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O My America: Lenny Bruce and the Golden Age

August 2, 2012

by Lawrence Bush
LEONARD ALFRED SCHNEIDER DIED 46 years ago on August 3, age 40. He was not the kind of Jewish boy you’d want your daughter or son to date, let alone marry. A hustler, he was arrested in 1951 on charges of falsely “soliciting funds for some non-sectarian organization that had sponsored a leper colony.” At the time he was married, later divorced, to a stripper stage-named Honey Harlowe. Bruce was a substance abuser who died of an overdose — and he cursed a lot, and went to jail for it, and then obsessively told the story of going to jail while continuing to curse. From such elements, a career was wrought: the New York Times called him, in 1959, “a sort of abstract expressionist stand-up comedian paid $1,750 a week to vent his outrage on the clientele...” $1,750 a week wasn’t bad in 1959; my dad was making less than $120 a week as a pharmacist. Yet five years later, Bruce was legally declared a bankrupt pauper in San Francisco. He was not a man of self-restraint.
Lenny Bruce made a name for himself, with the help, especially, of Hugh Hefner of Playboy fame, who published Bruce’s autobiography in several installments. “People in our industry who knew what Bruce was talking about were absolutely enthralled with him,” said Carl Reiner. “We read his Playboy articles voraciously and discussed them.” We’re talking here about controversial comic rants about race, religion, patriotism, abortion, drugs, Jewish identity, and other subjects that were rarely messed with in that conformist, McCarthyist period. Bruce was himself the teeter-totter that brought down that conformist period in many ways, with carefully placed four-letter word bombs. But it was a suicide bombing campaign. In 1961, he appeared on the Steve Allen Show on television (one of only six TV appearances throughout his career) and on the Carnegie Hall stage, and he was then arrested on obscenity charges in San Francisco. He was acquitted but began to face arrest so frequently that he was blacklisted by many nightclubs. In a six-month trial for an arrest at the Café Au Go Go in New York in 1964, for a performance in which he used some 100 dirty words, Bruce was convicted despite testimony and petitions on his behalf by such cultural icons as Bob Dylan, William Styron, Allen Ginsberg, James Baldwin, Elizabeth Tailor, Paul Newman, Norman Mailer, and Woody Allen.
Bruce died in 1966 during the appeals process and was posthumously pardoned — the first posthumous pardon in New York state history — by Gov. George Pataki in 2003. “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.” It was an interesting move by Pataki; the pardon came while he was taking many actions actually to shore up his Republican and conservative credentials, including supporting the Bush administration’s anti-terrorism efforts, like the Patriot Act.
Lenny Bruce probably would’ve skewered him for that one. One of his attorneys, Martin Garbus, did it for him: ”That’s exactly the kind of appalling hypocrisy that Bruce was against, and I’m sure he would have built up a wonderful routine about it,” Garbus said.
Variety magazine wrote, following one of Bruce’s obscenity arrests, 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.” It was a time, as the New York Times has written, “when the counterculture was taking early steps in Greenwich Village, [and] the Roman Catholic Church under Cardinal Francis Spellman held enormous political power in the city; the headquarters of the archdiocese behind St. Patrick’s Cathedral was known in those days as the Powerhouse. No one seemed more offensive to the cardinal and the Manhattan district attorney, Frank Hogan, than Lenny Bruce.”
For good reason. As Bruce once said, “Every day people are straying away from the church and going back to God.”
Here’s an excerpt from his routine about Jesus and Moses visiting St. Patrick’s Cathedral, from his 1961 Carnegie Hall concert.
In fact, Lenny Bruce isn’t particularly that shocking or even funny to me when I listen to him today. The quotient on obscenity has grown in comedy to a... well, obscene level... Politically, the Daily Show and Stephen Colbert match Bruce in audacity and, certainly, subtlety. The use of ethnic slurs like the ‘N’ word has become so common that only baby-boomer liberals like me call it the ‘N’ word with quotation marks.
(Liberals, Lenny Bruce once said, “can understand everything but people who don’t understand them”).
Still Bruce is iconic — one of those figures you introduce to your kids by saying, “And remember, he was the first...” And as Bruce himself once said: “I’m sorry I haven’t been funny. I am not a comedian. I am Lenny Bruce.”

