One of the benefits of where I work is that I can audit university classes, which is a very groovy thing because lifelong learning is important. And when I saw there was a class on Jewish humor being offered of course I signed up and didn’t hear anything until last week when I got an email that said, “Class starts today!” So I went and, because I was really just sitting in and not a formal student, I took a desk in the very back and tried to look as unobtrusive as possible and the professor started to take attendance and pointed to me and said, “Hey, you’re the one auditing, right?” Suddenly there was a bright spotlight on me that made me painfully aware that I’m half a century older than everyone else in the class. And after class she told me, “Don’t worry about doing any of the homework,” but I’d already done the first assignment.
The assignment was “Write two pages analyzing a joke.” It was a fun idea, and I was going to go with, “How many Jewish mothers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?” but then a friend suggested another joke with a lot more potential. And things got even funnier when the professor said, “This is not a formal assignment. Just tell me a joke, or a bunch of jokes, or about your favorite comedian,” and as you can see what I’d written was already pretty formal.
So anyway this is a long introduction to an assignment that I didn’t need to do and now I’m in so much trouble because I’m pretty sure I can only go downhill from here.
And if you’re wondering how many Jewish mothers it takes to screw in a lightbulb, don’t worry about it, she’ll just sit here quietly in the dark, but it would be nice if you’d call once in a while…
Mrs. Cohen and Mrs. Levinson meet on the street. Mrs. Cohen asks, “How’s your son?” Mrs. Levinson replies, “I have some bad news and some good news. The bad news is he tells me he’s gay. The good news is he’s seeing a nice doctor.”
Analyzing any joke requires context, so to start I’ll look at some of the intersections of the Jewish and LGBT communities throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries. While Jews were the primary target of and bore the brunt of the Holocaust homosexuals were targeted as well. Homophobia and anti-Semitism were also widespread in the United States. In 1945 the writer, director, and film producer Richard Brooks, who was born Ruben Sax to Russian Jewish parents and served in the Marines in Virginia during the war, published his first novel The Brick Foxhole. The novel is about a young Marine who is murdered when his fellow Marines discover he’s homosexual. The book was adapted in 1947 as the film Crossfire but because the Hayes Code, which set standards for Hollywood movies, labeled any discussion of homosexuality unacceptable, the plot was changed to be about anti-Semitism with a Jewish murder victim. Crossfire was nominated for best picture at the 1948 Academy Awards but lost to Gentlemen’s Agreement, which also dealt with anti-Semitism.
In 1969 the Stonewall riots took place, marking the beginning of the modern LGBT-rights movement, and in 1973 the American Psychological Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. Yet homosexuality remained explicitly condemned by many Jewish thinkers. Writing in The Journal Of Homosexuality Rabbi Yoel H. Kahn cites two “widely read and frequently quoted articles”1: a 1973 responsum by Solomon Freehof published as the lead article of the 1973 CCAR Journal symposium and Norman Lamm’s 1974 “Judaism And The Modern Attitude Toward Homosexuality.” However, Kahn later adds, in 1973 Arthur Green “became the first Jewish leader to affirm publicly the desirability and sanctity of homosexual partnerships”2.
Another major, and more public, intersection was the 1983 Broadway premiere of Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy. The play centers on Arnold Beckoff, a Jewish drag queen living and performing in New York. Part of the “trilogy” is his relationship with his mother. Arnold alternately rejects and clings to his mother. He doesn’t tell her he’s adopted a son with his partner David, or that David is murdered in a neighborhood attack on homosexuals. She is bothered by his homosexuality and feels Arnold is rejecting his religion and by extension her. He tells her, “if you can’t respect me…then you’ve got no business being here.”3 She in turn admits, “Some of it was my fault, but not all.”4
Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s the AIDS crisis, dealt with in Tony Kushner’s 1993 play Angels In America, intensified the struggle for LGBT rights and brought the issue to the mainstream. The Supreme Court’s 2003 Lawrence v. Texas decision decriminalized homosexuality nationwide in the United States. That same year in Britain Liberal Judaism became the first denomination to offer synagogue blessings to same-sex couples; the Reform movement formally endorsed the ceremonies in 20115, four years before the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision provided legal recognition of same-sex marriage in the United States.
The historic context is important but there’s a specifically Jewish context to the joke as well. In What Is A Jewish Joke? Henry Eilbirt says the Jewish mother “has a multiple image: suffering, overprotecting, displaying motherly pride, nurturing.”6 Mrs. Levinson hits at least three of these. She suffers because her son is gay and there are unlikely to be any grandchildren, biological anyway, who will call her bubbe, and she may be concerned about her son’s safety in a world that is still often hostile to LGBT people. The nurturing aspect is complicated. Jewish mothers are often portrayed as expecting their sons to go into lucrative professions; specifically to become doctors, while expecting their daughter to marry a successful man. Wendy Liebman jokes, “Is there a doctor in the house? My mother wants me to marry you.” She also says, “My grandmother always said, ‘Don’t marry for money…divorce for money.’”7 In this the joke reflects an unfortunate and outdated gender stereotype that doctors must also be men. There is also a stereotype that both Jews and LGBT people either have innate talent or a strong drive to succeed. Vladimir Horowitz joked, “There are three kinds of pianists: Jewish pianists, homosexual pianists, and bad pianists.”8 Lawrence Epstein considers the Jewish aspect in greater detail in The Haunted Smile, discussing how Eastern European Jews, shut out from most professions, saw themselves as “losers” and built up a strong desire to succeed. By the time they emigrated to the United States that “psychological reservoir of such needs” was “unleashed with ferocity when they found a place that welcomed, nourished, and psychologically and financially rewarded that need to succeed.”9 For LGBT people there is also a perception of success fostered by popular portrayals of “White, wealthy women who host talk shows or affluent men doting on their kids – like Mitchell and Cameron from ‘Modern Family’”10 although LGBT people are not necessarily more likely to be financially successful than their straight peers.
However the joke’s upshot is ultimately positive: Mrs. Levinson accepts, or is working toward accepting, her gay son. She finds both bad and good in the fact that he’s gay, and, poignantly, in this telling, it’s a conversation that happens on the street, perhaps near an intersection.
1-Judaism and Homosexuality: The Traditionalist/Progressive Debate by Rabbi Yoel H. Kahn MAHL, The Journal of Homosexuality, pg.48, v.18 no.3/4 (1989)
3-Torch Song Trilogy by Harvey Fierstein, pg.153 (Villard Books, 1983)
5- Jewish branches embrace rise of same-sex union by Simon Rocker, Times Of London, Jan.17, 2015
6-What Is a Jewish Joke?: An Excursion Into Jewish Humor by Henry Eilbirt, pg.116 (Jason Aronson Inc., 1993)
7-You Never Call! You Never Write!: A History of the Jewish Mother by Joyce Antler, pg.440 (Oxford University Press, 2007)
9-The Haunted Smile by Lawrence J. Epstein, pg.303 (Public Affairs, 2002)
10-The truth about gays and money, NBC News, May 31, 2013