On Jewish Humor

A little over a year ago I published an essay in the Journal of Popular Culture about how Larry David and his HBO show Curb Your Enthusiasm subverts traditional definitions of Jewish humor. That piece was a sequel to an original but unpublished article I wrote on the meaning of Woody Allen’s fictional screen persona and its misunderstanding in film and cultural criticism. What follows is a version of that piece.

In the final section of his first short story collection, Getting Even, published in 1971, Woody Allen includes an addendum entitled “About the Author,” which sketches his major accomplishments as a writer for television, film, and the stage. The piece remains an otherwise pithy autobiographical statement until the final line where Allen reveals that “His only regret in life is that he is not someone else.”[ii] On one level, this candid confession is a clever non sequitur, providing one final piece of amusement before the book ends; but more seriously, the confession reflects a recurrent spasm in Allen’s perceived identity. While he is seemingly writing about himself, the final line recalls the ironic and self-critical character of Allen’s persona that saturates most of his stage, screen, and literary work. This fictional identity is chiefly characterized by an ambivalent unity of pride and criticism, which ultimately shapes the nebbish spirit of his comedy. In this sense, he is at once the schlemiel—the self-critical loser, the awkward innocent—and a sharp observer of cultural attitudes. Such a traversal is presented more drolly in the old Jewish adage, “We have a God in heaven, thank God; but has he got a people on earth, God help him!”

Allen’s brief comment suggests, among other things, that his persona is shaped by multiple notions of Jewish identity and is filtered through a keen understanding of Jewish humor. As such, the imbrication of these elements constitutes one of the defining features of Allen’s put-upon little mensch character, so much so that it often shadows the real Allen. Although he has maintained a certain distance from his fictional doppelgangers, he nevertheless identifies with his characters as Jews: “Any character I…play would be Jewish, just because I am [a Jew].”[iii] By identifying with his Jewishness on the one hand, Allen’s persona reflects particular Jewish attitudes that inform his own Jewish identity. Paradoxically, on the other hand, his persona often expresses anxieties with which a wider audience (including non-Jews) can identify. As Maurice Yacowar has observed, the persona “hides what Woody is really like, but it shows us something of his inner life—and it reflects our common nature.”[iv] Indeed, as a humorist, comic, and clown Allen has become a major cultural symbol in North America, a figure of intelligence, wit, and clumsiness. For Jews, Allen cleverly communicates the eternal strife of emancipated Jewry; for non-Jews, he connects to his audience through common anxieties by mocking what he does not understand. Certainly, it would not be difficult to overemphasize the notion of Jewish victimhood in Allen’s comic style, as evidenced in the above quotation, but it remains only one facet of his complex persona.

My basic claim is that Allen’s schlemiel figure, while Jewish, demonstrates a comic and intellectual sensibility that obfuscates a singular notion of Jewish identity and representation. The natural spirit of Allen’s comedy is in his ability to be Jewish, unJewish, a New Yorker, a romantic, a cynic, an intellectual, a fool, an outsider, and an insider—sometimes all in the same breath. The imbricated and oscillating nature of Allen’s persona resists causal explanation in terms of either Allen’s own Jewishness or specific principles concerning contemporary Jewish identity in North America. To understand the complex nature of Allen’s persona, what is most helpful, I argue, is an investigation of the central tropes that disclose the essence of this comic persona. By examining the tenets of Jewish humor and the relevant notion of contemporary Jewish identity, we can begin to reveal the significance of Allen’s humor, the response(s) that his humor triggers, and its relationship to notions of a particular Jewish sensibility.

On the nature of Jewish laughter, Irving Howe has suggested that Jewish humor is not humorous at all. In fact, the distinctive quality of this humor is in its ability to examine and criticize cultural attitudes from a marginalized position. As Howe observes, “The group which struggles along the margin of history is always in a better position to examine it realistically than the group which floats in midstream.”[v] More than criticizing the mainstream, however, Jewish humor has been historically defined as a critical apparatus that also involves a healthy dose of self-criticism. The acute social observations that pepper the jokes of classical and contemporary humorists often include self-criticism and ridicule, leading Howe to suggest that this humor “is in a state of constant tension between criticism and justification,” which resembles “the plight of all humanity.”[vi] Furthermore, the double-bind of Jewish humour, its oscillation between pride and criticism, supports Sig Altman’s conclusion that in contemporary film comedy the “very word ‘Jewish’ has become laden with humorous overtones,” and that “Jewish identity is itself a kind of automatic comic device projected at an audience ‘programmed’ to receive it.”[vii]

Indeed, humor has been at the heart of Jewish writing from Sholem Aleichem to Isaac Bashevis Singer to Saul Bellow to Philip Roth to Woody Allen. These writers have debated identity in their work and, in turn, have been subject to scholarly criticism that aims to concretize and isolate the inherent “Jewishness” of their texts. In Allen’s case, the critical discourse has centred on the perceived Jewishness of his persona. At a theoretical level, the identity of his persona is ultimately shaped by the discourse, which has reduced the heterogeneous and, perhaps, paradoxical character to a homogeneous stereotype that begs to be read as irrefutably “Jewish.” More than any other contemporary Jewish personality, Allen’s nebbish persona has been appropriated and essentialized by a range of scholars in various disciplines—from theology to cinema studies—whose aim is to effectively isolate Allen’s internal Jew from other traits that challenge his unique Jewish identity. In a sobering account on Jewish exile, Howard Wettstein observes a trend in recent scholarship that employs essentializing categories of identity to virtually construct the modern American Jew. Signalling the need to remain open to ironic and overlapping definitions of Jewish identity, he asks, “Who is to say, after all, that there is only one kind of significance, only one way that being Jewish can matter?”[viii] Thus, I argue that the willful tendency to construct Jewish identity in contemporary discourse finds an apotheosis in the critical perception of Allen.

