Archive | 2022/12/24

On Jewish Vulgarity

On Jewish Vulgarity


With John Murray Cuddihy’s ‘The Ordeal of Civility’ and Yuri Slezkine’s ‘The Jewish Century,’ Tablet begins a three-part look at the once-vibrant Jewish trait of not caring what the goyim think.


The charge that Jews are vulgar now seems almost quaint, since antisemites have heavier weapons in their repertoire, like calling Jews settler colonialists, white racist warmongers, and bloodsucking masters of Hollywood and the entire universe alike. Yet Jewish lack of manners was once taken seriously both by Jews and by their gentile neighbors and competitors. The vulgar, unmannerly Jew was a countercultural force, and not just a reason for shame and repression.

It took a lapsed Irish Catholic CUNY sociologist named John Murray Cuddihy to make the case for Jewish vulgarity, in his book The Ordeal of Civility, published in 1974. The Ordeal of Civility, which is something of a cult classic, is long out of print. In its time the book was notorious: Here was a non-Jew talking about vulgar Jews, as if this were a real thing. Clapping the lid over such a shonda was the primary task of some reviewers, who hinted that Cuddihy must be an antisemite.

It is bad manners to talk about Jewish bad manners the way Cuddihy did— and even more so today than 50 years ago. But his book made a powerful case that Cuddihy did not see vulgarity as a flaw but instead as a weapon Jews used to disrupt gentile society—for which he admired them. Jews deployed their rudeness to make a principled argument against the goyim (a word Cuddihy didn’t shy away from), who were cultural prisoners of a hypocritical code that swept unruly emotions under the rug and leaned on polite euphemism to conceal the vampiric nature of capitalist exploitation. The grand Marxist and Freudian theories about the human condition have a crude Jewish impulse at their core, Cuddihy argued, which makes them more, not less, compelling.

The Ordeal of Civility revolves around what Cuddihy calls the “unconsummated ritual courtship” between Jews and gentiles. Jewish emancipation was supposed to result in the gentiling of Jewry. But the Jews kept backsliding. In 1922 Walter Lippmann warned his coreligionists that “the Jew is conspicuous, and unless in his own conduct of life he manages to demonstrate the art of moderate, clean and generous living, every failure will magnify itself in woe …” Similarly, African American uplifters said freedom would only arrive when the Black masses threw off their downhome ways, a polemic juicily satirized by Ellison’s Invisible Man. Every recently decolonized people, among whom Cuddihy counts the Jews, is forced to suffer through respectability sermons.

Cuddihy saw that what seemed to outsiders like Jewish brusqueness was actually intimacy. One of Freud’s favorite jokes was about a Jewish railway passenger, alone in his compartment, who has put his feet up on the seat. When a stranger enters, the Jew nervously sits up straight with his feet on the floor. But then the newcomer, flipping through his calendar, asks the Jew “When is Yom Kippur?” and so the Jew, reassured that he is in the presence of a landsmann, puts his feet back up on the seat.

“Eastern European Jewish intimacy … excludes ‘respect,’” Cuddihy comments. He cites the psychoanalyst Theodor Reik, who marvels that in Jewish life “aggression does not produce estrangement but puts an end to it.” 

Cuddihy devotes much of The Ordeal of Civility to Freud, whose interpretive antennae were always alert for inappropriate, overheated emotions (Jewish emotions, says Cuddihy). Erving Goffman, in a passage that Cuddihy quotes, defines the Freudian symptom as “an infraction of a rule regarding affect restraint during daily encounters.” Cuddihy moves on to a description of Amalia Freud, Sigmund’s mother, written by Freud’s son Martin:

These Galician Jews had little grace and no manners, and their women were certainly not what we should call “ladies.” They were highly emotional and easily carried away by their feelings. But, although in many respects they would seem to be untamed barbarians to more civilized people, they, alone of all minorities, stood up to the Nazis. These people are not easy to live with, and grandmother, a true representative of her race, was no exception. She had great vitality and much impatience.

Letting the symptom speak, as Freud tried to do, was tantamount to letting the Jew speak—in this case, Freud’s mother. Amalia Freud’s badgering impatience and outspokenness were anathema to gentile repression.

