Dizzy Gillespie blowing shofar in Jerusalem in 1985. (Photo: NPR, via Charles Fishman)

Once upon a time, the martyred and legendary comic Lenny Bruce (z”l) explained the difference between Jewish and goyish on stage and in the first chapter of his autobiography, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People. He said like this: “Count Basie is Jewish. Ray Charles is very Jewish. Eddie Cantor is goyish.”

We need to update this classic exercise in comparison-contrast between mainstream and counter culture.

Seth Rogen is Jewish. Joe Rogan is goyish.

George Soros is Jewish. Bernie Sanders is so Jewish it hurts. Mort Klein is goyish. Jay Sekulow is gospely goyish.

Antifa is Jewish. The Likud Party is goyish. Blue Lives Matter is scary goyish.

Bikes are Jewish. Cabs are Jewish. Uber is goyish. Boats are goyish. Pickup trucks are super goyish.

Lenny Bruce after a set (Photo: Bettmann Archives/Getty Images)

The Forward used to be very Jewish, now it’s like a Reform prayer book that’s all in English. Medium is goyish but in a multiculturally healthy way.

But seriously, while this exercise is all in good fun, the sad and sorry truth is that there really isn’t much left of Lenny Bruce’s Jewish America in this world anymore. Even the state of Israel has become just another Middle East regime led by a tin-pot dictatorship but with its civic faith in a trite and empty notion of Judeo-Christian values. You can say “Merry Christmas” there now, free from any liberal PC thuggery.

“Pumpernickel is Jewish,” Lenny Bruce said back then, “and, as you know, white bread is very goyish.” And this remains emis, truth. And to the extent they still exist, Jewish delis remain the flashpoint for comparison. Here’s an old deli joke: What do you call a corned beef sandwich on white bread with mayonnaise? The Christian Order.

During my senior year of high school, I worked for a time at a neighborhood deli in the greater Chicagoland metropolitan area. I would not turn 18 until the end of that summer, so I could not legally operate the slicer that was an integral piece of equipment at any deli counter and the owner’s daughters worked the register. So, they had me in the back putting together catering trays, called lazy-Susans. A big round cardboard circle at the base, lined with aluminum foil and organized in stacks of meats or lox and cheeses, with big paper cups full of potato salad and chopped liver rising from the center; and when it was all put together it was like a shining city on a hill. And they could serve dozens. A cranky Black guy named Ken with a lump on his forehead also worked in the back, washing dishes, trays, silverware, tongs and lighter deli equipment. To be brutally honest, I disliked the job, the boss and I only lasted a couple of months at the end of my senior year plus a few weeks into the summer. But the atmosphere was more Jewish to me than even shul. And Ken was the bright shining source of healthy alienation and a big part of what earned that job a soft spot in my heart. Among other things, Ken and I talked politics, like when President Jimmy Carter withstood pressure from Congress to order military action against rebels in Angola “over some copper,” as Ken put it, and because they had the support of Cuba.

Despite a communal establishment leadership that has arguably grown much too comfortable on the Fox News set, most rank and file Jews still seem fundamentally liberal in their traditional 75–25ish%, Democratic-Republican voting pattern. But the community infrastructure doesn’t seem as solid, anymore. There are still shuls. Lots of shuls. Orthodox shuls, Reconstructionist shuls, Conservative shuls and Reform temples. I even know a Conservative temple in Aurora. But the disappearance of Jewish delis deeply concerns me. Most Jews who weren’t frum, or Orthodox, frequented the delis (there were and remain, of course, strictly kosher delis). It’s where the Conservatives, Reform, Reconstructionists and virulently secular could all rub elbows, tell stories, argue politics, express concerns, cut some deals and have some laughs. With their diminishing presence, it becomes increasingly clear how vital the delis have been to North American Jewish identity.

But a ray of hope still shines from my old hometown of Skokie, Illinois, where (keyn-ahora!) Kaufman’s Deli still stands. Kaufman’s is both a deli and bakery and also the home venue of Bagels and Banjos, not really a band so much as a Sunday morning treat for customers to enjoy some multicultural folk music performed by a shifting lineup of personnel led by Chicago legend Stuart Rosenberg — and hopefully will be again, as it was in the beforetimes. While it was not the deli I worked for, Kaufman’s remains under the ownership of the same family that gave my zayde his first job in the new country, di Goldene Medina.

On that slim ray of light, I hang my wish to all readers for a gut yontif, a sweet and good new year, l’shana tova tikatayvu v’taykhataymu, inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life. Only we can make it happen.

Vintage Yiddish New Year postcard

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