As cultural studies scholar Simon During has noted, “Identities, then, are not given in terms of what individuals are as a whole, but in terms of more or less arbitrarily selected features that they possess. For the most part, individuals have little power to choose what features will be used to identify them—these are determined socially, from the outside.”[ix] Here, however, I would like to make a stronger claim, that Allen’s identity is far more nuanced than discussions have suggested.

The exact nature of Jewish identity remains an anomalous beast that resists articulation. However, despite the tendency to suppose that there is a single or privileged classification, it is important to consider the diversity of Allen’s identity. To explain his character as a result of a clearly defined Jewish influence is to foreclose inquiry into the textured traits that fill his art. In this sense, it is possible to link Allen to the broad notion of cultural hybridity that is outlined by During: “hybridity theory thinks of identity not as a marker, a stable trait across groups, but as a practice whose meaning and effect is constantly mutating as its context changes.”[x]

What I’m suggesting is that Allen’s comic identity — the self-hating Jewish outsider — has been misread. His persona is far more nuanced, diverse, and hybridized than critics and scholars have let on.

The Self-Hating Jew

The distinctiveness of Jewish humor is a familiar topic for cultural historians and social theorists. Howe’s contention that Jewish humor is not necessarily humorous is a valuable conclusion that informs the structure of many Jewish jokes. While there remains room for physical slapstick comedy, several scholars have noted that the humor of Jews is based on the criticism of cultural attitudes from outside the fray of mainstream society. The criticism of social behavior and cultural traditions reveals a disposition that is not as amusing as a physical gag or impersonation, but nevertheless yokes observation with a certain form of social satire. Howe goes on to argue that these jokes do not provoke uproarious laughter, but instead question the ways in which society behaves. Consider these jokes from Allen’s repertoire: “When I was kidnapped, my parents snapped into action. They rented out my room…” and “My parents were very old world. Their values in life were God and carpeting.” Thus, these comic jabs attest to what Howe has called the “internal criticism” of Jewish humor: “Though a joke usually involves a thrust at someone else, [this] humor is often a thrust at the Jews themselves.”[xi]

The emergence of the self-critical or self-hating Jew in critical discourse derives its influence from the comic style articulated in Allen’s jokes. Indeed, for some scholars Allen’s supposed self-criticism is a decidedly “Jewish” trait that would otherwise find little laughter if the comedian was not a Jew. Moreover, for some psychologists Jewish humor is “an act of self-disclosure…a means by which a person tells those present something about himself.”[xii] This hypothesis is taken one step further by Sigmund Freud in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. He has observed that Jewish jokes “are stories created by Jews and directed against Jewish characteristics…I do not know whether there are many other instances of a people making fun to a such a degree of its own character.”[xiii] The investigation of the Jewish condition has led Freud to conclude that Jewish jokes can be characterized in six ways:

 [There is] a sharp self-criticism of the Jew; a democratic mode of thought; an emphasis on social principles of Judaism; a revolt against Judaism; a concern with the socio-economic status of the Jew; and a generally skeptical outlook.[xiv]

Three of these categories are related to the general condition outlined by Howe, which emphasizes the self-critical and sometimes negative attitude of Jewish comedy. The sharp self-criticism, the revolt against Judaism, and the skeptical outlook have all been applied to the study of Jewish fiction and, more recently, to the style of Allen’s persona. However, before asking if Allen is, in fact, a self-hating Jew, we must examine the purpose of the self-critical joke.

The social relevance of self-deprecating jokes in contemporary Jewish culture is central to our understanding of its place in Jewish humor. Early students of Jewish humor including Martin Grotjahn and Sig Altman contend that the self-critical apparatus became a necessary defensive device throughout Jewish history. Their hypotheses develops the idea that the disclosure of shortcomings by Jews essentially stifles further persecution. Put another way, the paranoia and discrimination suffered by Jews throughout history results in a defensive strategy that counters hostility by admitting fault. Lester Friedman has called this hypothesis the “I’ll-Say-It-about-Myself-before-You-Say-It-about-Me” attitude.[xv] More generally, this definition is shaped by historical factors that have emotional overtones. These critics imply that self-critical humor is used as a shield and serves its purpose only when it protects against tyranny and mockery. Maurice Samuel sees the shield working in reverse: self-deprecating jokes empower the Jewish victim and encourage an “escape from the tragic realities of Jewish life.”[xvi]

In his own study of the social conditions of Jewish humor, Avner Ziv reaches a similar conclusion and maintains that shtetl Jews laugh to ease the pain of their everyday experience. The common foibles provide the impetus for the humor, which allows them to laugh and take comfort together.[xvii] Theodor Reik, Freud’s disciple, echoes Ziv by suggesting that a certain degree of masochism “has been essential to Jewish survival in the diaspora over the last two millennia.”[xviii] These accounts all stress the emotional toll of oppression, and see self-deprecating humor as quelling Jewish anxieties. However, these theorists have not addressed whether or not self-critical humor is the result of Jewish self-hatred.

