Living in New York City: Jewish (even if you’re Catholic). Living in Butte, Montana: goyish (even if you’re Jewish). So observed the late comic Lenny Bruce. (The real one, not his fictional avatar in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”)
The “Jewish or goyish” game, which has persevered, to varying degrees, both onstage and off, finds its newest iteration in “2 Jews Choose,” a Comedy Central digital series hosted by Jewish comedian and writer Elliot Glazer. The 3½-minute shows can be found on YouTube and Comedy Central social platforms.
Glazer is probably best known as the fictional brother of his real-life sister Ilana Glazer on her show “Broad City,” or from his memorable part in the Seth Rogen film “An American Pickle,” where he played a Brooklyn hipster named Christian (goyish) who discovers and promotes a new artisan pickle (Jewish). In both cases, Glazer’s work is nestled within a strong Jewish identity, and “2 Jews Choose” is no exception.
The series he created is light and funny, and features Jewish celebrities — Judy Gold, Josh Peck, Abbi Jacobson, Susie Essman and Rachel Antonoff — who debate the pairings. Some, like “outlet stores vs. department stores,” have answers that are uttered quickly and with confidence (outlets are Jewish, of course). Others, like “coffee cake vs. babka,” give the guests pause. Shouldn’t there be room for both? But that’s not the game: One must be Jewish, the other goyish.
Bruce did the “Jewish and goyish” routine on stage many times, but it first appeared in print in Playboy (goyish?). David Kamp joined in with a 1999 article in GQ (goyish), then the internet yielded at least two resurrections (a goyish word, no doubt). In 2006, BangitOut.com rebirthed the format to proclaim, among other things, that HBO is Jewish but Cinemax is goyish. And in 2009, on Aish’s Jewlarious site, Marnie Winston-Macauley nailed “The Golden Girls” (Jewish) and “Desperate Housewives” (goyish), but many would disagree with her call on Lois Lane (Jewish) and Superman (goyish).
It’s a strange time to insist on separating things into strictly two categories. Maybe an act built this way is a vestige of a more black-and-white era. Glazer’s iteration is more relatable in this moment than Bruce’s original six decades ago. The discussion that follows the decision is less a monologue and more of an identity inquiry and conversation that can edge on Talmudic.
“How Jewish are you?” Glazer asks fashion designer Antonoff in a recent episode. “Culturally, I’d say I’m off the chart. Religiously, I have all the religious fears and guilt.” Replies Glazer: “Food, guilt … that basically sums up the Jewish experience.” In a discussion of ketchup vs. ranch dressing, Antonoff dubs thousand island “the ranch of Judaism.”
Gold, a Kung Pao Kosher Comedy favorite whose Jewish identity is so core that her Twitter handle is @jewdygold, proclaims that fishing is “way Jewier” than hunting. “Have you ever met a Jew who hunts?” Glazer affirms. Gold scoffs at the whole notion of hunting and then says, “We’re very water,” explaining that the Talmud insists that people need to learn to swim and that Jews love herring and whitefish.
So what is Jewish? Depends whom you ask. There’s always someone who you think is more (or less) Jewish than you are, and there are some who might tell you that you’re “not Jewish enough.” This and other Jewish publications argue over this in their newsrooms all the time: What makes a story Jewish? Rabbis and thought leaders debate it using texts both ancient and contemporary.
Not only aren’t there any easy answers, but questions beget more questions: Ashkenazi or Sephardi? Secular or religious? Which denomination? Were you born Jewish or are you a Jew by choice? Israeli Jew or diaspora Jew? Bottom line is we don’t have enough space to even determine what “Jewish” is — which is very Jewish.
So let’s start with the other one. What is goyish? The word comes from the Hebrew word goy, which literally means nation. Abraham the patriarch is promised that his descendants will be goy gadol, a big nation. The word goy came to mean gentile or non-Jew — and maybe you heard that Elvis Presley served as a “Shabbos goy,” helping an Orthodox Jewish family in Memphis keep Shabbat.
The Yiddish term goyishe (goy-like) reinforced Jewish communal insularity. Jewish experiences were yiddishe, and things outside the Jewish experiential ghetto, or which seemed illogical, appalling or dangerous were goyishe. A yiddishe kop (Jewish head) meant the person was thinking like one of us, in contrast to goyishe kop, people who think totally differently. If your parents or grandparents used the term goyishe kop, or talked about the goyim, it probably wasn’t a huge compliment. Glazer translates goyish as “not for the Jews,” a kinder approach.
Jewish has changed. Goyish has changed. The embrace of the binary has waned. Denominations and delineations matter less, while nuances and personal connections to culture mean more. The categories are expanding as cultural assumptions expand to include new paradigms for defining what Jewish is.
One of the best parts of “2 Jews Choose” is watching the two Jewish entertainers in each episode appreciating each other’s Jewishness. “You are the queen of the Jews,” Glazer says to Gold. “Oh my God, I love you, Eliot Glazer,” Gold says with a huge smile. “I love your family. I love that you’re so Jewy.”
Here’s a good place to remember that Lenny Bruce’s real name wasn’t Lenny Bruce. It was Leonard Alfred Schneider. With this name change, perhaps the comic was playing his own personal meta round of the Jewish or goyish game, in which he emerged, if not entirely “goyish,” then perhaps slightly less “Jewish.”
Whatever that means.