In the movie “When Jews Were Funny,” Alan Zweig asks comedians about their experience of being a Jewish comedian.
When he asks some old school comics — Shelly Berman, Norm Crosby, Jack Carter, Shecky Greene — their answer was unanimous and dismissive. They aren’t “Jewish Comedians.” They are just comedians, like any others.
The younger comics don’t get this separation. To them, being a Jew and being funny is just what people are, just what they learned as their parents pointed out who was Jewish on the Ed Sullivan show.
Zweig can’t see the point in his subjects rejection of the label “Jewish comedian.” After all, they are Jewish, they are comics, it’s that simple, right?
But to the guys who fought their way up in that time, it’s not simple. Not at all.
To them, their comedy careers were a path to wider success, to social acceptance, a path to assimilation. Their goal was to break out of the ghetto, to not be Mickey Katz playing the Catskills, but rather to go mainstream, to break big, to get on the Sullivan show. They knew the in-house Jewish comedians, and they knew they weren’t them.
Today, being Jewish isn’t such a big deal anymore. The assimilation has come, and Jewish is just a flavour, not a barrier. You can be Jewish and mainstream; no big whoop.
That wasn’t the case when these guys came up, though. Assimilation required cleansing, required denial, required putting part of you in the closet so you didn’t spook the midwest.
Zweig doesn’t get this because he never experienced the ghetto, never faced the kind of broad-based antisemitism that lead to films like “Gentleman’s Agreement.” He has never ever felt himself an outsider fighting to get in. The idea is incomprehensible to him.
Outsiders know the cost of assimilation as a price to be paid, as a fight to be fought, in a way that people who never had to struggle to assimilate will never understand.
And transpeople? Well, we are definitely outsiders, outside something most people see as a fundamental and very real split between the sexes in the sea of gender that they swim in and take as the only possible normal.
Is there any wonder we struggle so much with assimilation, with how to shape our expression so as not to frighten the rubes? Pick a gender, stick with it, people taunt, unable to imagine the experience of being both and neither at the same time, unable to fathom the price of assimilation.
Today’s Jewish comedians live in a world where being Jewish is just something, not the one thing that defines you. They feel no need to break out of that stereotype because the old chains have been broken by people who worked hard to smash the box that made “Jewish” a basis for prejudice & discrimination.
I know that the fight is important for those who come after us. They will never need to know the price we paid for assimilation, and, as Zweig points out, will also never know the distinctly different culture of the ghetto, the humour that binds and lifts those who know themselves to be outsiders.
But the fight is still the fight, and for those of us born in the decade when Christine Jorgensen came back from Denmark, the struggle is on our skin.
Assimilation, well, it’s still a struggle.