In their discussion of modern Jewish American culture, Naomi and Eli Katz have suggested that self-critical humor is used to isolate one generation of Jews from another. Where humor was once the defensive shield of the ghetto community, it is now employed to mock the qualities and attitudes of first generation immigrant Jews. The Jewish American humorist mocks the qualities that typify the Old World Jew, from the Chassidic garb to the whining Yiddish accent. From Jackie Mason to Lenny Bruce to Woody Allen, the Katz’s maintain that the criticism does not imply hatred for Jewish culture as much as it is hatred for “the first-generation Jew himself, since the stereotypes being criticized refer to a specific folk caricature rather than to the Jewish system of ethics.”[xix] This perspective receives further treatment by Salcia Landmann who “predicts the impending decline of the phenomenon of Jewish humor defined by Freud because Jewish humorists will soon have nothing new to mock.”[xx]

Landmann’s hypothesis is anchored by the idea that modern American Jews consciously distance themselves from the qualities and attitudes of their Old World ancestors. Allen’s joke about his parents being Old World “types” is frequently invoked to support this argument. These arguments also point to assimilation as a determining factor of Jewish humor. As the American Jew becomes assimilated, there is the possibility that she relinquishes her Jewish identity in favor of one more acceptable in mainstream society. Most certainly, this theory finds its apotheosis in the work of Bernard Rosenberg and Gilbert Shapiro who refute Landmann’s claim on the basis that second- and third-generation American Jews are facing their own identity crisis: “Where we previously hated ourselves for being Jews, we now frequently hate ourselves for not being Jews.”[xxi] In Oedipus Wrecks (1989) (one of the three tales in New York Stories), Allen plays Sheldon, a Jewish writer who has all but renounced his religion and cultural heritage in order to distance himself from his overbearing mother (another common source for comedy in Jewish humor). Sheldon becomes engaged to a Gentile woman, anglicizes his last name, and becomes enmeshed in the Manhattan WASP social scene where he frequently disparages the cultural behaviour of Jews. That is, until his mother disappears from her New York apartment and soon takes up residence in the sky, where she can better monitor her son’s actions. Overwhelmed by guilt, grief, and frustration, Sheldon meets a Jewish mystic with whom he falls in love—if only because of her traditional Jewish cooking! In the end, Sheldon accepts his heritage, his mother, and ultimately accepts his own Jewishness, which results in his mother’s return. Thus, it is a sense of guilt that contributes to the humorist’s self-deprecation.

That Jews are self-hating because of their disappearing Jewishness is a hypothesis that is not limited to Rosenberg and Shapiro. In a polarizing essay entitled “Woody Allen and the Jews,” Samuel H. Dresner argues that Allen is not only self-hating but also openly critical of the Jewish religion. Confusing Allen’s persona for the real man, Dresner castigates Allen for comments he made in a 1988 New York Times editorial, where he criticized Israeli military conduct during the intifada. Dresner blurs the line between Allen’s persona and his actions as a Jewish-American when he calls on his “adoring audience, especially his Jewish audience” to question the motives of the filmmaker: “For that audience, by its adoration, and even by its neutrality, has ipso facto betrayed its faith and its people. Does one detect a scintilla of love for the Jewish people in Allen?”[xxii] While Dresner’s suggestion of audience complacency is not his central point, he nevertheless employs the notion of the self-hating Jew to support his larger thesis concerning Allen’s anti-Jewish attitudes.

Focusing on the issue of religious faith, Dresner repeatedly criticizes Allen for mocking the Jewish religion and, by corollary, Jews themselves. He observes that Allen’s audience is “accepting” of these attitudes, which, for Dresner, results in “a betrayal of Jewish values…[and] a betrayal of the Jewish people.”[xxiii] In other words, when Allen criticizes rabbinical practices or Jewish traditions, he is also betraying himself. This mockery to which Dresner refers derives not only from Allen’s film work, but also to the short story in Getting Even, “Hassidic Tales, with a Guide to Their Interpretation by the Noted Scholar,” quoted at the beginning of this post, which critiques the wit and wisdom of Jewish bible stories and the religious figures that tell them. Dresner writes:

Never before have so many Americans seen so ugly a portrayal of religious Jews as in his oeuvre. For the Gentile, Allen’s depiction of religious Jews as pious frauds, and worse, can only confirm the vicious stereotype of the Jew as hypocrite, devil, despoiler of morality, and corrupter of culture.[xxiv]

In this sense, Dresner implies that Allen’s self-hatred mobilizes into disdain for an entire people. In Dresner’s view, the implication of Allen’s stereotypical appropriations is a negative enterprise that threatens to corrupt the existing Jewish culture and highlight certain undesirable attitudes to non-Jews.

