“You know what’s gonna happen when this show is over?” the late Jackie Mason asked rhetorically near the conclusion of his late-‘80s one-man Broadway act The World According to Me. “The gentiles are going to say, ‘he was funny.’
“You know what the Jews are gonna say? ‘Too Jewish.’
“Every single day, after every single show,” Mason continued, “there’s at least one lady who comes over to me and says”—and here Mason adopted a heavy Eastern European accent, much heavier than his own, natural one—“‘You don’t have to talk like that. Can’t you talk like me? Talk like a regular person!!’”
I must’ve heard that line hundreds, if not thousands, of times as a kid, listening to a cassette of The World According to Me in my Polish Holocaust survivor grandfather’s burgundy Chrysler New Yorker. It was the only tape he had in that boat of a car, other than a grainy recording of his late wife, my grandmother, talking and singing. I remember his chuckles, and those of my parents, when we were all in the car together.
Watching Mason’s act back on YouTube after his death at 93 was announced last weekend, I still laughed at the jokes about Jews, some of which—“a controller in the trucking business,” “why is it so drafty in here?” “no kidding, I look like a hooker?” “those son-of-a-bitches”—remain family punch lines to this day. The gag about Moshe Dayan—“it’s a lucky thing the Arabs came from this side. If they came from that side…”—still gets me every time.
For an hour, Mason skewered the Jewish condition, world leaders (including an extremely laconic Menachem Begin) and the United States. There’s also a brilliant piece about psychiatry, genuine insight into the struggle for equality and against hatred and persecution, and a heartfelt conclusion that any mother, Jewish or not, would be proud of. Mason performed The World According to Me 570 times in less than two years, earning a Tony and an Emmy for his efforts. (Two years later, he would win another Emmy for his work on The Simpsons, in a brilliant episode retelling his family story and titled, “Like Father, Like Clown.”)
It seems far less likely that we’ll be talking about My Unorthodox Life, the new Netflix reality show chronicling the lives of Julia Haart and her family, one year from now, let alone 30-plus. The series depicts Haart and her children as they navigate a major transition in life, from the Orthodox (the extent to which the prefix “ultra” can be appended to that descriptor is a matter of debate) Jewish world in Monsey, N.Y., to the glamorous, jet-setting fashion and modeling scene that defines Julia’s new life.
Throughout the nine episodes of My Unorthodox Life, Haart rails against the world she left behind—the treatment of women therein, first and foremost, but also more generally the Orthodox way of life in all its minutia, and tries as hard as possible to “modernize” her children and their partners. When one of her sons shows discomfort with his wife’s decision to start wearing pants, Haart dismisses it. When another (younger) son expresses that he doesn’t want to watch TV or speak to girls in an effort to become more Orthodox, she undermines his efforts. She talks about sex—hers and others, including her kids—incessantly.
That’s probably most of what you’ve heard about My Unorthodox Life, probably mostly from people who watched a few minutes, or maybe a few episodes, before muttering, “I can’t take any more of this,” and logging off. I suppose there is no shame in that, especially if you feel like watching is causing your Jewish soul to have a breakdown.
But it is worth pointing out that there is more to the show than its cursory critics might suggest. In fact, this show is very Jewish, and often in a positive way. Amid all her bluster, we see Haart shopping in a kosher Brooklyn grocery (so that those in her family who still observe the dietary laws will be well-fed), arranging a Sukkot holiday in France (so that her Orthodox sister can attend) and celebrating the pending remarriage of her still-Orthodox first husband to an Orthodox woman, despite the fears of her children that their father is moving too fast. Getting engaged after dating for three months is not “moving too fast” in his world, she wisely tells them.
As hard as Julia Haart tries to pull away from her past, she is ultimately, to borrow a phrase, too Jewish.
I binge-watched My Unorthodox Life 10 days ago just to see what all the fuss was about, and a couple days later Jackie Mason died. It got me thinking about what Jews consider entertaining when it comes to talking about ourselves, and how that changes over time. Could Jackie Mason get away with his Jews and gentiles shtick today? Would Julia Haart’s Ortho-obsession have hit differently in the’80s? As different as they are, Jackie and Julia do share one thing in common: both mocked, scoffed and heckled Judaism—and at least in my estimation, they did it with love.
Yoni Goldstein is the CEO and Editor-in-Chief of The CJN.