In this academic deep dive, Jennifer Caplan reflects on Jewish American writing, comedy, and media in the last half of the twentieth century and the first decades of the twenty-first. A professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Cincinnati, and the author of numerous works on Judaism and popular culture, Caplan cites multiple scholarly sources to back up her extensively researched analysis. Her book’s focus is on humor “that has some social or religious target.”
Highlighting selected works by Jewish American humorists from the silent generation, baby boomers, Generation X, and millennials, Caplan considers how attitudes toward Jewish religious rituals have changed over time, particularly in the secular Jewish community. However, because she cites numerous satirists whose humor tends to reflect more than one defined “generation,” her analysis, while fascinating, can sometimes get murky.
Caplan uses the unfortunate term “thingification” to describe satirists’ attitudes toward Judaism. This can be distracting, but the questions she poses are incredibly thought-provoking. Is American Judaism “a useless thing” as an organized religion, one that holds Jews back? Or are Jewish life cycle rituals like circumcision (which is the most satirized), bat and bar mitzvahs, and shivas still useful and meaningful, capable of bringing families and communities together?
Caplan argues that satirical engagement with Jewish religious texts and rituals has shifted over the past century and continues to do so. For example, Woody Allen and Joseph Heller, born during the silent generation (1925 – 45), “are doing midrash by taking the form and content of the Bible and reworking it in a parodic fashion. They are actively rejecting organized religion as useless. On the other hand, some GenXers and millennials have a different take on religion and where to direct their satiric barbs. From baby boomers such as Adam Sandler and Jerry Seinfeld, to millennial female comics like Amy Schumer, Abbi Jacobson, and Ilana Glazer, a positive view of Judaism as something “cool” and very much alive seems to be emerging.
Nina Schneider is a retired English & Media Studies professor with expertise in creative writing and art history.