Thursday, January 27, 2011

An Open Letter to My Friends at Hillel

[IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: The following open letter is not meant in any way as a critique of the Hillel organization or its students. The issues raised are certainly not unique to the students of Hillel, they are part of what goes on in our community generally. As the title and closing suggest, it is a note to friends from a friend. I shared it because I trust that we (Jew, Muslim, Christian or Atheist)are a community who is ultimately concerned about values. In the Jewish community, there has been a lot of public criticism lately and making federal cases rather than opening discussion. This isn't that. This is asking for a change of heart not a change of policy. If you have any comments or questions please direct them to me.]

Shalom Aleichem,

I really enjoyed seeing you all the other night, sharing my one Chassidic joke (the "Mental Floss" picture should remind you) and a Rebbe Nachman story. I love being around college kids. Its energizing and alive and I like that. It was hard though hearing some of your “comedy.” I am not exactly sure why prefixing any concept with the “f” word is supposed to make it more funny. But, ok, maybe that’s just generational. What got me was the denigrating humor. You pretty much hit everyone, blacks, gays, the “f*****g” Latina maid, even the Asians. Then there was the joke about the Jewish guy who refuses to commit to Judaism because he just wants to ***** Muslim girls. Did the joker happen to notice who was sitting next to me? Did you see the young lady in the hijab who dipped her toe into your world only to have it scalded? What do you think she might of thought at that moment? How do you think she might have felt? I suspect she struggled with herself to be generous. I, however, was mortified and ashamed for us.
Now, you know I am close with lots of folks at the MSU. I imagined myself at one of their gatherings, and honestly, I can’t imagine anyone saying anything like that. Publicly denigrating others just would not be acceptable. And if someone had said something that was offensive, I would feel perfectly comfortable walking up to him afterwards and saying, “Ok, that is totally against your values and mine. Its not right and its not ok.” I am confident that I would be heard with respect. It saddens me that didn’t feel that I could do that with you. I don’t feel like we share a common set of values. I don’t feel like I can count on the deeply Jewish sense of respect that I wish you had. I don’t feel like I can appeal to your desire for Jews or Judaism or Hillel to stand for something of ethical or spiritual value because I am not sure that in your eyes it is meant to stand for anything at all. The Tribal gathering is enough. Our institutions are simply grateful that you call yourself Jews and that you choose to socialize with other Jews. We, the elders of the Tribe, are afraid to ask you for more. I was afraid even to tell you, as fundamental as it is to who we are, that denigration of others is not what our tribe is about. I didn’t think you would get it. I thought you would push me away.
I hope you won’t see in this letter an old bearded dude waving his finger at you. I don’t mean to do that. Please see it as my expression of confidence in you in your ability to connect to a Jewishness rooted not just in genetics but in values.
King Solomon in the book of Mishlei (Proverbs 9:8) taught,

Correct a wise person, and they will love you.

This letter is meant to express my trust both in your wisdom and in your respect. I look forward to our continuing friendship.
Shabbat dinner at the Weissman household is really pretty special. I hope you will join us sometime soon. Just email me for a date at or find me on facebook.

Kol tuv (All the best!)
Lee Weissman


  1. As an atheist Jew, I completely agree!

  2. As a religious Jew, I also agree! If similar jokes were being told about Jews, we would scream "antisemitism!" Respect should flow both ways.

  3. I apologize if you had a "less-than-fine time" at the Hillel Open Mic Night which I MC'd the other night. It was a little racy, sure, but I think everyone there had a good time (with a few exceptions, evidently).

    It wasn't about being racist or offensive, it was about trying to make our peers laugh, which is the objective of any open mic night. Granted some of the jokes were in poor taste, but I bet you a big chunk of change you can't find an open mic night anywhere that will settle well in your stomach (I know I haven't). I think there was more material about jews than any other minority group joked about which says that we laugh at ourselves more than we laugh at others. I know I focus most of my material on self-degradation, which personally works for me...

    At the end of the day. These are jokes. Jokes that are constructed for the point of humor, and not supremacy of any kind. I'm sorry if this was a culture-shock for you, but Jay OC Hillel could vouch that I'm a slightly nice guy... a little blunt, but nice none-the-less.

  4. i was kinda hoping that a shabbat dinner, or a regular open Hillel meeting with swearing and racist jokes wasn't really happening... then i found out it was an open mic night.

    Jihadi Jew, I love your posts, your insight and your philosophy. but i'm a little curious what you were expecting at a comedy show? you wrote the post and I had no idea what the contexts of these jokes were... its pretty useless to walk up to a comedian after a show and tell him that you were offended. thats kinda the point...

    id like to see an MSU comedy night...

  5. Nadav> Both my wife and I commented that you were a very funny guy and I look forward to seeing you in a comedy club someday. You have clear talent and you seem like a nice guy. I like the self-deprecating humor. I think if Jews have contributed anything to comedy in general, its the ability to laugh at ourselves.

