By Elayne Laken
The other week, I saw Sarah Silverman perform at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre in Los Angeles alongside a panel of other comedians, including another member of the tribe, standup comedian Marc Maron. It was a holiday special in which topics concerning God, Christmas and Hannukah were spoken about liberally among the comics at a round table.
At one point in the round table discussion, Sarah Silverman stated that, “The only reason I know I’m Jewish is because people around me aren’t.” The crowd broke out into uproarious laughter at the ridiculous nature of her claim and I thought it was pretty darn funny too. It seems like a fairly obvious observation – that which is different appears to be so insofar as it’s not the same as what is. But when I reflected upon what Sarah said after the show, it hit close to home in a more serious manner, in light of my experience growing up as a first generation Jew in Canada.
I remember going to school with other more religiously observant Jews and felt a little out of place. I realize now that it wasn’t my fault then, how my parents raised me in a more secular manner. After all, they were brought up in Communist Russia where practicing Judaism was forbidden. As far as they were concerned, as long as we honored the first night of Passover, I didn’t have to eat Matzo for the duration of the holiday unless I chose to do so. And I didn’t choose to because what person in their right mind would opt to eat that constipation-inducing unleavened bread for a whole eight days when they could eat a nice piece of challah instead? Perhaps an adult would stick to their religious observances, but a child?
Going back to Sarah Silverman’s line of thought – to realize you’re a Jew because of people around you who aren’t – I wonder, what precise factors distinguish Jews from others enough to make the audience laugh so much? And what is it about these distinguishing factors that a room full of people finds amusing, Jews and gentiles alike? Is it the menorah we light? Maybe it’s the dreidels we spin? But menorahs and dreidels only come out to play once a year so it can’t be that these things are the ultimate telling as to whether or not one is Jewish or in the presence of a Jew.
It would be too easy to say that since Chassidics dress and look different, they’re a surefire way to recognize a Jewish person a mile away. Only a blind person wouldn’t be able to tell you that. However, since Chassidics only represent a small percentage of the Jewish people in its entirety, that theory doesn’t hold its own when it comes to pinpointing secular Jews. Then there’s the whole “Jew nose” debate that might work in some cases but I know plenty of Jews who don’t forebear the dreadful stereotypical hook of a nose. And besides, what does a big nose have to do with “knowing one is Jewish vis-à-vis those who aren’t Jews around them?”
Putting all noticeable physical elements aside, from a human perspective, what makes Jews recognizable and distinct to themselves and to others? And what on Earth did Sarah Silverman mean with her choice of words? She’d likely answer, “I didn’t mean anything. It was just a joke, really.” But behind every joke, there’s an element of truth. And that’s what I’m on a quest to uncover.
So the real question is this – what is it about being Jewish that makes a Jew realize they’re Jewish? Even if what Silverman said was merely done in jest, as a passing provocation to arouse the crowd’s emotions and sensibilities, it still strikes a chord and incites reflection on the issue. Most disturbing, there’s really no answer and too many possibilities. Some kids may say they know they’re Jewish because they get a bag of gold coins they call “gelt”. Others might say it’s because they have to “starve themselves for one day a year” while their non-Jewish friends don’t have to follow the same rules. Perhaps since the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus aren’t in the Jewish vernacular, the mere mentioning of the famed marsupial or Pere Noel makes one feel like they stand apart. For whatever reason one may feel Jewish, for either a brief moment during a holiday or at every waking second by the kippahs and tzistzas they don, there’s no definitive way of telling what it is about non-Jews that makes Jews feel like Jews except for the fact that we know, in our own ways, we’re Jewish. But still, like the Talmud, the whole theory is open to interpretation.
Elayne Laken is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The Tribune Media, Elle Canada, Toronto Star, Shalom Life, New York Moves Magazine and more. One of the co-founders of 100jdates.com, she’s also an avid blogger and self-proclaimed expert in the field of online dating.