DAN COLEMAN: Seth Rogen’s transgressive views about Israel put him in a long line of Jewish comedians who have crossed the line with just a few phrases
“DON’T PUT ALL YOUR eggs in one basket” is a commonly understood maxim and we all accept its guidance. We diversify our portfolios. We vary our diets. The Jewish owner and general manager who ran the 1990s Chicago Bulls basketball team did not put all their eggs in the basket of superstar Michael Jordan. They knew to add Scotty Pippen and Dennis Rodman to win a raft of NBA championships.
Yet, when comedian Seth Rogen casually told US comedian Marc Maron on his podcast WTF, “you don’t keep all your Jews in one basket… it makes no sense whatsoever”, a tempest in a teapot coursed across the Jewish community.
Comedians are meant to ruffle feathers, transgress barriers, and smash idols, perhaps Jewish comedians in particular. The power of comedy is that, while essayist Peter Beinart controversially laid out his advocacy of a one-state solution in 7,000 words, Rogen’s transgressive views could be expressed in a few phrases.
Yet, with or without the ensuing controversy, Rogen’s comedic expression, as well as Beinart’s more intellectually rigorous approach, is to be celebrated as instrinsically and fundamentally Jewish.
Judaism is rooted in iconoclasm. Our founding myth is that of Abraham smashing the idols in his father’s shop. Moses came down from Mount Sinai to encounter the golden calf which he ground to dust. Ancient Jewish history is one of wise prophets railing against the masses who continually return to idol worship.
Idols, in their physical form, are merely a concretisation of ideology, rigidly deployed belief systems enforcing adherence and conformity, leading to what the Haggadah calls “slavery to our own emotions… slavery to intolerance and prejudice.” Idolatry is characterised by a hardening of views and its adherents are motivated by fear. When challenged, their first recourse is to anger.
Today, prophets are hard to find and the job of idol smashing is left to comedians. And, at times, to six-year-olds.
When my older son entered year one in a Miami public school, he refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance that American children recite daily. I was summoned to meet with the teacher. My son explained that “they treat that flag as if it was god”. As the teacher, a reasonable young woman, was unable to find fault with that argument, a compromise was reached.
How many Jews treat the Jewish flag and the soil of Israel as holy symbols, engaging unwittingly in a form of idolatry? Is it any wonder that they react angrily when it is suggested that a Jewish state in Israel might not be the best or only homeland for our people or that equal justice might be the right of Palestinians?
The creative output of comedians and cultural figures have long been key contributions the Jewish people have made toward the breaking of sacred cows and the expansion of cultural understanding. Rogen stands two generations up on the shoulders of Lenny Bruce who risked arrest to be able to speak simple truths about American society.
Bruce himself followed the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg who fought a court battle to prevent censorship of his ground-breaking work Howl. Bob Dylan was booed at the Newport Folk Festival for playing electric instead of his familiar acoustic-folk. And Philip Roth fought censorship battles here in Australia over the release of his novel Portnoy’s Complaint.
But Seth Rogen is no Lenny Bruce, no Ginsberg. Nor is he an Amy Schumer, who rose to stardom with cutting edge insights on sex, femininity, and rape culture. And he is certainly no Sacha Baron Cohen, whose work is always pointedly targeted, although Rogen was a writer on Cohen’s Da Ali G Show, for which he won an Emmy nomination.
Rogen is the affable schlemiel, a bit perverse, occasionally offensive, but still the guy who winds up with Katherine Heigl in the end of Knocked Up or who must come to grips with everyone’s Jewish mother, as portrayed by Barbra Streisand in The Guilt Trip. His raunchiest performance was voicing the highly unfiltered animated alien in the sci-fi comedy Paul. While, Rogen is no milquetoast like Jerry Seinfeld, he is a comedian unlikely to stir controversy.
The fact that Rogen’s persona is so much that of an everyman makes his comments all the more challenging to those they affront. If Seth Rogen can so casually express these views, how many thousands more might share them?
Rogen expressed his opinions on Israel during a conversation with fellow comedian Marc Maron on the latter’s WTF with Marc Maron podcast. The tone, irreverence, and hilarity of their interchange will be quite familiar to a Jewish audience. As Rogen put it, “I’m no funnier than your average Jewish person’s uncle.”
Rogen understands a unique characteristic of the contemporary Jew. “If you meet a Jewish person in America, they’re probably here because someone tried to kill their grandparents not that long ago.”
What is striking about the conversation is that their irreverence is so easy and natural. Everything is fodder to their comic gaze through which they tug at the edges of matters Jewish and contemporary.
Rogen and Maron are iffy about the notion of Jewish exceptionalism. As Rogen, whose latest film is about a pickle-maker, put it, “of course there are Jewish plumbers”. But he understands a unique and indelible characteristic of the contemporary Jew. “If you meet a Jewish person in America,” Rogen explains, “they’re probably here because someone tried to kill their grandparents not that long ago.”
The lived experience of anti-Semitism among secular American Jews is so marginalised that, despite its rise in the past few years, most horrifically at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, Rogen can say this with a laugh, almost as if the threat were consigned entirely to the past.
Returning to the focus on Israel, Maron, acknowledging that “we’re going to piss off a lot of Jews”, describes his mother’s generation as one that took comfort in Israel while he “could not imagine living there”. In response to this, Rogen again questions the entire rationale of Israel, “if it is for religious reasons, I don’t agree because I think religion is silly; if it is truly the preservation of Jewish people, it makes no sense.”
The two comics agree that they were “fed a huge amount of lies about Israel. As Rogen explains, “they never tell you that, ‘oh by the way there were people there’.” For Maron, the goal of Jewish indoctrination on Israel is “to make sure that you are frightened enough of your own survival that when you get old enough, money is sent and trees are planted, and that you will always speak highly of Israel”. Those are sentiments sure to raise the hackles of those doing the indoctrinating.
These two comedians stand in a long tradition of Jewish inquiry, where sacred cows must be challenged, debated, and at times debunked, where idols must be smashed.
Acknowledging this, Maron says “I get frightened to talk about it. I’m afraid of Jews.” Rogen laughs and agrees, “I’m 100% afraid of Jews,” despite pointing out that the only Jew tough enough for them to be afraid of is actor and Godfather star James Caan. Nonetheless, Rogen insists, “if anyone can say whatever the fuck they want about this shit, it should be two famous Jewish people.”
Rogen concludes that “for Jewish people in particular who view themselves as progressive, who view themselves as analytical, people who ask a lot of questions and really challenge the status quo, like, you know, what are we doing [in Israel]?”
Therein lies the nub. These two comedians stand in a long tradition of Jewish inquiry, where sacred cows must be challenged, debated, and at times debunked, where idols must be smashed. Opposing them are forces of doctrine, conformity, and judgment.
It’s debatable which of these tendencies is more authentically Jewish or has a greater grasp on the truth, but there is no doubt which is funnier.