The nebbish is the bumbling caricature of a Jewish male, embodied by figures like Woody Allen and George Costanza. Where did he come from?
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There’s a cartoon in this week’s New Yorker. A couple—shlumpy, but clearly urban—are seated at a coffee table, reading a newspaper that, judging from its sheer girth, can only be the one of record. The woman looks toward her bald, bespectacled companion with what seems to be a triumphant gasp. “They found the nebbish gene,” reads the caption. Cue the mildly amused titters.
My question to this: Are you sure it’s just the one gene? Surely only some intricate combinations of chromosomal abnormality could result in the entire Nebbish spectrum of the past 40 years: the Hipster Nebbish (crumpled tweed jackets and phobic hand-wringing of early Woody Allen); the Slacker Nebbish (one of Judd Apatow’s sheepish heroes, with bong in one hand and an Xbox controller in the other); the Toxic Nebbish (see George Costanza, the most irately Jewish son of Tuscany ever committed to film). There’s the Nebbish Who Never Gets Laid, the Nebbish Who Screws Up Getting Laid, the Nebbish Who Is Inexplicably Laid by Gorgeous and Understanding Shiksa, also known as Wish Fulfillment Nebbish. (Mattel, if you’re listening, I am available to design action figures.)
Still, all varietals of Nebbish have a few noxious traits in common: fear, helplessness, and overwhelming Jewishness. The Nebbish is always Jewish, even if he’s not actually a Jew, to the point where he’s become synonymous with Jewish manhood itself, embedded, if you will, in his DNA. Which is weird, because in the first half of the 20th century, Jewish men were depicted in popular culture as plucky young strivers eager to leave behind the stultifying Old World for the sexy and welcoming embrace of the New (a la Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer) or scrappy immigrant street kids and shtarkers getting ahead by any means necessary, an image helped along by the real-life exploits of Jewish (or Jew-ish) boxers like Max Baer and Jake LaMotta, and less flatteringly, the rise of Jewish gangsters like Dutch Schultz and Louis Buchalter. As the poverty—and subsequent criminality—of the urban ghetto began to fade, a new archetype of Jewish masculinity began its ascendance. Call the representatives of this last the Kirk Douglas Jews: tough, smart, deeply moral (in Kirk’s iconoclastic way), fiercely (if not unquestioningly) patriotic, equally at home in the cockpit of a fighter plane as in the arms of a pert-nosed blonde or four. This was the Jew as hard-nosed, Hemingway-esque Man of Action of the sort recorded reverently by Norman Mailer and incisively by Saul Bellow, lampooned by Joseph Heller, libidinized—and later, eulogized—by Phillip Roth; men whose response to anti-Semites was moral outrage and/or dignified pummeling, as opposed to imagining themselves cowering across the dinner table.
Then the baby boomers grew up, and suddenly, men whose fathers had been D-Day bombardiers couldn’t figure out how to change the bulbs in the newly installed track lighting. Anti-Semitism was replaced by fretting about anti-Semitism. Anxiety about sex became the new sex (particularly when the ugly specter of AIDS provided the irresistible chance for white heterosexual males to conflate sex and hypochondria, the gift that keeps on giving); the Men of Action became Men of Feelings. (And so many feelings! And are they the right feelings? What does my therapist have to say about my feelings? Just a minute, I need to call him about how my mother is responsible for my feelings. Go ahead, start eating without me.) In the space of two generations, the emblematic symbol of Jewish manhood went from Kirk Douglas to Albert Brooks to that guy from the Apatow movies whose name I can’t remember who was in that one movie where he started dating the lesbian nanny from Sex and the City 2 and all his equally nebbishy and unattractive friends were like, “Dude, she’s so out of your league!” Wait, that’s what it was called: She’s Out of Your League.
I know this is just a New Yorker cartoon, but on behalf of Jewish womanhood, I feel it is incumbent on me to ask: How the hell did this happen? And why?
It’s almost too obvious to mention, but to make sense of the shift in Jewish masculine identity from its prewar to postwar incarnations, we’ve got to look at what happened in the interim. I’ll give you a hint: It’s depressing, it’s German, and it rhymes with “the Schmolocaust.” For the prewar generation of American Jewish men (my grandfather among them), World War II was a transformational event, a chance to unimpeachably cement their American identities by fighting for their country. Their children and grandchildren, however—the future Nebbish Generations—would view the war overwhelmingly through the lens of the Holocaust and its primacy in Jewish education, which in its single-minded focus on Auschwitz as the definitive image of the Jewish wartime experience has virtually drowned any narrative of Jewish heroism in the vast sea of Jewish helplessness. Who wants to hear Grandpa’s stories about Hawaii when you can terrify yourself with eyewitness accounts of Josef Mengele?
It’s precisely this helplessness that I’ve always thought to be the most lasting terror of the Holocaust—and the cause for much of the at times hysterical derangement that surrounds its discussion—on the Jewish psyche. We’re taught to take pride in having stubbornly hung on so long when so many would have destroyed us. How does one make sense of a situation that was virtually impossible to survive?
This existential question is difficult enough for a woman to reckon with. For a man, traditionally entrusted with the physical protection of his family, it is unthinkable. Hence the Nebbish: a person who reclaims, even celebrates, this helplessness and trivializes it beyond the possibility of terror. “How in the hell,” the Nebbish seems to ask, “am I supposed to be part of an international Bolshevist-banking conspiracy to take over the world when I can’t even get my mother off my back about who I’m dating?”
Which brings us to the mother. And the dating.
It’s hardly a secret that Jewish culture has a nasty chauvinistic streak. The Jewish mother and the JAP, two of the greatest figures of fun in secular American-Jewish humor, are also indefensibly misogynistic, often with an ugly double-edge: A Jewish mother joke, for example, ridicules her self-serving martyrdom while not-so-subtly implying that a woman should properly be expected to sacrifice everything for her children, seeking no personal fulfillment outside of them; jokes about the JAP being repelled by sex quietly reinforce the idea that it would be unseemly for her to feel otherwise. When the advent of feminism and the sexual revolution—led, it should be noted, most vociferously by Jewish women—turned this conventional wisdom on its head, the nascent Nebbish Generation fought back with a technique they learned at their long-suffering mothers’ knee: deadly emotional blackmail: “So, you’re coming for my balls? I’ll just cut them off myself and save you the trouble!”
It was a brilliant move. Nothing deflates a righteous warrior like the sudden lack of a worthy adversary. Rather than engage women as equals, the Nebbish takes himself out the equation entirely. He exaggerates his bewilderment at the world to such an extent as to force the woman back into the role of de facto caretaker, while neatly absolving himself of the less savory elements of traditional masculinity, such as “making a living” or “going to war.” Women, then, are left holding the bag, buying the toilet paper, and finding themselves oddly nostalgic for the days of violent assholes like Norman Mailer, who kept his sexism right out where you could see it, on the end of his knife. The war of the sexes will be won with weapons of passive-aggression. Only the Jews could have been so smart. Besides, we’re the only ones who read New Yorker cartoons.
The German Jewish writer Joseph Roth, whose letters are newly translated, chronicled the death of 19th century Europe and the rise of its darker heir