I am Jewish, and in my eyes this gives me the right to be self-depreciating. It’s the same for every culture I have encountered: each pokes fun at themselves slyly amongst themselves and (usually) gets offended if an outsider tries to do the same. So when I read Howard Meyer’s critique of tired Jewish stereotypes perpetuated by modern media, I couldn’t help but wonder: is self-depreciation the most unflattering force of all?
The above song is from a Family Guy episode called “When You Wish Upon a Weinstein”. Its basic premise is that Chris is failing math, so Peter tries to convert him to Judaism so that he’ll do better. It’s slightly patronizing, mildly offensive, and definitely hilarious. And due to concerns over content, was not aired on Fox, the network that produced it, until nearly three years after its production.
Jews have long since made money off of making fun of themselves. Woody Allen was assuredly not the first to capitalize on the “neurotic Jew” stereotype, though he certainly did it best. Judaism’s long legacy of cultural humor is something to be celebrated, not condemned. But how do we convey to others that we’re joking?
The reason that these jokes have such potency is that they’re rooted in truth – I know a large number of Jews who are very good at math, and a large number that are not. The jokes that may or may not have birthed these stereotypes were rooted in creative exaggerations, a capitalistic drive to capitalize on one’s heritage as a source of humor. And we laughed all the way to the bank.
I have never once felt that Jewish stereotypes have led to a negative perception of my character. But maybe Howard Meyer has. And that’s fine. Perhaps we, as a community, need to have a larger discussion about points of pride and sensitivity, so as to stop the recycling of outdated jokes and inform the humor of the next generation. There’s no use being Jewish if you can’t make fun of yourself – we just need to make sure what we’re saying is still true.