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How a Jewish sensibility informed the art and humor of Kurt Vonnegut

The author of ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ and ‘Cat’s Cradle’ considered himself part of Joseph Heller and Norman Mailer’s generation

Did Kurt Vonnegut, whose centenary is celebrated this year on Nov. 11, identify more with American Jewish novelists or Jewish comedians? 

Though the author of “Player Piano,” “Mother Night,” “Cat’s Cradle” and “Slaughterhouse-Five” was not Jewish, he told the interviewer Zoltán Abádi Nagy in 1982 that he considered himself part of a generation of authors that included Jewish American novelists Joseph Heller and Norman Mailer.

Vonnegut’s identification with Jewish comedians was even more acute. He was the subject of the documentary “Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time,” directed by Robert Weide, who has also produced documentaries on Jewish comedians like Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen. Vonnegut cooperated good-naturedly, doubtless in part due to his conviction that writers, like Jewish comedians, must be ever-aware of the public. 

Often tormented in his private life (as are most comedians), Vonnegut rationalized his trademark dark humor as an antidepressant after reading the Austrian Jewish psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler, whose “The Writer and Psychoanalysis” argued that creative spirits cope with neuroses through daily professional tasks. 

Vonnegut wrote to Weide in December 1987, praising Jack Benny (born Benjamin Kubelsky) as among humorists for whom “all humanity was the audience they were able to keep in mind.” Since directing a stand-up comedy routine or novel to all potential consumers was quasi-impossible, Vonnegut told Weide that he advised writing students instead to address people they know. He cited Lenny Bruce as someone who wooed a “few pals from childhood and youth, and the rest of us could listen, if we wanted.”

“Heller still does that,” Vonnegut added, shifting between the worlds of Jewish fiction and comedy as if no transition were needed. The novelist concluded that while Mort Sahl had tried to address the entire world, to little avail, Jackie Mason had better luck addressing “Jews in the Catskills.”

“I find it a privilege to hear what he says to them,” Vonnegut said.

Drawn to Jewish humor as a panacea, only two years after he attempted suicide in 1984, Vonnegut appeared in a comedy film, Back to School,” starring Jacob Cohen, who performed under the name Rodney Dangerfield. In Vonnegut’s most celebrated novels, a sardonic sense of humor is applied as a salve to the tragedy of modern Jewish history.

Kurt Vonnegut attends a tennis match in Queens, 1989. Image by

“Mother Night” describes how Howard W. Campbell Jr., an American writer who moved to Germany in the 1920s as a youngster, became a notorious Nazi propagandist. After World War II, he awaits trial for war crimes in an Israeli prison alongside Adolf Eichmann. Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and other malefactors show up throughout the novel, always portrayed with trenchant irony. 

Howard W. Campbell Jr. also makes a cameo appearance in Vonnegut’s most celebrated fiction, “Slaughterhouse-Five,” inspired by the author’s real-life survival as an American prisoner of war sheltering in an underground meat locker during the Allied firebombing of Dresden, Germany.

Dealing with myths and metaphors rampant in the author’s youth, “Slaughterhouse Five” alludes to the wartime rumor, later debunked by the Yad Vashem Memorial, that Nazis produced soap with fat extracted from murdered concentration camp prisoners. Vonnegut extended this horrific propaganda to state that the “candles and the soap were made from the fat of rendered Jews and Gypsies and fairies and communists, and other enemies of the State.”

Even under less fraught historical circumstances, Vonnegut’s lampooning of the blind spots essential for antisemitic bigotry to exist was always note-perfect. His 1990 novel “Hocus Pocus” was about the last American military officer to leave Saigon during the Vietnam War. The novel also mocks the protagonist’s grandfather, who claims that reading the Old Testament without the New Testament must be a misfortune: “I pity the Jews trying to get through life with only half a Bible. That’s like trying to get from here to San Francisco with a road map that stops at Dubuque, Iowa.”

Vonnegut’s late work, “God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian,” published in 1999, features a series of short Bob and Ray-style fictional interviews first broadcast on WNYC radio. With understatement akin to that of Mel Brooks when he told interviewer Jiminy Glick that his “big beef with the Nazis” was that “they’re rude,” Vonnegut announced that he had spoken with Hitler, who now offers a mealy mouthed apology for his crimes against humanity. Since Hitler and his mistress Eva Braun were among the “35 million” deaths caused by his actions, he feels that he “paid along with everybody else” and now deserves a “modest monument,” possibly at the UN headquarters in New York, bearing the German motto “Entschuldigen Sie” (Excuse Me).

Kurt Vonnegut at home in New York, 1972. Photo by Getty Images

As Vonnegut told Haaretz in December 2002, his instinctual reaction to the U.S. response to the Sept. 11 attacks was to liken special measures restricting civil liberties by President George W. Bush to the Reichstag fire of 1933, after which longstanding freedoms were suspended in Nazi Germany. With this historical frame of reference constantly in mind, it is natural that one of his less-remembered novels, 1987’s “Bluebeard,” should grapple with two 20th-century genocides, the Holocaust and the destruction of the Armenian people in the Ottoman Empire during World War I.

Always clinging to hope amid the wreckage of modern experience, Vonnegut opines in “Bluebeard” that salvation may derive from women as transformative societal influences, as well as the arts, to rebuild humanity. Perhaps not coincidentally, a number of recent books involved with Yiddishkeit quote and discuss Vonnegut, from Samuel Lebens’ The Principles of Judaism to Jay Michaelson’s The Heresy of Jacob Frank: From Jewish Messianism to Esoteric Myth.” Could this be because, as Jodi Eichler-Levine intriguingly observed in a January 2010 article in “Shofar,” a correspondence may exist between traditional Jewish narrative of historical time, and Vonnegut’s literary approach?

Referring to “unstuck in time,” the topsy-turvy chronology set forth in “Slaughterhouse-Five,” Eichler-Levine mentioned Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi’s “Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory,” which observes that the “rabbis seem to play with Time as though with an accordion, expanding and collapsing it at will.”

Like these rabbis, Vonnegut used discontinuity to capture events suggestive of human frailty. In the 1974 essay collection “Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons,” he noted that during World War II, the U.S. “fought something which was totally obscene.” Yet the post-victory triumphalism led to foreign entanglements and war atrocities, including in Vietnam, which turned out to be “very bad for us.”

Vonnegut always subscribed to the notion of World War II as an essential conflict, only criticizing later developments due to political misjudgments. Jewish friends and colleagues were a permanent source of solace for Kurt Vonnegut in the face of these upsets, like the poet Allen Ginsberg, whose “radiant love and innocence of his person, from head to toe” he lauded in a 1997 memorial tribute.

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