Friday, June 7, 2019
June 7, 2019: Jewish American Journeys: Philip Roth and Sarah Silverman
[On June 1, 1916, Louis Brandeis was confirmed to the Supreme Court, becoming the first Jewish American Justice. So this week I’ll highlight the American stories of Brandeis and four other exemplary Jewish Americans, leading up to a special weekend tribute to one of our best Jewish Studies scholars!]
On humor, gender, and Jewish American artists.
As I noted in this 2015 post (on Ann Basu’s wonderful scholarly book States of Trial: Manhood in Philip Roth’s Post-War America), and as has continued to be the case in the years since, I’ve dedicated far more of my last decade or so of scholarly attention to Philip Roth than I would have ever predicted would be the case. There’s a lot I like about Roth’s writings, including to be sure his investigations (through but not limited to a Jewish American lens) of many of the historical and cultural questions that have come to define my own AmericanStudies interests. But he’s also one of the funniest writers about whom I’ve had the chance to write; many of my favorite American writers and works tend to be understandably short on laughs, which is of course generally necessary for their topics and themes but which is also ironic given my own love of all things humorous (including, my sons would demand I mention, a notable penchant for groan-inducing Dad Jokes).
As my 2017 class on Mark Twain illustrated with some frequency, though, humor doesn’t always translate well across time periods and contexts. While I believe much of Roth’s humor does still resonate successfully in our 2019 moment (anybody who’s been or probably even just been around a teenage boy can testify to the cringe-worthy accuracy of some of the obscenely over-the-top early chapters in Portnoy’s Complaint , for example), much of it also feels dated and problematic. That’s particularly true for the ways Roth depicts his female characters, from his hysterical (in both senses) Jewish American mothers to the hysterical (ditto) Jewish American significant others to the hysterical (samesies) shiksa love interests. His male characters and protagonists are of course themselves far from immune to his humorous and satirical lenses—but because they are generally his narrators (and almost always his central perspectives), we still gain access to their layers and nuances in a way that he frequently denies for his female characters. While humor often depends on stereotypes, that’s always a fine and fraught line to walk, and Roth too often crosses it to sexism and misogyny when it comes to his depictions of women.
As usual, I would advocate for an additive model when it comes to such complex questions. That is, I think it’s still well worth reading Roth, both to critique him and his works when necessary and for all the other reasons I’ve gestured at here and elsewhere. But these problems with gender make it vitally important to engage with Jewish American female artists (who have often taken a backseat to Roth and his male peers), from historical figures like Mary Antin and Anzia Yezierska (the subjects of Wednesday’s post) up to contemporary voices. There’s no shortage of wonderful such contemporary voices, but when it comes to Jewish American humor I would highlight the work and perspective of the amazingly talented Sarah Silverman. Silverman’s prolific career to date includes groundbreaking stand-up comedy, an impressively diverse acting resumé (her voice work for Wreck-It Ralph’s Vanellope will make her an eternal favorite in this AmericanStudier’s household), and most recently the political satire TV show I Love You, America. With that latter work in particular Silverman has turned her comic lens on American cultural and social questions just as potently and successfully as did Roth in his best works, which both reveals the role of multimedia forms in 2019 and reminds us of that every individual artist can and should be complemented with the voices and works of other talented folks.
Next journey tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Jewish Americans you’d highlight?