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Jewish and nearly Jewish

From the Lower East Side to Hollywood: Jews in American Popular Culture, Paul Buhle, Verso: 304 pp., $25

September 19, 2004|Paul Krassner | Paul Krassner is the author of "Murder at the Conspiracy Convention and Other American Absurdities." His latest anthology is "Magic Mushrooms and Other Highs: From Toad Slime to Ecstasy."

It was ironic for a generation which considered leaving the Lower East Side to be a sign of advancement that their children began emigrating there to gain a sense of community. In 1966, the same year a section was rechristened the East Village, I moved to a loft above a bar on Avenue A.

As a stand-up comedian, I had a routine about comic-strip superheroes being Jewish. You could tell by their names: Superman, Batman, Hawkman, Spider-Man, Flashman, the Skyman, Doll Man. Captain Marvel was really a Jew pretending to be a Protestant; his power word "Shazam!" was just a euphemism for "Shalom!"

However, in the film version of "Spider-Man," according to the Jewish weekly the Forward, the trouble with Tobey Maguire's Spidey is "that he isn't Jewish enough." (Conversely, a top NBC executive originally dismissed the pilot of "Seinfeld" as "too Jewish.") Yet, in "From the Lower East Side to Hollywood: Jews in American Popular Culture," Paul Buhle writes that Spider-Man's alter-ego, Peter Parker, is now "on his way to becoming sarcastic -- yet another Jewish example of the vernacular aspiring uplift to something better."

Buhle, a Gentile columnist for the Jewish magazine Tikkun, seems to be referring to himself when he calls comic artist R. Crumb "genetically Gentile, but cryptically Jewish." Of Bill Griffith, creator of "Zippy the Pinhead," he states: "Not born with Jewishness, he was assimilated into it (no doubt with some help from his wife, Diane Newman, as Crumb has had help from his two Jewish wives)."

Griffith tells me, though, "I always thought I was Jewish, or some sort of WASP version of a Jew, because all my friends were Jewish. Growing up in the suburbs, Levittown was a kind of dividing line for Jews and Italians. I knew I wasn't Italian because of my name. I was soaked with Yiddish humor from Harvey Kurtzman in the early Mad magazine. At one point I had a Jewish girlfriend, and her mother said that I must be Jewish because I was so smart. She didn't want me to not be Jewish. It was some way of ushering me in."

And Newman, wondering why Buhle labels her as Griffith's "talented, excessively self-conscious Jewish wife and fellow artist," says, "I never met the guy, so I don't know why he said that. It could be that he's talking about my art as opposed to my personality, but he doesn't really discuss my art in the book at all. I don't think my artwork is particularly self-conscious, I think it's satirical. 'DiDi Glitz' doesn't seem like a self-conscious character to me, and it's not me. I seem to exist primarily to establish Bill as someone he can talk about with some kind of Jewish connection."

One of the Jewish connections that Buhle makes is the gay connection. On Broadway: "The historic Jewish subtext of musicals having now been replaced by a gay subtext ... in the theatrical world, 'Jewish' and 'gay' so often flow into each other." On David Geffen: "[He] had a special feeling for gay rights. Nineties billionaire Geffen himself was gay, after all, and that might be the largest fact of change in Jewish-American entertainment business life." This connection can be explained by "a Jewish world where surviving or reviving Yiddish at once takes on a gay affect (the marginal re-embracing the marginal)."

Allen Ginsberg was, of course, the epitome of a gay Jew. Buhle writes, "Half-Jewish Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose launching of City Lights Books (the store and the publisher) in 1953 brought the message to millions, including the similarly half-Jewish Diane di Prima, proto feminist queen of the Beats, also introduced City Lights' all-time champion author, Allen Ginsberg.... 'Howl and Other Poems' (1956), in addition to being a sort of poetic declaration of Beatitude, was patently a recollection of Jewish left-wing memory held up against a crazed, postwar consumerist goyishe America."

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