Raunchy and Racist, Joan Rivers' Humor Was Mortifyingly Jewish

Rivers may have been a show-business version of an elderly Jewish aunt who believes Israel is always right, but one couldn't help admiring her fierce loyalty and conviction.

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Flowers and mementos are left on the star of comedian Joan Rivers at the at the Hollywood Walk of Fame, September 4, 2014.
Flowers and mementos are left on the star of comedian Joan Rivers at the at the Hollywood Walk of Fame, September 4, 2014. Credit: Reuters

Joan Rivers had an original comedic solution to the Gaza conflict this summer.

"I think every Palestinian should get a nose job: once somebody has a nose job, they don’t fight because they are afraid their nose will get broken. I think we should send every great Jewish plastic surgeon, fix their noses and there will be peace in the Middle East," Rivers told an Israeli television interviewer in July.

In the same interview, she spoke passionately – and less humorously – of her love for the Jewish state, and her inability to comprehend what she perceived as bias and hostility toward it and unjustifiable world sympathy with the Palestinians. “Is it jealousy? I don’t know. Because Israel is the most amazing place.”

On the vilification of Israel during the war, she said, “It’s killing me, because the dumb people are buying into it.” It was the high profile of the “dumb people” she was referring to that made her stand on Gaza her last big public brouhaha before her death this week. She was attacking young stars like Selena Gomez and Rihanna, who tweeted sympathetically about the Gazan victims of the conflict, in her characteristic no-holds-barred manner.

The tributes to Rivers and her long career in comedy have focused on how she paved the way for women in comedy, her famous feud with Johnny Carson, her relentless drive and workaholism, and the revival of her career in her seventies on “The Apprentice” and “Fashion Police.”

It seemed that Rivers would do almost anything to stay in the limelight – from her obsessive plastic surgery to her willingness to play in any venue, as long as it meant she would keep working.

In a memorable and raw moment in the documentary on Rivers, "A Piece of Work," she pointed to an empty calendar with no engagement yet booked. For her, she confessed, “That’s fear.”

So it is notable that she unrelentingly took Israel’s side, even when it became unfashionable, and her personal identification with the Jewish state was so complete that she never referred to Israelis as “they” – it was always “we.”

To most of us liberal and younger (and who wasn’t younger than Joan?) Jews, such rants – parts of which can justifiably be characterized as racist – were embarrassing. Rivers was essentially a show-business version of their elderly Jewish aunt who believes Israel is always right, and indiscriminately attacks Palestinians – “You started it? You deserve to be dead!” – and incessantly bashes the media: “The BBC should be ashamed of themselves! CNN should be ashamed of themselves!”

And yet, while disagreeing strongly and arguing with their aunt endlessly, the younger generation can't help admiring her fierce loyalty and conviction and love for Israel – and feeling affection for her. Despite their often offensive – and, yes, racist, moments – we cut Rivers and many of her generation a certain amount of slack regarding their too-simplistic reactions to the complex Middle East. The fact that they witnessed the devastation of Holocaust in their lifetime, and then watched the improbable notion of a Jewish state become a reality, makes their blindness to Israel's flaws and lack of concern for Palestinian civilians understandable, though not forgivable.

And in Rivers’ case, in spite of yourself, agree or disagree with her, you had to laugh at lines like: “Let me just tell you – if New Jersey were firing rockets and … digging tunnels from New Jersey to New York, we would get rid of Jersey.”

Her unwavering support wasn’t lost on Israelis, who appreciated it even before the conflict in Gaza began this summer. Back in January, comedy TV host Lior Schleien broadcast his Israeli satirical panel show “State of the Nation” from New York City.

In the episode, they go in search of the one last American celebrity who is still willing to publicly support Israel – and find Joan Rivers. After a short on-air chat, Rivers performed a Letterman-style “Top Ten” list – the Top Ten reasons she loved Israel.

While preparing for the show, recalls Schleien, “we wrote the text, and then she came to us, she came with a lot of good ideas of her own. She sat there with us and wrote one-liners. She was an 80-year-old American star working hard for an Israeli show she had no reason to care about, and she came with funny ideas – she was very, very nice to my staff. She was thrilled to hear from us that not only did she love Israel – but Israelis loved her back.”

An Israeli entertainer who worked more extensively with Rivers is mentalist Lior Suchard.

Suchard sent Rivers an email during the Gaza conflict thanking her for being vocally supportive of the Jewish state. In her response, he said, Rivers didn’t merely acknowledge his gratitude but wanted to know how she could do more to help. He says she asked him, “What else can I do? What else can I say? Who else can I speak to?”

The two performers became friendly when Suchard served as Rivers’ warm-up act for a week at the Venetian Ballroom in Las Vegas six years ago. He remembers with a laugh that she would introduce him as “the best supernatural entertainer in his price range.”

Just 26 at the time, the young Israeli and the American comedian more than twice his age relentlessly poked fun at each other onstage, and after the show “we would sit down and talk about Israel.”

He recalls that her act was different every night and “she made fun of everything, black, white, gays – everybody. She made fun of September 11! She took things that people stay away from and made them funny. To me, she was the very definition of 'chutzpah'."

Rivers opened up about her Judaism in an in-depth interview published in the 2005 book, "Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish."

In the chapter devoted to her story, called “Don’t You Dare Tell Me I Can’t Do It,” Rivers attributed some of her drive to the desire to prove anti-Semites wrong, and said she was “proud when it’s a Jew that wins the Pulitzer Prize or the Nobel Prize. And conversely, I’m always so glad when the serial killer isn’t Jewish.”

The entertainer’s level of religious observance and attitude toward tradition was, from her description, a classic New York Jewish mishmash.

On one hand, she said it had been important to her to marry someone Jewish and keep traditions going – in her fashion. “If these people have struggled thousands and thousands of years, it should not stop with me. Who am I to say, ‘You buried your candles during the Inquisition and now I’ve decided not to continue’? And I love going to temple – I love Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Hanukkah. And then when Hanukkah’s over, I do the biggest Christmas tree you can imagine! But I love the Jewish tradition. On Passover, I look forward to doing my meal. I love when you break the fast on Yom Kippur.”

But she 'broke the fast' in name only. She never actually fasted because “I don’t think God cares.” Yet, going to synagogue on the holiday was a must.

“At those moments, I’m in the right place and I’m doing something I’ve done every year of my life and it’s a tremendous landmark for me. And if I don’t go to synagogue on Yom Kippur night, I’m devastated.”

She also had high praise for the tradition of sitting shivah – which she did when her husband Edgar Rosenberg died in 1987. “It makes sense! Seven days of eating and talking and laughing and crying and being in the house is so great, because you’re so happy to be quiet finally when everybody goes home. It’s so brilliant: Then you’re so happy to be able to go out of your house again. And meanwhile they’ve kept you going. Shivah’s wonderful.”

And while her Judaism was clearly important to her, it was anything but sacred onstage. Nothing was out of bounds for Rivers, not even the Holocaust, which got her into hot water with the Anti-Defamation League and other groups last year.

The controversial moment occurred on her show “Fashion Police,” when she paid a compliment to supermodel Heidi Klum – “The last time a German looked this hot is when they were pushing Jews into the ovens.”

Rivers refused to apologize to her critics, saying, “if it doesn’t bother Heidi, it doesn’t bother me.” She framed her joke as being a form of raising Holocaust awareness, noting that her late husband lost his entire family in the Holocaust, and telling her young interviewer that “your generation doesn’t know what I’m talking about. My doing a joke gets them talking and thinking.”

It was then that Joan Rivers said something that revealed what was one of the most Jewish traits Joan Rivers possessed – her decision to not only survive painful and traumatic events in her life, and in the world, and turn them into humor.

She spoke for many Jews when she said: “I think that’s how we get through life. That’s how I get through. You make people laugh, you can deal with it.”

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