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Why we have to stop telling Jewish jokes

Comedian Trevor Noah (Reuters/Courtesy Comedy Central)
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Sometimes it takes a while for a bad punchline to sink in. To wit, after a handful of comedian (to use the term loosely) Trevor Noah’s cringe-worthy anti-Semitic, misogynist tweets from 2009 surfaced about a week and a half ago.

Last night, “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart spoke out in support of Noah, who is slated to replace Stewart on the Comedy Central show later this year. But Noah still faces several comedy critiques.

On Wednesday, the American Jewish Congress launched an online campaign calling for Comedy Central to send Noah packing. And the Chicago Tribune’s Clarence Page wrote on Wednesday about the unwritten rules of comedy etiquette.

“It is funnier to punch up, as the old saying goes, than to punch down,” Page writes. “Deflating the pompous and powerful can be hilarious. Ridiculing the weak is just sad.”

The New Republic declared Jewish humor officially finis in light of the Internet tempest over Lena Dunham’s recent cringe-inducing New Yorker quiz entitled “Dog or Jewish Boyfriend: A Quiz.” Dunham’s piece had an odd, 1967-ish throwback tone to it, leaning hard on the stereotype of a spoiled hypochondriac Jewish-American Prince. Picture a young Woody Allen with an Instagram account and a case of gout.

TNR’s piece contends that at this point in history, most American Jews are basically assimilated white people. According to its author Phoebe Malz Bovy, the tug of war between assimilation and Jewish identity is over. America won.

But if that were true, Dunham and Noah wouldn’t have captured the attention they did. My own Jewish identity was formed in part by the parade of Jewish comedians I saw on TV throughout my Boomer childhood.

Jackie Mason, Rodney Dangerfield and Joan Rivers were funnier versions of the characters populating my family’s gatherings. The era’s funny men and women were marked by the improbable combination of Borsht Belt sensibilities and their relatively close proximity in time to the Holocaust.

Jewish humor had a self-depreciating vibe to it that went something like, “If they’re laughing with you, they’re probably not going to kill you today.” As culture shifts, our tastes in comedy change. Once upon a time, herds of clowns riding in tiny cars were a lot more popular than they are today. Now we’re usually laughing uncomfortably at them instead of with them.

If Jewish people were truly integrated into American culture, those trusty toxic stereotypes would be fading. Not long ago, I ran into a guy I hadn’t seen for more than two decades. He was a leader in his Israel-loving, conservative evangelical church, yet within 30 seconds of saying hello to me, he slung his arm around my neck like a noose and said, “Hey, I have a great Jewish joke for you.”

Before I could extricate myself from his grip, he proceeded to unload a mean-spirited, borderline anti-Semitic bomb on me. I thought I’d made it clear two decades ago I didn’t think his jokes were funny. His material hadn’t improved one bit since then.

The point made in TNR’s piece that Jews have been assimilated might be stretching the point a bit, as various corners of our culture use “You people are not us” language. It may come out of earnest innocence (“Some of my best friends are Jewish!”) or more nefarious old stereotypes (News flash! We Jews don’t have All The Money).

I have had to practice both turning the other cheek and confronting flaming error when foolish words are spoken to me about my people. “Practice” is the operative word in that sentence, precisely because though assimilation has certainly marked the Jewish experience in America, it has not erased who we are. And I write these words as someone who moves in Gentile church circles.

The rise in anti-Semitism in Europe has shifted the context into which Dunham, Noah and my old friend are doing their lounge acts. While we Jews enjoy great freedom in this country, millennia of history in the marrow of our bones tells us that things could change for us at any time.

The first sign just might be when we become the punchline.

Michelle Van Loon is the author of three books, and a regular contributor to Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics blog. She maintains her own blog, Pilgrim’s Road Trip, at