A Field Guide to the Jewish People: Who They Are, Where They Come From, What to Feed Them, What They Have Against Foreskins, How Come They Carry Each ... of Water, and Much More. Maybe Too Much More

Image of A Field Guide to the Jewish People: Who They Are, Where They Come From, What to Feed Them…and Much More. Maybe Too Much More
Release Date: 
September 24, 2019
Flatiron Books
Reviewed by: 

So, two funny Jews and a very funny Gentile (who is married to a Jew) walk into a publisher’s office. Their pitch: A Field Guide to the Jewish People, a humorous look at the Chosen.

The subtitle is: Who They Are, Where They Come from, What to Feed Them, What They Have Against Foreskins, How Come They Carry Each Other Around on Chairs, Why They Fled Egypt by Running Straight to a Large Body of Water.

Whether this is the actual genesis of A Field Guide to the Jewish People doesn’t really matter. Funny is money, as this is a follow up to the authors’ 2017 For This We Left Egypt?: A Passover Haggadah for Jews and Those Who Love Them.

Dave Barry, the Pulitzer Prize-winning, nationally syndicated humor columnist and author, and longtime member of South Florida Reform temple, is the marquee name on the book’s cover, and he’s unquestionably funny enough to be Jewish by osmosis, or at least “Jewish adjacent.”

But within the entertainment world, co-author Alan Zweibel, a former Saturday Night Live writer, may be equally well known. And Adam Mansbach wrote the bestseller Go the F**k to Sleep.

Mostly with whimsy, the Guide addresses such issues as those commandments most Jews observe—like circumcision rites. Their wise advice for non-Jewish, first-time bris attendees: “Keep your mouth shut.”

But the authors also deal with those strictures that are largely ignored, like the prohibition against eating tempting and interesting shellfish. By culinary contrast, they write, seafood that is kosher, that is, with fins and scales, includes “All the most boring fish in the ocean.”

The writing in this book is clever, self-deprecatory, and, for the most part, gentle. There is, however, the occasional zotz—Yiddish for a lethal knock.

Thus, the authors explain in the Preface that their work process is environmental: They wrote the chapter about the Sabbath on the Sabbath; the one about the High Holidays on the High Holidays; the wedding chapter at weddings; and the one about anti-Semitism—“in Mel Gibson’s driveway.”

Gibson takes several more hits later in the book, including a cartoon in questionable taste that shows a couple dancing on his (future) grave.

There are other bona fide gems. Like their take on the development of the Yiddish vernacular.

In Poland, they write, “To pass the time between mass slaughters they developed their own language, Yiddish, which is a mixture of Hebrew, German, Polish, Russian, Esperanto, Sarcasm and Despair.”

As Homer Simpson likes to say, “It’s funny ‘cause it’s true,” at least in the larger sense.

Likewise, the Guide’s excellent thumbnail description of the durability of anti-Semitism, even in the face of assimilation:

“In fact, no matter how hard the Jews tried to not seem too Jewish, many Gentiles continued to regard them as outsiders and blamed them for basically everything bad that happened to them, including humidity.”

Later, there is a hilarious quiz, “Are You an Anti-Semite?” in which the answer is always “yes,” regardless of how you answer the eight questions.

Interestingly, for a humor book, the authors are considerate of the sensibilities of religious Jews, referring to the Divine as “G-D” and “Hashem” (Hebrew for “the name”), and capitalizing the relevant pronoun “He.” They alternate using the term “Old Testament” with “Hebrew Bible,” the latter preferred by Jews and many mainline Christians and scholars. For the same reason they mark pre-Jesus time as B.C.E., “Before the Common Era,” rather than the more familiar B.C., “Before Christ.”

However, they are not shy about pointing out various biblical inconsistencies, “Even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff,” as Ned Flanders says.

And, a warning, the secular language is quite raw, so this is not a book for children.

There are serious notes in the Guide, although usually made in passing, to maintain the overall light tone.

The Hebrew word “Tzedakah,” commonly translated as “charity,” is more accurately conveyed as “justice,” the authors write. And for Jews it is obligatory, rather than voluntary. They even paraphrase—mostly accurately—the 13th century rabbinic sage Maimonides, on the subject.

 The brief sections on funeral and burial rites, the Holocaust and the Sabbath, are—unexpectedly—informative, moving, and tasteful.

There are other (semi-) serious moments as well, as when they address the reality that, when it comes to comedy, “Jews have had an influence in this field that is vastly disproportionate to our percentage of the population.”

“Why are Jews so funny? It is an oft-asked question for which there are only theories, the most popular being that we’ve needed a sense of humor in order to survive the oppression we’ve endured.”

In a back-of-the-book interview, Barry adds, “Humor is an important psychological mechanism for coping with misfortune, and Jews have had a LOT of misfortune.”

Such comedy, Mansbach notes, “uses the tropes of anti-Semitism to defang the anti-Semite.”

The authors are smart enough to use a word like “teleological” in a sentence, and to pull off a pun conflating the names of an ancient Israelite king and a famous Jewish American novelist—both named Saul.

Yet they are also sufficiently tone-deaf to include a good number of familiar old jokes with the lingering whiff of misogyny.

And at times, they can be juvenile or just silly, with imagined dialogues between the Lord and various biblical figures.

Since the Field Guide is more a book of knowing chuckles than laughs-out-loud, the authors pose no serious challenge to the pantheon of great Jewish comedy writing, one that includes the Marx Brothers (with George S. Kauffman), or numerous, storied, television writers’ rooms from Your Show of Shows to The Simpsons.

Still, Barry, Zweibel and Mansbach have earned a respectable place on the shelf of classics like William Novak and Moshe Waldoks’s Big Book of Jewish Humor and Robert Smigel’s SNL video, Christmastime for the Jews.

The Guide ends with a (purported?) transcript of a joint, live interview that degenerates (elevates?) into an authorial version of “Can You Top This?,” which gives the authors an opportunity for one last round to include any of the classic  jokes they had thus far missed.

There are a few anti-Trump jibes and asides. But unfortunately, A Field Guide to the Jewish People does not address the most pressing question facing the nation today: Where is Jon Stewart when we need him?