Latest Posts

It All Begins with the Jewish Nose

August 15, 2014 | ,

Your Face in Mine by Jess Row
Riverhead Books, 384 pages, $27.95

Jess Row’s first novel, “Your Face in Mine,” has an inevitable quality to it. Can it really have taken this long for a writer to connect the increasingly widespread conversation about the construction of gender that’s raised by trans-rights activism — which recently reached another watershed when Laverne Cox, a trans actress, made the cover of Time magazine — to that most primal of American subjects, race? (more…)

Comedy Isn’t Kosher, But It Can Be Funny

May 20, 2014 | , , ,

A surprising number of people have a professional interest in something they call “kosher comedy.” Now, there’s something compelling about the idea of a God-fearing stand-up, even more so than a pious painter, novelist, filmmaker, or musician. Notwithstanding the plot of Chaim Potok’s My Name Is Asher Lev, you can always paint mountains or abstractions and not encounter any serious second-commandment objections. You can narrate, on the page or on screen, the gender-segregated lives of good people and still pass religious muster. You can sing or even rap about your faith in Hashem, and it doesn’t sound absurd—or, at least, not inevitably so. But comedy is fundamentally irreverent, isn’t it? How can one square that with religion?

The answer, for the most effective of contemporary Orthodox comedians, is that you simply don’t. (more…)

Our Naked Desire for ‘Truth’

May 2, 2014 | , ,

For the past decade or more, American literary critics have been either celebrating a “memoir boom” or wringing their hands about it. Some said the boom was just a marketing campaign, and others wrote it off years ago. But surely the genre’s moment can’t be totally over if the most zeitgeisty character of our day, Hannah Horvath of HBO’s “Girls,” aspires to publish not novels or film scripts, but personal essays.

Life-writing is, of course, nothing new for Jews. (more…)

A Jew’s Love Letter to the Upper West Side

April 19, 2014 | ,

“Visible City,” by Tova Mirvis
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 256 pages, $24

Tova Mirvis is hardly the first Jewish writer to pine, in exile, for a land that she’s left. Still, there’s something fetching, even touching, about the wistfulness of a Jew relocated to Boston, longing for the Upper West Side – which is what inspired Mirvis’ new novel (her third), “Visible City.” (more…)

‘Dirty Jews’ and the Christian Right

March 2, 2014 | ,

In a tidy coincidence, two separate videos went viral last week, demonstrating that American Jews’ love affair with obscenity is still going strong. Sarah Silverman talks about being visited by Jesus Christ, who asks her to spread a message about women’s reproductive rights (“We’ve got to legislate that shit,” the comedienne said, mocking conservatives who want to use the law to limit women’s health care options), while a a fan-produced supercut strung together three minutes of uninterrupted insults by Larry David on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” (more…)

The Russian (Authors) Are Coming

January 2, 2014 | ,

One thing we know for sure is that 2014 will be a big year for young post-Soviet Jews who write in English.

Gary Shteyngart’s forthcoming memoir, which he did not title “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Jewness,” has already called attention to itself with a four-minute video that almost but not quite redeems the genre of the “book trailer” from its utter insipidity. (more…)

Potty-Mouthed Queen of the Jews

November 20, 2013 | , ,

In the first chapter of her 2010 memoir, The Bedwetter—a book as unrelentingly winsome as its author—comedian Sarah Silverman recalls how as a 4-year-old she broke up a room by telling her grandmother, who had offered her some brownies, to “Shove ’em up your ass.” Remembering this incident, Silverman writes, makes her “nostalgic for the days when naked obscenity was enough for a laugh, and didn’t need any kind of crafted punch line to accompany it.” (more…)

Allen Sherman’s Last Laugh

April 29, 2013 | , , ,

Is there any lower form of comedy than song parody? Dirty limericks and knock-knock jokes may be worthless, but at least they have the decency to be brief. A parody song almost always lasts a chorus or two longer than necessary, and that’s just the beginning of the trouble.

Which makes the best work of Allan Sherman all the more astonishing. Fiddling with the lyrics of recognizable songs—transforming “Frère Jacques” into “Sarah Jackman” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” into “The Ballad of Harry Lewis”—the heavyset, bespectacled comic turned himself into a star, sold millions of albums, won a Grammy, and headlined concerts from Hollywood to Capitol Hill. (JFK was a fan.) He also managed to say something about the place of Jews in 1960s America. (more…)

Brent Weinbach Is Killing Me

January 9, 2013 | , , ,

In the first 15 minutes of his third album, Mostly Live, released last year, comedian Brent Weinbach briefly speaks in the accents of the following people: a teenage Latino video blogger; a reggae hype-man; a Frenchman singing “When You Wish Upon a Star” from Pinocchio; “a Vietnamese jazz vocalist who works as a waiter during the day”; Karen, “a young woman … wearing a beige blouse and a brown knit skirt”; and James, “a professional black male living in San Francisco.”

Weinbach does these voices sure-footedly, if always not pitch-perfectly, but he isn’t exactly an impressionist. Neither is he the kind of voice-character performer, like Nick Kroll, for whom the stand-up stage seems like a place to try out bits while waiting for a sketch show to begin filming. What Weinbach is, exactly, can be a little difficult to describe in prose. It helps, maybe, to say that in 2007 he won the Andy Kaufman Award. Or just to say that he’s one of the most formally inventive stand-up comedians currently practicing. (more…)

James Deen vs. the Nebbishes

October 21, 2012 | , , ,

One of the constants, to date, in the media coverage of the 26-year-old pornographic performer James Deen — a wave burgeoning as the release of The Canyons, in which he’ll star opposite Lindsay Lohan, approaches — has been obligatory passing mention of Deen’s Jewishness.

Stories about Deen, whether in GQ or on ABC’s Nightline, have focused on his appeal to young women and teenagers, because of his atypical, un-porny physical features. He’s thin, unmuscled, baby-faced, cute. Noting that he’s Jewish helps to encapsulate all of this, because male Jewishness in our pop culture functions as the yin to machismo’s yang. That’s what Gaby Dunn, whose blog profile of Deen in June 2011 set the tone for all the ensuing pieces, meant when she wrote that “he was almost like a guy that you would just hang out with at Hebrew school.”  (more…)