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Doctor, Doctor, There's a Joke in my Judaism!: A Conversation with Adam Gopnik

Reprinted with permission of The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.

April 20, 2007

It all began with a Purim spiel. Seven years ago, the much-loved New Yorker magazine writer Adam Gopnik was living in a kind of secular New York Jewish limbo.

Then he got an invitation from the Jewish Museum to serve as Purimspieler--the one who tells the Purim story. That single invitation was the catalyst for an investigation of a whole lot of topics, not least "The Rise and Fall of Jewish Comedy," which Gopnik will address in Los Angeles at a festival sponsored by Nextbook this Sunday.

Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

In other words, if it weren't for Purim, Gopnik wouldn't be coming to UCLA this weekend. He wouldn't be talking about Jews and comedy or, for that matter, about being a Jew himself. He might not even be giving any of those subjects a second thought.

Gopnik was born in 1956 in Philadelphia and raised in Montreal. To those who follow his writings, it would seem that he is curious about just about anything, and one small incident in daily life can lead to 47 books perused, a world of sideline distractions and anecdotes and colorful detail. Anyone who knows his work, which has graced the pages of The New Yorker since 1986, knows that he easily blends discourse on the death of Anna Nicole Smith with the alleged recovery of the resting place of Jesus. Gopnik is able to weave his family's exploits--particularly those of his lively and clearly bright son, Luke--into his intellectual pursuits; he is both neurotically curious and genuinely and infectiously in love with today's urban life--particularly that of New York and Paris.

But for all that, Gopnik, who would seem to be as obviously Jewish as anyone might imagine a New York intellectual to be, professes surprise at being pegged as a Jew. In his essay, "A Purim Story," which forms a chapter in his recently released book, Through the Children's Gate (Knopf, 2006), he describes a conversation with his wife:

"The thing that puzzles me... is how they ever figured out I was Jewish."

She executed what I believe our fathers would have called a spit take. "That is the most ridiculous question I've ever heard. There's your name, for one thing, and then the way you use Jewish words in writing."

"What Jewish words have I ever used in writing?"

She thought for a moment. "Well, 'shvits.' And 'inchoate.'"

"'Inchoate' is not a Jewish word."

"It is the way you use it. You've got 'Jew' written all over you. It's obvious."

"It's obvious," my six-year-old son, Luke, echoed, looking up from his plate. "It's obvious." I was startled, though not entirely...."

And thus began Gopnik's quest to uncover the meaning of Purim, the meaning of being Jewish to a secular Jew and, perhaps, even the meaning of faith. Where some might seek to explore such issues in conversation with a few friends over dinner, or perhaps by taking an adult education class, or maybe by running off to the nearest bookstore only to become overwhelmed, Gopnik did his research by going on Sunday mornings to a deli with his son.

He also, as is his style, called up the leading authority, someone who would seem to have little time for novices, and, with the weight of the New Yorker imprimatur and the seeming guilessness that is his charm, got an audience. This time it was Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, then chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Schorsch discovered that Gopnik was using a Christian Bible for his research, and went on to explain, impress and, perhaps, even to elucidate Gopnik, who in the end, found his faith in Jewish humor, not God.

Nextbook , the hip, alert Jewish Web site, spent some time talking to Gopnik about this tale, then followed up by inviting him to Los Angeles. It's hard to resist a guy who's so curious, yet who also sets himself up as being a little, well, naïve.

I called Gopnik last week to talk about his Jewishness and comedy and to see what he was really like. I'd been reading his work since he first started writing for The New Yorker about art--he'd been a student of art history at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, where I also attended, though not at the same time. And I'd followed the arc of his career from art critic (a role I shared at the time in a much less high-profile way) to essayist and diarist. Not long ago, he wrote at length about the death of his daughter's betta fish, Bluie, in a side-splittingly funny style, and like most parents of our ilk, my daughter had also had a betta for a short while. I felt like I sort of knew Gopnik, and, well, I'm a fan.

