A Problem Shared

A review of Devorah Baum's Feeling Jewish

Leah Mirakhor
The cover of the book Feeling Jewish by Devorah Baum.

In my early teens, my family attended a Hasidic synagogue in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; my father had chosen this synagogue, I think, because it was unabashedly, unequivocally, and anciently Jewish. Unlike in America, in Iran there had been no hierarchical divisions delineating how Jewish you were, no synagogues that differentiated between Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Lubavitch, or Hasidic and the various nuances among each. Jews simply went to synagogues whose defining features were more readily constituted by their regional articulations (Mashadi, Shirazi, Tehrani, Esfahani) than by the degrees of their religious adherence or practice.

At this synagogue, there was none of the “goyishness” my father had witnessed in other synagogues: guitar playing, men and women sitting together, a casual ease, egalitarian happiness–attributes that I, too, shamefully still associate with “goyishness.” Here were Jews who had an even longer legacy of being ripped from their homes and families, those whose grandparents had fled the various nineteenth-century pogroms, others whose parents had been the sole Holocaust survivor in their family; and everything they had experienced was breathtakingly and beautifully accounted for in the most basic of all rituals–how they prayed. A Yom Kippur service at that synagogue still continues to be one of the most moving spiritual practices I’ve witnessed and been a part of. Of course, to be an outsider among such outsiders is to be full of fraught remembrances and nostalgias. But what became clear to me, as I observed the congregants’ strict adherence to maintaining their difference in the private sphere and performing it in the secular sphere, and taking every conceivable measure to guard its sanctity, was that for them, to live a Jewish life outside these parameters was to put oneself at great risk and harm.

Neither was there room for questioning and ambivalence outside the lines already drawn by the community. There was an eruv around thinking, too. This to me felt antithetical to Jewishness. What were Jews, if they couldn’t remain curious about the how, why, where, when, and what if? Constant adaptation was not only a defining feature; it was historically linked to survival. The rules determining everything they did–from what detergent to buy to when to perform marital relations to the observance of dietary rules– looked suffocating, but they also provided a certain freedom. The members of this synagogue did not feel Jewish, they were Jewish. They were in charge of safeguarding Judaism while the rest of us watched movies or went to the mall on a Saturday afternoon.

My father, like other exiled patriarchs, sought to preserve a past that was already gone and perhaps had never really existed. One of the most prominent features of diasporic communities is a need to hold on to what has already been left behind, lost and unrecoverable, by fixating on a past in which things were felt as more certain. This past, an imaginary homeland, is a palimpsest underlying the new life on which they have been forced to embark. To be Jewish in America, and moreover, to remain Jewish in America, meant, for people like my father, that you had no choice but to align yourself with the most conservative, most traditional, and most ancient version of Jewishness available, and that, no doubt, was Hasidic.

Feelings, and feeling Jewish, lie at the heart of Feeling Jewish (a Book for Just About Anyone), the British writer Devorah Baum’s debut book, which is rendered with a vulnerable elegance that expresses the symbiotic nature of so many things that we would rather envisage as separate and impermeable. One of its most compelling insights is the value of feeling feelings: “To admit feelings is by necessity to acknowledge uncertainty, and probably a painful uncertainty, which may well be why we so often defend ourselves against feelings, although it’s for this reason too that our feelings can create change, create an opening, be or become radical.” Feeling feelings opens us up to “radical” possibilities. This is a profoundly political statement precisely because it asserts that what we deny and thwart on an individual level might mean something about the global distress in which we find ourselves and are complicit in–environmentally, politically, socially, and culturally. In this, and her two other recent works–the film The New Man (2016) and her second book, The Jewish Joke (2017)–Baum offers different modes of examining her lifelong obsession with feelings and their strange, overwhelming allure, and with Jewishness, and its strange, overwhelming allure.

The importance of feelings and feeling Jew-ish, a feeling Baum claims can apply to almost anyone, is something that will, unfortunately, always be relevant, but it seems especially meaningful and necessary right now. While reading this book and watching the daily horrors bombarded across every imaginable screen, I thought not just about President Trump but about the many self-professed overlooked, ignored, and marginalized Americans who not only voted for him but continue to support him. “He is so sure of himself” is a feeling I have, often wrapped in disgust and admiration. In a world full of people who feel disenfranchised and marginalized, the goyish president–self-assured, arrogant, ignorant, ostentatious–is not one of us; but for some of us, he is an aspirational figure we hope to emulate, to become, or even to assimilate into. Trump proves to be a model of self-assuredness not built around knowledge or grace or experience but rather aggrandized by his lack of anxiety about needing to be right, let alone needing to be concerned about his own lack of knowledge, or, perhaps most compellingly, needing to participate in the folly of political correctness. Ironically, Trump’s power has been in part to acknowledge the feelings of others even as we wonder about the lack of any trace of his own feelings. He has exploited the “negative” feelings of those deemed relatively privileged–upper-, middle-, and lower-income white people—feelings that excessive attention has been given to and taken over by others: black and brown people, LGBTQ people, Muslims, and illegal immigrants.

This anxiety, this displacement from a fixed sense of self, has become a key feature of feeling Jewish.

Baum does not draw a line between Jewish feelings and everyone else’s feelings. Well, not really. Quoting the popular saying “Jews are like everyone else, only more so,” she pays no attention to measurements, categorizations, or bloodlines in her definition of what feeling Jewish is and how to identify its characteristics. She writes, “While I’ve called this book Feeling Jewish, I don’t wish to claim this is a feeling or series of feelings felt by all, or even most, Jews, any more than I would wish to claim that these feelings are somehow exclusive to Jews. As Kafka put it so memorably in his diary–‘What have I in common with Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself and should stand very quietly in the corner, content that I can breathe’–a diary entry that,” Baum explains, “admits of a feeling that, paradoxically, I’ll go on to consider a stereotypically ‘Jewish feeling.’ You don’t have to be Jewish to feel you have nothing in common with Jews, but being Jewish helps.” Kafka’s anxiety about himself over all, and his anxiety about the world at large, is significant for Baum, as he articulates the modern subject’s unfamiliarity and unknowability, even–and perhaps primarily–to himself.

The ambiguity of “feeling Jewish” is stated repeatedly throughout the text so we do not have to read far into it before getting an answer: Baum consistently makes clear that what she does not hope to do is provide readers with an essential picture of “the Jew” and an essentialist reading of Jewish feelings. But the tricky line here is the final one, “You don’t have to be Jewish to feel you have nothing in common with Jews, but being Jewish helps.” How much does it help? Or another way to put it, how much does being Jewish help with feeling Jewish? What exactly constitutes being Jewish? And how Jewish am I?

This question, of course, is colored by my own relationship to Jewishness and Jewish feelings. Baum’s project is to explore a series of feelings without conforming to the essentialist definitions that anti-Semites and “anti-Semitic-Jewish” tropes rely on. Nonetheless it’s a question that intrigues her as well. What I realized about my own “Jewish question,” with a degree of shame, was that I was not immune to the “Jewish question,” which relies, however precariously, on finding something “essential” about being Jewish, even though in my day-to-day life I would deny the very premise of essentialism. This refusal to identify key aspects of their Jewishness is part of what troubles so many of the orthodox sects of Judaism: many Jews have an ambivalent, often contested, undefined relationship to feeling Jewish. Many of us don’t have an answer to the question of what makes us Jewish or how we feel about being Jewish.

In Baum’s The New Man, co-directed with her husband, Josh Appignanesi, a moving personal film about the process of becoming parents, Jewish rituals are significant to helping them get through one of their most difficult experiences, but they are also woven into, and occur in such a way that they blend nearly seamlessly with, their conversations and their ways of being. I don’t think the word Jewish is ever uttered in the film, but Baum’s Jewishness, particularly in articulating her newfound experience as a mother, is deeply felt and, well, a little Jewish. Baum gives a speech at her fortieth birthday party that reflects on the pain wrought by the joy of motherhood: “I have no words for this other pain, which is this unbearable love for this child, it’s unbearable, it’s excruciatingly powerful [laughs]. I can’t bear it; no one told me how awful it was to love this much.” What Baum so eloquently reveals is what it’s like to really feel something, rather than deny that feeling, and here the something is “mother love.”

The key to Baum’s argument is that she refuses to provide a simple answer. As she stated to an audience member in a book talk with Zadie Smith, “Finding a solution to the Jewish question has never gone well.” Much of the questioning itself is indicative to Baum of what it means to feel Jewish. Put concisely in her slender Jewish Jokes: “What is quintessentially Jewish? It’s being at odds with oneself. It’s taking pride in one’s difference and feeling ashamed of it at the same time.” And later: “Thus knowing that you don’t know what Jewish means is what makes you Jew-ish.”

The dangers of the “Jewish question” and the categorization of “the Jew” have been important features in European national discourse and identity; Jews were branded as the sinister foreign other that threatened to penetrate the natural order and integrity of the nation-state. It is no accident, Baum writes, “that the so-called ‘Jewish question,’ which hovered so menacingly over Jewish modernity, first arose during the period when Europe was forming its nation states.” European nations and Nazi ideology characterized Jews as “unnatural creatures, out of touch with their feelings, hybrid, parasitic, incapable of originality or creative genius, corrosive of both the physical body and the body politic, and contaminating of natural cultures, peoples, and languages.” The nationalist articulations of belonging “relied on” the “feeling subject”–“perfectly balanced between mind and body and living in harmonious relation to nature and culture”–in contrast to “the Jew as a kind of grotesque perversion of the ideal type.” The Jew was an unreliable and unassailably untrustworthy figure, whose position threatened the natural balance of the nation-state. “The Jew,” Baum elaborates, “was one whose feelings were unreal, unnatural, mimetic, copied, fake. Indeed, the Jew was not so much a figure of feeling as one of emotion: exaggerated, melodramatic, and over the top.”

Baum was led to this project by her own roots, which, even though she doesn’t quite flesh them out, provide an important motivation; her lifelong personal inquiry is examined through scholarly and literary texts that foreground what it means to have Jewish feelings: “If it was personal for Freud, it’s personal for me too,” she confesses. “I have been concerned with Jewish feelings–with feeling Jewish–for as long as I can remember. This is something I share with a number of my Jewish friends, and it has been observed by other Jewish and non-Jewish friends with a certain degree of puzzlement if not concern: why is it that how I feel in all kinds of situations is so often bound up with how I feel about myself as a Jew?”

Freud and Freudian analysis, not surprisingly, undergird Feeling Jewish and its overarching interpretation of feelings: “The Freud who will aid my analyses is … a thinker for whom feelings and their ambivalences are never wholly good or bad, right or wrong, just or unjust, or ever just one thing.” Baum’s articulation of feelings as something we take exorbitant measures to deny, primarily because of what we are afraid they may reveal about us, is important: “Feelings are unreliable, often seem entirely inappropriate, and are frequently if not always conflicted.” Her chapters–“Self-Hatred,” “Envy,” “Guilt,” “Over the Top,” “Paranoia,” “Mother Love,” and “Affected”–accordingly investigate these feelings as complex, unstable, and “negative,” and she considers them precisely because we tend to avoid them and have come to associate them with “Jewishness.”

Part of what makes Baum’s thinking and writing so engaging is the way she’s able to express how opposing and conflicting ideologies are often deeply intertwined, and even necessitate one another. In other words, to examine the paranoid Jew and the anti-Semite, we must look at some of the glaring similarities in their thinking: “The anti-Semitic imagination regards the Jew,” she writes, as “adaptive, uncanny, shapeshifting, hiding unsuspected under apparently progressive guises.” Interestingly, “the Jew, of course, has learned to be adaptive precisely in order to survive the often treacherous conditions of life in the diaspora. Yet we find, once again, in the paranoid perception of Jews–the anti-Semite’s conspiracy theory–a truthful insight about the historical conditions of Jewish existence, albeit one obscured and denied by a malignant, false and ahistorical interpretation.” Baum expertly reads the ways conflicting ideas are often at the root of many of our personal anxieties–the paranoid Jew and the anti-Semite often lurk, bound together, within each of us.

In this way, Freudian psychoanalysis becomes an even more significant mode of inquiry because of Freud’s own background: “Freud’s ideas about feelings may well have been rooted in his own conflicted feelings as a Jew.” In this regard, Jewishness and feeling are linked for Baum, as they “can even be regarded as complementary forces dually assaulting the classical idea of the self as a unified subject.” Feelings and “Jewishness” are destabilizing, conflicting, and uncertain–which is why they terrify us, and why we must explore them, particularly in the twenty-first-century global climate. The dichotomy between the feeling person and the emotional person is a dichotomy between those whose “sense of self [is] so authentic, so instinctive” and those who are “unpredictable, consistently intruded on by an anxiety about how the other regards [them], and thus mediated always by a terrible sense of self-consciousness circuiting the possibility of simple or natural feeling.”

This anxiety, this displacement from a fixed sense of self, has become a key feature of feeling Jewish. The always-already-an-outsider who is viewed with a suspicious glare. In her penultimate chapter, “Mother Love,” Baum explains how other-ness is linked to being perennially linked to the Jewish mother, the source of all frantic doubts and chaos. “Judaism, after all, is both the Other and the Mother of a global Christian culture,” Baum writes. “As such, Jews have historically been, like our mothers, not only scapegoated for being unknowable and in doubt, but blamed for being the source of everyone’s unknowability and everyone’s doubts in a world where no identity holds up amid the continuous separations.”

Observing the way both religion is absent and Jewishness is present for the comedian Larry David, one of the figures most closely associated with Jewishness in contemporary America, Baum quotes David’s insight: “Religion doesn’t play any part in my life in terms of how I live my life. But I don’t think I’ve ever gone through a day in my life without hearing someone say the word ‘Jew’ or saying it myself.” According to Baum, David, like Kafka, articulates the way “his Jewishness, despite being emptied of any discernible religious content or meaning, continued to lay an irresistible claim on him.” David is often regarded as an anti-hero of modern American culture whose feelings are universal but whose articulations are “over the top.” We envy his ability to express his paranoia, discomfort, ambivalence, reticence, guilt, and perversity without filters. His appeal is exactly that he says what we cannot, or do not, for fear of social alienation and banishment. To feel Larry David’s anxiety, according to Baum, is to feel Jew-ish. Later, Baum contextualizes the way in which David’s kind of paranoia is not only not crazy, but makes sense: “It isn’t hard to see the historical inspiration for Jewish paranoia, for example. Why wouldn’t a Jewish person after World War II and the countless massacres, pogroms, and persecutions that preceded it, be paranoid? Not only do such fears make sense, but, it could be argued [that] on back of their historical experiences, Jews would be crazy not to feel paranoid.” Increasingly, any person who seems well adjusted, happy, and carefree has become an object of suspicion, for such a condition is inconceivable to many of us. This is why David’s constant state of heightened anxiety is so humorous, so cathartic, and so freeing.

Like David, Feeling Jewish provides an antidote to sentimentality through its weightiness, humor, and deeply felt literary and cultural critiques. Baum examines the ambivalence of a range of noted (and oft-cited) poets, memoirists, novelists, and filmmakers such as Allen Ginsberg, Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Woody Allen, Sandra Bernhardt, Nathan Englander, Anne Frank, Eva Hoffman, Adrienne Rich, and James Lasdun. Most, but not all, of the novelists she examines are Jewish. And most of the novelists are American. While many of the theorists Baum reads have European philosophical roots (Freud, Foucault, Sartre, Adorno, and Nietzsche, with the notable exceptions of Sianne Ngai and Rei Terada), the absence of a consideration of feeling Jewish in relation to contemporary British Jewish writing is curious, since Baum’s own relationship with Jewishness is, no doubt, bound up in some ways with her Britishness. As Baum articulates, hearing the word Jew said aloud, as Larry David does on a daily basis, “might be construed as a particularly American occurrence.” In England, it’s a different matter.

