As a voter, I was saddened when Bernie Sanders dropped out of the Democratic presidential primary race. As a consumer of culture, I was thrilled. It means that Larry David’s character will not likely appear as often on “Saturday Night Live” (though maybe there’ll be a skit with Bernie trying to sneak into the Democratic Platform Committee meeting posing as a bagels-and-lox delivery guy). When I saw the last “SNL” skit with the comedian lampooning the democratic socialist senator, I laughed, then cried, then went to see my therapist. Shelving that Jewish stereotype of a character was overdue, especially after a spectator attending a Sanders rally unfurled a flag with a swastika. The video of the Arizona event could have been a scene from HBO’s mini-series “The Plot Against America.”
I’m not concerned about white nationalists, but I see hate spreading through the world like coronavirus. I’m concerned about recently desecrated cemeteries in France and ongoing anti-Semitic violence in New York City, home to the largest concentration of Jews in America. I’m concerned about ongoing annual parades in Aalst, Belgium, a suburb of Brussels, which feature age-old stereotypes of big-nosed Jews with side curls. In February, the parade featured marchers in Nazi soldier costumes as well as marchers with fake beards and big noses and large, faux-fur streimels. This is not dissimilar to the event at the Sanders rally. They’re both instances of pop culture influencing thought and behavior.
It’s easy to write off a thing like the Brussels parade. But the Nazi iconography, mixed with Europe’s capacity for cultural genocide (see the minaret ban in Switzerland), tells a scary story. Satire works best when it punches up, when it attacks people or ideas that aren’t vulnerable to its attacks. Jon Stewart, the king of American contemporary satire, said that satire is “a story we tell ourselves about the rightness of our position.” But the art of satire is limited in efficacy, and when it’s used as an attack on weak populations, it’s more sinister.
There are caricatures aplenty in David’s portrayal of the middle-class-Brooklyn-reared, thickly Brooklyn-accented Sanders, whose speaking volume is dialed up to a perpetual yell, like an arms-waving radical in full jeremiad.
Bernie/David complaining about the height of the podium on the debate stage reminds me of the old Polish Jews in the shtiebel I attended growing up arguing about the design of the table and benches they sat on as they drank Old Williamsburg during Shabbat kiddush. Something so inconsequential — how high the table was and how low the chairs were —created so much acrimony.
It’s not just Sanders’ age, it’s how David plays up Sanders’ meekness and frumpiness (though, OK, he is frumpy). It’s the anxiety over small things that cuts close because it’s painfully accurate. The portrayal reminds me of the now-deceased survivor shtiebel Jews of my childhood. They dressed messily, made mountains out of molehills and took ridiculous stands on minute things, like how small the herring had to be cut. Pardon me for feeling defensive about Holocaust survivors. Perhaps I’m romantic and I miss them. Perhaps I’m protective because they are a dying breed. This kind of Jew wasn’t powerful or rich or a social climber. Lampooning him isn’t punching up; it’s like taking free swings at the little guy suffering from genocidal trauma.
The negative stereotypes of Jews, of course, are centuries old (Jesus killers, moneylenders, global financial string pullers). A principled politician who, against all odds, built a huge progressive movement, being played as a nonstop complainer may not seem like a terrible thing. But making him appear puny is as othering as making him appear evil. Jews in pop culture portrayals are stripped of nuance and become dehumanized. They’re reduced to yelling old men. Portrayals of money-grubbing and puniness serve the same ends: Jews are not us.
In David’s hands (and mouth), Sanders is merely “The Jew” — the old, wild-haired, difficult germaphobe who has big ears and says “oy” every third sentence.
We’ve seen this before with Larry David; there is sexism behind the characters on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” for instance Susie Essman’s character Susie Green, who only scowls, yells and swears — the image of the pushy, nosy mom is worse than that of the feeble Jew. We end up having sympathy for her philandering husband.
We box ourselves in with this kind of self-imposed minstrelsy; we’re acting, in a sense, according to the image crafted by anti-Semites. I’ll admit, I found some of Larry David’s shticky Bernie Sanders routine funny — in large part because I feel seen in my own neuroticisms.
But too often, David’s Bernie crashed and burned, an old dissatisfied Ashkenazi man who has overstayed his welcome — especially at a time with so much Jew-hatred in the air. It’s time to reconsider the place these Jewish clichés have in our culture.
Eli Reiter’s column appears monthly.