Gopnik answered his home phone on a weekday evening, and in the course of our conversation, he was interrupted regularly by his children, who were alternately very excited about an upcoming hockey game on TV that evening and wanting him to say goodbye to the piano teacher, who was leaving after their lesson. He excused himself each time in midsentence and with complete patience in his voice, responded to the kids and then returned to our discourse with equal aplomb. High and Low, the name of an art museum catalog he authored in 1991 for a show at the Museum of Modern Art, could be his own middle name. So the link between humor and theology, which I'd called to ask about, seemed right up his alley.

I asked Gopnik why, as he described himself in "A Purim Story," he hadn't been more inquisitive earlier about the religion to which he was born. Gopnik started by explaining that both his parents were Jews but from very different traditions. "I have a kind of double identity about Judaism," he said. "My own parents were of that generation who, in retrospect, seem to be as Jewish as people could be, in the sense that their only values were belief in education and reading and argument. But the specific form it took was to be in rebellion against their own parents, to secularize themselves."

Gopnik's father, an English professor and dean, came from an observant Ashkenazi background, and Yiddish was his first language. He was raised keeping kosher, and, Gopnik says, is Jewish in the "classic Philip Roth sense."

Gopnik's mother is of Sephardi origin, and her grandfather was a "rabbi from a distinguished rabbinical family in Hebron, in Palestine as they still called it, who went to Lisbon to reopen the synagogue before the First World War." That family, he said, were Levantine and also highly European, speaking French and German, with strong ties to South America and North Africa.

Gopnik says that he was therefore always conscious of being a Jew, "and oddly not curious about it, because it was what I grew up with. The religious side of it was the least significant side of it, from [my parents'] point of view. That was the thing we talked about least and heard about least."

In his turn, Gopnik's wife is Lutheran, and the family celebrates Christmas, Chanukah and Passover. But, Gopnik says, his recent Passover seder was in "the Alexandrian model," and having just read Boychiks in the Hood: Travels in the Hasidic Underground, by Robert Eisenberg (HarperCollins, 1995), he says almost apologetically that among some Jews "we may not, even remotely in any imaginable way, be counted as Jews."

"I don't mean to be sentimental about it," Gopnik says. "In a certain way, we've made a secular decision, but as for so many American Jews, it also involves a certain consciousness of valuing those traditions."

His is the dilemma of much modern Jewry--sentimental about the seder, secular in their beliefs, belonging to no synagogue. He is totally Jewish in his outlook--in terms of pursing justice (Gopnik has become an advocate for universal health coverage), in terms of intellectual questioning (no argument goes without multiple sides, even when only one person is talking) and in terms of his love of humor.

Which brought us back to the topic that makes him feel most comfortable as a Jew: jokes.

As he wrote the story of his pursuit of his Purimspiel gig, Gopnik remembers his grandfather, the butcher whose greatest joy was that two of his grandchildren have degrees from Oxford (Gopnik's siblings), but whose parlance was pure vaudeville: "Feel stiff in the joints? Stay out of the joints!" Gopnik's son, Luke, still in grade school at the time of the essay, is also a joke teller: "Daddy, did I tell you the new version?" Gopnik quotes his prodigy-progeny.

"Man goes into a restaurant, he says, 'Waiter, waiter.'"

"No," [Gopnik] corrected him, "he should just say, 'Waiter!' It's the guy who goes to a doctor who says it twice: 'Doctor, Doctor!'..."

"Oh. He says 'Waiter, what's this fly doing in my soup?' ... then the waiter says, 'There was no room left in the potato salad.'"

Gopnik talks pretty much the same way that he writes: long sentences, lots of asides, a kind of sweet emphasis on details. He is (surprisingly) self-deprecating and (not surprisingly) engaging for someone so accomplished, and as he casually mentions dozens of books he's just read, he seems less interested in impressing than of being precise.

Humor is something he's thought a lot about, shtick is something he does, but not in the way of Henny Youngman or Groucho Marx, whose art form, he believes, is gone from our culture. "In my grandfather's generation, being able to articulate your Jewishness against the background of assimilation and discrimination was a very powerful thing. And you could still feel it in the work of--someone I really admire--Mel Brooks, in his use of Yiddish words, like 'schvartzes' in Blazing Saddles. That was a hugely powerful thing. Or Lenny Bruce."