As a Jewish humorist, then, Allen is appropriated by several scholars who theorize on the nature of the self-hating Jew. While each scholar identifies different qualities in the self-hating subject, Allen’s humor is featured prominently in their analyses. In Lester Friedman’s study of Allen’s comic style, he notes that Allen uses laughter as a shield to escape the injustices of life and the people who scorn him. Though Friedman does not necessarily associate the laughter shield with the deflection of anti-Semitic hate, the origin of the shield metaphor is curiously similar to one outlined earlier by Sig Altman. In another book-length study of Allen’s films, Maurice Yacower argues that his self-deprecating humor demonstrates, more than anything else, “the difficulty of sustaining a traditional identity” in the modern urban community.[xxv] In both of these accounts, Allen’s self-critical disposition is attributed to social injustice and religious persecution.

The examination of Allen’s persona by various scholars has revealed a tendency to focus on the comedian’s Jewish background. Although Allen frequently refrains from dealing with “Jewish” subjects in his films and short stories, the critical discourse outlined above has clearly defined his persona as being Jewish. Whether he is scorned for political views that defy conservative Jewish thought or narrowly defined as being self-deprecating, Allen’s image has become subject to identity appropriation. Allen himself has stated that “what I’m really interested in is creating an image of a warm person that people will accept as funny, apart from the joke or the gag.”[xxvi] In this sense, the real Allen seeks approval from his audience, while the persona continues to signal that he is still not comfortable with himself.

Mark E. Bleiweiss offers an alternative hypothesis when he suggests that Allen’s persona neither mocks his own Jewish identity nor Jewish culture itself. In this sense, the purpose of Allen’s self-criticism springs from “his desire to humble himself before audiences who might otherwise idolize him.” Thus, the eternally shy Allen “instills his own personal warmth into all of his roles,” which leads Bleiweiss to conclude that his humor

reveals his self-affirmation as a Jew … He increases his persona’s warmth by stressing his imperfections. His emphasis on the imperfect, far from mocking Jewish values, actually reflects the Jewish notion that we must all learn to accept unchangeable shortcomings so that we can function in our everyday lives.[xxvii]

That Allen injects decidedly Jewish topics into some of his films leads Bleiweiss to state that the persona is, in one way, proud of his cultural heritage and willing to share it with his audience. Paradoxically, however, Bleiweiss’ notion of the “self-affirming Jew” is weakened by his assertion that Allen is largely ignorant of his own Jewish heritage. His argument suggests that just as Allen’s character in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) “got off on the wrong foot” with God, so too has most of his other screen characters. When Allen criticizes rabbinical practices and Jewish mysticism, Bleiweiss stresses that he is simply mocking what he does not understand.

However, in Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989) the one character that is placed on a moral pedestal is the blind rabbi (Sam Waterston) who is wiser and more sensible than the other troubled characters. Alternatively, in the “Hasidic Tales” short story, Allen mocks a rabbi who does not obey the laws of kashrut and is revealed as a fraud. In each of these examples, Allen presents ambivalent readings of Jewish culture and tradition that cannot be safely confined to one category or another. He is at once the self-affirming figure that venerates Old World customs, and a self-critical cynic that questions his own allegiances.

To suggest, then, that Allen’s persona is a complex and ambiguous figure challenges the ways in which scholars have appropriated his image to support their various perspectives on the nature of the self-hating Jew. In other words, Allen’s persona is frequently reduced to an essentialized identity, one that leaves little room for ambivalence, incongruity, and nuance.

He is self-hating because he is intended to repeat the historical plight of his ancestors; or he is self-affirming because he chooses to mock his cultural roots. For Altman and Friedman, Allen uses self-deprecating humor as a defensive measure against further persecution and criticism from society. For Dresner, Allen’s self-critical humor betrays his religious faith and commitment to Jewish causes, while Bleiweiss and others feel that Allen cannot be too critical of his Jewishness because he does not know enough about it to genuinely criticize it. Thus, Allen’s identification as a conflicted Jew has been appropriated by several scholars who have constructed an identity for the comedian; that is, his persona has been imbued with characteristics that are culturally inflected and determined by specific social conditions.

In other words, I am suggesting that the persona has been mapped by scholars in order to anchor Allen’s comic style in a particular field of study. The traits chosen to identify Allen’s self-hating behavior are contingent and based on arbitrary values that do not consider his persona’s sometimes paradoxical and incongruous attitudes towards Judaism, society, and ethnicity. The essentialized personality that these scholars have constructed limits our own ability to understand the nature of Allen’s comic style and his relationship to traditional forms of Jewish humor. The origins of self-critical attitudes in Jewish humor are multileveled, yet in order to reveal Allen’s hybridized personality, we must first consider another trope of contemporary Jewish identity: the Jew as outsider.

The Jew as Outsider

The myth of the wandering Jew functions as a dominant symbol in the critical discourse on Allen’s comedic persona. More generally, the Jew that is never at home, never at rest, and a stranger in his own village is a broad theme that moves throughout modern literature and film. This theme has prompted several scholars to theorize on the nature of the Jewish outsider. In the novels of Saul Bellow, the protagonists struggle in a world that is not their own. Philip Roth’s natural subject is a Jew that is uncomfortable in his middle-class surroundings, the Jew whose identity is a “problem to himself.”[xxviii] Thus, Gregg Bachman has asked, “What is a Jew?”[xxix] His answer lies “in the desperate struggle of the outsider,” while Albert Memmi suggests that

The Jew’s self-rejection by the non-Jews are so intertwined that it is sometimes difficult distinguishing between them. In making fun of himself, by this very mockery, the Jew reveals his absurd preoccupations, the acrobatics to which he resorts to face them, his complicated and ludicrous adaptations to life in a too-harsh world, one which he can’t face unprotected. Jewish humor tells of the fundamental lack of adaptation of the Jew to non-Jewish society.[xxx]

The heroes of these narratives all struggle to understand what it means for them to be Jewish in the urban chaos of New York City. Yearning to assimilate, to adapt, and to be accepted is a cultural tenet that Memmi argues is fundamental to Jewish humour.

