Image via Flickr/​Paul Keller

Jere­my Dauber is the author of Jew­ish Com­e­dy: A Seri­ous His­to­ry, out this week from W.W. Nor­ton & Com­pa­ny. Ear­li­er this week, he wrote about Jew­ish com­e­dy as a means of sur­vival, and as a para­ble for ques­tions of Jew­ish moder­ni­ty.” He has been blog­ging here all week as part of Jew­ish Book Council’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series.

Once, the sto­ry goes, there was a man who made his way to the Unit­ed States. Start­ing from noth­ing, he worked his way up the food chain to become a titan of indus­try. He brought all his rel­a­tives, includ­ing his aged moth­er, over from the old coun­try and set them up in style, in mag­nif­i­cent apart­ments. He joined the finest of all coun­try clubs, even those that had, hereto­fore, been restrict­ed; and he pur­chased him­self a two hun­dred-foot yacht. He dressed only in white, and insist­ed that every­one refer to him as the Cap­tain. One morn­ing, he was about to take the boat out, and asked his moth­er if she would like to join him out on the water, remind­ing her that, if she came along, she would have to refer to him by his pre­ferred sobriquet.

She looked at him. Ben­ny,” she said. By you, you’re a cap­tain. By me, you’re a cap­tain. But let me tell you some­thing. By a cap­tain you’re no captain.”

There are a sur­pris­ing num­ber of things going on in this brief joke. There’s the incor­po­ra­tion of a kind of Yid­dish syn­tax into Amer­i­can Jew­ish Eng­lish, and, simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, the rein­force­ment of the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of Yid­dish, or Ying­lish, with fun­ny. (As a pro­fes­sor of Yid­dish and Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture, I have a lot to say about this iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and its prob­lems; as a chron­i­cler of the his­to­ry of Jew­ish com­e­dy, I’m just report­ing a cul­tur­al phe­nom­e­non.) And there’s the vexed, dif­fi­cult image of the Jew­ish moth­er, present here as killjoy, that draws on a vexed, prob­lem­at­ic com­ic Jew­ish arche­type in Amer­i­can Jew­ish com­e­dy. But right now I want to focus on just one aspect of the joke: Amer­i­can Jew­ish suc­cess, and its discontent.

In my last post, I wrote about how Sholem Ale­ichem prod­ded at the anx­i­eties that lay under the promise of Jew­ish eman­ci­pa­tion: how there might be some­thing in the Jew­ish ethos, or char­ac­ter, that might threat­en, or even self-sab­o­tage, the pos­si­bil­i­ties of Jew­ish suc­cess in the mod­ern world. It may be fair to say that there is nowhere in the dias­po­ra that Jews have achieved suc­cess the way that they have in the Unit­ed States. And yet this joke asks — by a cap­tain you’re no cap­tain” — what exact­ly that suc­cess might mean.

If we nod at the joke, if we find it mean­ing­ful, we do so pre­cise­ly because we rec­og­nize some truth, present or past: that oth­ers, look­ing at the image of a Jew­ish yachts­man, find it incon­gru­ous, or oxy­moron­ic. Is that still the case? If it isn’t, why does the joke res­onate (if it does)? And if it doesn’t — if Amer­i­can Jew­ish accul­tur­a­tion has achieved such ground that we are will­ing to use the phrase Amer­i­can Jew­ish sports hero” with­out pause — then have we entered a new phase of Amer­i­can Jew­ish com­e­dy, one which is pred­i­cat­ed not on dif­fer­ence, or alien­ation, but some­thing else? And if con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish com­e­dy is based on dif­fer­ence and alien­ation, then what pre­cise­ly does that dif­fer­ence con­sist of?

A lot of con­tem­po­rary come­di­ans — in a road that runs through, among many oth­er sources, Sein­feld, Adam San­dler, the movies of Judd Apa­tow, and Dif­fi­cult Peo­ple—are explic­it­ly or implic­it­ly think­ing about this ques­tion. Too long to dis­cuss how they do so here (if only there were a book, a recent­ly pub­lished one, say, that might treat this at fuller length…hm…), but suf­fice it to say, for now, that the ques­tion is not a new one.

One can even con­sid­er one of the first great works of Jew­ish dias­po­ra liv­ing, the Book of Esther, as con­tem­plat­ing the same ques­tions: what does Jew­ish iden­ti­ty mean, when it can be hid­den and revealed, as Esther so famous­ly does? The Book of Esther — which is, among many oth­er things, a great com­e­dy — ends with a tri­umphant rev­e­la­tion of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty on Esther’s part. (Well, actu­al­ly it ends with a new tax, but that’s anoth­er sto­ry.) But how Esther lives, a queen of a wide-rang­ing empire and a Jew, that the nar­ra­tive doesn’t tell us. Whith­er spe­cif­ic iden­ti­ty, in a world of success?

But this is get­ting a lit­tle too seri­ous for a blog post about Jew­ish com­e­dy. Let me just end, then, with one last joke, one Mil­ton Berle used to tell, about the Tomb of the Jew­ish Unknown Sol­dier. On it is writ­ten, HYMAN GOLD­FARB, FUR­RI­ER. Because as a sol­dier he was unknown, but as a fur­ri­er, he was fantastic.

Thank you all. I’ve been here all week.

Jere­my Dauber is the Atran Pro­fes­sor of Yid­dish Lan­guage, Lit­er­a­ture and Cul­ture at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty. He is the author of sev­er­al books on Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture, includ­ing a biog­ra­phy of Sholem Ale­ichem that was a final­ist for the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award. He lives in New York City.