In Our Identity-Obsessed Age, Being Jewish Somehow Doesn’t Rate

March 2, 2023 | Eddie Portnoy
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Last week, the stand-up comedian and actor Richard Belzer died at the age of seventy-eight. In his comedy and television appearances, Belzer made frequent mention of his Jewish identity—once even performing a ribald Yiddish parody song from the 1940s on The Late Show with David Letterman. The musician Paul Shaffer, his collaborator in that particular routine, has also touchingly recounted Belzer accompanying him to synagogue when he, Shaffer, was saying kaddish for his father. Eddie Portnoy documents Belzer’s interest in Jewish matters, and notes something peculiar about the way his death has been covered, given especially the current fixation on the “representation” of minorities:

[I]t’s been strange to read obit after obit in outlets like the New York Times, the Guardian and the Hollywood Reporter, among others, that didn’t bother to mention that Belzer was Jewish-—even when, as the Jewish Telegraphic Agency pointed out, the character for which he was best known, Detective John Munch on Homicide: Life on the Street and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, identified [explicitly] as Jewish.

Moreover, according to Paul Shaffer, he was a proud [Jew]. . . . To call Burt Bacharach an “American composer” or Barbara Walters a “pioneering woman newscaster” is accurate, but misses a significant ethno-cultural aspect of these people, one that was integrally responsible for making them who they are and influencing their creative choices.

One case in point is an excellent book by Kliph Nesteroff that appeared in 2015 called The Comedians, which richly details the history of stand-up comedy in America. Assiduously researched, it’s become the definitive work on the topic. The book, however, deracinates the history of the field. From reading it, you would never know that 20th-century American comedy was largely a Jewish enterprise. In fact, you’d hardly know that Jews were involved at all.

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