The root of Allen’s screen persona can be linked to the comic traditions of the clown figure of early Hollywood cinema. Film clowns, as Gerald Mast explains, are different from everyone else around them, especially in appearance and demeanor. Groucho Mark, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin are perpetual outsiders who cannot function in mainstream society because they are too busy mocking it. Indeed, several scholars have related Allen’s schlemiel clown to Chaplin’s Tramp on the assumption that both figures are eternal outsiders and, thus, quintessential Jews. Hannah Arendt suggests that “the most unpopular people in the world inspired what was long the most popular of contemporary figures.”[xxxi] On the influence of Jewish elements in Chaplin’s humor, Albert Goldman has argued that

Chaplin was an English Jew who was at pains always to deny or minimize his Jewish origins. The Little Fellow was the apotheosis of the schlemiel. His vulnerability and helplessness, his quick wit and ingenuity in self-preservation, his absurd affectation of dandyism, his infatuation with blond-haired, fair-skinned, voluptuously innocent maidens…were the classic notes and signs of the Jewish comic hero.[xxxii]

Sig Altman has stressed that, like Goldman, Chaplin’s Tramp is “difficult to ‘place’ into any other symbolic niche but that of the Jew in the Diaspora.”[xxxiii] Even the Nazi Party denounced Chaplin’s films on the merit that he was a “Jewish Communist millionaire.”[xxxiv]

These statements by Jewish and non-Jewish critics serve to highlight the structuring character of Jewish humor in the modern era. According to these thinkers, this humor is derived from difference with and adversity to the Gentile world. It is also derived from a sense of galut or exile from home. The Jew, like the Tramp, is the perennial loser, the unfortunate and clumsy outsider. Chaplin’s ability to tap into these themes would suggest that he shared a perspective with first-generation Jews who found humor in their plight.

The only caveat to this hypothesis is that Chaplin was not Jewish.

The misconceptions over Chaplin’s ethnicity spring not from unintentional coincidence but from clichéd notions of Jewish humor. The image of the Jew-as-outsider is an available caricature that evolves out of the novels of Kazin, Bellow, and Roth, where urban Jewish types search in serio-comic fashion for their “identity” amidst a sea of people that do not resemble or understand them. The alienated characteristics that define Chaplin’s Tramp are echoed in Lester Friedman’s pithy summary of Allen’s persona:

 [Allen is] a wise-cracking onlooker, persecuted victim, anxiety-ridden weakling, eternal outsider, guilty paranoid, stand-up comic, hopeless but unbowed lover, figure of moral rectitude. Like Chaplin’s immortal tramp, Allen…finds himself locked into conflict with the alien world surrounding him.[xxxv]

Whether or not Chaplin was influenced by Yiddish humor or the stories of immigrant Jews, it is clear that scholars have attributed his fictional persona to the ubiquitous Jewish outsider. Thus, the link between Chaplin and Allen is made complete by the inference that both comedians are Jewish (or, at least have been influenced by the plight of the Jewish outsider).

Consequently, there is a consistency to the way in which Allen’s persona is coded as outsider. Gerald Mast links him to Chaplin when he states that “Allen’s combination of the Jewish aspects of the schlemiel with the physical characteristics of the silent clowns presents an image of a man eternally bewildered by a hostile universe.” He goes on to insist that Allen is the first comedian where being Jewish “was not simply a hereditary accident but a way of life.”[xxxvi] In another study of Allen’s work, Ruth Perlmutter argues that Allen is never at home in any of his films, hinting that his situation resembles Theodor Herzl’s notion of the Jew who never leaves the ghetto except through illusion.[xxxvii] Thus, suffering and eternal isolation are themes that dominate the criticism of Allen’s screen personality.

The perceived vulnerability of Allen’s persona is essentialized by several scholars who position his Jewish characters in dichotomous relationships with non-Jewish characters. This perception highlights Allen’s Jewishness and isolates him from those who do not understand his Jewish sensibility. The conflict between the Jew and the WASP is an essential antinomy to the construction of Allen’s screen persona. Without this dichotomous category, Allen would simply assimilate into the Gentile crowd and lose his distinct Jewishness. At least this is what Ruth Perlmutter suggests in her study of Zelig (1983). She writes:

 Thus, Zelig is a further extrapolation of Allen’s literalizations of himself as the Jew in the WASPish world. If he can change himself in to a goy and marry the oxymoron, the non-Jewish female psychiatrist, he has resolved his own sexual inadequacies (which seem always tied to his Jewishness) while retaining the American dream of assimilation promulgated by the Jewish Hollywood moguls.[xxxviii]

Suffering has become so embedded in the perception of Allen’s Jewish humor that the binary model of Jew-WASP has become a distinguishing character trait of his persona. Zelig is about a Jewish man who is so obsessed with assimilation that he takes on the qualities of a chameleon who can physically transform himself into the ethnic group of which he is a part. Interestingly, Perlmutter has focused on the relationship between Zelig and his female psychiatrist rather than the other relationships that pepper the narrative. Zelig’s association with Chinese individuals, British and American politicians, the obese, and even Nazis presents a challenge to the simple Jew-WASP binary; that is, Zelig seems to fit in everywhere but nowhere. The only stability he achieves is in his love for the psychiatrist he eventually marries.