Gopnik's father would insert a Yiddish word into a lecture on Alexander Pope or Ben Jonson "as a sign to his students that he came from elsewhere and as a reminder to himself that he came from outside that tradition."

But Gopnik's own generation doesn't have the same adversarial relationship with the surrounding culture, at least not in New York today, and it's the integration of unacknowledged Jewishness that he believes now defines Jewish comics. And while he finds many of them very funny, he says, the loss of overt Jewishness in their work defines what he sees as the "fall of Jewish comedy."

Of "Seinfeld," for example, he says, "It's astonishing to me that it's at once entirely Jewish--the humor is entirely Jewish, the character of George, who other than Sgt. Bilko is the most caricatural Jewish character on television [albeit in reruns], but it's entirely denied. The parents live in Florida, they eat dinner at 5:30, they fight with the other people in the condo..." But George is Catholic, and Jerry unidentified. "Seinfeld is just upper-middle-class New York."

Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" goes even further, making the context a Jewish guy entirely wealthy and arrived. "If you were a scholar," Gopnik suggests, "you could say it's a classic form of Jewish humor; he's the schlemiel, he's the smart guy, and all that's true.

"Only the other funny thing about it is that it's against the background of unbelievable affluence. They're incredibly rich. And they take for granted that that's what life is like, because they're in show business, partly. So, in that sense, it's not aspirational comedy--about how you can arrive. It's about having arrived and then trying to see how you can have your pleasures exactly the way you want them, when you want them, without pissing people off."

And so, asks Gopnik, one of the more arrived writers of his generation: "Is that maybe not something of our time?"

What marks much of Gopnik's writing is an unapologetic sentimentalism, amid all the questioning. That, too, may be one of the bigger changes since the ironic, uncomfortable, edgy stance of an earlier generation that was not only aspirational but also uncomfortable about it. And the trick in making his own work both humorous and a little weepy is part of what makes it so familiar and, perhaps, even comfortable for many of us.

In the early 20th century, the painter artist Henri Matisse got into trouble with his avant-garde contemporaries when he said that he dreamt of an art that could have the effect of a good armchair, an escape from life. Having said that, though, Matisse continued to push boundaries of artistic representation to the limits through his use of simplified lines and bold color. Likewise, as we read Gopnik's story of the Purimspiel and of his son's attempts to refine comic timing, and of his own quest for how to tell Esther's story anew, it's easy just to get lost in the yarn, with all its color.

But it's clear, too, that Gopnik is searching for something more and pushing boundaries by mixing up Schorsch's teachings with those of his toddler daughter, Olivia, and his late grandfather and Youngman's, "Waiter, what's this fly doing in my soup?--The backstroke."

Gopnik pushes us to explore the limits between today's Jews and the surrounding culture. To help him figure out who is and who is not. To see whether we all think the same things are funny these days.

One of the great beauties of Judaism is that it lives on the line between intellect and sentiment, between probing and faith. It's not all about God, and Gopnik's beliefs and observance are hardly what would make us know him as a Jew.

But I don't have to say any of that, because his son already told him, with perfect comic timing.

"It's obvious."

Having Jewish family origins in Germany or Eastern Europe. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Having Jewish family origins in Spain, Portugal or North Africa. The term literally means "Spanish" in Hebrew. Hebrew for "pious," commonly refers to a member of an Orthodox Jewish mystic movement founded in the 18th century in Eastern Europe by Baal Shem Tov that reacted against Talmudic learning and maintained that God's presence was in all of one's surroundings and that one should serve God in one's every deed and word. A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino. Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Hebrew for "lots," referring to the lots cast by Haman, the story's antagonist, to determine the date on which to kill the Jewish people. It's a spring holiday commemorating the Jewish people's triumph. The story is told through the biblical Book of Esther; the namesake heroine, a Jewish woman, marries the Persian king. Their interfaith relationship is central to the story. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals.
Susan Freudenheim

Susan Freudenheim is managing editor of The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.

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