    Anonymous> Yeah, I hear ya. And that is a good question. What was I expecting? I will have to think about that. I have spent a fair amount of time in comedy clubs. I used to go to Second City in Chicago alot. I guess I think of comedy as a way of seeing the ironies in life, of talking about all the absurd things we experience and exposing the absolute craziness of how people think. At its best, it lays us all bare.
    Ok.. take this for example..
    George Carlin on "stuff"

    You laugh because its true. It turns life inside out and shows you its guts.
    His seven dirty words routine exposed the absolute hypocrisy we have about language. (It also legally re-defined obscenity)

    I am not sure why offending people is "kinda the point." What really is the point in that? Is it sadistic? Masochistic?
    More than anything else, I wanted to raise the question and to raise the possibility that Jewish values of kindness aren't just for shabbat dinners but even for open mic nights. I don't think of that kindness as just a religious value but a basic human value.
    At the same time, I do laugh at denigrating stuff too sometimes and honestly I don't know why. I am not sure what we get out of that. I realize this is not the most slick and coherent response but this is a continuous process of thinking it out. I just wanted to invite you to think it out with me. I hope the discussion continues in productive way. So far so good.
    As for an MSU comedy night.. Could be cool.
    My favorite "comedian" / social critic lately is actually a religious Muslim guy "Baba Ali". Look him up on Youtube. He hits on a lot of things which are also funny to religious Jews. Not sure how he would fly in totally secular world.

  6. Ok.. when the comedian on stage makes fun of the chubby bald older guy in the front row with the cute, younger super-blonde girlfriend, I laugh. Why? Should I?

  7. Everyone: These are all good points, and open mics do tend to push the envelope to extremes, but I think the problem here is that this was being sponsored by a specifically Jewish organization, not a secular comedy club (unless we are to now being asked to consider Hillel secular???) and maybe that was why jokes making fun of other cultures do not seem appropriate. People are not just seeing you as comedians, they are seeing you AS JEWS.

    Again, ask yourself how you would react if you went to a Christian or Muslim open mike and people were making fun of Jews. Or, if a Muslim guy had come to that Hillel open mike and told jokes about Arabs screwing Jewish girls, would you have laughed???

    I agree that much of Jewsih hjm or is self-deprciating and that's fine -- but there is a big difference between satirizing OUR OWN culture and ridiculing somebody else's. There are times when we should voluntarily censor ourselves for the sake of peace.

    Consider the controversy right now over Rush Limbaugh's ridicule of the Chinese language when the President of China was making a speech. This offended the Asian American community deeply, has resulted in calls for boyvcotts, etc. Limbaugh's defense was that Sid Ceasar used to imitate foreign languages that way. Yes, he did. And Al Jolson performed in blackface. But that doesn't mean these things are acceptable now. A lot of humor that was funny in vaudeville 50 years ago is offensive now. And I suspect that a lot of things people consider humor today will go out of style, too.

    I think the bottom line always is: Are we laughing WITH somebody or are we laughing AT them because we really don't like them and want to put them down? In the case of Limbaugh, given his often intolerant, racist, right-wing politics, I doubt he was simply having a little fun with the Chinese president. Which is why the "Sid Ceasar defense" doesn't fly with me.

  8. When I was making a announcements each Friday Night and another each Shabbot morning, I decided for some reason to add a joke to draw attention to the announcements themselves. It worked to some degree, and many people claimed to look forward to hearing jokes I thought everyone had already heard before.
    The key point, though, is that I struggled to take old jokes from old jokebooks and re-invent them. I tried to change them just enough to be sure that nobody in the diverse congregation, an nobody who happened to be in the room for whatever religious or secular reason, would be offended by the meaning or language of the jokes. They also had to retain at least some humor, although they often were meant only to introduce the topic of an important announcement.
    My point is that jokes do NOT have to be offensive or mean-spirited to be funny, and even jokes that avoid personal denigration can bring laughter to a room full of tired, hungry listeners. Hunger and exhaustion are not always caused by lack of food. We all hunger for understanding, for resolution of our problems (real or fancied), and the opportunity to enjoy each other's company no matter how eclectic the group might be.

  9. I am close with lots of folks at the MSU. I imagined myself at one of their gatherings, and honestly, I can’t imagine anyone saying anything like that. Publicly denigrating others just would not be acceptable. And if someone had said something that was offensive, I would feel perfectly comfortable walking up to him afterwards and saying, “Ok, that is totally against your values and mine. Its not right and its not ok.” I am confident that I would be heard with respect.


    Was this a joke from the open mic night? MSU muslim students not saying anything denigrating about the evil zionist pigs that should be wiped from the map?

    Oh no that wasnt the MSU that was Malik Ali one of their favorite guests!

    Oh painful galus. Instead of connecting Jews to Hashem we are trying to be accepted by the nations of the world.

    The Rambam has a lot to say.

  10. So in YOUR Torah,making rude remarks about the women of "the nations" connects Jews to Hashem?
    Mr. Anonymous Zealot I have had an open shabbos table and have been learning and teaching Torah for a long time. To say to ME that I am neglecting helping Jews connect to Hashem is more than a little presumptuous. You wanna talk then lets talk.
    I am sorry if the comment about the MSU hurt your feelings. NO ONE here was defending the comments of Amir Abdel Malik (Had you read the rest of this blog you would see that.)
    The Rambam has a lot to say. Check out what he has to say about nivul peh.. defiling the mouth with obscene speech. Or maybe that doesn't apply to post-golus Jews?

  11. A real friend is one who walks in when the rest of the world walks out!
    Friendship letter to best friend

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  13. pointless lashon hora