The clear contrast between these two cultural categories is elucidated most plainly by Gerald Mast who insists that it is Allen’s own insecurities and self-critical attitude that reveals the binary situation. In Sleeper (1973), Allen is literally out of his own time when he wakes up in the year 2073 to find that future citizens are rather bland, featureless individuals who rigorously obey the edicts of their “leader,” an aged man that is frequently glimpsed on television dressed in flowing white robes. Mast investigates the film’s treatment of Jews and Gentiles and concludes that Allen illustrates the dichotomy with a distinct visual style.

Evident in Annie Hall and Interiors (1979) as well, the Gentiles in Sleeper are visually “coded” by their blond hair, white clothes, and muscular bodies. Gentiles are frequently bathed in natural light, surrounded by lush greenery. Mast writes: “Although Allen associates any number of pleasing visual images with goyim—sunlight; nature; tasteful shades, shapes, furniture, objets d’art, and clothing—he also implies spiritual deficiencies to accompany the tasteful imagery. Gentiles are cold, unpredictable, frivolous, and suicidal.”[xxxix] Miles is, alternatively, dishevelled, neurotic, anxious, and feels uncomfortable being outside for too long. For Mast, Allen draws out these distinctions to a greater degree in Annie Hall, which I will examine in the next section. It is enough to say at this point that the “faddish, flippant, and unpredictable”[xl] Gentiles of Annie Hall prefer life in Los Angeles while Allen’s character, Alvy Singer, cannot dream of leaving New York City. Again, however, it is not ethnicity that provides the impetus for Alvy’s self-critical humor. Once more, Allen’s salvation comes in the form of a smart woman (Annie Hall) who, in turn, makes him even more conscious of his self-criticism.

The oppositional strategies that have been employed by these scholars reduce Allen’s comic identity to the myth of the wandering Jew. These arguments, while persuasive, nevertheless reflect what Bernard Susser has called the “adversity thesis.” Susser contends that throughout history, since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD, Jewish identity has been shaped by adversity to oppression. Susser states that it “created the kind of solidarity of both fate and faith that could withstand, indeed gain strength from, the oppressors’ blows. In a word, Jews survived not despite their persecutions but because of them.”[xli] This argument, first advanced by Baruch Spinoza over three hundred years ago, is raised by Susser in order to question its validity in the late 20th century in North America. He claims that modern Jews, while devoid of any oppression in their own lives, continue to carry within themselves the “stubborn” attitude that pits Gentile against Jew and, more generally, non-Jewish society against Jew. He goes on to argue that “What emerges for modern Jews is, therefore, a striking dissonance between the cultural assumptions of the tradition and the reality with which they are familiar.”[xlii] He claims that Western, pluralist democracies have provided a positive place for Jews to live, which necessitates a new way of conceiving of contemporary Jewish identity.

Thus, the embattled Jew that Mast and Perlmutter describe has, in some ways, outlived embattledness as a reality. The construction of Allen’s perceived embattled identity has shadowed a number of different readings of his humour and comic style. If we attempt to describe Allen as anything but a self-critical outsider, the framework that has constructed this image will likely weaken and reveal the hollow shell of its theoretical structure. Perhaps the most provocative question that Susser asks is one that relates directly to this discussion of Allen’s comic style: “Will Jews learn how to take ‘yes’ for an answer?”[xliii] Can Allen’s persona learn to take “yes” for an answer? Indeed, he has repeatedly demonstrated that he is capable of eschewing the adversity thesis that has haunted his comic identity. By detailing the fragmented, oscillating character of Allen’s persona through a brief analysis of Annie Hall, the hybrid nature of this identity becomes evident.

Grammy Hall and the Restless Jew

The dialectic at the heart of Allen’s humour recalls Irving Howe’s conception of Jewish comedy in relation to the work of Sholem Aleichem: his comedy is built on “the incongruity between man’s ambitions and his impotence to achieve them.”[xliv] This assessment reveals the tendency for the Jewish humorist to oscillate between two poles: success and failure. Tragic as well as comic, this oscillation is always in motion, for the Jewish joke is never conclusive or necessarily tied to one pole or another. There is a constant flow of pleasure and pain, success and failure, adversity and acceptance. There is a conjunction of identities within the same individual that ultimately informs our understanding of Allen’s Jewish persona. The internal contrast that characterizes this persona reflects an ambivalent attitude that cannot be adequately explained with reference to the two aforementioned tropes. That Allen is either a self-hating Jew or self-affirming Jew, an insider or an outsider, overlooks the hybrid qualities that inform Allen’s comic style.

The merging of oppositions is crucial within Allen’s comic persona. This is clearly explored in Sleeper. As the alien individual in a future society, Miles is homeless and without a clear idea of who he is. In order to determine why Miles is an anxious neurotic, his two companions re-enact a key moment from his childhood that explains his nervous disposition. Luna (Diane Keaton) and Erno (John Beck) proceed to undertake a scene from a Passover seder from Miles’ youth. The two blond-haired characters, while impersonating Miles’ parents, struggle to speak with Yiddish tongues, often mispronouncing phrases such as “Oy vey iz meir!”