Freud’s straightforward treatment of sexuality also had Jewish roots, Cuddihy claims. Max Weber saw in Jewish sexual life “the marked diminution of secular lyricism and especially of the erotic sublimation of sexuality.” Jews were bewildered by the goyishe emphasis on prolonged courtship and yearning for the beloved from afar. The shadkhn was down to earth, ready to talk takhles. Let’s get down to business was his or her motto.

At one point, Cuddihy recounts a 1908 visit to Freud by the Swiss gentile psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler and his wife, who both urged Freud to make his doctrine socially acceptable by using a more polite word than sexuality. Cuddihy is convinced that Freud saw Bleuler’s appeal as “religious proselytization: they were offering to perform rhinoplastic surgery on his id (the ‘sexuality’ he discovered behind symptoms). What he heard from these awfully ‘kind’ goyim was: ‘Only change your name, and we’ll accept you. Let us do a nose-job on you, then we’ll accept you (i.e., your id theory, your ‘Yid’) …”

Cuddihy carries on like this to suggest the likeness between his own boldness and that of his Jewish subjects. But he also identifies with the embarrassment that “assimilating ‘exception’ Jewry” felt when faced with scruffy Ostjuden. When he “pass[es] rheumy-eyed ‘Bowery bums’—typically, Irish (all stereotypes are, more or less, accurate),” Cuddihy confessed that he felt “sympathy, fear, shame, dishonesty.” Like most interesting things, vulgarity compels ambivalence.

Cuddihy’s The Ordeal of Civility has its flaws. Cuddihy spends much time detecting, and sometimes inventing, the anxious efforts of Jewish intellectuals and writers to avoid seeming “too Jewish.” Cuddihy doesn’t seem to know that hordes of learned Jews have avidly devoured the high culture of the West without pretending to be gentiles. Think about Egbert Shapiro in Bellow’s Herzog—based on the scholar Ben Nelson, whom Cuddihy quotes—energetically discoursing on Russian Orthodoxy while salivating over a jar of pickled herring. Bad manners signify the Jewish greed for knowledge.

Yuri Slezkine’s virtuosic gospel The Jewish Century (2004) talks back to Cuddihy’s Old Testament. With panache, excitement and mountainous learning, Slezkine makes the case that the modern world required everyone to become a Jew, that is, a “service nomad” well-accustomed to living in the midst of strangers and gauging their needs and desires. Cuddihy wrote about Jews being compelled to emulate non-Jews. But Slezkine described the Judaizing of gentiles. The Jew, like the overseas Chinese, became a model of entrepreneurial flexibility in a new world of buyers and sellers.

Yet Jews and gentiles were still distinct, Slezkine adds, and in their difference a disaster lurked. Non-Jews turned into proud nationalists, while Jews remained rootless. Even after they established their own country they were, and still are, snubbed as nationless colonizers. Nationalists targeted the tawdry, exploitative business Jew, who was a homeless parasite, never a “real” German or Hungarian. And so many Jews looked toward the new internationalist homeland, the Soviet Union, which promised to liberate Jews from the vulgar cash nexus that was their source of shame. 

Socialism for Jews, Slezkine writes, meant (what Marx called):

the “emancipation from haggling and from money, i.e. from practical, real Judaism.” Most radical Jewish memoirists remembered struggling with the twin evils of tradition and “acquisitiveness”: as far as they were concerned, the Jewish tradition was about acquisitiveness. … The Jews, as a group, were the only true Marxists because they were the only ones who truly believed that their nationality was “chimerical”; the only ones who—like Marx’s proletarians but unlike the real ones—had no motherland.

When Jews turned against capitalism, aka Jewish vulgarity, and started to invade the higher echelons of Marxist theory and praxis, they paradoxically brought Talmudic reasoning into the brave new science. Marxist dialectics blatantly depended on hairsplitting, ersatz refinement, and overcoming common sense for the sake of theory. Slezkine notes that both communist and Talmudic exegesis “were built around the division of the world into ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ spheres, and … both pursued purity by multiplying meaningless rules and by pretending to reconcile them to each other and to the unruly reality of human existence.”

Slezkine busted a taboo by pointing out that Jews were vastly overrepresented in the communist theory vanguard, just as they were in the European nouveau riche. In the Cold War that defined the latter half of the 20th century, pious Americanism battled an equally pious Soviet communism, which was at least partly a Jewish social and intellectual construction, more turgid and far more cruel than the American brand, yet similar in its camera-ready phoniness.

American Jews who clung to their native vulgarity were ready to lampoon everyone’s pieties. The satirical scriptures of the ‘60s, from Mad magazine to Dr. Strangelove to Portnoy’s Complaint, prove that tastelessness was alive and kicking when the global stakes were highest. The one time I saw him, in the 1980s, Abbie Hoffman seemed to me a genuine charismatic, as well as a matchless stand-up comic. Like Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks or the gang at Mad, he sensed how Jewish vulgarity could explode the sacred cows of genteel society.

Sadly, the Jewish vulgarity celebrated by Cuddihy is no longer seriously provocative or well-tolerated by Jews. Shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm hawk Jewish rudeness for easy laughs, proving that the vulgar Jew has declined from a real threat into an amusing, half-legendary caricature. When confronted with the ongoing cultural hostility toward Jews by gentiles, the Jewish response now is not to blow raspberries and tell better jokes but to crawl, hide or sue. The exuberance of Jewish vulgarity, and the in-group solidarity of the shtetlakh it expressed, are both missing.

Jewish incivility with real bite will probably never return—its historical moment has passed. But the unabashed and often delirious vulgarity that Cuddihy described, which melded Jewish aggression with communal solidarity, self-respect, and a capacious humanity, would be a worthy antidote to today’s toxic online polemics, and to the stale, frozen, and frightened state of the American Jewish culture they target.

David Mikics is the author, most recently, of Stanley Kubrick (Yale Jewish Lives). He lives in Brooklyn and Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston.

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Why are there so few answers to Irish peacekeeper’s murder in Lebanon? – analysis

Why are there so few answers to Irish peacekeeper’s murder in Lebanon? – analysis


Since the attack, there has been a tendency in major media outlets, including in Lebanon, to either downplay the incident or push a “wait and see” narrative.

A UNIFIL peacekeeper stands next to a UN vehicle in southern Lebanon, in April / (photo credit: AZIZ TAHER/REUTERS)

The murder of Irish UN peacekeeper Seán Rooney, 24, in Lebanon last Wednesday is a significant escalation against the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). In the immediate aftermath of the attack on Rooney and his fellow soldiers, there were claims that the incident lacked clarity. A week after the attack, many questions remain.

Since the attack, there has been a tendency in major media outlets, including in Lebanon, to either downplay the incident or push a “wait and see” narrative, one that would give the perpetrators time to escape. And the only way that could transpire is if Hezbollah is somehow involved.

Irish leader Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has expressed his confidence in the ongoing investigations to determine what happened in Lebanon and why an Irish soldier was killed.

“It’s important that we do that. It’s also important that we avoid any speculation, I think at this point, until those investigations are done,” he said. The Irish, the UN and Lebanon are all investigating.

A PEACEKEEPER of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) stands at a lookout point in the village of Adaisseh near the Lebanese-Israeli border. (credit: REUTERS/KARAMALLAH DAHER)

This week, Rooney’s body was returned to Ireland from Beirut on an Air Corps plane that refueled in Malta, according to reports. Rooney was a member of the Irish Defense Forces from northwestern Ireland’s County Donegal.

According to the Irish Mirror, “His colleague, Private Shane Kearney, from Killeagh in Co. Cork, was seriously injured in the incident and he remains in a serious condition in hospital.” Two other members were injured as well. They were members of the 121st Infantry Battalion, which has been serving in Lebanon since November.

Similar major incidents that took place in Lebanon have gone unpunished for years, meaning there is usually impunity for perpetrators.

This includes the impunity for those who assassinated former Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri in 2005, and those whose incompetence led to the deadly Beirut Port explosion in 2020. Usually in Lebanon, if the perpetrators belong to Hezbollah, there is no chance the government will do anything. Considering the lack of outcry in Lebanon, it stands to reason that Hezbollah, or those who Hezbollah are likely to help may be behind the attack.

The attack on the UN peacekeepers was extreme. It does not appear to have been an ordinary accident. People don’t usually spray a vehicle with gunfire and then hunt down the occupants, shoot at their windows and then shoot one dead.

