- The Anti-Gospel of Lenny, Larry and Sarah:Jewish Humor and the Desecration of Christendom
The legendary Jewish comedian Lenny Bruce is often credited with transforming American entertainment in the early 1960s. His Yiddishinflected, iconoclastic standup routines shredded the veil of silence that had kept racism, sexuality, drugs, religion and other taboo topics out of the spotlight. although Bruce was hardly the first comic to draw from the well of Yiddishkeit, none of his predecessors had been so brazen, so vulgar or so unapologetically Jewish in a public sphere that had become more tolerant since World War II, but that still reflected its white Christian heritage. For Bruce, it was an opportunity to provoke discomfort through the exploitation of theology and the ghosts of antisemitism, to flaunt his own Jewish heritage as a Christian heresy, to boast of his personal guilt for a 2,000-year-old crime for which, he quipped, there should rightfully be a statute of limitations. As if on behalf of the Jewish people, Lenny Bruce claimed responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus: “Yes, we did it. I did it. … [And] not only did we kill him, but we’re gonna kill him again when he comes back.”1 It was an unprecedented act, for he asserted responsibility in public, with more than a touch of irreverent pride, for the very act that had marked the Jew as a criminal, a blasphemer and a demon throughout the Middle Ages and well into the modern era. Bruce’s rebellious shtick of the early 1960s proved to be a trendsetter, and it set the stage, in the ensuing years, for the numerous Jewish comics, writers and film producers who would mine Christian theology and misappropriate its symbols in order to entertain through derision.
Lenny Bruce was a Jewish revolutionary because he expressed his frivolous blasphemy in public, not because it was created on a tabula rasa. The ridicule of Christianity and Jesus has a long genealogy in Jewish discourse, going back to the talmudic era, and, despite the changing historical context, blasphemous tropes from bygone centuries resemble those of today. Blasphemy in a time of Christian theocracy was a deadly serious matter, and the beleaguered Jews of Ashkenaz endured severe [End Page 167] repression and periodic violence because of it. However, Jewish “culture had built in strategies of internal resistance to the religious narrative of Christian society,” writes modern Jewish historian Elisheva Carlebach, what she calls a “trenchant polemic in the guise of folklore.”2 Modern Jewish entertainers may not be living in fear of marauding crusaders and Cossacks, but they are the heirs to the polemical and parodic folklore of their ancestors, much as modern Europe and America inherited the theological legacy of medieval Christendom. Secularization has reduced the burden—but not the relevance—of Jewish difference.
What is new is the unprecedented security, mobility and confidence American Jewry has enjoyed since the 1950s. Antisemitism has given way to tolerance and, among evangelical Protestants, to philosemitism; the Vatican dismissed the charge of deicide in 1965. Lenny Bruce and the Beat Generation proved that it could be cool to be Jewish. Yet Jewish success is tinged by a collective memory of persecution; the stigma of Christ-killer does not wash away so easily, and this has had a lasting impact on Jewish identity. The writers, filmmakers and comedians of Jewish descent who have excelled in American culture since Bruce’s time have been able to be as Jewish in public as they wish, but they have often defined their Jewishness against a history of suffering and through the mock desecration of Christianity’s symbols and rituals. Jewish humorists have accepted white Christian America’s olive branch, but they are demanding inclusion on their own terms. The comedy of Bruce and his successors, including Larry David, Sarah Silverman and Lewis Black, illustrates the fundamental place Christianity holds in Jewish humor. It also reveals how Lenny Bruce’s unabashed delight in his people’s purported collective act of deicide marks a new chapter, but not a new book, in the epic chronicles of Jewish-Christian polemics.
Jews and Christians have lived as uncomfortable neighbors in theological conflict...