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Reclaiming the Nebbish

Despite a long history of persecution, modern Jews have it pretty cushy today. We own the banks, obviously. We also control the media (as recently confirmed by Judith Regan), which supports our long-term goal of world domination, as does our ruthless manipulation of the cabal that secures us parking spaces close to good brunch spots. And, thanks to a holiday schedule rooted in Old Testament harvesting celebrations, we enjoy a suspicious number of days off from work every autumn.

Yet for all of this success, we seem to have squandered what was, in a more innocent era, one of our most treasured cultural resources: the nebbish, that klutzy, bespectacled mother-loving stereotype of the Jew, the nudnik with the big heart and two left feet who could never hang on to the girl. While we were busy buying khakis and correcting our vision with laser surgery, we let our guard down. We alienated the nebbish, pulling a Duddy Kravitz by looking to Jews who were distinctly anti-nebbish to hold up as role models. Anything that implicated us as fearful or non-confrontational came to seem outdated as Israel triumphed, tough Jews like James Caan kicked ass and the Beastie Boys fought for our right to party. We outgrew the nebbish narrative as a culture. Worse still, this banishment has allowed the gentiles to usurp our anti-hero, appropriating the old world power and counterintuitive charm of the nebbish to great cultural success.

Some might argue that the nebbish disappeared for a reason, that he is an unappealing character who nobody wants to see return. And they’d be partially correct. But only because over time, the term has been reduced to a set of annoying traits that has left us with a hollow caricature of what the nebbish truly is (picture Gilbert Gottfried or Paul Reiser). At a deeper level, the nebbish represents nothing less than a core aspect of the Jewish identity—a freedom from pretense and an obsessive nerdiness that combines book smarts with a lack of concern for social status. The nebbish in full bloom is lovable for his complete lack of material striving as well as his vulnerability. In a world where many of these traits have been abandoned in favor of McMansions, luxury SUVs and baby strollers that require a mortgage, we need the nebbish now more than ever. The nebbish must rise again.

But to get there, we first need to understand how we came to smother the poor, lovable nebbish so that we don’t repeat ourselves. Certainly one cannot discount the actions of the godfather of modern nebbishness, Woody Allen, who tarnished the breed’s image of timidity by boldly marrying his pseudo-daughter. Another contributing factor was the explosion of WASP-y Jew assimilation that began in the 1980s, thanks to the Bronx-bred Ralph Lipschitz (who changed his last name to Lauren when he started his fashion career). But the most troubling cause is one that is still with us—the popularity of Jew Cool. This is where our attention ought to be focused.

It’s understandable that a people who had been chronically uncool for 5760 or so years would gravitate toward Jewish hipsterism, growing Jewfros and cheekily referring to themselves as “Heebs.” Many jumped at the chance to shed the shlumpiness and the semi-exclusive pose that came with it. For others, there is still an inkling of meaning tied to this over-the-top self-effacement. The H-word is our version of the N-word, and embracing Jew Cool can help defang the anti-Semitism, so the argument goes. Unfortunately, it’s hard to see how suburban twenty-somethings dressed in ironic t-shirts are doing much to fight the power. The nebbish, with his Zionist summer camp reunions and his AIPAC petitions, was doing more for the cause. But we sent him packing because he wasn’t cool enough to get past the velvet ropes. Paving the way for his return will require us to dismantle Jew Cool, and the current backlash against hipsterism provides a good launching pad for this.

But we face a second, more formidable challenge as well. This hurdle takes the form of the Gentilification of the Nebbish, which can be traced back to the black and white days of Barney Fife. Ironically, it was a pair of Jews who helped catalyze the modern advent of this movement, with the creation of Seinfeld’s George Costanza. While George may have been louder than the average nebbish, he nonetheless possessed several key neb hallmarks, including a penchant for complaint, deep neuroses (led by but not limited to a fear of death and failure) and a complete disregard for fashion. The fact that the producers made the stand-in for Larry David a vaguely ethnic non-Jew says a great deal about how detached the nebbish had become from its roots, even at that time. As much as anything, George served to neutralize the nebbish, robbing him of his humanity and further reducing him to a set of pestering traits.

In the wake of Costanza we find a pop cultural landscape littered with Goyified nebbishes, from movies—the current cinematic incarnation of Spiderman’s alter ego is a classic neb—to rock and roll, led by Rivers Cuomo, the celibate, Harvard-degreed front man for Weezer. When did it become cool for rock stars to kvetch (pull up your socks emo boys!) and wear sweater vests? Once they realized that in doing so they could steal our nebbish thunder and ride it to the top of the charts, a la Barry Manilow, that’s when.

Another hotbed for this sort of Goyification is The Daily Show. The Comedy Central staple has been a veritable breeding ground for gentile nebbishes, beginning with Mo Rocca, continuing with the recently departed Ed Helms, and culminating in a double dose of neb with Resident Expert John Hodgman and recent British import John Oliver. None of these men are Jews, yet all have, to some degree, borrowed from the nebbish archetype in shaping their personas. Why is this significant? For most of history, the nebbish was relegated to the sidelines of pop culture, a buffoonish sidekick content to make a token Semitic guest appearance in an otherwise Christian world. Think Murray Greshler, the cop from The Odd Couple, or Erwin “Skippy” Handleman, the court jester next-door on Family Ties. But today’s gentile nebbishes have moved to center stage and landed leading roles, bringing the neb into the spotlight.

As it turns out, all this attention may actually be good, as it illustrates precisely why we need to bring the nebbish home again. Let’s not forget that part of our humanity as a people lies in our utterly nebbishy nebbishness, our ability to appreciate the parts of ourselves that are cowardly or bumbling, and our acceptance of the fact that we don’t quite fit in (and that we don’t really have to). As Jews, we needn’t project a macho or faux-cool persona to tell the world what we’re made of. And the nebbish helps remind us of this, keeping us humble and true to ourselves. So shed the totems of Jew Cool and locate your inner neb. Throw out that “Shiksas are for practice” t-shirt. Embrace once again the sweaty-palmed neuroticism and desperate lust of Woody Allen and Philip Roth. Revel in the fact that you look more like David Paymer than you do Adrian Brody. Brag about your preference for the accrual method of accounting on your JDate profile.

The truth is, this call to arms can only get us so far, because nebbishness is a naturally occurring phenomenon. It is not a condition one can aspire to or purposely create (though someone ought to tell Zach Braff and Ben Stiller this). All we can do, in the end, is try to clear the way for the return of the nebbish. And hope he gets to keep the girl this time.


Related in Jewcy: If you want to do your part to bring back the nebbish, don't just read Eli Valley's hipster madlib like a disaffected cool kid — fill it out and post the results in the comments section.

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