posits that in this “topsy-turvy” world, “hares in medieval Jewish iconography personify the Jews.”

From the wooden synagogue of Chodorow, Elliott Horowitz traces a line to the artist David Moss born in 1946 in Dayton, Ohio. Illustrator of a much-acclaimed Haggadah Moss included images of Jews as hares endangered by specific historical enemies, which according to Horowitz may reflect early exposure to such Bugs Bunny films. In “Herr meets Hare,” (1945) Bugs faces down Nazi henchman Hermann Goering by dressing as a combination Lady Godiva and Valkyrie, as music from Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” plays on the soundtrack. Later in the same short, Bugs terrifies Adolf Hitler by masquerading as Joseph Stalin.

Given these and other examples, Horowitz asks if Bugs Bunny may be considered Jewish art. Not, he concludes, if we adopt Cecil Roth’s definition of Jewish art as necessarily produced by Jews. Yet if we consider the criterion in Richard Cohen’s “Jewish Icons” that such art must reflect the “Jewish experience,” then we may consider Bugs a proponent of Yiddishkeit.

With adherence, further worries appear for those chary about the gleeful violence meted out by a representative of Judaism. Joseph Epstein noted in “The American Scholar” in Autumn 1984, “A short while ago I saw a Bugs Bunny cartoon, and found my heart going out to Elmer Fudd, that nasty rabbit’s victim.”

Epstein’s empathy was shared by Jack Shaheen, a writer of Lebanese Christian origin with expertise about ethnic stereotypes. Shaheen stated wistfully, “My childhood hero, Bugs Bunny, clobbers nasty Arabs in “1001 Rabbit Tales”(1982). Bugs trounces an ugly genie, a dense sheikh, and the ruler’s spoiled son.”

Bugs is indeed one violent Lepus. His never-say-die assertiveness was displayed in World War II propaganda well beyond “Hare Meets Herr,” with “Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips” (1944) so vehemently anti-Japanese that it has been embargoed from public screenings in recent years.

Bugs was on the battlefield as mascot in U.S. Air Force 380th Bombardment Group planes, and served as squadron logo for Marine Torpedo/Bomber Squadron 242, also gracing the nose of 8th Air Force bombers.

So if Bugs is Jewish, his fighting spirit would be akin to that of Moshe Dayan or Ariel Sharon, perhaps echoed in a plagiarization on “Tomorrow’s Pioneers,” a children’s program broadcast from 2007 to 2009 on Al-Aqsa TV, a Palestinian Hamas-affiliated station. To educate future jihadis and suicide bombers, a Bugs Bunny wannabe named Assoud boasts that he will “get rid of the Jews, Allah willing.”

Comparably unsettling images were evoked in the critic Geoffrey Hartman’s discussion of Art Spiegelman’s “Maus in “The Longest Shadow: In the Aftermath of the Holocaust.” Hartman defines cartoons as transitional objects “helping us toward a difficult truth.” “Maus” reflected Nazi representation of Jews as rodents to “our own uneasy conscience about the ‘lower’ orders of creation” like rabbits who are slaughtered and also promoted “to comic strip immortality.”

Correspondingly, the American Jewish essayist Stephen Miller (b. 1941) in reflections published in “The Sewanee Review” in Spring 2011, relates how in childhood, he saw both God and Bugs Bunny as cruel, but at least Bugs had a sense of humor. More recently, after viewing Bugs cartoons while mulling over violent anti-Semitism, Miller fell asleep and dreamt that the rabbit, chased by Elmer Fudd, emerged into a “crowd of ranting jihadists who are marching with their AK-47s held high and screaming anti-Semitic curses. Bugs is staring at these men and wondering what’s going on. ‘Eh, what’s up, Doc?’ he says to no one in particular.”

Such visions imply that on his 80th birthday, Bugs may be assimilated to Judaism only with caution, since as a triumphantly reactive character, assimilation may bring with it further unsought responses.

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.

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