Here’s what we know: The UN vehicle was part of a two-vehicle convoy en route to Beirut. At 9 p.m. on Wednesday night, it deviated from an approved – and usual – route and separated from the other vehicle. Both vehicles had four peacekeepers in them.

Perhaps it was a wrong turn

IT WAS supposed to be a two-and-a-half-hour drive. The convoy was driving two men who were returning to Ireland on compassionate or bereavement leave. Since the unit was new to the area and it was nighttime, it is possible they simply made a wrong turn.

Reports said the convoy was surrounded by a mob and fired upon. Seven bullets were recovered from the vehicle in which Rooney was killed.

The vehicle was overturned after it sped away from the area while being shot at. It’s not clear how it became overturned; whether it hit something and slid down an embankment or if a mob was subsequently involved in pushing it over. Videos posted online show one of the soldiers outside the vehicle after the incident.

The vehicle was armored and the glass was bulletproof. It appears the shooters tried to shoot out the windows and targeted each soldier individually. The perpetrators were only able to get in through the back of the vehicle, after which they shot Rooney from the rear.

UNIFIL coordinates its movements with Lebanese authorities, including the army. Hezbollah has denied responsibility for the attack, portraying it as an “unintended” incident between the Irish unit and the people of the village of Al Aqabiya.

It is not clear the degree to which Hezbollah controls the village, however, some reports portray it as a Hezbollah-controlled area and claim that when the vehicle deviated from its usual route, it was followed.

Lebanon24 reported that Hezbollah and the Amal movement have influence in the village. Pro-Hezbollah Arabic media described how the UN convoy clashed with local residents, even hitting them with the car and sparking a riot. One pro-Hezbollah commentator on Al Mayadeen TV said the UN was “hiding something.” Another claimed that there have been increased tensions in recent months between villagers and UN forces, with locals not wanting the UN to enter. Could the “locals” have been manifestations of Hezbollah?

Anti-Hezbollah Lebanese voices expressed a different view.

One such voice wrote in an article, “What happened in Al Aqabiya was not an act of chance or a disagreement over passage. Whoever fired the shots was not a ‘villager’ angry at ‘strangers’ coming through, but rather a professional killer carrying orders to open fire.”

This was a murderous warning from Hezbollah. What was the message? To keep the UN from expanding its mandate? To make sure UN vehicles only pass where they have coordinated, so that Hezbollah’s actions are never seen?

The murder of publisher Lokman Slim

OTHER ACCOUNTS critical of Hezbollah have drawn parallels between the lack of a quick investigation of this incident and the killing of Hariri and the murder of Lebanese Shi’ite publisher Lokman Slim.

“The official police cannot investigate or arrest,” one article noted. Another noted that Lebanese security forces or intelligence services did not go to the village quickly, asserting that this is because they will not go to Hezbollah-occupied areas without permission. One report did say that the authorities requested security camera footage.

An article at argued that the root of the problem is that Lebanon doesn’t have a new government or president, and that it only has an acting prime minister. This is convenient for Lebanese authorities because they can pretend a failed investigation shouldn’t result in any sanctions, since they have no government.

What are some of the remaining questions?

The vehicles were traveling north and were only a few kilometers away from Sidon, via route 51. The village is on the route, and it is not clear if the vehicles had already turned off from the road or drove on toward the village.

It doesn’t seem reasonable that an ambush was waiting for the vehicles, because the perpetrators would have no way of knowing that they would deviate from their path. Instead, it is more likely that the shooters were made ready as the convoy was followed.

While only seven bullets were found, it seems that more shots were fired. The extreme nature of the shooting seems to show that this wasn’t a case of an angry crowd. Why would a crowd be so sensitive to a UN vehicle driving through their area?

This is an area known for fishing, and there is a nearby port and hotel. A coastal road leads to nice restaurants and guesthouses and various small fishing villages and beaches. Therefore, it is unlikely that the village has never seen vehicles from other places.

In addition, it was late at night, when locals would not likely be out during the late fall. It seems that to get a “mob” together to stop the vehicle, someone had to warn and prepare them.

This would point to something that is far from spontaneous. The presence of weapons shows that someone targeted the vehicle. It was obviously a UN convoy, so everyone would have known what they were doing when they shot at the soldiers and eventually pried their way in to shoot them at close range.

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