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anti-semitism

When Is It OK to Make a Joke About Jews?

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Making new friends is hard, so I was really excited when I started to form a friendship with another mom of a child in my daughter’s My Gym class. We had a lot in common. We each had two boys in elementary school and baby girls the same age. So we planned a few playdates and found that we really got along. And while I’m Jewish, and she isn’t, this didn’t matter. In fact, as someone who lives in central Florida, I can tell you that most of my mommy friends aren’t Jewish. Totally a non-issue.

Over several months, we formed a friendship. I was really excited about it.

On our first kid-free afternoon together we settled into our pedicure chairs and started talking about our summer plans. She mentioned that they were going to visit her mother-in-law who lived six hours away. The mother-in-law had never met the (almost 2-year-old) daughter, which surprised me. I just couldn’t imagine a grandmother having a granddaughter and not making the trip down to meet her.

READ: Do Our Kids Get Our “Ironic” Jewish Jokes?

My friend explained:

“She’s Jewish; maybe you didn’t know that my husband is half-Jewish. Anyway she’s really a typical Southern Jewish lady, you know, complaining all the time about everything.”

Slightly shocked, I said, “I’m not sure what a typical Southern Jewish lady is.”

To which she said, “You know–she just complains about everything. She doesn’t want to travel because her back hurts blah blah blah… My husband is a half-Hebe so I can say that to you.”

I was pretty shocked, and I didn’t know what to say. The conversation moved on, but in the back of my mind I couldn’t get over that she just said Hebe. I have never heard anyone say it in person. I also was really, really uncomfortable with the stereotype she put out there.

I have a really bad poker face, so after about 10-15 minutes, she said, “I’m really concerned that I offended you–please tell me.”

So I did. I explained that Hebe is offensive, and that it just rubs me the wrong way when people who aren’t Jewish make Jewish jokes. I likened it to non-blacks making racial jokes. Race and religion, as different as they are, both are sensitive subjects. She apologized and promised me it was out of ignorance and not intolerance. I believe her 100%. In fact, she gave me her blessing to write this post. She wanted to learn from it.

READ: Lena Dunham Responds to Kveller Article About Her Anti-Semitic Humor-Sort Of

But here’s my dilemma. I make Jewish jokes all the time.

Case in point: I was at a birthday party recently. The dad hosting the party was Jewish. We were playing on his kids’ new swing set when I asked him if he put it together himself.

He said: “No, I paid someone $100 to do it.”

I replied, “That’s what we Jews do! We pay someone to do it for us.”

This got a big laugh from him and his friends who were standing nearby. His friends weren’t Jewish. I was happy to get the laugh (as always), but it felt wrong.

When is it OK to make a joke about Jews? Jew to Jew? Jew to non-Jew? Non-Jew (married to a Jew) to a Jew? Isn’t it all wrong?

Self-deprecating Jewish humor is age-old. I was raised on Mel Brooks, Jackie Mason and Woody Allen. But I can tell you that as a child, I was aware that the minute someone who wasn’t Jewish laughed at one of those jokes, the mood changed for my parents.

READ: Becoming a Japanese Housewife Made Me a More Committed Jew

That evening, my friend texted me to thank me for a lovely afternoon and to make sure that we were OK. She truly felt awful about our conversation. She was afraid she had acted like a jerk (OK, she didn’t say “jerk,” but you can probably guess what she had said.) I assured her she wasn’t, and the fact that she realized she had said something inappropriate and wanted to learn from it, made all the difference. In my opinion, this makes her truly friend-worthy. I’m certain we’ll be learning new things from each other for years to come.

I, for one, have already learned to hold back on the Jewish jokes, even if they always get a laugh. I don’t ever want my kids to hear me making fun of our people. I don’t want to perpetuate any stereotypes. I’ll leave the comedy to the comedians.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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