Welcome to Chai Brow, Moment’s arts column exploring contemporary film, TV and podcasts from a Jewish lens.
There used to be only one kind of Jewish humor: the Borscht-belt, Yiddish-inflected, self-deprecating yuks that came out of Vaudeville and the Catskills and the therapist’s couch. And this is still the prevailing form of our shtick today. Just ask The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the Amazon Prime series that launched its third season last week. It makes a big show out of being progressive, by following a brassy, Joan Rivers-like female comic as she rises through the male-dominated bawdy Jewish stand-up scene of the 1950s.
But Maisel is still looking toward a regressive past, one where Jews are swimming in money and share the exact same cultural reference points—and amidst discussions about the president looking to classify American Jews as their own separate nationality, this doesn’t seem like the best picture of Jewish humor to send out into the world.
Maybe the show could take some pointers from the hottest Jewish comedian on stage today. Tiffany Haddish had her breakout role in 2017, doing something unspeakable to a grapefruit in Girls Trip. But lately, she’s been eager to get in touch with her heritage, as her father was an Eritrean Jewish refugee who fled the country during its War for Independence.
The 40-year-old Haddish met her father for the first time in her 20s and became a naturalized citizen of Eritrea last year. And coincidentally, on December 3, three days before the new Maisel season launched, Haddish premiered her new stand-up special Black Mitzvah on Netflix—two different visions of the future of Jewish humor.
You might expect an African-American Jewish comic to regard their faith ironically, if at all—a tool for scoring some easy culture-clash laughs. And for a minute that’s what it seems like Haddish has in mind, as she makes her entrance to “Hava Nagilah,” sitting on a chair being carried by muscle-bound black men before transitioning into a rap and dance number. Later, she blends both of her identities into a single punchline: “Every black person wants to be the first black person to do something, so I want to be the first African-American Jew to be in Shen Yun.”
But the comic is serious about her faith and the sense of identity it gives her. She dropped her special shortly after holding her actual bat mitzvah, during which she read from the Torah and received the ultimate Jewish prize: a Star of David necklace from Barbra Streisand. (The ceremony was officiated by Sarah Silverman’s sister, Rabbi Susan Silverman, and attended by an eclectic mix of entertainers including Billy Crystal and Charlamagne Tha God.)
The sheer, jubilant force of Haddish’s personality allows her to plant her feet in two distinct cultures at once, without ever feeling out of place in either. This could be the final form of American Jewish assimilation: Jewish humor that fits neatly inside other ethnic humor, rather than apart from it. Most of the hourlong Black Mitzvah doesn’t even deal with Haddish’s Judaism, and even when she name-drops Drake, the most famous black Jew on the planet, she doesn’t try to link the two by religion.
Instead, Haddish discusses her experiences overcoming an impoverished childhood in South Central Los Angeles, which she gleefully contrasts with her newfound fame. She recalls an abusive mother who loved the comic Sinbad, and nothing would make Haddish happier than to have Sinbad’s baby and force her mom to babysit. And she relates familiar stories of a comedian’s lowest moments, including a New Year’s Eve show in Miami she performed while utterly wasted.
Haddish does offer some mild criticism of a more exclusionary, prejudiced side of Jewish culture that we’re not all privy to. “I’ve been to 500 bar mitzvahs, and I’m getting tired of people telling me to go to the kitchen,” she says, while also noting that the many cultural signifiers of Judaism can be overwhelming for people like her trying to place themselves within the faith from an outsider’s perspective: “You have to learn Hebrew, you have to be a certain way.”
At the end of the day, Haddish offers, she’s more “spiritual” than religious: she sees herself as a “teacher,” someone who can tell her audience how to appreciate what they have in life, because she’s already been through the worst of it. Her Judaism simply gets folded into that open embrace. And that means right now, amidst policy discussions that threaten to divide us from our country, Haddish might be the best ambassador for Judaism that Americans have.