The Sarah Silverman Great Schlep video is a tasty campaign bonbon. Journalists love it because it’s high-concept irony, it’s willfully provocative, it’s a sexy example of how the Internet has yanked politics into a new era. And, yes, a handful of Jews in Florida could indeed decide the fate of the nation.
But as coolly contemporary as its surface may be, beneath the shtick lies something deeply infuriating, a violation of an ancestral truth.
Sarah Silverman puts a knife into the kishkes of an entire generation of liberal Jews who made a career out of marching and protesting, who were behind virtually every progressive postwar cause.
The sin is Silverman’s basic premise: that young, hip Jews are progressive and pro-Obama. Grandparent Jews are racist stereotypes. I welcome humor that comes from truth, but wild stabs at humor that rely on lies are as bankrupt as anything that comes from your opponents. Here is what Silverman says:
“If Barack Obama doesn’t become the next president of the United States, I’m going to blame the Jews.
And I know you’re saying like, ‘Oh, my God, Sarah, I can’t believe you’re saying this. Jews are the most liberal, scrappy, civil rightsy people there are.’ Yes, that’s true. But you’re forgetting a whole large group of Jews that are not that way.
And they go by several aliases: Nana, Pappa, Zaydie, Bubbe, plain old grandma and grandpa.”
Huh? As I assess the Bubbe who shares the couch with Silverman, she looks to be about 75. That means she was 27 when she likely voted for Jack Kennedy. (Eighty-three percent of Jews did.) In the previous two elections, 70 percent of Jews voted for Adlai Stevenson, even though he ran against a war hero who liberated the concentration camps.
Does hipness really demand that we Wite-Out the history of all those civil rightsy Jews who lent their blood, sweat, and lives to the movement? If Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, who were killed in 1964 by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi at the respective ages of 25 and 19, were alive today, they’d be 72 and 65. Prime targets for Silverman’s ridicule.
Silverman puts a knife into the kishkes of an entire generation of liberal Jews who made a career out of marching and protesting, who created the modern civil rights movement, the woman’s movement, and were behind virtually every progressive postwar cause.
To make matters worse, her freedom to get things wrong is the gift of a generation of Jewish comedians who were on the front lines of a broad social revolution, fighting for vulgarity, for her right to offend.
Wise up, Sarah. Lenny Bruce went to jail for profanity. He didn’t have Comedy Central’s lawyers to rally around him. (And by the way, his famous “Things that are Jewish” bit was as ahead of its time as Silverman is behind hers.)
Even more mainstream performers like Alan King and Myron Cohen needed guts to flaunt their Jewishness in an inhospitable gentile world. That’s a difficult place for a cosseted Sarah Silverman to imagine; her fairy-tale comedy world is Heeb-ready.
I must sound like a Semitic John McCain, railing against callow Jewish entitlement. But there’s something repellant about the self-satisfaction and shallowness that animate the Silverman video. When Chris Rock or Dave Chappelle or John Leguizamo use ethnicity to suffuse their comedy, the pain and the truth caramelize into a humor of real depth. It was the same for Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen. When Silverman leverages her Jewishness, it’s as a strategy.
It’s also crazily dated. Comics have made Jews and Florida a punchline for generations. When Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld lampooned Del Boca Vista, they implicitly recognized that they were quoting. As a Stephen Whitfield, a professor at Brandeis, has noted, “Miami Beach became first a Jewish city and then a Jewish joke.” Silverman would be as at home in Grossinger’s as she is on YouTube.
So if Jews are so unapologetically liberal, why the need for the Great Schlep in the first place? What’s stressing some Jews about Obama is that his candidacy is a painful reminder of the schism between blacks and Jews that happened in the late 1960s and through the 1970s. The left of the Democratic Party morphed into the “New Left”—a ragged group that included the Black Panthers, Students for a Democratic Society, and others who defined Israel, along with the United States, as oppressive Western colonialists. Which meant the Palestinians and the North Vietnamese were seen as liberation movements.
It was a complex and turbulent era, and its impact continues to haunt many Jews—and not just old ones. Rev. Wright and his black liberation theology re-activated those memories. So if there are some bubbes and zaydas who are vacillating about Obama, it’s precisely because they were civil rightsy types who felt abandoned by black leadership.
The brilliance of Obama’s campaign has been his grace in acknowledging and moving beyond many of these burdens. Some remain, including unresolved issues with some Jews. But the way to deal with those isn’t by incrimination. In its struggle to be cool, the Great Schlep is creatively dead and historically wrong. If it helps, I guess it’s an example of bad comedy helping a good cause.