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Jewish Humor

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Jewish Humor
04.03.2020
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Contemporary American pop culture and cinema trends, in particular, are often based on Jewish artistic conceptualization, as 80% of contemporary movies refer to fundamentals of Jewish humor, comedy, and drama. This evidence is also supported by the fact that many artists, actors, and directors have Jewish origins. Consequently, it can be stated that modern pop culture evidently depends on Jewish artistic traditions. One of the most outstanding representatives is Woody Allen — his numerous comedy movies created the entirely new genre of American cinematography, often called intellectual comedy. Despite the fact that Woody Allen criticizes Jewish culture, his movies and other artistic performances demonstrate multiple examples of traditional Jewish comedies, which has actually influenced a classical topology of contemporary Hollywood movies. Thus, the following paper is particularly aimed at the discussion of Woody Allen’s peculiarities in regard to traditional Jewish humor and of the positioning of his art within this domain.

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The following study conducts a literature review in order to contextualize the subject of discussion. Subsequently, the paper involves a discussion of Woody Allen’s multiple peculiarities in regard to Jewish comedies and establishes certain links to a larger context of his artistic performance. It is informative to note that the study does not evaluate the relevance of Woody Allen’s comedies to the traditions and culture of Jews, but it traces distinct elements that can be regarded as typical features of classical Jewish humor. The personality of Woody Allen is often described as extraordinary and controversial since there has been little agreement on whether he criticizes Jewish culture for artistic purpose or owing to his preexisting belief that Jewish culture has to be transformed, as Woody Allen does not understand it. At any rate, various speculations on that subject only prove that Allen belongs to the traditional school of Jewish comedy, and the following study investigates these features.

Woody Allen’s Comedies to the Traditions and Culture of Jews

Literature Review

It is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the fact that Woody Allen refers to his Jewish backgrounds in a number of perspectives. His protagonists are often placed in the environment of pop Jewish American culture, so that dramatic actions would expose certain inappropriateness of the main character toward it. Pete Bailey (2016) argues that such references are the matter of personal sympathy and beliefs of Woody Allen, who does not share traditional values of Jewish culture and national identity. As a matter of fact, Bailey presents the evidence which proves that numerous protagonists of Woody Allen are presented as people unable to establish a psychological connection with the surrounding environments, but they still manage to succeed in them, in spite of being perceived as weird and unfortunate (Bailey, 2016). Such characters do not suggest that the audience should share their standpoints, but they will definitely find appreciation, as they receive a physical real-world reward instead of spiritual elevation, which is traditionally depicted in similar plot concepts.

This peculiarity is explained at different angles, thereby embracing the concept of Jewish humor, especially in terms of its modern discourse. In such a way, Jason Kalman (2010) reports various explanations for Woody Allen’s comic interpretation of the process of acquiring Jewish identity. Some practitioners tend to think that Woody Allen simply expresses his personal self-hatred and embarrassment due to his Jewish background so that misunderstanding of Jewish traditions and rituals makes him depict them as strange and unnecessary. However, Kalman (2010) also provides a rational reason that demonstrates the opposite way of thinking: Woody Allen makes his characters winners in the end, which is why he does not demonstrate complete disapproval of the process of acquiring Jewish identity. Woody Allen is known to strongly react to real problems of the Jewish nation, and the insider criticism of Jewish culture is a certain investment in the development of Jews as an independent nationality.

Woody Allen often symbolizes a tradition of Jewish missionism of physical and spiritual travel — an exile in which harmony and happiness are achieved. Numerous protagonists of Allen travel in search of success, as they are unable to establish psychosocial relations with other people (Bailey & Girgus, 2013). Woody Allen renders a comic effect since the main characters are not Jews, at least explicitly, and their actions are perceived within a different discourse. Such contextualizing of characters and allocation of storyline twists imply a persistent challenge Jewish culture and its entire essence have to face. In fact, Bailey and Girgus (2013) argue that such a self-critic and self-ironic representation of identity is the core basis of Jewish humor, as it founds itself on critical exaggeration and opposition to a mainstream culture which does not fit the protagonists. Initially being in a search of success, Allen’s characters manage to gain it, but in an unfashionable way.

Also, it is worth making a remark in regard to a concept of schlemiel/nebbish. Woody Allen’s characters are usually the atypical representations of this concept, as he describes them as losers, nerds, unconfident, physically weak, and clumsy people, who all of a sudden happen to win or succeed in their pursuits. Allen opposes them to the normality and criticizes Jewish culture for an indication of being the chosen people according to the Talmud and Thora (Horton & Rapf, 2013). At the same time, such implied criticism conveys a comic portrayal of the main character, who manages to win despite all the inadequacies of his personality. Therefore, Horton and Rapf (2013) suggest that Woody Allen just utilizes Jewish stereotyping for twisting facts of the objective reality, thereby creating a comic effect in regard to his characters who end up being winners because of human spirituality and cooperativeness, which is opposite to mainstream mindsets.

