I think the time is right to pose the following question: Is it finally cool to be Jewish?
If it turns out the answer is “yes,” that would represent one giant leap for Jewishkind. Let’s face it, my people typically consider themselves smart and funny and menschy. But, cool? Not so much.
Yet, who’s hipper than entertainers? And who’s disproportionately represented in the entertainment field? Jewish people!
What becomes a legend most in the music industry? Being Jewish, apparently. Barbra Streisand, Carole King, Neil Diamond, Simon and Garfunkel, Billy Joel, Gene Simmons, David Lee Roth, members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and even Paula Abdul all have Jewish ancestry.
And if you think the only Jewish power players in Hollywood are studio heads, agents, and producers—in other words, the “suits”—you might be surprised at the who’s who of hot young actors and actresses who are at least part Jewish: Zac Efron, Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scarlett Johansson, Shia LaBeouf, Daniel Radcliffe, Evan Rachel Wood, James Franco, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Joaquin Phoenix, among many, many others. And that’s just from the under-40 set.
So many comedians throughout the decades have been Jewish that it’s impossible to imagine American comedy without their influence. There’s Groucho Marx, Joan Rivers, Woody Allen, Roseanne, Jerry Seinfeld, and Judd Apatow.
So, given the prevalence of Jewish people in the arts, you’d think we’d be cooler than cool: ice cold. But the truth is that the Jewish identity of entertainers has often been semi-hidden or has seemed incidental—or, worse, antithetical—to their popularity.
For instance, there once was a time, long before Bob Dylan was considered a “suspicious person” by the Long Branch, New Jersey police, who recently picked him up for wandering around people’s property, when he was considered the voice of his generation, a god. (Not only that, he is credited with turning the Beatles on to marijuana.) And yet he changed his last name from the Jewish-sounding Zimmerman, obscured his childhood upbringing with myths, became a born-again Christian for a while, and will even be releasing a Christmas album in October.
The prototypical Jewish male character created by (and sometimes played by) Jewish male writers from Philip Roth to Neil Simon to Mel Brooks to Woody Allen to Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David to Josh Schwartz to Judd Apatow has remained essentially unchanged: nerdy, whiny, and insecure: in other words, the opposite of cool. And their fantasy of overcoming their image by getting the girl—or, more specifically, a beautiful, non-Jewish, preferably blond girl—hasn’t changed either, which in turn casts aspersions on the desirability of Jewish women.
In Seinfeld, the writers made Jerry’s best friend, George Costanza, Italian rather than Jewish. But doing so when he was so obviously channeling Larry David with all his stereotypically Jewish neuroses, didn’t fool anyone; in fact, George was perceived as more Jewish than Jerry. In the episode where George wears a hairpiece until Elaine tears it off his head and throws it out the window, he tells Jerry, “I feel like myself again: totally inadequate, completely insecure, paranoid, neurotic. It’s a pleasure!”
As for Jewish female comics, the most famous (or infamous one) in recent decades, Roseanne, played a Midwestern, presumably Christian, woman in her self-titled hit sitcom, and so her actual Jewish identity wasn’t in play.
Cool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe
(Andrews McMeel; US: Aug 2008)
But…a new day is dawning. Jewish is coolish! Don’t believe me? Check out the book Cool Jew by Lisa Alcalay Klug and Heeb Magazine (financially backed by Steven Spielberg) if you need confirmation.
Non-Jewish celebrities have started waving their hipster wands at Jewish traditions, and…abracadabra…coolness by association! It began with Madonna, as so many cultural trends have. When she started following Kaballah, the Jewish mystical practice, and inspired Demi and Ashton and then Britney to do the same, she replaced the image of a religious Jew with beard and tallis with that of a toned, party-going, fashionable A-lister. The Obamas made history by holding the first-ever Passover seder in the White House last April. Campbell Brown and Ivanka Trump converted to Judaism for the sake of their Jewish grooms. The Black Eyed Peas’ latest hit, “I Gotta Feeling,” includes festive Hebrew lyrics:
Fill up my cup (Drink)
Mazel tov (l’chaim)
Look at her dancing (Move it Move it)
Just take it off
It took hyper-manic American-Italian director Quentin Tarentino and super-smooth movie star and world citizen Brad Pitt to bring a story of a badass gang of Jewish anti-Nazi fighters to the big screen in the film Inglorious Basterds.
And now, even Jewish celebrities are beginning to use their Jewishness in a way that heats up their cool quotient. Adam Sandler kickstarted this trend with his Chanukah songs, which finally made it okay to be Jewish at Christmastime. Sarah Silverman’s “Shlep the Vote” movement gave shlepping, a favorite Jewish pastime, a good name. Bar Refaeli, the Israeli Victoria’s Secret model and girlfriend of serial model-dater Leonardo DiCaprio, defies the stereotype of the zaftig Jewish woman.
While it’s true that Jon Stewart changed his last name from Liebowitz, he refers often to his Jewish identity, and his irony and smarts have made him the most popular guy in (liberal leaning) America. And Hasidic rapper (never thought you’d see that word combo, did you?!) Matisyahu has done something completely unexpected: he’s brought Jewish themes to reggae/rock/hip hop-infused tunes, even achieving a top 40 hit with “King Without a Crown”.
But no one’s made me more hopeful for the future of Jewish cool than the Star of David-wearing Amy Winehouse, whose drinking, drugging, rehabbing, headbutting ways make me ever-so-proud to be a member of the tribe.
My people can finally emerge from behind their nebbishy personas to assume their proper place in the coolness pantheon. Portnoy no longer has cause to complain; he’s a rock star.
The uber cool Matisyahu