ONE OF HIS ROUTINES that has, for sure, had staying power was first introduced in Playboy magazine, after being aired in an abbreviated form in November, 1961 at the Curran Theater in San Francisco. Here goes:
Dig: I’m Jewish. 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.
If you live in New York or any other big city, you are Jewish. It doesn’t matter even if you’re Catholic; if you live in New York, you’re Jewish. If you live in Butte, Montana, you’re going to be goyish even if you’re Jewish.
Kool-Aid is goyish. Evaporated milk is goyish even if the Jews invented it. Chocolate is Jewish and fudge is goyish. Fruit salad is Jewish. Lime Jello is goyish. Lime soda is very goyish.
All Drake’s Cakes are goyish. Pumpernickel is Jewish and, as you know, white bread is very goyish. Instant potatoes, goyish. Black cherry soda’s very Jewish, macaroons are very Jewish.
Trailer parks are so goyish that Jews won’t go near them. Jack Paar Show is very goyish.
Negroes are all Jews. Italians are all Jews. Irishmen who have rejected their religion are Jews. Eugene O’Neil — Jewish; Dylan Thomas, Jewish. Mouths are very Jewish. And bosoms. Baton-twirling is very goyish.
Underwear is definitely goyish. Balls are goyish. Titties are Jewish.
Celebrate is a goyish word. Observe is a Jewish word. Mr. and Mrs. Walsh are celebrating Christmas with Major Thomas Moreland, USAF (ret.), while Mr. and Mrs. Bromberg observed Hanukkah with Goldie and Arthur Schindler from Kiamesha, New York.
Louis. That’s my name in Jewish. Louis Schneider.
“Why haven’t ya got Louis Schneider up on the marquee?”
“Well, cause it’s not show business. It doesn’t fit.”
“No, no, I don’t wanna hear that. You Jewish?”
“You ashamed of it?”
“Why you ashamed you’re Jewish?”
“I’m not any more! But it used to be a problem. Until Playboy magazine came out.”
This is the Lenny Bruce routine has legs today. As soon as young people discover it, they amplify it. Bangitout, a self-described “kosher comedy community,” has really run with it, producing a day-to-day Jewish/Goyish calendar and defining the key element of “Jewish” as “The Heymish Factor” — the homeyness factor. Here are a few of hundreds of their examples, compiled by Isaac Galena:
Libraries are Jewish; librarians are goyish.
Lo mein is Jewish; chow mein is goyish.
Ketchup is Jewish; catsup is goyish.
Collecting mini-shampoos from hotels is Jewish. Letting the family use them is goyish.
Leather is Jewish; patent leather is goyish.
Cleaning ladies are Jewish; housekeepers, goyish.
“Delicious” to describe your turkey is goyish; “Delicious” to describe your toddler is Jewish.
Coke is Jewish, while Pepsi veers goyish but has Jewish commercials.
HBO, Jewish; Cinemax, goyish. Macy’s, Jewish; Nordstrom’s, goyish.
College Football is goyish, college basketball is Jewish. All sports drafts are Jewish. Golf is a sport that wants badly to be Jewish.
And so on.
So what are we doing here, beyond identifying the “heymish” factor? After all, it’s mostly Jews who indulge in and enjoy this Jewish/goyish exercise — with the goyim putting up with it because they’re good sports and don’t want to be considered anti-Semitic.

