Arguably the most popular stand-up comedienne of late 20th century America was Joan Rivers. Her acerbic wit and unique style helped launch her career from the Borscht Belt to national fame, including her own talk-show, competing with her mentor’s Tonight Show, hosted by Johnny Carson. Rivers’ and Caron’s inevitable, irreconcilable split is the subject for another day, but Rivers’ influence on standup comedy is best exemplified by the success of the Emmy winning comedy “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” whose lead is modeled after Rivers.
Rivers’ act featured her catchphrase, “can we talk?” This was an invitation to engage her audience in comedic banter.
Talking, arguing with God and those created in God’s image, is part of our Jewish DNA.
The Talmud is an anthology of disputations on interpreting the law as codified by the Mishna. The longstanding rivalry between the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai is foundational toward understanding differing interpretations of the Law. Even the format of a page of the Talmud showcases, in its margins, the varied insights of the text.
This ancient tradition of arguing carries into recent times. In his book “Genius and Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World 1847-1947,” Norman Lebrecht argued that Sigmund Freud uses “no fewer than six of the thirteen rules of Talmudic exegesis — unconsciously, no doubt — in his analytic approach,” which was all about talking.
Lebrecht argues that after the Dreyfus affair, which shattered any illusions about the widespread acceptance of Jews in modern society, Jewish intellectuals felt unconstrained by societal norms that would reject them anyway. They therefore indulged in what we today would call out-of-the-box thinking. “It is no coincidence,” he concludes, “that Freud, Einstein, Schoenberg, Proust, Herzl, Trotsky, Haber and Magnus Hirschfeld all rise in the decade after Dreyfus…. Dreyfus reawakens a primal fear, and his fellow Jews interpret it as a token of their marginality and therefore of their opportunity.”
Arguing, answering questions with questions, probing into what purports to be the conventional wisdom — it all helps explain how Jews disproportionality have won Nobel and other prestigious prizes in the arts, humanities and sciences.
But our culture is changing where debate is being muzzled by so-called elites in universities and cultural institutions .Censorship of books by school districts in the South, cancellation of speakers from the right who don’t comport with accepted canons of the left on campus, have become the acceptable norm. An editorial-page editor of the New York Times was fired for publishing a column by a U.S. senator that was not well accepted by the news staff, with their supposed objectivity suspended. We now walk on eggshells about what pronoun to use to avert causing offence and obsessively attempt to keep up with the latest cultural fashion.
More ominously, the idea of Israel as an apartheid state is now becoming widely accepted on college campuses because Amnesty International defines it that way. The lies, distortions, and half -truths of its recent report is so widespread as to defy imagination. But it’s accepted as the truth by the misguided, who don’t ask the right questions.
Regrettably, the Harvard Crimson editorial staff accepted Amnesty’s gospel and was savaged by former Harvard president Lawrence Summers for its uncritical thinking. The overt bias of Amnesty International was revealed when its U.S. director, Paul O’Brien opined that “Israel shouldn’t exist as a Jewish State.” I guess he didn’t have a problem with the more than 20 Arab states.
And now, closer to home, according to a Wall Street Journal op ed by Elliott Abrams and Eric Cohen, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, dedicated to honoring the memory of the Holocaust and preserving our Jewish heritage, has cancelled a Jewish Leadership Conference hosted by a two decade old Jewish educational and cultural institution Tikvah. Its speakers included Bari Weiss, Mike Pompeo, the most pro-Israel Secretary of State, the renowned Harvard professor and author Ruth Wisse and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
It was the governor’s invitation that raised the museum’s ire. ”We don’t do politics,” the museum director explained. Yet during her congressional run, the pro-BDS Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke at this same museum.
Whether you agree with DeSantis’ policies or not, he is favorably viewed by 64% of Floridians and one of the leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024. He has also been a friend of the third largest Jewish community in the country. Why was this event cancelled? The Museum’s explanation is inconsistent with its prior actions and defies the heritage of argumentation and debating different viewpoints that have been the hallmark of Jewish civilization.
The Holocaust began with book burnings and the suppression of free expression if it didn’t fit the prevailing doctrine. Does cancelling this event by a prestigious institution featuring academic luminaries and leading politicians who happen to be Republican fulfil the museum’s mission?
Free speech that allows the exchange of viewpoints from both the left and the right is the oxygen that fuels the vibrancy of democratic societies. That’s why so many of us support the quest for freedom and democracy in Ukraine.
As we are now the arsenal of democracy for Ukraine, can we do no less to protect unfettered free speech on our own shores?
Can we talk?
Max Kleinman of Fairfield was the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest from 1995 to 2014 and he is the president of the Fifth Commandment Foundation.