For example, she confesses that saying the book’s title aloud, particularly in England, evokes some anxiety and shame. Like the protagonist in Philip Roth’s Deception, Baum whispers “Jewish”; “‘the voice always drops just a little,’” notes Roth’s protagonist, when the word is uttered in England. “Jew” and “Jewish” in England are words to be whispered–by Brits and Jews– under one’s breath, “as if one were alluding to someone’s bad smell.” “Rather worryingly,” she admits, “it does look as though, in some quite visceral sense, feeling Jewish is a source of shame for me.”

While she doesn’t delve too deeply into the personal, examples from literature, such as Roth’s protagonist, who seeks “‘Jews with appetite. Jews without shame,’” or Eva Hoffman’s After Such Knowledge and her “significance envy” (a characteristic of children of Holocaust survivors), used by Baum as guides to thinking about feeling Jewish, and these readings are where she almost always shines. I admired Baum’s forthrightness and candor, and her erudite consideration of where such feelings occur and how we might engage with them, guiding us in how to read literature deeply and passionately. This is marked by a belief that a steadfast, perfervid immersion in literature is the highest calling. “I have no intention of appealing to any form of feeling imagined to take place outside language.” “Literature is situated here,” she asserts, “as the place where feelings can be most richly shared as felt and felt as shared.”

Baum does engaging, passionate close readings of literary texts, several times offering troubling readings of texts in which I had heretofore felt assured, provoking me to examine what I had overlooked or ignored. In her reading of the characters in James Lasdun’s memoir Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked and Teju Cole’s novel Open City, and the pairing of the paranoiacs, she looks at the troubling anti-Semitism of the characters, without also examining if–or how –such anti-Semitism operates among those from the so-called “Islamic world.” I also found myself disagreeing fervently with her reading of Nathan Englander’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” but I was still so taken with her alertness to the nuances that I forced myself to read his short story several more times. Her readings of modern fiction are informed by a consistently deep attentiveness, and they ask if you, too, have been paying attention.

Some authors are curiously absent, such as other prominent figures who delve deeply into Jewish feelings, in particular older heavyweights such as Joan Rivers and Norman Mailer, and more contemporary writers who have been largely associated with their Jewishness–Michael Chabon and Nicole Krauss, for example. I wondered whether these absences might be related to Jewish male sexuality, which she doesn’t examine even though she touches on it–and in the case of Woody Allen, she makes no acknowledgement of the sexual assault allegations against him and the anti-Semitic tropes that linked them to “Jewish perversion.”

In her poignant public interaction with Zadie Smith, who asserts that “the people making the biggest success in politics right now have no feelings,” Baum responds by pointing to what draws us to such people: “We are very seduced by people’s ignorance; it’s incredibly seductive to see somebody who isn’t weighed down by the weight of the world, it can give us hope.” And yet, “It’s abysmal to find hope in ignorance.” Ignorance, then, is not only appealing; it is the source of possibility, which is why it is so dangerous to look away from it. And Baum’s Feeling Jewish persuades us to develop an ethics of compassion, which is a deeply political project.

However, while Baum does develop this notion further, she does so by explaining that she has no “political agenda.” She writes: “It’s not my project here to advance a particular political agenda. I want to talk instead about how the feelings that seem so often to divide us may also be a means of uniting us: on opposing sides of the same battlefield our feelings about each other may be precisely what we share.” To be attuned to this perhaps means that we, as the popular saying goes, put our politics aside. “Today,” she writes, “everyone … appears inclined to feel if not existentially threatened, then at the very least marginalized.” This, as Baum examines later in Feeling Jewish, is related to “envy”; there are a great many of us who are suffering from feeling as though our suffering is not being recognized the way it ought to be. This “us versus them” dynamic is being expressed by both the haves and have-nots. The haves have long been muttering that they too are feeling dispossessed and threatened. In the global populist wave, they have been able to shout.

Near the end of the book, Baum articulates this idea even more forcefully and again highlights the politics of her nonpolitical agenda. “When it comes to feeling panicky, weak, outnumbered, and existentially threatened, in other words, Jews are by no means all alone,” Baum repeats. “Indeed, the sense of dispossession that might be said to underpin resurgent ‘nationalist’ feelings could hardly have more in common with the feelings of those rootless cosmopolitanisms accused of aggravating them. So mightn’t there be, I can’t help wondering, a way of extending the reach of our sympathies on account of such similarities as that? Unless, of course, it is the feelings themselves that are unwanted, mistrusted, and inadmissible.” What if it’s not that we are unwilling to be sympathetic to similarities but that a collective refusal to encounter the feelings themselves has gotten us into this mess?

One of the most insightful commentaries woven into the book centers on the problem of over-attribution of Jewish feelings to “powerlessness and abject victimhood.” Jews, she asserts, must not be lured into claiming the position and assuming a monopoly on it by arguing, We have long been oppressed, so we cannot possibly be oppressors. Edward Said’s provocative statement in one of his final interviews, “I’m the last Jewish intellectual … the only true follower of Adorno,” was not just a challenge, according to Baum, but also a “painful appeal to Jewish feelings”: “you of all people should know how we (Palestinians) feel.” Who could be more Jewish than the Palestinians, Said argues–exiled by “the proverbial people in exile.” Jews, Baum notes, have become wedded to the feeling of being persecuted and victimized, and they have become hardened to the danger that they might be “the potential victimizers.” “For if Jews as a group–if any group–become too sure of what and how they feel, and if what they feel is that they are powerless, or victims, then the elasticity of feelings must have hardened into a fixed identity, making it difficult for those thus sensitized to recognize themselves in any other role, such as that of potential victimizers. Feelings can be misleading.” Not only can feelings be misleading, they can also persuade us to become even more rigid in our positions–and “block movement, action, or even sympathy.” The Jewish problem, Baum argues, is a problem shared.

As historians have argued, Jewish identity has often been linked to issues related to grappling with exceptionalism and assimilation. Eric Goldstein’s The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity (2006) traces how Jews in America deployed their relationship to their “Semitic roots” and their historical experience of suffering and displacement to create an identity that at once protected their difference and allowed them to advance and assimilate into American society. In particular, “Racial language also allowed Jews to maintain their self-image as a persecuted people as they rose on the economic ladder and attained an unprecedented level of social acceptance.” Well before the Holocaust, prominent nineteenth-century American Jews such as Cyrus Sulzberger, editor of the American Hebrew, maintained that the “Jewish identity could not be understood apart from the history of Jewish oppression, which had deeply shaped the group’s character and bound its members more closely together.” Sulzberger, along with many of his contemporaries, believed that “Jews’ experiences with persecution had imbued them with a heightened morality, a clearer sense of justice, and a greater appreciation for the suffering of others. While the ‘Aryan has stood for pillage,’ editorialized the American Hebrew in 1884, ‘the Semitic race has stood for peace.’”

Explaining how modernization and “becoming Jewish” were linked, the historian Yuri Slezkine’s The Jewish Century notes that “the Modern Age is the Jewish Age, and the twentieth century, in particular, is the Jewish Century.” “In the age of capital, [Jews] are the most creative entrepreneurs; in the age of alienation, they are the most experienced exiles; and in the age of expertise they are the most proficient professionals.” Extending Slezkine’s thesis, Baum demonstrates that feelings stereotypically associated with Jews, “diasporic people who are unsure of their place in the world–people who are persistently mobile, looking all the time over their shoulder, and jostling for position,” are now, arguably, universal feelings, feelings everyone can not only relate too but can lay claim to as definitive to their experience. “Such feelings,” Baum argues, “have become ever more common within the era of globalization, when everyone feels more uprooted, unsettled, insecure about group identity and forms of belonging–and hence more anxious, guilty, self-loathing, nostalgic, paranoid.”