On the surface, this sequence appears to conform to the binary model espoused by Mast in his study of Allen’s comic sensibility that explores the “differences between the Jewish Allen and the goyim who become his lovers and friends.”[xlv] Mast illustrates the Jew-WASP binary by juxtaposing the environments in which Jews and Gentiles take their meals: the recreation takes place in bright sunlight with two characters that are fair-haired and dressed in white as opposed to the darkened indoor setting of traditional Jewish meals.

However, the binary function of this scene is contingent on the thematic importance of the dinner scene itself. That Miles’ repressed memory consists of a seder in which his parents condemn his strange behavior is the more important feature of this scene. It is a caricature of a traditional Jewish meal that is punctuated by intense bickering, Yiddish slang, and Miles’ own sheepish demeanor. It would seem, then, that Allen is stressing the beleaguered state of his persona and the disdain he has for his upbringing rather than the dichotomous relationship between Jews and Gentiles. However, the merging nature of his comic identity allows for both to exist simultaneously. The continuous movement between the two poles of self-love and self-hatred are palpably contained within the same persona. Miles, the paranoid, insecure character, is both proud of his outsider status and ashamed that his life is punctuated by stereotypical characteristics of Jewish behavior.

Nowhere in his work is the traversal of Jewish humour more evident than in Annie Hall. Throughout this film, Allen’s character Alvy continuously oscillates between the two tropes of Jewish humour. Indeed, this film concretizes the persona’s hybrid nature as a Jew in transition. Alvy is consumed by self-doubt that ultimately destroys the relationship between him and Annie. Alvy’s behaviour can be represented by the merging of oppositional attitudes within the same structure. Somewhere beneath the binary exterior that Allen’s critics have identified is a persona that thrives on incongruence; for without the incongruities Allen ceases to be funny. There is a conspicuous irony in this film that demands ambivalence in order to be comically effective.

During a pivotal dinner scene with Annie’s family, Alvy is stricken with self-doubt when he glances over to Grammy Hall who stares at him with a malevolent glint in her eye. In one of the film’s many “Brechtian” moments, Alvy turns to the camera to address the audience, calling her a “classic Jew-hater.” He goes on to say, “[her family] really looks American, you know, very healthy and…like they never get sick or anything. Nothing like my family. You know, the two are like oil and water.” The screen then splits in half with Annie’s family on one side and Alvy’s family (from his childhood) on the other.

The contrasts in the eating environments are so overt that the Hall’s take their meal during the day, while the Singer family takes theirs in the cramped quarters of a darkened dining room. The Hall’s are surrounded by nature, lit by bright light, while the Singers are huddled together in a cave-like room with little light. The Halls converse in a polite, if sterile, manner, while the Singers criticize each other with raised voices. At first, then, Allen appears to be feeding the dichotomous Jew-WASP relationship, but upon closer inspection it becomes clear that Allen is doing much more than that. The two distinct scenes play out individually with one contrasting the other until Mrs. Hall speaks across the screen to Mrs. Singer.

In this lengthy exchange, Allen traverses the boundaries of Jewish humor and reveals the inherent ambivalence towards his persona’s Jewish identity. While he secretly admires the Hall’s more “healthy” lifestyle, he is intimidated—if not terrified—of Grammy Hall’s anti-Semitic attitude. The shot that follows Grammy’s steely stare is one of Alvy in the guise of an Chassidic Jew, complete with black hat and beard. As Mast has correctly noted, this image does not reflect what Grammy Hall sees, but rather how Alvy feels about himself. Indeed, he feels slightly out of place in the Hall’s home; that is, until the screen splits.

Although Alvy initially contrasts the two lifestyles (Jew-WASP), he also implies spiritual and social deficiencies within his own markedly Jewish family. When Mrs. Hall asks why the family fasts for Yom Kippur, Alvy’s father suggests that he too does not understand. For Alvy, Judaism is an enigmatic matter. His family obeys the laws of kashrut only because it is customary to do so, and not because they value their faith above all else. In this sense, Alvy’s displaced persona is not limited to the world of goyim; he is equally out of place in his own environment surrounded by his Jewish family. This is evidenced more clearly later in the film when he revisits his childhood home and observes the obnoxious behavior of his relatives. In one shot, little Alvy watches as his uncle “Nickels” makes a fool of himself with a magic trick. In the background of the same shot, adult Alvy observes the entire scene looking completely defeated. Furthermore, the split screen conversation is an explicit representation of the oppositional tendencies of his persona. Here we have two competing perspectives interacting with each other, crossing the threshold of the time-space division. The implication of a binary model is eschewed and replaced by one that underscores Alvy’s (ie. Allen’s) imbricated identity.

Theoretically, the yoking of oppositional categories is central to Allen’s persona as a Jew in transition. In several films, including Annie Hall, he prides himself on being a New Yorker, but admits that the rest of the world views New Yorkers as “left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers.” He is a well-read intellectual that criticizes intellectuals as being “moral masturbators.” He is self-conscious around Gentiles, but consistently falls in love with them. He affirms his Jewishness by separating himself from Gentiles, but questions the existence of God. He respects the wisdom of rabbis, but openly mocks their questionable practices. In an early stand-up comedy routine, he noted that “Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering—and it’s all over much too soon.” Here, in a single utterance, Allen has traversed the bounds of Jewish humor, claiming that life is cruel and uncompromising but he wouldn’t be without it. He is miserable because life is challenging and over too soon.

