Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Lenny Bruce Would Not Understand Vanessa Hidary, and nor do I?

In Lenny Bruce, Vanessa Hidary on May 5, 2009 at 3:09 am

I saw this youtube segment showing Vanessa Hidary wowing an African American crowd with a ruminative piece of spoken word performance art. She is quite compelling, but her message, upon reflection, was troubling.

The piece centered around a non-Jewish male asking her out at a bar and her declining because that day was going to be Yom Kippur and she was going to be fasting. He “compliments” her by saying she didn’t look Jewish, nor did she act that way. She responds with a silent smile, and only later did she feel the sting of shame.

This triggers a diatribe decrying his not so subtle bigotry and her silence, all the while invoking images of the Exodus from Egypt, the Western Wall, and the ubiquitous Holocaust. Her point was that she was tired of feeling that being Jewish is not cool, and she just wants to be seen and respected for who and what she is.

When did being Jewish stop being cool? Hasn’t she ever heard of Lenny Bruce’s neologic musings on Jewish and Goyish? “Dig I’m Jewish, Count Basie’s Jewish, lime jello is goyish…” Doesn’t she know there was a time that the top three novelists on the New York Times Best Seller list were Phillip Roth, Saul Bellow, and Bernard Malamud–all writing about the Jewish experience while the fourth a very non-Jewish John Updike had written Bech: a Book whose protagonist was a very Jewish college professor?

In the days of Lenny Bruce they wanted to be like us. We didn’t need to be accepted by them–that was the height of unhipness. Did anyone ever doubt that Allen Ginsberg was Jewish? Who was hipper than Allen Ginsberg?

Her perpetual invoking of our unique badge of suffering is also getting to be a bit much. You start to wonder what these artists would do if we didn’t have the Holocaust. I get a bit queasy when I see the Holocaust replacing Mt. Sinai. We needed Sinai, and, God knows, we didn’t need the Holocaust–but some seem to.

There is an old joke about a country yid meeting a city yid on a train. “Where are you from?” the city yid asks the country yid. “From a small shtetl.” “How small?” “100 Jews and about 15 gentiles.” “And you, where are you from?” “I’m from Minsk” “How many people are in Minsk?” “50,000 Jews and 200,000 gentiles.”

“What do you need with so many gentiles?” The country yid asks.

The point of the joke is that the country yid has no perception that Jews are, or ever act like, a minority group. Why?

Because we’re too cool to care!

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  1. I agree there’s something very disturbing about her performance, but I’m not quite sure what it is for me. The holocaust mention is definitely part of the issue.

    You might want to embed the video in your post so everyone knows what video you’re referring to – just enter the ’embed’ code from the grey box on the right here to do so:

  2. You ask:

    “When did being Jewish stop being cool? Hasn’t she ever heard of Lenny Bruce’s neologic musings on Jewish and Goyish?”

    I doubt she has even heard of Lenny Bruce.

    The 3 writers that you name — Phillip Roth, Saul Bellow, and Bernard Malamud — may help to explain this. The writings of these authors portray Jews as frequently neurotic, somewhat dysfunctional.

    The Jews in their novels were generally not cool.

    And while the authors themselves emphatically were viewed as cool, those authors were only so viewed by a small number of literat.

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