With the release and success of last year’s Borat and the popularity of Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song,” Jewish comedy has been present in American media.
To examine this increasing trend, Jewish dtudies and the department of American Studies co-sponsored a lecture by Jeffery Shandler at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in MacMillan Hall.
Close to 40 students, faculty and others attended Shandler’s lecture that explored the importance of Jewish culture in American society, specifically in the media. The lecture concentrated on various aspects of Judaism in the United States and how popular culture has helped to define the American-Jewish population.
“It’s about experiencing American history in terms of Jews who have been in the United States for that last century, especially in pop culture,” Shandler said. “What most Americans know about Jews is from pop culture.”
Shandler’s presentation addressed the history and future of the Yiddish language, Jewish celebrities, and the disappearing boundary between Jewish popular culture and religion. Starting with the history of Jewish immigrants, Shandler focused on everyday icons in American society, from episodes of The Simpsons to Madonna and Britney Spears’ interest in Kabbalah.
“How does the rest of the American population understand Jews within U.S. culture?” Shandler asked. “Jewish popular culture is a large part of understanding what it means to be Jewish.”
According to Shandler, the American populace often associates Jews with what they have seen on television, heard in music or on the radio, or read in magazines and books.
“You don’t know (Jews) as people you live with and interact with, but more as people in media,” Shandler said.
This formation of a stereotypical Jewish population has also enabled Jews to form a mean of self-portraiture, he said.
“Because so many people know about Jews through culture, how does that enable Jews to portray themselves?” Shandler asked.
Throughout his presentation and lecture, Shandler attempted to answer these questions. He examined a large variety of media, from drama to comedy, focusing largely on the comedic aspect of Jewish pop culture.
According to Shandler, Jews were able to take out their frustration of being targeted as a different group through humor, and American-Jewish self-critique through self-satire has become especially popular, as seen in Adam Sandler’s popular Chanukah song.
The lecture was planned in large part by Erik Rose, a professor of French and Italian and a Jewish Studies affiliate. Rose has been in charge of bringing a large array of Jewish studies speakers, with Shandler being his ninth major speaker.
Shandler, a professor of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University, is the author of several books examining Jewish culture with the United States, including Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting and Encounters with the Holy Land: Place, Past, and Future in American Jewish Culture.
Coordinators of the events expressed excitement that Shandler would be able to host the lecture.
“He’s a very dynamic scholar who does work that is widely accessible and of wide interest,” Rose said. “He’s an internationally renowned scholar and we’re lucky to have him.”
The event was co-sponsored by Jewish Studies and the department of American Studies, with helping of the funding provided by the Posen Foundation.
“American Jewish culture is very formative to American culture,” said Acting Director of American Studies Peter Williams. “(The lecture) has to do with Jewish culture, and Jewish culture is certainly part of American culture.”
Overall, Shandler received a positive reaction from the audience.
“It was really interesting,” said junior Josh Shaman. “I enjoyed hearing about the counterculture against Judaism in the early 1900s.”