THAT IS PRECISELY the point. It is a routine that is all about Jewish confidence, idealism, and khutspe. It expresses Jewish clannishness and chosenness by extending it outwards to the human race — or, at least, to those sectors of the human race who are dedicated to being as fully human as they can be, dedicated, in other words, to mentshlikhkayt and to progress. In a nutshell, Lenny Bruce’s Jewish/goyish routine expresses a Jewish consensus about American Jewish identity, a consensus that equates Jewishness with liberalism, authenticity, soul, universalism, urbanism, and atheism, and that also contends that such an identity can be exported to America at large — and that we’re the people to do it.
Even before Lenny’s hey-day, the Jews of America had discovered a new world. Formerly, there were two worlds: di velt, a place of pain, suffering, and the hope for redemption — and yener velt, the other world, where the redemption that never seemed to come about in this velt might come about, after death. But in Bruce’s childhood, Jews discovered Roose-velt. And not since Shabtai Zvi, the false messiah of the 1600s, did the Jews flock to their worldly redemption as they did to Roose-velt.
Bruce’s shtik paints a lovely portrait of that world of Roose-velt — the world of a liberal Jewish consensus identity.
Let’s briefly study the text. It begins with Count Basie and Ray Charles being Jewish. Why are they Jewish? Because Benny Goodman is, George and Ira Gershwin are, Artie Shaw is, Stan Getz is, and Paul Desmond, too. Jews embraced and appropriated jazz, and jazz helped define the new Jewish consensus.
Besides which, said Lenny Bruce, “Negroes are all Jewish.” Of course they were. Negroes were slaves unto Pharaoh. They were the Chosen People of America. America would know itself and be redeemed only when it embraced its Negritude. And the were the white people who knew that. Which is why close to half the white Freedom Riders who went South in the early 1960s were Jewish — all with worried Jewish mothers.
Jazz also explains why Betty Boop is Jewish but Sleeping Beauty is not; why Popeye cartoons are Jewish but Dumbo is not. The Fleischer studios versus Disney was a matter of jazz versus Musak. It was Jewish sexuality set loose — without fear for the first time in history. Jews and Jewesses had long been assaulted with anti-Semitic images of being oversexed and corrupting. With jazz and jazzy cartoons, the Jews were saying, And how! C’mere, baby...
Next in Lenny’s routine comes Eddie Cantor, born Edward Israel Iskowitz — obviously a Jew, yet goyish, according to Lenny Bruce. Why so? Hard to say: Cantor invented the March of Dimes, after all, and turned all of America onto giving tsedoke. And he had five daughters, about whom he riffed, like Tevye, all the time. But Eddie Cantor rolled his eyes all the time, too, like a blackface comic, and he dealt in old-fashioned, unsophisticated, homey humor with no social commentary bite. Cantor was not hip. He was from di velt, not Roose-velt. And part of the Jewish consensus that Lenny Bruce was representing was: We are no longer immigrants. Even if we still sprinkle our language with Yiddish, which Lenny did constantly — the theory was that soon the goyim would be doing that, too.
Next, B’nai Brith is goyish, while Hadassah is Jewish. Clearly, this is gender-based: It seems that Bruce did not recognize a muscular masculinity, a masculinity of self-defense, as a legitimate part of the Jewish consensus. Perhaps he was unaware of the association between Jewish radicalism and self-defense, going back to the Bundist and Zionist self-defense groups of the early 20th century and including Bnai Brith’s own Anti-Defamation League, organized in 1913 in the wake of the Leo Frank lynching in Georgia and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. I think Bruce is wrong — I think B’nai B’rith is Jewish. And yet... it became neoconservative in the 1980s, against affirmative action, obsessed with anti-Semitism, less universalist, while Hadassah just gave its nurture and tsedoke to Israel, building hospitals and the like. B’nai B’rith is about strength; Hadassah is about rakhmones, womb-love. Lenny Bruce was either ignorant about B’nai B’rith or prophetic.
Moving on: “If you live in New York or any other big city, you are Jewish. It doesn’t matter even if you’re Catholic; if you live in New York, you’re Jewish. If you live in Butte, Montana, you’re going to be goyish even if you’re Jewish.” Roose-velt was, without doubt, a land of cities, of ethnic mixing, of everyone-is-human humanism.
It goes on, and so could I.
But Roose-velt is no more. The Jewish liberal consensus has broken down in many, many ways. Israel’s transition from a fearless little socialistic state that Jews could universally adore to a hard-hitting, occupying, rude and hard-driving capitalist state where the gulf between rich and poor resembles the U.S. has driven deep wedges in the Jewish political consensus. The gleeful material possibilities of America for Jews in the 1950s and 1960s have yielded a revolting sense of Jewish upper-class entitlement, with faux bar mitsves stylish among non-Jewish kids. The liberatory has become the pornographic. There is a lack of a moral center in the America we helped to create — and we have not succeeded at replacing the broken-down morality with mentshlikhkayt because we ourselves are too alienated from our Jewish ethical identities to know how to do that.
That’s precisely the work we try to do at Jewish Currents: to rebuild Roose-velt, to proclaim mentshlikhkayt to be the fundamental ingredient of Jewishness.
As Bob Dylan wrote: “Lenny Bruce is gone but his spirit’s livin’ on and on... Never robbed any churches nor cut off any babies’ heads... He just took the folks in high places and he shined a light in their beds... He’s on some other shore, he didn’t wanna live anymore...”

Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents.