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Lena Dunham's Jewish Jokes Aren't Offensive. They're Just Stale.

Jason Kempin / Getty Images

The sun rose today, which means that there’s a new outrage cycle inspired by something Lena Dunham has written, said, or done. (This piece moves beyond Dunham, but bear with me.) This time, it’s that she wrote a humor piece for The New Yorker comparing her Jewish boyfriend—actually, some autobiographically inspired narrator’s Jewish boyfriend—to a dog. Here’s the set-up: “Do the following statements refer to (a) my dog or (b) my Jewish boyfriend?” The statements include innocuous cultural stereotypes (“He’s crazy for cream cheese”) and less-innocuous ones (“He doesn’t tip”). And, for good measure, a Jewish-mother joke:

I feel that he is judgmental about the food I serve him. When I make something from scratch, he doesn’t want to eat it, but he also rejects most store-bought dinners.… This is because he comes from a culture in which mothers focus every ounce of their attention on their offspring and don’t acknowledge their own need for independence as women. They are sucked dry by their children, who ultimately leave them as soon as they find suitable mates.

Jordana Horn led the fury with a post on Kveller, a Jewish parenting blog, titled “Lena Dunham Equated Jews to Dogs & That’s Not OK.” (Lead sentence: "It’s pretty annoying when someone writes something anti-Semitic.") The negative reader response piled up enough that The New Yorker Editor David Remnick saw the need to respond:

Much of the outrage could have been averted, it seems, if Dunham or someone at The New Yorker had thought to mention her Jewish identity in the quiz itself. The piece includes only a reference to a “Waspy, buttoned-up” father, so anyone left on this earth who doesn’t have a doctorate in Dunhamology would be forgiven for not knowing this. Or maybe it was an intentional omission aimed at spurring controversy? Let the low-stakes conspiracy theories begin. If previous anti-Dunham-ism is any indication, a lot of it sprang from resentment that Lena Dunham gets to have her unfunny thoughts published in The New Yorker.

Let’s set aside Dunham’s own Jewish identity, or, rather, let’s be clear on whose identity we’re talking about. It matters that the author is part-Jewish, but who’s to say the character is? The quiz isn’t about Dunham, but about a Jewish nebbish with a shiksa-goddess girlfriend, told from the perspective of that girlfriend. Thus, the title—the narrator probably wouldn't emphasize her boyfriend's Judaism if she herself were Jewish—and the absence of references to the narrator having a Jewish mother. This is a trope, and one that’s aged out of being merely irritating (which it was, is) and into being outdated. When Hannah Horvath, Dunham's character in "Girls," was pouting over her parents' no longer paying her bills, this was funny because the entitled millennial is a trope with some relevance. The Jewish mama’s boy meeting his country-club in-laws is not. It's a stale joke.

The more interesting question is why it’s stale. The obvious reason is that in the U.S. today, most Jews are just white people. As Anthony Weiss wrote in 2009 in the Jewish Daily Forward, “Today’s generation of Jewish comics are far more assimilated, comfortable in their skin and in American society, and not nearly so identifiably Jewish.” While he wasn’t prepared to declare Jewish humor over, he explained,

What is dying is a specific generational style and set of concerns. It’s true, Jews generally don’t speak with accents (although their characters might), and they generally don’t feel like outsiders. Woody Allen doesn’t feel quite so relevant, but neither do all those jokes about Jewish mother or bagels and lox or Jews who say "Oy," (if they were ever funny at all). 

Along similar lines, Marjorie Ingall recently declared the end of Jewish-mother humor: 

There’s one more reason Mrs. Wolowitz’s was the last Jewish Mother on TV: The Jewish Mother stereotype is dying out. It’s virtually unknown to younger viewers (as is the once ubiquitous Jewish American Princess stereotype). To most millennial-and-younger Americans, Jews are regular old boring white people.

These days, humor about Jewish Otherness is not only difficult for Jews to relate to, but also out of keeping with a greater awareness of issues of diversity and representation. It’s not tenable for a group of ethnic whites—even an often-discriminated-against one—to represent racial difference in this country. And making any reference to Jews as anything other than undifferentiated Americans is more troubling now, given the perception that anti-Semitism is on the rise, than it might have been in previous decades. All of which explains why that Jews-don’t-tip joke isn't funny anymore.