According to a new Pew poll picked up by the Atlantic, Jews are cool now. This spring, 3,217 randomly selected American adults were surveyed on how warmly they felt toward various religious groups, and America has spoken: Jews are America’s sweethearts. Wait, we are? Since when?
As a thick-hipped, curly-headed, bespectacled, schnozz-possessing MOT* who also happens to be a vain piece of shit, I’ve spent a lot of time in front of the mirror trying to assess whether or not I look “too Jewish.” Despite having been bat mitzvahed, I’m all too quick to distinguish myself as “not that Jewish” or “only culturally Jewish” or “raised Jewish”, or “Jewish on a technicality.”
A lot of this has to do with my distaste for organized religion, sure, or my unwillingness to fall into the stereotype of the creative, neurotic, asthmatic Northeast-liberal-Jew, or the fact that my pork-and-shellfish-eating, shul-averse family really is pretty damn secular. I think it’s also got at least a little to do with the kid in my fifth-grade class who called me a kike (granted, I’m pretty sure that kid is now a drug addict), the adults who chided me for not knowing what a nativity was as a six-year-old who’d never set foot in a church, the former boss who once referred to a colleague she disliked as “just a Jewish bitch anyway,” the stories my mom related about classmates who used to throw pennies at her when she was growing up, “because Jews love money,” and the high-school student of hers who once stayed after class upon learning my mother was Jewish to sheepishly and earnestly ask, “Ms. Goldberg? Could I see your horns? My grandmother says Jews have horns…can I see yours?” All this time wasted trying to minimize my heritage of a culture whose long history is pockmarked with genocide, alienation, and assimilation when I could have just been capitalizing on sweet, sweet hipster cred all along? God damn it!
Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to be the beneficiary of America’s inexplicable warmth towards us chosen types. I just don’t get it what precipitated it. Maybe bagels really do bring the US together. Maybe the rise of 00’s geek-chic in lieu of 90’s slacker-cool means that a cultural and religious group that values education, achievement, and perfectionism while presenting a shiny face to the nation somehow comes across as the ultimate disenfranchised geek-made-good. Maybe the vaguely glamorous Woody Allen New Yorkishness that comes to mind for many people when they think about Jews — a still life with Warby Parker nouveau-nerd eyeglass frames, Central Park in springtime, hot knishes, a first-edition Philip Roth hardcover, and Grandma Ethel’s vintage caftan — casts us in a clever, cosmopolitan light.
Maybe the Jewish sense of humor (self-effacing, tongue-in-cheek, rife with both sarcasm and dad-jokes) has finally synced with America’s in general. Picture a stand up comedian. He’s Jewish, isn’t he? He’s totally Jewish. I mean, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen, Billy Crystal, David Cross, Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman, Sacha Baron Cohen, Andy Samberg, Michael Showalter…Mel Brooks, Lenny Bruce, Gene Wilder, Gilda Radner, the friggin’ Marx brothers? We’ve also got a lot of writers and a whole lot of celebrities and general creatives among us, while making up less than 3% of the US population. Maybe we just personify the indie ethos? Maybe we all owe the Nice Jewish Boy a chocolate babka for propelling the rise of the Cool Jew?
It’s possible that Jews ranked highest in the Pew survey (at a whopping 63%, mind you, still a failing grade if this were a test, a grade of which no Jewish mother would approve) because we’ve successfully assimilated at last. Look at the stereotypes: we’re not expected to be economically disadvantaged, we’re fluent in American cultural capital, we’re not evangelists, and we sit down, shut up, and order Chinese food when Christmas-mania sweeps through the land, when religious imagery is bandied about in courts of law, and when crosses are erected in secular contexts in a country that claims religious freedom and a separation of church and state, unlike those pesky atheists (a group that I, for the record, feel quite warmly toward indeed). Both atheists and Muslims got panned in the Pew survey which, interestingly, didn’t seem to poll Muslims, Hindus, or Buddhists — all traditionally non-white, frequently “othered” religious blocs in the United States — while asking other people to weigh in on them, but that is a whole ‘nother essay, my friends.
This idea of warm ‘n’ fuzzy Jewish feelings being related to our super-cool assimilated Jewish stereotype for the new millenium (a skinny-but-kinda-fit, well educated, funny, glasses-wearing dude who is nice to his mom and probably pretty decent in bed — let’s call him Josh, because dollars to donuts that’s his name) completely ignores the layered cultural tradition of Judaism, and y’know, the whole actual religious aspect. Do orthodox Jews get the same high ratings as secular Jews like me, and Josh? How about Hasidic Jews? How do we as a nation feel about a bearded guy with a yarmulke, tallis, tefillin, and payess? Is he our BFF too, or is that just Josh? What about Sephardic Jews, whose ancestors hail from Spain, North Africa and the Middle East, unlike Josh’s Ashkenazi (read: white European) grandparents? And how does the rise of the cool Jew jive with the rise of support for Palestinians among the young, hip, and politically conscious? I don’t know.
Maybe America’s just really good at holding two opposing viewpoints simultaneously. We’ve got a black president and a black royal family (Beyonce, Jay-Z, and Blue Ivy, obviously), but god forbid you’re an unarmed black teenager walking alone at night. Tacos and burritos are by this point as American as apple pie, but let’s not get too crazy about welcoming Mexican people, just their food and labor. And Jews are absolutely lovely people who are totally going to hell because they don’t believe the Messiah has come yet. But maybe I’m just looking a gift horse in the mouth. Maybe it really is desirable to be an American Jew, and like Groucho Marx and Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer, I just don’t want to be a member of any club that would have someone like me for a member?
But hey, next time you swipe right on a Josh-type on your Tinder, fantasizing about how great it would be to have a distinctive-nosed boyfriend who would never make you spend Christmas with his family instead of yours, and whose parents would remind you charmingly of George Costanza’s, remember that the Jews you think are inexplicably cool have been under threat of genocide since, oh, I don’t know, the Bible, until about 70 years ago, when apparently we sold out and went mainstream. In the meantime, if you need me, I’ll be over here talking about it to my therapist.
*Member of the Tribe, AKA what my dad calls fellow Jews, AKA apparently a member of the popular kids’ table these days. My editor said I had to explain it because most people won’t know what it means, thus proving yet again the indie cred of the Jewish people, a concept long discussed in our ancient texts.