More important, Allen resists a compartmentalized identity by being ambivalent, critical, and above all, incongruous. In many ways, he is a Jewish enigma that resists the essentialized character of a narrow Jewish identity. The duality of his persona, the ability to be two things at once, is Allen’s unique talent. The dual nature of Allen’s persona affords him the ability to be self-affirming and self-critical, an insider and an outsider.

While scholars have routinely characterized Allen as a quintessential Jewish comic, they have perhaps underestimated Allen’s potential to eschew a traditional definition of identity. The alternating uniformity of his persona is safely contained in the oppositional clarity of his fictional comic identity: just when someone figures him out, he takes a sharp left turn and fools them again. It is, therefore, by no means necessary that Jewish identity be defined by the binary “adversity” model espoused by the cultural critics discussed throughout. For Allen, the tropes that distinguish Jewish humour are in constant motion, and are, for better or worse, all part of the same joke.

[i] Woody Allen, “Hassidic Tales, with a Guide to Their Interpretation by the Noted Scholar,” in Getting Even (New York: Random House, 1971): 68.

[ii] Ibid, back matter.

[iii] Natalie Gittelson, “The Maturing of Woody Allen,” New York Times Magazine, April 22, 1979: http://www.maryellenmark.com/text/magazines/nytimes_magazine/904Z-000-027.html.

[iv] Maurice Yacower, Loser Take All: The Comic Art of Woody Allen (New York: Continuum, 1991): 10.

[v] Irving Howe, “The Nature of Jewish Laughter,” in Sarah Blacher Cohen, ed., Jewish Wry: Essays on Jewish Humor (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987): 19.

[vi] Ibid, 22.

[vii] Sig Altman, The Comic Image of the Jew: Explorations of a Pop Culture Phenomenon (Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1971): 49, 50.

[viii] Howard Wettstein, ed., “Coming to Terms with Exile,” in Diasporas and Exiles: Varieties of Jewish Identity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002): 57.

[ix] Simon During, Cultural Studies: a critical introduction (Routledge: London, 2005): 145, 146.

[x] Ibid, 151.

[xi] Howe, 22.

[xii] David Desser and Lester D. Friedman, American Jewish Filmmakers, Second Edition (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004): 13.

[xiii] Sigmund Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious: The Standard Edition (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1963): 133.

[xiv] Desser and Friedman, 13.

[xv] Ibid,14.

[xvi] Mark E. Bleiweiss, “Self-Deprecation and the Jewish Humor of Woody Allen,” in Renée R. Curry, ed., Perspectives on Woody Allen (New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1996): 200.

[xvii] Avner Ziv and Anat Zadjman, Semites and Stereotypes: Characteristics of Jewish Humor (New York: Greenwood Press, 1993): 54.

[xviii] Bleiweiss, 200.

[xix] Naomi Katz and Eli Katz, “Tradition and Adaptation in American Jewish Humor,” Folklore, 84 (1971): 215, 219.

[xx] Bleiweiss, 204.

[xxi] Bernard Rosenberg and Gilbert Shapiro, “Marginality and Jewish Humor,” Midstream, 4 (1958): 72.

[xxii] Samuel H. Dresner, “Woody Allen and the Jews,” in Renée R. Curry, ed., Perspectives on Woody Allen (New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1996): 191, 193.

[xxiii] Ibid, 191.

[xxiv] Ibid, 197.

[xxv] Yacower, 95.

[xxvi] Bleiweiess, 206.

[xxvii] Ibid, 200, 207.

[xxviii] Alfred Kazin, Bright Book of Life: American Novelists & Storytellers from Hemingway to Mailer (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1973): 144.

[xxix] Gregg Bachman, “Neither Here Nor There,” in Renée R. Curry, ed., Perspectives on Woody Allen (New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1996): 179.

[xxx] Desser and Friedman, 13.

[xxxi] Ibid, 9.

[xxxii] Ibid, 9.

[xxxiii] Altman, 12.

[xxxiv] J. Hoberman and Jeffrey Shandler, Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2003): 37.

[xxxv] Lester D. Friedman, Hollywood’s Image of the Jew (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1982): 283.

[xxxvi] Gerald Mast, “Woody Allen: The Neurotic Jew as American Clown,” in Sarah Blacher Cohen, ed., Jewish Wry: Essays on Jewish Humor (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987): 126.

[xxxvii] Ruth Perlmutter, “Woody Allen’s Zelig: An American Jewish Parody,” in Andrew S. Horton, ed. Comedy/Cinema/Theory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991): 215.

[xxxviii] Ibid, 210.

[xxxix] Mast, 132.

[xl] Ibid, 133.

[xli] Bernard Susser, “The Ideology of Affliction: Reconsidering the Adversity Thesis” in Howard Wettstein, ed., Diasporas and Exiles: Varieties of Jewish Identity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002): 221.

[xlii] Ibid, 225.

[xliii] Ibid, 232.

[xliv] Friedman, 273.

[xlv] Mast, 130.

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