The money libel: Confronting a dangerous stereotype

The money libel: Confronting a dangerous stereotype

The case of Jack Benny

Jack Benny (born Benjamin Kubelsky), who lived from 1894 to 1974, was a beloved comedian on radio, television, and in the movies. In his most famous skit, a robber accosts him and demands, “Your money or your life!” Benny doesn’t answer. When the robber repeats the demand, Benny finally says, “I’m thinking it over!”

He portrayed himself as an inveterate skinflint. His idea of an appropriate present for a close friend: a pair of shoelaces.

Question: Did this famous Jewish comedian’s portrayal of himself as a miser add to the stereotype that Jews are money-mad?

Abraham H. Foxman, in his new book “Jews & Money,” raises the question about Benny – and about Jewish jokes that perpetuate the stereotype that Jews=greedy.

Foxman grants that Benny was funny, but adds that “in retrospect, the humor is a bit embarrassing. It hews so closely to the Jews-as-misers stereotype that it must have fueled or at least reinforced the belief in the stereotype among some non-Jewish Americans. It’s all too easy to imagine a gentile fan of Jack Benny making a prejudiced observation about ‘cheap Jews’ and then defending his remark by saying, ‘Come on, even Jack Benny, a Jew, admits it’s true!'”


Foxman also raises questions about Fran Drescher of the sitcom “The Nanny,” where she is portrayed as “acquisitive, vulgar, flashy, and manipulative….” And about Sacha Baron Cohen’s film “Borat,” in which there’s a fake folk song with the line about Jews, “They take everybody money/And they will not give back.” He also has problems with Sarah Silverman, Howard Stern, and Jackie Mason for their stereotyping of non-Jews, especially blacks.

Still, the head of the Anti-Defamation League writes that he doesn’t object to Jews’ laughing at themselves, and that “I’m not uncomfortable with Jack Benny’s miser or Fran Drescher’s tacky nanny because they’re ‘too Jewish.'”

One rabbi, in response, wrote that people may not have believed that Benny was Jewish – because he married Mary Livingston, presumably a non-Jew. Actually, she was born Sayde Marks.

Another rabbi, Shammai Engelmayer, agrees that Jack Benny was not readily identifiable as Jewish: “On the air, at least, he was always celebrating Christian holidays, and never suggesting that they weren’t his holidays, and so on.”

Yet generally Engelmayer, a columnist for this newspaper and the religious leader of Temple Israel Community Center in Cliffside Park, agrees with Foxman: “If we let some anti-Jewish joke get by, no matter how stupid the joke may be to us or how lacking it is in malicious intent on the part of the teller, we give the appearance of accepting people’s right to tell such jokes.”

Foxman, in an interview, was also vexed about Jewish American Princess jokes – which convey the message that Jewish women demand luxuries. “Some of that may be funny,” he grants, “but it builds and it bolsters a stereotype that has been deadly for us.”

A final comment, from Charles Asher Small, executive director and founder of the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism: “Humor is part of our way of coping with all sorts of aspects of daily life and one’s place in society, and Jews and other groups have used humor as a way to navigate and survive during a hostile period.

“So I think that whether a joke becomes problematic depends on the context. I don’t believe in banning jokes, but we have to be conscious of who tells it and why he or she is telling it.”

Warren Boroson

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