Last Spring I attended the 6th Israeli Conference for the Study of Contemporary Religion and Spirituality at Tel Aviv University, and presented my usual paper on the definition of Atheism and the use of fiction as ethnography. While the conference itself proved a better experience than I had expected, it was not without anxiety. After all, what might an individual who studies Atheism expect when visiting one of the cradles of Western monotheism? Would I be welcomed? Shunned? Ostracized? Might I be perceived as a threat? An enemy? An infidel? In fact, when I reflect on the short time I spent there, both in Tel Aviv, and wandering the streets of the Old City in Jerusalem, I have repeatedly found myself remembering aspects of that trip in ways I’m sure aren’t completely accurate, as if these questions have somehow transformed into a construction I might use in order to justify certain stereotypes about that part of the world.
These thoughts came to mind recently as we wrapped up our course on the Ethical and Religious Debates in Contemporary Fiction, particularly with our final text, Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question. Despite winning the Booker Prize in 2010, this has proven a difficult novel to teach with, partly because Jacobson’s use of humour and stereotyping have often fallen flat with many of our students. To summarise, the text provides an outsider’s perspective of a world he will never truly be a member of, offering us an insight into how he perceives that world, while at the same time providing a means with which to interpret that world itself.
Focusing on three lead characters—Julian Treslove, Sam Finkler, and Libor Sevcik—Jacobson’s fiction alters our perception of this insider/outsider paradigm on a number of occasions. Yet, this is not what I wish to isolate herein. Rather, as I read this text for the second time, I found myself considering how humour itself not only seems ingrained in making sense of and/or interpreting ‘Jewishness,’ but also how simplistically it seems this humour might turn from stereotyping to offensive when it changes from insider to outsider. For example, Treslove (the gentile to Finkler and Sevcik’s Judaism) openly refers to Jews as ‘Finklers,’ based on his idea that his life-long friend is the paragon of Jewishness. So, throughout the text, his references carry a humorous and personal separation from the more malignant sounding sorts of phrases that might be deemed verbally violent. For example, when he finds himself having an argument with Hephzibah, his ‘Jewess’ girlfriend about his incessant assumption that some horrible experience is just waiting for him to discover it, he describes her, and her humour, as thus:
That was what it was to be a Jewess. Never mind the moist dark womanly mysteriousness. A Jewess was a woman who made even punctuation funny. He couldn’t work out how she had done it. Was it hyperbole or was it understatement? Was it self-mocekry or mockery of him? He decided it was tone. Finklers did tone.
Yet, when he tries to emulate her, he fails. He is unable to recreate her ease of tone, her ability to make his own punctuation funny: “it could have been that Finklers only permitted other Finklers to tell Finkler jokes.” Which brings me to the locus of this particular discussion. Is there a subtle line between humour and offence, and is that line more easily blurred for certain individuals?
For our tutorial I prepared three examples with which to approach this question. The first comes from the comedic genius Mel Brooks. In it he sings his way through the horrors of the inquisition, while at the same time making humorous light of both the plight of the Jews massacred during the auto-da-fé, as well as the Catholics who were responsible for these atrocities.
Next, we watched the following clip from the Seinfeld episode entitled ‘The Yada Yada,’ which originally aired on 24 April 1997. In this episode, Jerry is offended by his dentist’s conversion to Judaism, not as a Jewish person, he assures, but as a comedian. His dentist, he is certain, merely converted for the jokes. As ever erudite with its philosophical undertones, the episode is an ideal example of the sort of line-blurring between insiders and outsiders presenting humorous and stereotyping interpretations of themselves and others.
The third comes from an episode of the sitcom Frasier. In this clip, Frasier comes to learn that his girlfriend ‘Faye’ was under the assumption that he was Jewish. This is problematic for Faye’s mother, who we learn would prefer her daughter dating a Jewish man. As per the humour of the show, Fraser, his brother Niles, and father Martin each take up stereotypical ways of sounding or acting ‘Jewish’ in order to keep Mrs. Moskowitz happy.
Now, in each of these clips humour and stereotyping are used to describe a type of ‘Jewishness.’ Yet, with the latter, we find an interesting situation that is separate from the others. Perhaps more akin to Treslove’s attempts in The Finkler Question, in the Frasier clip the humour is coming from gentiles pretending to be Jewish for humorous effect. Is this offensive? Anti-Semitic?
As data, these clips, as well as Jacobson’s novel, are peculiar sources. Yet, I equally like to think that they serve as reminders that we all construct stereotypes and assumptions that contribute to our larger perceptions about what particular identities look like. I know I was guilty of this in my time in Israel, but I also know that it is in stereotyping and interpretation where we begin to create our ethnographic perceptions. Thus, I further wonder if our outsider perceptions are offensive in the sense that we are trying to tell Finkler jokes without the benefit of an inherent Finkler tone?
 Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question (London: Bloomsbury, 2010).