Thursday, June 08, 2006


I always like it when I spot throw-a-way references to Judaism in the popular culture. There's one in Babbit for instance, one of the first I recall finding. The main character, not a Jew, is on a train gabbing with a group of men described as "The Best Fellows You''ll Ever Meet - Real Good Mixers," and the "knife-edge man in a green velour hat" is telling about the time he asked a Chicago hotel clerk for a room with a bath: "You'd a thought I'd sold him a second, or asked him to work on Yom Kippur," is how the knife-edge man describes the clerk's dismay.

Flipping through the channels last night, I came across another one, on the old Dick Van Dyke show. Dick is attempting to impress a visiting millionaire, and describing a trip he and his wife have planned. The itineray takes the couple through White Plains and Peakskill, and terminates "at Grossinger's just in time for Chanukah." On the show, only Buddy was officially Jewish; Dick and his wife (Mary Tyler Moore) are a supremely gentile couple, yet the writers thought it was natural to put into their mouths a Jewish cultural reference.

The pleasure of these discoveries, I think, comes from the reinforced nderstanding that Judaism is not nearly so insular as we sometimes think. The world, you see, is not so neatly divided into Us and Them. American Jewish culture and mainstream American culture intermingle with and borrow from each other, and the stream goes both ways. Examples of Jewish borrowing from the American culture include the gangster hats that, among the observant, have taken on the status of a mitzeneft.

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