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The Ghost of Fanny Brice: How Jewish Humor Saved the Jews

Fanny Brice, born Fania Borach at the turn of the century in New York, was an institution in twentieth-century entertainment. The musical “Funny Girl,” originally starring Barbra Streisand, tells the story of Brice’s rise to fame through the venues of vaudeville and later Broadway, winning over the hearts of her audiences with her absurd, crass, often raunchy humor. Brice used comedy and her explicitly Jewish disposition to set her apart from other stars of the age and has thus been immortalized in the Jewish canon as a pop-culture icon. 

I had the opportunity to see the revival of “Funny Girl” last week, which now stars Beanie Feldstein of “Ladybird” and “Booksmart” fame, and Jane Lynch, known by most for her role on “Glee.” Critics felt lukewarm (at best) about this production, and I cannot argue with most of their comments. If the production were to be rated simply on quality, viewers would leave disappointed. It feels more akin to a community theatre revamping of a time-honored classic that perhaps was destined to fail, scoring close to zero Tony nominations, as the person who made “Funny Girl” a roaring success, Barbra Streisand, was not on stage. 

I was able to take insights from “Funny Girl” that transcend the critical success of the production, however. The first is the popping Jewishness of Brice’s story, expressed by the Yiddish idioms sprinkled throughout the show and the historical throwback to when Jewish Americans burst from the Yiddish theater scene into the mainstream. And like most Jews watching this production, I left with the feeling of innate familiarity with a figure like Brice. When Brice is praised for connecting with fans so strongly, she attributes her success to the word “heimishe” — meaning “comforting” and “home-like.” This simply means that Jews have a talent for entertaining just as profound as our love for being entertained.

We are everywhere in the laughing business, and it appears to have always been this way. In 1978, Time Magazine famously proclaimed that eighty percent of American stand-up comedians were Jewish. 

“Funny Girl” reminded me of just how many Jews in my life work in comedy. Two of my closest friends in New York are both aspiring stand-up comedians and comedy writers, along with my sister, who performs in Chicago, and a handful of friends and acquaintances from my childhood who bounce around from various open mic-nights in search of name recognition. I then thought of the impact of Jewish people on comedy at large, from giants like Joan Rivers, Mel Brooks, and Larry David, to contemporary idols like Sarah Silverman and Alex Edelman, not to mention television shows like “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “Seinfeld,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Broad City.” We are everywhere in the laughing business, and it appears to have always been this way. In 1978, Time Magazine famously proclaimed that eighty percent of American stand-up comedians were Jewish. And still today, if you find yourself at an open-mic night anywhere in New York City, you will notice the room practically overflowing with curly hair and Magen David necklaces. 

Many have attempted to understand the Jewish proclivity toward humor and our own specific comedic dialect. Sigmund Freud hypothesized, and his hypothesis stuck, that Jewish humor is a defense mechanism against an often-threatening world. By laughing, especially at ourselves, we ease the pain the outside world has in store. Many clinical psychologists indeed agree that humor is a silver bullet to trauma. This theory is supported by perhaps one of my favorite Jewish jokes: 

“A high-ranking general approaches a policeman one day and tells him to round up all the Jews and all the bicyclists, to which the policeman replies: ‘Why the bicyclists?’” 

Professor Ruth Wisse goes deeper in her book “No Joke: Making Jewish Humor.” She writes: “Stand-up comedy is all about nerve.” It’s “a battle between aggressor and victims with wit as the weapon and laughter as the prize. Different from prizefights that pit people against one another in the presence of paying spectators, comedy pits the fighter against the paying customers, with silence as the killer, and the detonation of laughter as the victory.”

Perhaps the Jewish flocking toward comedy lies in our history, but not in the self-defensive way that Freud proposed. Rather, as Wisse suggests, it reflects our cultural custom of relating to one another not through militancy and aggression, but through being together and learning to live with one another. For two thousand years, we were denied the right to raise our own armed forces and to protect ourselves. Simultaneously, we much preferred studying Torah and feasting on Friday nights than teaching our children to be warriors. The recipe leads to people who rely deeply on socialization for comfort. Of course, talents for storytelling, music and comedy would develop naturally. 

It’s true that half of the world’s Jewish population was raised in a climate quite different from the American Jewish experience. In Israel, children are sent to the army, there is a perpetual threat of war, and the founders of Zionism did well to pedestalize masculinity and stoicism in their new society. In other words, actual conflict, not the conflict that ends “in the detonation of laughter,” as Wisse notes, is cooked into the fabric of Israel’s Jewish culture. While American Jews make friendship bracelets around campfires, Israeli Jews learn how to use a gun. Therefore, as much as I love Israelis, I can concede that American Jews are on average funnier than our counterparts. Tel Aviv may boast eclectic bars and beautiful beaches, but its comedy scene pales in comparison to those of New York City or Los Angeles, composed significantly of Jews.

Jewish humor is heimishe, New York-esque, and Americana all at the same time. It reflects our own unique Jewish perspective, the culture of a city comprising eight million people, and the tastes of an entire country all at the same time. 

Jewish humor is heimishe, New York-esque, and Americana all at the same time. It reflects our own unique Jewish perspective, the culture of a city comprising eight million people, and the tastes of an entire country all at the same time. When I was in Israel this summer, an astounding number of locals responded with “Oh! Like Seinfeld!” when I told them I was from New York, revealing the straight line that runs through America, American Jews and humor in the foreign imagination. The blueprint of this phenomenon is Fanny Brice. 

The ghost of Fanny Brice lingers in all the young Jews who aspire to be comics. She haunts all the seedy clubs in Brooklyn where I have met new friends, work contacts and potential dates. She blesses each performance that lampoons the stereotypes of Jewish mothers. In the beginning of “Funny Girl,” Brice asks: “Who’s an American beauty rose? With an American beauty nose?” At a pivotal time for Jews in America, she was able to connect our intimate culture to the appetite of the public, with no censorship or diluting of identity to be found, resulting in immeasurable success. Many have dared to follow in her footsteps, a tradition delightfully quintessential to the American Jewish experience.

Blake Flayton is New Media Director and columnist for the Jewish Journal.

Source: Jewish Journal

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