(Jewish jokes give us an inkling of this: Consider Groucho Marx’s famous remark, “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.” Or the story about the Jew who is stranded alone on a desert island and builds two synagogues — the one he goes to, and the one he wouldn’t be seen dead in.)
Any group that has sought to be accepted by a dominant culture knows something of this experience. Not that it works. As hard as you try to fit in, it always looks like you’re trying too hard. You always feel, or imagine others feel, that you’re still a bit … funny. That’s why Kafka once accused a group of his fellow assimilated Jews of having a “fear of Yiddish.” They were frightened, he believed, of that part of themselves they had sought to deny.
Some 50 years after Kafka, the Jewish American comedian Lenny Bruce had a bit he would perform, especially when he was playing to a home crowd in New York. It was called “Jewish and goyish.” What, according to Bruce, was Jewish? Among other things: pumpernickel, fruit salad and Ray Charles. And what was goyish? Kool-Aid, fudge, instant potatoes and baton twirling.
In effect, Bruce was comically “answering” the Jewish question. But though he mimicked categorization, he was really poking fun at such categories. For Bruce, “Jewish” doesn’t even necessarily refer to Jews: “If you live in New York or any other big city, you are Jewish. It doesn’t matter even if you’re Catholic; if you live in New York, you’re Jewish. If you live in Butte, Montana, you’re going to be goyish even if you’re Jewish.”
Not unlike Jews themselves, Bruce’s definition of “Jewish” seems to have uprooted, wandered and dispersed. It no longer corresponds to anything fixed. It’s not necessarily an identity. Better to call it a sensibility: the sensibility of whoever feels a bit unsure of who they are — a bit peculiar or out of place, a bit funny.
But isn’t that now everyone’s modern condition? While modernity promised Jews and other minorities that they could move from the margins to the center, it’s the reverse that may have actually occurred. In the era of radical globalization and the internet, it doesn’t matter who you are — even if you’re male, white, straight, middle-class — you’re probably feeling that your group or identity has been, if not existentially threatened, then at the very least marginalized. These days we’re all mobile and unsettled, even if we stay put. We’re all hyper-connected but insecure. So you’re liable now to be somewhat Jewish even if you do live in Butte, Mont.
Who are you really? What is the nature of your identity? Which club do you belong to? In a social media age, everyone must answer these difficult questions — or at least project answers to them, one status update at a time. The impossible demand of what was once the “Jewish question” seems today to have broadened into a “Facebook question.”
Lenny Bruce could have had a lot of fun with social media, listing his likes and dislikes and offending those with finer tastes. But his sensibility does very little to reassure the one who believes herself distinguished by her preferences. As much as our sensibilities may tell us about our differences, Bruce’s “Jewish and goyish” routine also shows us how slippery our differences are.
Such uncertainty can be frightening. But it can also be something more. Bruce’s exuberant remarking on our differences is also a high-octane performance of how much we can laugh about our differences. How pleasurable it can be to find oneself unbound by categories. We’re not all Jews, but we’re all becoming Jew-ish. So take a cue from Bruce. The other thing that feeling funny can lead to is fun.