Lenny Bruce’s Mission to America
by Lawrence Bush
from the Summer 2016 issue of Jewish Currents
LEONARD ALFRED SCHNEIDER, who took the stage as Lenny Bruce, died half a century ago on August 3, 1966, age 40. He was not the nice Jewish boy you’d want your daughter or son to marry. A drug abuser, he died of an overdose; a hustler, he was arrested in 1951 on charges of falsely “soliciting funds for some non-sectarian organization that had sponsored a leper colony.” He cursed a lot, and went to jail for it, then obsessively told the story of going to jail while continuing to curse. From such elements, juggled with audacity and a liberationist mentality, his career emerged as “a sort of abstract expressionist stand-up comedian,” as the New York Times described him in 1959, “paid $1,750 a week to vent his outrage . . .” Five years later, he was legally declared a bankrupt pauper. Lenny Bruce was not a man of self-restraint.
He solidified his reputation with the help of Hugh Hefner, the publisher of Playboy, which serialized Bruce’s autobiography (cowritten by Paul Krassner), How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, in 1964 and ’65. “People in our industry who knew what Bruce was talking about were absolutely enthralled with him,” said the great comic Carl Reiner. “We read his Playboy articles voraciously and discussed them” — controversial, radical comic rants about race, religion, patriotism, abortion, drugs, Jewish identity, and other subjects that were rarely messed with in that conformist era.
Bruce tore down conformism with four-letter word bombs, but it was a suicide-bombing campaign. In 1961, he was arrested on obscenity charges in San Francisco. Although acquitted, he began to face arrest so frequently that he was ultimately blacklisted by many nightclubs. A 1964 show at the Cafe au Go Go in New York finally yielded a conviction, despite petitions on his behalf by such cultural icons as Bob Dylan, William Styron, Allen Ginsberg, James Baldwin, Elizabeth Taylor, and Paul Newman. Bruce died during the appeals process.
In 2003, Governor George Pataki granted him the first posthumous pardon in New York State history. “Freedom of speech,” said Pataki, “is one of the greatest American liberties and I hope this pardon serves as a reminder of the precious freedoms we are fighting to preserve as we continue to wage the war on terror.” “That’s exactly the kind of appalling hypocrisy that Bruce was against,” complained his attorney Martin Garbus, about Pataki’s effort to use the comedian as an anti-terrorism icon,“and I’m sure he would have built up a wonderful routine about it.”
FOLLOWING ONE of Bruce’s obscenity arrests, Variety magazine observed that “the prosecutor is at least equally concerned with Bruce’s indictments of organized religion as he is with the more obvious sexual content of the comic’s act.” His influence was peaking, after all, at a time when the Catholic Church under Cardinal Francis Spellman held enormous political power in New York. “[T]he headquarters of the archdiocese behind St. Patrick’s Cathedral was known in those days as the Powerhouse,” according to the New York Times. “No one seemed more offensive to the cardinal . . . than Lenny Bruce.”
For good reason: As Bruce once said, “Every day people are straying away from the church and going back to God.” At his 1961 Carnegie Hall concert, he portrayed Jesus and Moses on a visit to New York, where “forty Puerto Ricans are living in one room” while Cardinal Spellman has “had a ring on that was worth eight grand.”
Nevertheless, Bruce isn’t especially shocking when you listen to him today. The quotient on obscenity in contem-
porary comedy has grown to a . . . well, obscene level, and at least a few stand-up artists now match him in audacity. Still, the man is iconic, one of those figures you introduce to younger people by saying, “Remember, he was the first.” As he himself once said, “I’m sorry I haven’t been funny. I am not a comedian. I am Lenny Bruce.”
IN JEWISH LIFE, there is one Lenny Bruce routine that’s had great staying power. Usually referred to as “Jewish-Goyish,” it was introduced in Playboy after being aired in an abbreviated form in November 1961 at the Curran Theater in San Francisco. “Dig: I’m Jewish,” he begins. “Count Basie’s Jewish. Ray Charles is Jewish. Eddie Cantor’s goyish. B’nai B’rith is goyish; Hadassah, Jewish. Marine Corps — heavy goyim, dangerous. . . .”
Everyone living in New York or any other big city, he continues, is Jewish — “even if you’re Catholic; if you live in New York, you’re Jewish.” But “if you live in Butte, Montana, you’re going to be goyish even if you’re Jewish.”
Then he surveys grocery shelves: Chocolate is Jewish, but fudge is goyish. Fruit salad is Jewish. So are pumpernickel bread and black cherry soda. All Drake’s Cakes, white breads, and instant potatoes are goyish.
“Negroes are all Jews,” he continues. “Italians are all Jews,” as are “Irishmen who have rejected their religion.” Mouths are “very Jewish. And bosoms. . . . Balls are goyish. Titties are Jewish.” And so on.