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Woody Allen is also noticed to use specific Yiddish lexical units to create a framework for his characters so that they are perceived as a schlemiel, since a peculiar Jewish style of speech is presented. However, it is worth saying that such emphasis is used for producing an ironic effect rather than for implication that particular characters should be associated with the Jewish image. Brisset (2014) claims that Woody Allen attempts to place Jewish identity in a particular comic setting, and the specific lexicon and speech style is strong stylistic instruments in this regard. Again, self-mockery and even radical anti-Semitism are the most frequent accusations directed toward Woody Allen, but it is possible to think that Allen acts in such a way because he is also Jewish, and such comic approach is a matter of his national identity and traditions of humor (Brisset, 2014). Thus, such a combination of opposing facts actually comprises Jewish traditions of humor.

On the other hand, Sander Lee (2013) argues that Woody Allen shapes Jewish identity in such a comic way because of his personal intent to scrutinize Jewish reality. Lee explains it with the fact that Allen has a right to act so on the behalf of the Jewish nation, as long as he is genuinely interested in providing a different perception of Jews in the real world. Therefore, his images of Jews are always symbolic. Lee (2013) looks beyond the context of humor since Woody Allen outlines his standpoint in his essays as well. Hence, the symbolism of Jewish identity is not only a matter of stylistic prominence of Jewish traditions in humor but also a personal purpose of Woody Allen. Such an explanation of Allen’s conceptualization of Jewish humor is well-justified, especially with a proactive conceptualization of little persona, present in the majority of Allen’s movies and books.

The aforementioned facts are the reasons explaining why depicting Jewish identity and its comic essence via peculiar language and speech is the most problematic issue related to Woody Allen’s art. Delia Chiaro (2010) proves that the translation of Allen’s movies into different languages affects the perception of Yiddish lexical units present in the speech of the main characters. It is hard to deny the fact that Woody Allen cannot rely on an English-speaking audience, provided that he always intends to deliver a certain comic message via presenting Jewish identity and means of traditional Jewish humor (Chiaro, 2010). As a consequence, Allen’s comic instruments are not determined by certain traditions of Jewish humor only. It is necessary to place the emphasis on the fact Woody Allen acts in such a way because of his personal beliefs and tastes, and these constraints can be a result of his personal Jewish background, which determines his artistic vision and hence stylistic approach to conveying comic effects.

Discussion

Taking into account the arguments retrieved from the literature review, it is relevant to say that Woody Allen employs traditional means of Jewish humor. As a matter of fact, masking a Jewish identity is a peculiar feature of Jewish comedy tradition (Myers, 2010). This element is a brand component of Jewish comedy, as long as its approach to image conceptualization appeals to the diverse audience and is implicitly meaningful to Jews. Woody Allen, as well as such classical Jewish comics as Lenny Bruce, Jack Benny, and even Charlie Chaplin, refers to most fundamental issues of Jewish culture, and tragic moments of Jewish history are not an exception (Myers, 2010). That is why he is often accused of self-hatred and anti-Semitism, but in fact, Woody Allen’s concept of art is similar to that of his traditional comedians, who acted in the same way in order to make serious problems look laughable and hence less powerful.

Beyond a doubt, a concept of schlemiel is also a profound Jewish tradition of comedy and humor. Depiction of a weak, unconfident, clumsy, and strange person is a central image of Jewish humor. This concept involves a number of references to Jewish culture — Talmudic motives of Elija and Rabi Beroka are reflected in Tevye the Dairyman, whose image of schlemiel has also caused a wave of accusation regarding Jewish mockery and anti-Semitism (Myers, 2010). It is becoming increasingly apparent that Woody Allen also deploys such conceptualization and discourse to his movies (Myers, 2010). As a result, the Jewish-like image of schlemiel as opposed to the mainstream goyish reality, in which the main character seems to hardly be able to cope with daily routines and life success but manages to thrive without acceptance of this mainstream reality. The sensitivity to Jewish culture and its projection conveyed through related stylistic instruments defines Jewish comedy traditions, and Woody Allen clearly adheres to them.

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Since Jewish humor is based on the references to Jewish culture and identity, such a tragic event as the Holocaust is also not omitted by Jewish artists and comics. Needless to say, Woody Allen and his colleagues do not refer to Holocaust as to a stylistic instrument for producing a particular comic effect, but this part of Jewish history makes them think in a particular way which makes their protagonists hide their Jewish nature (Greenspoon, 2011). That is why Woody Allen always attempts to address the question of the Holocaust in his movies — his characters oppose the surrounding world, but they survive and even succeed by leading the army to victory, starting an affair with the most beautiful women, promoting their business, and by other things. Holocaust, as well as any event of Jewish history, reflects on the concept of humor and comedy, and Woody Allen has been following this pattern for many years in spite of all speculations related to his criticism of Jewish culture.

