“Spiderman: Jewish or antisemitic?” Eitan Levine asked in one viral TikTok video, speaking with the patter of an auctioneer to a man he had approached on the street in New York. “Oh, Jewish,” the man responded immediately. “100% Jewish.”
The bit is reminiscent of Lenny Bruce, whose famous Jewish or goyish act was, in his own time, and is still, rude; Bruce’s comedy was known for profanity and pushing boundaries. But there’s also something intuitive about it. Pumpernickel and black cherry soda are Jewish; white bread and lime jello and Kool-Aid simply aren’t. Italians are Jewish, but B’nai B’rith isn’t.
@eitanthegoalie Reply to @gid_it_done Is #Spiderman a proud #Jewish icon?? #NYC #Marvel #Eitanthegoalie #twojewschoose ♬ original sound – Eitan Levine
Shockingly, when I asked him about it, Levine was not familiar with Bruce’s famous monologue — though he had, of course, heard of Bruce — but his comedy relies on the same kind of intuition. Spring is antisemitic because of allergies, and it’s too colorful and cheerful. Autumn is Jewish, thanks to the High Holy Days and sweaters — which are, by the way, the most Jewish piece of clothing, possibly more so than tzitzit since, as Levine pointed out, “every Jew wears a sweater, only some Jews wear tzitzit.”
The videos have led Levine to start up a comedy show, turning the gag into a game show — the first was a week ago — where participants compete in questions about what is and isn’t Jewish. And, last weekend, he hosted the Brooklyn Cyclones’ Jewish Heritage Game.
Levine has been doing comedy and making content for years. But “Jewish or antisemitic” has gotten at something deeper for Levine: his relationship to his Jewish identity.
Raised Modern Orthodox, he didn’t always see his Judaism as something fun; instead, he felt that Judaism was all doom and gloom, antisemitism and the Holocaust and strict rules and limits — things that made his life harder. Comedy has allowed him to relate to his heritage in what he thinks is a healthier, more appealing way, and his TikTok videos seem to be striking a similar, positive and relatable note, especially with young audiences — in the fall, he’s going on a college campus tour.
When I spoke with Levine about his comedy over Zoom, he was wearing a baseball cap with a bacon burger on it, the very non-Kosher mascot of a minor league baseball team — very Jewish, by the way, much more so than major league baseball, according to Levine. Our discussion, edited for length and clarity, is below.
So were you inspired by Lenny Bruce’s act?
I only heard, like, a snippet of it, and only after I started. When I heard it, I was like, “Oh, this is pretty funny.” There’s a slightly different vibe to it, but it’s definitely similar. I think the concept of breaking down Jewish vibes has permeated comedy for years and years.
My thing kind of came about because I think that oftentimes Jews become the gatekeepers of tragedy. But I think occasionally we’re too quick to throw the title of antisemitism onto stuff. I think that, now more than ever, there needs to be a step back and laughing at the stuff that makes us unique. Celebrating the stuff that is not related to murder.
Do you try to pick mostly Jews to interview on the street? What happens when it’s not someone Jewish?
Interviewing non-Jews about what they think about Jews and what they know about Jews has been fascinating. It would baffle you how many people think Donald Trump is Jewish, for example — a lot of foreigners think he’s Jewish; that’s a thing. And Putin, also; people think Putin is Jewish.
The concept of what is a Jew — people don’t really know!
Wow, wild. Have you asked people why they think Trump is Jewish?
Oh man. It’s partially because of Israel stuff, but that’s only the narrative behind the Israel stuff — because I don’t think Trump was actually good for Israel.
And there’s the Jared and Ivanka tie-in. And Trump had a very sizable base in the Hasidic community, and I think people noticed that Orthodox Jews were on board with him.
Is that a naive misunderstanding from most people or more toward the white supremacist conspiracy theory end of things?
Definitely both. I’ve talked to people where I had to cut the interview short just because I saw, in their eye, something. None of this makes actual sense, so they read one thing and 10 steps later they think that Putin is being controlled by Zelenskyy — if you go down the line of stuff, you end up at crazy theories. It’s the dumbest version of broken telephone.
How do you pick who you walk up to?
I’m very proud that the series has taken off amongst college students, so we get recognized a lot when we’re filming. And I think New Yorkers like to talk.
Another thing is picking the time and location. If we’re on the Upper East Side, we get less people stopping. But if we go to Washington Square Park, people don’t shut up.
I have a lot of footage I can’t use of me talking to people for a little bit and then I’m like “OK, we’re going to play this game, Jewish or antisemitic,” and they’ll say, “I want to keep my job!” and hand me the mic back and walk away.
@eitanthegoalie Reply to @benshapirosbigass we played Jew or Not A Jew with @talialichtstein !!!! #dojacat #Jewish #Eitanthegoalie #twojewschoose ♬ 2Electric2B (Instrumental) – Jonathan Paulsen
Do you feel like you’re trying to rehabilitate Judaism?
I was born and raised in a Modern Orthodox community, and parts of it were great and parts were awful. I remember having major issues in Jewish day school, for instance, because I had a learning disability. And in Jewish school, if you’re failing Jewish subjects, you’re not just a bad student, you’re a bad Jew.
Like a lot of people, I left Judaism for a pretty long time and the only way I was able to come back to it was to organically find a way to do it my own way.
It is humbling to see how big this series is and to see the comments that are like, “this is relatable Judaism,” or, “I feel seen. I’m a little Jewish kid in the middle of nowhere, the only Jew in my town, and this really resonates with me.”
We’re a silly, endearing, beautiful people. Highlighting that instead of the strict rules and getting up early to go to minyan — I’m hoping this more casual celebration of Judaism pushes the narrative into something that is nicer to be part of.
That makes it sound like the series is largely for Jews who struggle to relate to their Jewishness. Do you think you’re also shifting the understanding of Judaism for outsiders?
I think if you were to ask a lot of people to write a Jewish person, they’d draw a Hasidic person; they wouldn’t draw a modern Jew, the Jew that’s living in New York and doesn’t have any vacation days because they have to take them all off in September. I think that’s a Jew that a lot of society doesn’t get to meet.
It’s interesting to hear you say that this regular, barely-religious New York Jew is unknown, because a lot of people see New York as synonymous with Jews. And there’s a strong pop culture tradition of that nebbish Woody Allen Jewish character.
I think if I were to edit what I just said, if you were to ask people to draw a Jew, it would either be a Hasidic person or a Woody Allen type. Luckily, I do think that over time, the narrative is shifting, and people are starting to see Jews as a wider variety of people. Like the Seth Rogen kind of Jew has had a moment.
@eitanthegoalie Reply to @bstarna THE CRYPTO EP! Ft. @thejackreichert #Jewish #bitcoin #thenewmoneyuglies #Eitanthegoalie ♬ Love You So – The King Khan & BBQ Show
On your bit, and your game show, it seems like you already have the answers to the question of Jewish or antisemitic — even though, of course, there are no answers.
Well, first of all, everything I say is law.
But it’s hard — everyone does seem to know the answers, but how do you land on things that will feel true in that way for everyone?
Is it hard? Once I think of a list of stuff, there’s an immediate answer to all of it. The tough thing is to figure out why. Like Aquaman — Jewish or antisemitic?
Antisemitic. But I don’t know why — I mean, barely even know who that is.
And yet you got it right.