There’s Jewish and there’s too Jewish.
An Orthodox Jew in a black suit and wearing a shtreimel* is too Jewish. His ostentatious otherness challenges modernity, majority culture and religion. But Jewishness expressed with incongruities and ironic self-deprecations––a Jew wearing an ugly Hanukkah sweater that says “Oy to the World!” or one that riffs on the octopus-trope of malignant Jewish world-domination––is declawed Jewishness and therefore cute.
Whoopi Goldberg is just the right amount––the fun amount––of Jewish. Her Jewishness invites fans to celebrate their tolerance and worldliness and transforms being Jewish into something sort of un-Jewish––like Whoopi Goldberg’s “Jewish American Princess Fried Chicken,” recipe –a piquant mix of contempt for Jews, white blandness and cliched Blackness––that features wink-wink digs at rich, spoiled, JAPs too lazy to do the cooking themselves.
When the ADL complained about the recipe, Goldberg’s agent protested that because she’s Jewish, Whoopi Goldberg can’t be antisemitic. Goldberg claims Jewish ancestors despite Henry Louis Gates’s (“Finding Your Roots”) discovery that she had none. She adopted “Goldberg” when her mother suggested that having a Jewish surname was a requirement to become a “star."
Goldberg has said that that hers is a family surname: "Goldberg is my name—it's part of my family, part of my heritage, just like being black…” Whoopi Goldberg also has stated that she is Jewish by Feeling––she “just [knows she is] Jewish" ––"Jewish" being is a generalized thing: “I practice nothing. I don't go to temple, but I do remember the holidays."
The Jewification of Goldberg’s professional name is ironic when so many Jews––including members my family––had to anglicize their too-Jewish and too-alien Hebrew names and surnames in order to find employment. Becoming Bob Gold instead of Shlomo Goldfarb demonstrated a willingness to conform, to tone down your otherness and served as a guarantee that you would not disturb the placid, mayonnaise flow of white Christian American life in which being a little Jewish is okay––even novel and entertaining schtick––but being too Jewish is subversive.
Hanukkah, because it can be understood to be Jewish Christmas, is fine, but observing the Sabbath or keeping kosher isn’t. Sandy Koufax was just Jewish enough; Larry David’s Jewishness is too Jewish––as is, I learned this week from Whoopi Goldberg––the Holocaust.
Besides teetering close to otherness, another weird aspect of Jewishness is, as Dara Horn describes in PEOPLE LOVE DEAD JEWS, experiencing past as present: “The creation of the world recurred every week at our Sabbath table,” she remembers. On Passover, Jews don’t say that God freed the Jewish slaves in Egypt, they say, “God freed me.” The same time-collapsing Zelig contemporaneousness applies to the Holocaust. Those piled up, rag-like corpses and human skeletons in the concentration camp photos are family––not were family. Those first and last names on the Yad Vashem victim lists are radioactive with alive human presence.
Whatever Whoopi Goldberg’s Jewish feeling is, this feeling of extreme human nearness isn’t part of it. In her statements and clarifications, she does not identify with Holocaust victims or empathize with their agony. Instead, she reduces the catastrophe to “white people doing it to white people,” which conjures biker brawls, not the exterminist sadism of the Final Solution. Equating the genocided with their genociders does not gather the victims into a close and loving, familial embrace; it others and anonymizes.
When Whoopi Goldberg insisted that “…the Jewish people around the world have always had [her] support,” I finally got it: There’s Jewish-feeling, JAP-mocking, extra-ugly Hannukah sweater-designing Whoopi Goldberg and then there are “the Jewish people of the world.” There’s family and there's the opposite of family because sometimes even a teeny bit Jewish is too Jewish and schtick only goes so far.
*"What Is A Shtreimel?" https://www.learnreligions.com/what-is-a-shtreimel-2076533