Her analysis of the diaspora cuts two ways. There is a noticeable oversight of consideration of the non-European world, which, as in many books that examine Jewishness without touching on its relationship to whiteness, overlooks some of the literary and cultural productions that deal with Jewishness outside of the white American or white European canon. Most of the figures we associate with “Jewishness” are present in the book, but absent are memoirs by black Jewish writers such as Julius Lester or Rebecca Walker, or any consideration of the canon by Mizrahi or Sephardic Jews. Unfortunately, American Jews are accustomed to seeing Jewishness accounted for in this way. So much of American Jews’ cultural references of “Jewishness” are equated with Jews with European roots, in large part because of the reality of who makes up American Jewry. But in reading Feeling Jewish, I am again confronted with the gnawing question of how much of it is about me and my family, first-generation Iranian Americans with roots in the non-European world.

How exactly is Jewishness shared? Perhaps a clue resides in the Jewish joke, whose effectiveness often depends on a reveling in uneasiness; the pleasure of those who tell it and those who hear it has to do with a mutual recognition of displacement, anxiety, and fraught subjectivity. Baum teases this out brilliantly in Lenny Bruce’s famous “Jewish and Goyish” skit. “If you live in New York or any other big city, you are Jewish. It doesn’t matter even if you’re Catholic; if you live in New York, you’re Jewish. If you live in Butte, Montana, you’re going to be Goyish even if you’re Jewish.” Bruce offers an “invitation,” according to Baum, that asks us to join the outsiders. If you get it, you’re Jewish. Zadie Smith opens Autograph Man with Bruce’s skit; it’s because, Baum notes, “she gets it.”

Several years ago, I took a graduate seminar on twentieth-century American fiction in which the professor, encouraged by the students’ laughter, would retell the Jewish jokes he had learned while working as an instructor in the Berkshires years earlier. The Berkshires were bucolic, and the Jews he encountered were in his mind a group of “over the top” yentas and yids, and obnoxious Jewish mothers full of bawdiness and provinciality.

I don’t recall the jokes, but I do remember that he delighted in telling them, and my peers, none of whom I knew to be Jewish, delighted in hearing them. My background as an Iranian, in this case as in many others, made it impossible for the others to imagine that I could also be Jewish. I had grown to pass among non-Jews as not Jewish, and as not Jewish among the bulk of Jews I grew up with who were Ashkenazi, and whom I too had subconsciously associated with embodying Jewishness.

The professor would begin class with these jokes in an effortless and self-assured fashion, so that we had come to expect them with our coffee and snacks as a kind of warm-up, loosening us up for the more serious considerations to come: formalism, modernism, structuralism, the Cold War, Foucault, Hegel. I had grown angry by all the ease, by the giddy laughter, but mostly, I think, I was angry about the delivery that felt, for lack of a better description, not “Jew-ish.” The delivery had no edge, no trace of shame or self-hate; instead it reveled in an outsider’s making fun of people he didn’t know much about beyond his summer camp experience. He was relaying the neuroticism without feeling neurotic. So I took this to mean that he wasn’t Jewish, even if he was, as Lenny Bruce would say, Jewish. He was WASP-y, and so was his syllabus.

One day, I had had enough. He told a joke, and after the laughter had subsided but before he could gear up to tell the next one, I asked, “Are you Jewish?” And almost on cue, the room fell silent. I remember the silence quite well, and I remember feeling ashamed. I had outed myself and I had embarrassed him. After the hum, he replied, “No.” And he offered some disclaimer about his time in the Berkshires with the Jews.

What I really wanted to ask him was why he felt so compelled to tell Jewish jokes. But I never did. The “Jewish question” posed to him was bound with my own shame: “Who was I to ask?” A first-generation Iranian Jew who’d never even heard of the Berkshires; at least he’d been there. This wasn’t my story either. The following week, the professor came back to class and told us, sheepishly, in an apologetic tone, “I don’t have to keep telling the jokes if it makes you guys uncomfortable.” My classmates didn’t wait for a silence to take over; they instantly assured him, “No, no, no, keep telling them, please,” and I stayed silent.

Leah Mirakhor is a lecturer in the department of English at Yale University. Her work has appeared in African American Review, Studies in American Jewish Literature, The Los Angeles Times, and The Los Angeles Review of Books.
Originally published:
April 1, 2018


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