What follows is Dr. LIC's contribution to the Chitlins and Gefilte Fish Project, the Black-Jewish dialogue we're featuring this week.
Of the countless factors that explain my early dissociation from any sort of Jewish identity—from being one of three-and-a-half Jews in my high school, to the constantly weird goings-on with my congregation’s rabbis (everything from megalomania, to sex scandal to one of the temporary rabbis engaging in fisticuffs with a student), to forced viewings of Molly’s Pilgrim during Sunday School, to congregational “retreats” to a dismal camp area in northern Minnesota where my peers would disquiet the night with racist jokes and gay innuendo, to a Hebrew school teacher who once accused me from cheating on a test of the Hebrew alphabet(!)—one of the most underrated issues was my lack of exposure to extrafamilial positive Jewish role models.
Sure I was aware of crumpled old males like Elie Wiesel and Victor Frankl, as well as obligatory syllabus inclusion, Anne Frank. But it wasn’t until college that I started to realize that pretty much everyone I gave a shit about was Jewish: Daniel Kahneman, the Coen Brothers, Red Auerbach, Mel Brooks, MC Serch. It was unbelievable. I felt like I had stumbled on a gold mine of self-affirmation. The feeling of surprise I experienced at this awakening I believe stems directly from my previous exposure only to the stereotype of the American Jew: physically Woody Allen, mentally Harold Ramis’ Egon, and, in terms of sexual magnetism, Ben Stein teacher from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The archetypal American Jew to me was—and still is—paradigmatically uncool.
Imagine my surprise when I found out about James Caan, Henry Winkler, and Gene Simmons. Imagine when I found out that we are essentially the Rahm Emanuels of LIFE. That our sandwiches and our guns kill people. That, as my close friend once told me, stuff-white-people-like doesn’t apply to us. These days I am [culturally] proud as hell. Learning of those great semitic icons later in life and all of the perks that come with being Jewish, however, does nothing to change the fact that entering the world as a Jew means entering it as a nerd.
Now I ask you this. What is a ying supposed to do, but seek out its yang? And if the American Jew is the paradigmatic nerd, then the obvious question with an even more obvious answer is what constitutes paradigmatic cool: Miles Davis slam dunking the ball on a Klansmember’s head of course! I’m sure there are one thousand some odd dissertations written on this very notion, so I need not go into depth like I did on the Jewish side of things, but—and I want to remind everyone that we’re dealing strictly with the stereotype here—American blackness is as close to unmistakable cool as you can get this side of age 18. And to a certain degree I personally sought to attain that cool.
By age 11, I had completely connected to Motown and hip-hop (which I would have done regardless of my religion). In my tweener years, I wore a Cuban X Giants baseball school, rented every Blaxploitation movie in Blockbuster, and read Soul on Ice. I should stop you right there and note that this type of cultural consumption was done rather tastefully and as privately as I could. I was attracted to non-Black signifiers of cool (e.g. Kurt Cobain, an Armani shirt) to an equal degree and in no way was some caricatured wannabe. In fact, my entire ‘attentiveness’ to black culture only reinforced the notion that I was not black, and should therefore not attempt to ‘act black.’ Point being, I think what I went through around puberty is a fairly typical process for the Young Jew to go through: seeking “coolness” through at least one ethnic identity primarily responsible for the “cool pose” in the first place.
Think about all the major white hip-hop figures, from 3rd Bass, to the Beastie Boys, to Lyor Cohen, to Rick Rubin, to El-P and Aesop Rock, to Mark Ronson. And those are just some of the few who have operated tactfully in this sphere. Now think of all the Adam Mansbach-looking white guiltified schmos who keep trying with embarrassing results. Now think about the curious case of Andy Samberg, who amazingly has made the only humorous parody rap video in the history of parody rap videos…
When I watch “Lazy Sunday,” as when watching the videos from Samberg’s previous comedy trio, The Lonely Island, it seems apparent that at one time Samberg possibly entertained the thought of rapping for real. He probably has some discarded notebooks somewhere with some halfway decent rhymes written on them. And one day, he decided, you know what, I can’t do this, this isn’t me. While I appreciate Samberg’s self-honesty, it is this stunted attempt at achieving cool that allows the Jew-geek stereotype to persist. Another thought for another day…
Now, having never been an African American myself, I’m asking you to brace for some serious armchair sociology, as I postulate that the Jew/Black exchange is bidirectional. We have something they want as well. Of course it’s easy to cherrypick examples, from Sammy Davis Jr. to Rod Carew to Shyne and Boyz II Men, to Rastafarianism’s reappropriation of the old testament, to Raekwon shouting out Meyer Lansky, Ghostface criminally implicating “Big hatted Jews out in Crown Heights,” and Chris Rock paying homage to Don Rickles. But I think I can hone in on something specific that African Americans seek: Anti-Cool. The exact attribute I referenced earlier signifies some odd sort of appealing status and makes the Jewish-Black relationship truly symbiotic.
Consider former legendary coked-out Knicks star and CBA coach Micheal Ray Richardson who bragged that he had some “big time Jewish lawyers” working for him and observed, “If you look at a lot of most successful corporations and stuff, more businesses, they're run by Jewish. It's not a knock, but they are some crafty people.”
Consider The Wire’s Maurice Levy who was the only character universally respected by the Barksdales, Stringer Bell, and Marlo Stanfield.
Consider Cam’ron’s decision to title his DVD, “Here’s Cam’ron (You Little Yentas), accompanied by a warning cry of “Killa Season again, you little yentas!!!…Cam’ron is anonymous. Dipset!” When Cam’ron was asked if he knew what a yenta was, he responded, “Hahaha, of course! You know my lawyers are Jewish, they be saying that all the time. So then I was watching Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Larry David—I fucks with Larry—he called Ted Danson a ‘yenta.’ Yo, I fell out laughing. That shit was crazy. I said, that’s exactly what all these folks are doin’, gossiping about me. Yentas. That’s where the ‘Cam’ron is anonymous’ came from too. Did you see that episode? That’s my shit. You have HBO On Demand? Its episode 52….”
Consider Mars Blackmon/Mookie’s debt to Woody Allen’s charismatic New York geekwad characters who always get the girl.
Consider Nas’ claim that “Halle Berry blew [him] a kiss at the Barbara Streisand concert. It’s almost as if Streisand’s massive lameness that signifies status.
[pause as I go in for the last paragraph which owes a lot to a conversation with Shoals]
And it is this specific lameness (as well as the unawareness of this lameness), the anti-cool that Judaism affords, that African Americans may in fact prize. The mucosal phonics of Yiddish, the “craftiness” of kibbitzing laywers, and the balding scalp of Larry David, these are somehow sought-after attributes that at once reject WASPiness, and relieve one from the obligation of ‘holding it down’ for one’s eternally swag-ful race. For as much press as Obama’s “cool” got him (41 million more Google hits than searching for: ‘McCain’ ‘angry’), it had to be relieving seeing those photos of him with the bike helmet and too-high dad jeans. It had to be calming to read about his comic book lust and his Blackberry obsession. I guess in the end we both embrace outsider status, and can only truly attain it—if we don’t try too hard—through a little culture-swapping.