For many Jews and non-Jews, American Jewish culture is defined by stereotypes such as the pushy mother, the shleppy father, chopped liver swans, too much food (“just in case…”) accountants, doctors, and holidays in the Catskills or Florida. But a new generation of Jews are so hip, Americanized and assimilated that they are not even familiar with those stereotypes. They may think, for example, that Bar Kochba is the name of a nightclub — at least according to Ellis Weiner and Barbara Davilman in “The Big Jewish Book for Jews.” The authors of “Yiddish With Dick and Jane,” Weiner and Davilman will make you chuckle, cause you to give away that Holocaust memoir, and maybe even teach you something about American-Jewish cultural history in the 19th and 20th centuries.
“Jewish continuity” is actually nothing to laugh about, some insist. But humor might be a better (certainly a cheaper) solution than weighty think tanks and free trips to Israel. Written in a somewhat spoofing, self-mocking manner, this type of work has precedent. Think of it as a grandchild of the “First Jewish Catalogue — A Do-It Yourself Kit” by Richard Siegel, Sharon Strassfeld and Michael Strassfeld, which came out in 1965, and “Without Feathers,” the humorous anthology by Woody Allen which was published around a decade later.
Read literally or with a grain of salt, this book is great fun, and the authors know their material well enough to successfully mock it. Sometimes silliness prevails. For example, the authors correctly state that changing one’s name to get rid of ethnicity is no longer de rigueur in Hollywood, but future stars who want to replace their Jewish-sounding monikers are advised to use “sounds of gibberish” such as “Ixnee Jonez” and “Bopp Cragger.” Really? What’s wrong with (also mentioned) Lee J. Cobb (Leon Jacob), Joan Rivers (Joan Molinsky) or Winona Ryder (Winona Laura Horowitz)? But the chapters on how to shop too much and force your guests to overeat, talk like a rabbi circa 1953, and how to sacrifice a lamb in a modern synagogue are hilarious. Admittedly, some information (the last bit about the lamb) we need to know like a hole in the head. Or as the book says (regarding another matter) a glick hot dich getrofen (“big deal”). Better to enjoy the leg of lamb and anchovies recipe at the end of the chapter.