Young Jews who discover this routine usually amplify it. Bang It Out, a self-described “kosher comedy” website, has featured a few hundred new examples: Libraries are Jewish; librarians are goyish. Lo mein is Jewish; chow mein is goyish. Collecting mini-shampoos from hotels is Jewish. Letting the family use them is goyish. Cleaning
ladies are Jewish; housekeepers, goyish. “Delicious” to describe your turkey is goyish; “Delicious” to describe your toddler is Jewish.
What are we enjoying here — “we” being Jews who enjoy indulging in this differentiation game while our goyish friends put up with it because they’re good sports and don’t want to be considered anti-Semitic?
That’s precisely the point: Bruce’s routine was all about Jewish comfort, idealism, and khutspe. It expressed Jewish clannishness by extending it outwards to all of America — or, at least, to those sectors of America dedicated to creativity, authenticity, and social progress. In a nutshell, Bruce was equating Jewishness with liberalism, anti-racism, universalism, urbanism, hipsterism, and atheism. He was also implying that such virtues can be exported to America at large — and that we’re the people to do it.
BEFORE LENNY Bruce took the stage, creative Jews had already infiltrated America through name-changing and cultural appeasement — with Irving Berlin (Baline) writing “White Christmas” and Mel Tormé (Torma) and Bob Wells (Levinson) writing “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire).” But by the time Leonard Alfred Schneider began talking dirty, World War II had been won, anti-Semitism was on the run, and Jews had use of movies, radio, Broadway, and television with which to try not simply to infiltrate America, but to convert America.
Let’s briefly study Bruce’s “Jewish-Goyish” text. It begins by declaring Count Basie and Ray Charles to be Jewish. Why? Because Benny Goodman was Jewish, as were George Gershwin, Artie Shaw, and Stan Getz. Jews embraced and appropriated jazz, America’s multi-racial music, as part of that liberal Jewish consensus.
Besides, Bruce said, “Negroes are all Jewish.” Of course they are. Negroes were slaves unto Pharaoh, and America would be redeemed only when it stopped exploiting, killing, and fearing them — and Jews were the white people who knew that, which is why so very many of the white civil rights volunteers who went South in the early 1960s were Jews.
The Jewish bohemian embrace of black culture also explains why, by my lights, Betty Boop is Jewish but Sleeping Beauty is not. The competition between the Max Fleischer studios and Walt Disney was a matter of jazz versus Muzak, of “loose” sexuality versus prudery and prurience. Jews both male and female had long been assaulted with anti-Semitic images of being oversexed and corrupting. Lenny Bruce was saying, And how! C’mere, baby…
Next in Bruce’s routine comes Eddie Cantor, born Edward Israel Iskowitz — obviously a Jew, yet goyish, according to Bruce. Why so? Hard to say: Cantor invented the March of Dimes, after all, and turned on all of America to giving tsedoke. He also had five daughters, about whom he riffed like Tevye the Dairyman. But Eddie Cantor rolled his eyes like a black-face comic, and he dealt in unsophisticated immigrant humor with little social bite. Part of the liberal Jewish consensus that Bruce was fomenting was: We are no longer immigrants, even if we sprinkle our English with Yiddish. Bruce did that constantly, but his game-plan was that soon the goyim would soon be doing it, too.
Next, the routine declares B’nai Brith to be goyish, while Hadassah is Jewish. Clearly, this is gender-based: Bruce did not recognize a muscular Jewish masculinity as a legitimate part of Jewish identity. What would he have said, then, about modern Israel? My guess is that he might have judged Tsipi Livni to be Jewish but not Bibi Netanyahu; that he probably would have considered Mahmoud Abbas to be Jewish, if only for his ineffectualness; and he would have loved the joke about the grandmother talking to her grandson in Israel. She speaks Yiddish; he speaks Hebrew. Asked by an observer why she keeps talking to him in Yiddish, she says: “I want him to know he’s Jewish!”
Bruce’s own not-so-funny version of this came in his autobiography: “Goddamn Israel and its bond drives,” he wrote. “What influence did they exert to save the lives of the Rosenbergs?”
Today, the Jewish consensus of what is “Jewish” and “Goyish” has broken down. Israel’s transition from a fearless little socialist state to an occupying power and a rude, hard-driving capitalist country has disrupted the Jewish identification with bosoms instead of balls. So have the gleeful material possibilities of America, which have come to yield a revolting sense of American Jewish entitlement. The likes of Jonas Salk, who refused to patent his polio vaccine — because, he asked reporters, “Could you patent the sun?” — have been replaced by Jewish billionaire CEOs who would patent your brain cells if they could. There is a lack of a moral center in America today, despite Lenny Bruce’s best efforts — and we’ve not succeeded at replacing that broken-down morality with mentshlikhkayt, because we ourselves are too goyish to know how.
Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents.