Sacha Baron Cohen, dressed as uber-fag Bruno, squats on a chair across from late night talk show host, Conan O’Brien and in a thick, German accent, admonishes the host: "Stop staring at my kugelsack!"  While those who know German will … Read More

By / July 15, 2009

Sacha Baron Cohen, dressed as uber-fag Bruno, squats on a chair across from late night talk show host, Conan O’Brien and in a thick, German accent, admonishes the host: "Stop staring at my kugelsack!"  While those who know German will recognize "kugel" as a word meaning "ball or sphere" (so, literally a "ball-sack"), those with J-dar will also identify the Yiddish word "kugel" as being a noodle or vegetable casserole.  It’s unnecessary to know this in order to find Bruno’s accusation funny, but, for me, it adds another layer of humor to it. 

Most Jews have "J-dar"–they get the inside Jewish jokes or references.  I’ve developed this, myself, but once upon a time, I was absolutely clueless.  I remember watching Bridget Loves Bernie as a kid and, granted, I was only 11 or so years old, but the premise of the show–that an Irish Catholic girl had married a Jewish man–completely escaped me.  I knew that she was Catholic because her brother was a priest, and I knew that his parents had a problem with the girl, but I thought it had something to do with the "deli", this weird store in which salami hung from the counter and above which the couple lived.   I don’t remember knowing that he was Jewish–I think it was assumed that the audience would glean that information from cultural clues, without any overt mention of God or of faith.

Stories involving Jews, and Jewish and Yiddish phrases, abound in American pop culture and in the entertainment world, but I don’t believe they are as widely understood by the rest of the populace as Jews might think.  For example, I once asked my sister Mary what ethnicity she thought Fran Drescher was playing on "The Nanny."  She thought for a few seconds and said, "Italian?"  To Jews, "The Nanny" was the stereotypical, Jewish girl from Queens, complete with thick accent and a mother who wanted her to marry a doctor.  To a good part of the rest of the world, she was some ethnic woman from New York City.  There are any number of other examples: off the top of my head, "schlemiel, schlimazel" were part of the theme song of Laverne and Shirley, but I don’t think either woman was ever identified as being Jewish.  In Welcome Back, Kotter, which I watched when I was older but not any wiser, I realized that the teacher, Gabe, was supposed to be from Brooklyn, but again, I never thought of him as being "Jewish."  It’s not that it’s necessary to know, but what’s puzzling to me is that there are these shows in which being Jewish is at least a part of the story – but half the audience (at least) doesn’t know that the character is Jewish, or what it’s supposed to mean that he or she is Jewish!  The assumption that the audience will pick up on it because of the cultural references is simply wrong.  How can anyone who didn’t grow up around Jews be expected to think it’s funny when someone is described as meshugenah?    However, if the characters made a reference to synagogue or God or something, then non-Jews would understand.  Non-Jews still labor under the impression that being Jewish is a religion first, and a culture and tradition second.  Christians have no problem inserting openly Christian characters in television shows–The Flying Nun was another of my favorite shows and in it, her faith was an integral part of the plot.  There’s a real discomfort, I think on the part of Jews, with portraying ourselves in the media in connection with our faith, as if that is not hip or cool, but a reference to a bris or a bar mitzvah (words, again, that many, many non-Jews don’t understand, despite our thinking that they are part of the universal lexicon) is fine. My daughter told me that recently, when Anna Kournikova was wished ‘mazel tov’ by a photographer on her reported engagement, she asked, "What does that mean?"  When told it was a Jewish way of saying "congratulations", she became upset and said, "I am not Jewish – can’t you see my cross?"   My daughter thought this reflected poorly on Kournikova, and I agree her reaction was over the top – it wasn’t as if someone were putting a demonic curse on her in another language.  Nonetheless, I defended her – she probably thought that if it was a Jewish word, then it was a religious wish, not a secular one.   Mazel tov may be fairly well-known, but not everyone knows how to respond correctly to it, and it’s somewhat grandiose to expect others to understand our very specific cultural lingo.  Bridget Loves Bernie was cancelled after one year, the highest-rated television show that was ever canceled.  Why?  Supposedly, they received a lot of hate mail from people who were upset about the inter-religious marriage portrayed on television – and it wasn’t the Christians who were offended.   I would bet that many of the Christians at that time, like me, had no idea that it was an inter-religious marriage.  Because actually, it wasn’t.  It was inter-cultural. 



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