In order to speak about the aforementioned Jewish sensibility, it is important to admit that it is defined as the ability to recognize Jewish identity and culture, and it means that Woody Allen is also quite traditional in this regard. A peculiar style of characters’ speech and schlemiel concept of the world perception describes Wood Allen as a Jewish comic, which is why he possesses the respective sense of Jewish culture and national peculiarity (Greenspoon, 2011). This sensitivity can be also tailored to references to Jewish missionism, mentioned in the literature review. A practice of making cultural and often Talmud/Thora based references is typical of Jewish comics, as long as such worldwide known characters as Superman and Spider-man, as well as other characters of DC and Marvel comics series, are masked schlemiels (Myers, 2010). Moreover, Superman resembles a story of Exodus, as he hides his extraterrestrial origins. Woody Allen presents his characters in the same way, and it is the most distinct evidence of his traditional Jewish humor conceptualization.

Henceforth, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the fact that traditional Jewish humor is based on exaggerating and stereotyping in regard to Jewish cultural and national identity. Self-mockery, criticism, sarcasm, and schlemiel conceptualization are the typical features of Jewish comedy. As it has been already mentioned, such positioning is justified by the fact that such an approach appeals to diverse audiences and conveys a certain implicit message to Jews (Greenspoon, 2011). Woody Allen also employs these traditions, and his personal intention to be critical about his Jewish background supports his artistic purpose to produce a strong comic effect (Greenspoon, 2011). It results in the creation of the entire Jewish American pop culture, which is criticized yet simultaneously promotes a view that schlemiel — Jews, always win, in spite of their strange essence and social incapability to adapt to the mainstream socio-cultural environment of the contemporary communities.

Overall, Woody Allen’s attitude toward Jewish traditions is based on the following pillars. First of all, Woody Allen utilizes an instrument of self-mockery and criticism, thereby creating a comic effect in his protagonists. It makes the target audience support his characters without inclination to share their outlooks and life standpoints. Being accused of self-hatred and even anti-Semitism only proves the fact that Woody Allen’s movies correspond to the traditions of Jewish comedy (Bailey, 2016). Even though Woody Allen criticizes his original culture beyond the context of his movies, this evidence suggests only the fact that he is truly devoted to the tradition of Jewish comedy, even though he can personally deny it.

The second constraint is the proactive employment of the schlemiel concept in creating the main characters. Every single protagonist of Woody Allen is physically weak, innocent, and clumsy, someone who is always rewarded at the end, and this reward usually belongs to the material world to which the character is opposed (Bailey, 2016). In such a way, Woody Allen produces a particular comic effect and implicitly addresses the most difficult questions of Jewish history: Holocaust, Talmud, and Thora religious references, as well as many other customs that may initially seem to be scrutinized and disregarded by him (Bailey, 2016). Eventually, numerous references to Jewish culture, as well as their masking in the movies, should also be indicated. Woody Allen may argue that these similarities are accidental or he includes them because of an implicit need to criticize Jewish identity in a particular way. Nonetheless, such an approach is congruent with traditional Jewish humor, since similar discourse can be observed in Talmud and Thora (Bailey, 2016). Furthermore, traditional Jewish comics act in the same way, and they were also accused of the same anti-Semitic beliefs as Woody Allen. Thus, Jewish traditions of humor cannot be denied in Alen’s movies and his other artistic performances.

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Conclusion

Considering the analyzed information, this paper has provided a meaningful account of Woody Allen’s traditional Jewish humor and his contextualization in terms of Jewish comedy traditions. The study has conducted a meaningful literature review and provided a discussion of Woody Allen’s comedies in the context of Jewish traditional humor, on the basis of the related findings. As a result, the study has established three main constraints of Allen’s Jewish origins of comic style. First of all, self-criticism and mockery of Jewish identity should be not recognized as self-hatred or anti-Semitic attitude, since Allen’s non-comic mindset is particularly focused on answering the ultimate questions of Jewish history, and he subconsciously attempts to answer them on the behalf of the entire nation. Secondly, the proactive use of the schlemiel image is also a typical feature of Jewish comedy, which has actually become well-known due to Woody Allen’s characters. Third, purposeful or accidental references to Jewish culture suggest that Allen possesses sensitivity in regard to Jewish culture, which makes him a traditional Jewish humorist. The use of a specific style of speech, lexical units, and other stylistic instruments practiced by classical Jewish comedians makes Woody Allen a traditional Jewish comedian as well.

It is appropriate to make a general comment on the fact that the Jewish essence of Allen’s comedies has managed to create the entire domain of Jewish American pop culture, which is often scrutinized by its own creator and is obliged to deliver a certain message to a Jewish audience at the same time. To the great extent, Woody Allen’s Jewish comic origins enabled him to become a leader in the creation of a peculiar cinematographic style, which has become popular within the United States and all over the world. In spite of the fact that Allen may deny a strong influence of Jewish traditions of humor on him, the related evidence cannot be ignored.

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