Lena Dunham

Why Lena Dunham isn't funny

Lena Dunham

Lena Dunham

OK, I admit it: I laughed.

At first.

I'm referring to Lena Dunham's piece in the New Yorker, in which she listed a number of characteristics and challenged readers to guess whether she was describing her dog -- or her Jewish boyfriend. The piece has already garnered its share of official protests, especially that of Abraham Foxman of the ADL. Comparing a Jewish boyfriend -- or any Jew, for that matter -- to a dog, admittedly, pushes some historical buttons (as in "No Jews or dogs allowed").

I have a fairly robust, even outrageous sense of humor. I even find some Jewish stereotypes funny (for example, ask me about my mechanical skills).

Here's why I regret having laughed at Lena Dunham's piece.

Remember JAP jokes, about spoiled, materialistic, unsexual Jewish women? Those jokes were basically kosher misogyny. They allowed the jokester to simply transfer all of those old, tired Jewish stereotypes from Jews in general to Jewish women. The result: "Shylock in drag."

So, the argument might go: it's time for Jewish men to have their turn. Let's just go into the archives of stereotypes and come up with a list: Jewish men as maternally-focussed, pampered, cheap, and hairy (!).

It doesn't feel good.

But there's something else going on here.

Question: why did Lena's boyfriend have to be Jewish? Would the jokes have worked if, say, Lena was describing her black boyfriend?

Here is what Lena (who describes herself as a "cultural Jew") doesn't quite understand.

Things are now a little different. There is a new virus of anti-Semitism -- in Europe, and on college campuses. It's fair game to hate Jews. It's also fair game to laugh at them -- and as anyone knows, laughing at and laughing with are two different things.

In fact, Jews are the only people that you're allowed to laugh at. And there's a long history of doing that.

Let me tell you about the Jewish song "Mah Yafit."  Polish Jews used to sing "Mah Yafit" ("how beautiful") at the Shabbat table. It was based on a medieval Hebrew text, written by Rabbi Mordecai bar Yitzchak Chazak in thirteenth-century Provence.

But no one sings that song anymore. In fact, the song has so thoroughly disappeared from the Jewish hit list that there's significant controversy over what it actually sounded like (though various Jewish ethnomusicologists have some ideas).

Why did this tune disappear from the sacred Jewish repertoire?

Apparently, Polish gentiles thought that the melody was exotic, quaint, and even funny. When Polish lords wanted to entertain themselves, they would summon "their Jews" to the estate for a command performance of "Mah Yafit." They would coerce the Jews into turning the song into a travesty, complete with grotesque dancing and extravagant hand gestures. They would force the Jews to ridicule themselves.

In time, this kind of entertainment became popular. It inspired a class of professional Jewish comedians. They would entertain the public with grotesque Jewish caricatures, complete with monologues and skits in thick mock Polish-Jewish accents, always embellished with a song-and-dance version of "Mah Yafit." Thus, the term "mahyafasnik" was born -- a Jew who willingly debased himself before gentiles.

This was the Jewish version of the minstrel show.

Or, as someone put it, Uncle Thomashefsky.

Jews laughing at themselves, and at Judaism, is an old and even venerable tradition. Woody Allen, Mel Brooks (c'mon -- "Springtime For Hitler"?), Philip Roth, the late Lenny Bruce, Sarah Silverman, Jackie Mason, the late Joan Rivers, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David: all have been accused, at one time or another, of poking fun at Judaism and even being "self-hating Jews."

So, what's different now?

The heyday of Jewish comedians coincided with a sense that the Jews had, in fact, arrived. Jews felt safe.

But this new wave of anti-Semitism has left Jewish nerves raw and frayed. Call us tribal, if you want -- but there is something unnerving about seeing all of those silly Jewish stereotypes on display in the venerable pages of "The New Yorker."

Look, times are rough.

Let us hope that the Jewish sense of humor doesn't wind up becoming collateral damage in our current war against antisemitism.




  1. Good article as usual.

    Jewish humor at its best is not the self-flagellating kind. Instead, it’s the kind that pokes fun at the sorts of things societies tend to worship without thinking much about it.

    In other words, this genre of humor is at its best when it’s tearing down idols — poking at sacred cows….

    Human beings tend to be too easily impressed…..and one role of a truly talented Jewish comedian is to poke gentle and sometimes not-so-gentle fun at the often-shallow things that people find impressive.

    It’s the comedic version of the ancient Hebrew prophets…..Elijah mocking the prophets of Baal…..or Isaiah mocking the man who builds an idol with his own hands and then bows down and worships it as though it is superior to him.

  2. Lena is a comedienne and half Jewish, so how can a satirtical essay on her dog and Jewish boyfriend be antisemitic? It’s funny, and this world is going nuts over the mundane remarks we all make from time to time.

  3. This is a continuance of something started. It will get worse before it gets better. What I see is a trend growing. Some of her comments are funny, and I happen to adore dogs, and dog-person comparisons can be cute, and funny, and even symbolic (see Book of Tobit) … but her intent here is a mix. It loses its humor fairly rapidly. It starts out one place then lands in a different area. It’s pushing something incriminating, but we will see where she and others take this little melodrama.

  4. Actors of fully Jewish background: -Logan Lerman, Natalie Portman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mila Kunis, Bar Refaeli, James Wolk, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Julian Morris, Adam Brody, Esti Ginzburg, Kat Dennings, Gabriel Macht, Erin Heatherton, Odeya Rush, Anton Yelchin, Paul Rudd, Scott Mechlowicz, Lisa Kudrow, Lizzy Caplan, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Gal Gadot, Debra Messing, Robert Kazinsky, Melanie Laurent, Shiri Appleby, Justin Bartha, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Margarita Levieva, Elizabeth Berkley, Halston Sage, Seth Gabel, Corey Stoll, Mia Kirshner, Alden Ehrenreich, Eric Balfour, Jason Isaacs, Jon Bernthal, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy.

    Andrew Garfield is Jewish, too (though I don’t know if both of his parents are).

    Actors with Jewish mothers and non-Jewish fathers -Jake Gyllenhaal, Dave Franco, James Franco, Scarlett Johansson, Daniel Day-Lewis, Daniel Radcliffe, Alison Brie, Eva Green, Joaquin Phoenix, River Phoenix, Emmy Rossum, Rashida Jones, Jennifer Connelly, Sofia Black D’Elia, Nora Arnezeder, Goldie Hawn, Ginnifer Goodwin, Amanda Peet, Eric Dane, Jeremy Jordan, Joel Kinnaman, Ben Barnes, Patricia Arquette, Kyra Sedgwick, Dave Annable, Ryan Potter.

    Actors with Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers, who themselves were either raised as Jews and/or identify as Jews: -Ezra Miller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Alexa Davalos, Nat Wolff, Nicola Peltz, James Maslow, Josh Bowman, Winona Ryder, Michael Douglas, Ben Foster, Jamie Lee Curtis, Nikki Reed, Zac Efron, Jonathan Keltz, Paul Newman.

    Oh, and Ansel Elgort’s father is Jewish, though I don’t know how Ansel was raised. Robert Downey, Jr. and Sean Penn were also born to Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers.

    Actors with one Jewish-born parent and one parent who converted to Judaism -Dianna Agron, Sara Paxton (whose father converted, not her mother), Alicia Silverstone, and Jamie-Lynn Sigler.

  5. so Bee … do you think the name Thiel is a Jewish name?

  6. I find this entire situation to be disturbing, but not because of Dunham’s jokes about her own bloodline –but because when Lena Dunham .was exposed as being a self-admitted child sexual abuser, MANY Jews supported her, and wrote favorable articles about her and her book which described the acts.

    Lena Dunham wrote about spreading open her little sister’s vagina, who was seven years younger than she was, “I leaned down between her legs and carefully spread open her vagina, she didn’t resist…”

    “She didn’t resist…” are words of a pedophile.

    Ms. Dunham also wrote about masturbating -until age 17- with the child in bed next to her…and she used words that describe what might be found in the mind of any sexual predator of children: “Her sticky, muscly little body thrashed beside me every night.” (while Lena masturbated)

    Lena Dunham wrote about bribing her little sister for kisses on the lips and bribed the child to get her to “relax” on top of Lena. She brazenly wrote about using psychological manipulation of the younger child and coercion. She even tried to instill fear into the little girl, in order to get the child to “trust” Lena.

    Lena Dunham told Rolling Stone Magazine, that she used to force her little sister (who was age five -and Lena would have been about 13) to “make out” with Lena.

    This alone, is highly disturbing, and deviant behavior for a thirteen year-old to perpetrate on a five year old.

    Lena also posted disturbing photos on Instagram of her little sister. One depicts Lena straddling, or humping, her pre-pubescent sister, with the caption, “I was really happy to see my sister and treated her like the campus bicycle.” The image of the little girl’s legs underneath the weight of adult Lena, is sickening.

    The other photo, Lena posted on Instagram, about a year ago, of her then five year-old sister wearing make-up, fake breasts, and “bad girl motorcycle chick” written on her tee-shirt. Lena posted the photo with the caption “that time I dressed my 5 year old sister as “Hell’s Angel’s sex property.”

    Five year-old children are not “sex property,” and Hell’s Angel’s members have been linked to many rapes.

    That Jews are only now angry at her, and calling her names –because they are offended about so-called anti-Semitic statements –but supported her, or were silent when she exposed herself as a child molester and sexual deviant- is truly outrageous.

  7. Wow … like I said, “we will see where she and others take this little melodrama.”

    Which “Jews” supported her? And did they support her ‘confession’ of all of this? or are you saying they supported something else? we need more info, Alethea. Thx

  8. Ophelia,

    I have followed the news on Lena Dunham every day for about six months –that was when her book went public, and when her interview with Rolling Stone was made known, and when people found her disturbing photos on Instagram. I have read nearly 80% of every article written on her in the past six months. I have read quotes, articles, Blogs and tweets from countless Lena Dunham supporters. Many of those were writers at The Jerusalem Post, Blogs run by Jews, Jewish entertainers, Jewish fans, and a young Israeli woman in Israel. The writers who supported Lena waved her sexual molestation admissions away like a pesky fly, or said that what she did to her sister was not that big a deal.

    After Lena’s child molestation account died down in the media, those writers and fans continued to show their support of her by promoting her book, and or, her show “Girls.”.

  9. Thanks, Alethea.

    I found Lena’s ‘comedic’ piece peculiar in that it seemed to be angry more than humorous, but clearly it boasts a type of sensationalism, as does her book writing. From what you shared in the first post, I sense a desire to “perform” for reaction. Much like her fascination with self pleasuring … there is a need to be somehow seen and heard, even at the expense of her sister/boyfriend. There comes to mind the possibility that she was and is in competition with both and the relationships these have [parents/mother/friends].

  10. Lena has very serious psychological issues that, although I have compassion for, has caused me to loose any sympathy for her, because she makes conscious choices too be a truly disgusting human being.

    She has talked about having OCD since childhood, and that she used to imagine “having to have sex with” her own mother. Her father and mother both had a fascination with vaginas, and displayed them as art in the home when Lena and her sister grew up. Lena has sexually molested her sister, and crosses serious boundaries…this is indicative of her having been sexually abused in childhood.

    Her show “Girls” is nothing more than pornography, debauchery, a way to peddle abortion and degeneracy, and it devalues women. Her book not only disclosed the molestation and psychological manipulation of her sister, but Lena also described -in disgusting detail- a night of consensual sex, which she called “rape” and falsely accused a man of the “rape.” Random House had to change the book in order to avoid a lawsuit.

    That anyone admires her, or defends her, is truly baffling to me.

  11. Jews aren’t the only ones people can make fun of. “The Book of Mormon” is still quite popular as a musical, for example. Even so, Mormons used to say some version of “they would never treat Jews with this kind of disrespect” as a way of trying to point out the inappropriateness of the rhetoric and ridicule used against us. I am disturbed to see sign after sign that the respect once accorded to Jewish customs and beliefs in polite society has declined so much. Instead of Mormons finally getting respect, Jews are getting less. It is sad.

  12. Alethea, you say: She has talked about having OCD since childhood, and that she used to imagine “having to have sex with” her own mother. Her father and mother both had a fascination with vaginas, and displayed them as art in the home when Lena and her sister grew up. Lena has sexually molested her sister, and crosses serious boundaries…this is indicative of her having been sexually abused in childhood.
    I suppose a bloodied and torn Jesus nailed to a cross on the walls in the home might be somewhat disturbing to children … but each has his own signature of beliefs …

    It is truly a shame that Lena was sexually abused in childhood. Her parents? A family or friend, teacher, coach, minister, rabbi?

  13. The Crucifix would not be disturbing to any child who has been taught the Highly Spiritual significance of The Crucifix, which is, by the way, not a “bloodied and torn” object in the way you make it sound.

    If you think exposed vaginas are healthy and not disturbing, then maybe you are into debauchery, or are a lesbian? who knows… but if Lena Dunham was sexually abused by someone, she lost all my sympathy the day she turned into an abuser herself. Once a person crosses that line, they have committed a serious crime, and are a major hypocrite too.

  14. What I find most darkly enlightening about your essay is its explicit admission that a subset of Jews may have crossed the fine line between generally tolerable behavior and advocacies that endanger Jews generally. Your essay seems less about chastising Lena Dunham and more about cautioning Jews to moderate their public actions and opinions and reduce the exposure of Jews, generally, to ridicule and, eventually, to prejudice and persecution. Further, you seem to imply that the damage is already done, and some consequence may already be forthcoming.

    Mr. Salkin, am I mistaken?

  15. Robert Downey Jr was born to an Irish Catholic father and German protestant mother. His grandfather (on father’s side was half Jewish). So, RDJ, is 1/8th Jewish ethnicity. As far as religion, he was raised Catholic

    People see dark hair and dark eyes and think Jewish. However, he looks like his mother-who wasn’t Jewish at all

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