Magazine article Humanities

Borscht Belt Legacy

Magazine article Humanities

Borscht Belt Legacy

Article excerpt

NEW YORK "JEWS," RUTGERS UNIVERSITY'S resident Yiddish scholar Edward Portnoy said with a straight face at the Society of Illustrators last April, "are not funny." At least not to their Gentile observers of the nineteenth century. European literati such as Thomas Carlyle chorused that the Jews had absolutely no sense of humor. French philosopher and Middle East scholar Ernest Renan even went so far as to say, "Semitic people lack the faculty to laugh." The Jewish people themselves, however, thought they were hilarious, more hilarious than anyone else. So how did a people whose nineteenth-century stereotype consisted of a grave Talmudic scholar come to dominate American comedy? When did the rest of us get in on the joke?

These were the questions that the enormously successful Manhattan event, titled "From the Borscht Belt to Seinfeld: The Evolution of Jewish American Comedy," tried to answer. The presentation was funded by the New York Council for the Humanities and featured a panel of experts who provided historical and personal context on the topic. The panel, which consisted of Portnoy, veteran comedian Larry Storch, contemporary television writers Bill Persky and Tom Leopold, and illustrator Drew Friedman, convened as an extension of Friedman's exhibit of caricatures. This exhibit represented the culmination of Friedman's three volumes of portraits of old Jewish comedians, the last of which was published in 2011.

When large waves of Jews from Eastern and Central Europe flooded into America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they were quickly initiated into the American brand of racial humor. To homegrown Americans, these foreigners looked funny: their dark hair and beards, their distinctive noses. And their Yiddish, by many accounts, sounded comical too. It is from their Hebrew-German linguistic brew that we get some of English's most phonetically apt words like schmuck, glitch, and chutzpah. All of this made them easy targets of ethnic-based mockery. To the regrettably popular blackface comedy, American comics added the Jew-face. They put on putty noses and false beards and made jokes about Jewish shopkeepers setting their businesses alight for the insurance. Instead of resenting this kind of racial comedy, Jewish entertainers decided that they would be better at making fun of themselves than anyone else. Jewish comics honed their skills first to Jewish-only crowds in New York City, then later in the Jewish-dominated resorts of the Catskills, known as the Borscht Belt, and finally into mainstream American consciousness. …

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