The Elena Kagan confirmation hearings hardly qualified as "Must See TV," but those who did watch may have wondered if they'd hit the wrong channel and tuned into reruns of "Seinfeld" by accident (and that's not hard to do).
At times, especially on the second day of hearings on Tuesday, there were so many belly laughs and rimshots -- mainly from Kagan -- that the Senate's Judiciary Committee room seemed like a reunion of veteran Catskill comics.
Not that there's anything wrong with that -- and certainly not for many Jews, who take great pride in the prospect of having three Jewish justices on the Supreme Court, should Kagan be confirmed.
But was Kagan's shtick helping or hurting her cause? And was it just reinforcing a stereotype among Gentiles -- the goyim -- of Jews as wisenheimers who all hail from a single neighborhood of limousine liberals known as Manhattan's Upper West Side? Click play below to watch examples of Kagan's comedy:
In one humorous exchange, Kagan (who was born and bat mitzvahed on the Upper West Side) poked fun at Sen. Dianne Feinstein's invitation to have a private "heart-to-heart" -- in front of a bank of television cameras -- and Kagan responded to Sen. Arlen Specter's earnest effort to pin her down on televising Supreme Court arguments by quipping, "It means I'd have to get my hair done more often."
Kagan's patter pushed Sen. Orrin Hatch to try to match wits, as he joked at one point that if he and the other senators didn't spar a bit "this place'd be boring as hell." He then added he'd been told hell was not boring. "But it is hot," Kagan chimed in -- with the last laugh, again.
Hatch was at least funnier than Sen. Amy Klobuchar's brave effort to make a joke out of the premier of the new "Twilight" movie, telling Kagan of her temptation to ask the nominee to take sides on the Vampire vs. Werewolf debate. "I wish you wouldn't," Kagan parried, to laughs.
The most widely cited exchange, however, came as South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham tried to push Kagan on the issue of the so-called Christmas Day Bomber who tried to bring down a plane over Detroit last Dec. 25. As Kagan sought to deliver a detailed answer about detention and prisoner rights, Graham interrupted brusquely, saying: "Nah, I just asked where you were at on Christmas."
Kagan could only laugh, pause, then deadpan: "You know, like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant."
That brought the house down (or at least the Senate committee). And it gave many Jews a chance to kvell.
"Elena Kagan Gives Congress Its Most Jewish Moment Ever," Lauren Friedman wrote at "The Shmooze," a popular gossip blog at The Forward, a Jewish weekly.
"If Elena Kagan should somehow not be confirmed for the U.S. Supreme Court, she could try the Borscht Belt," added USA Today's religion writer, Cathy Grossman.
(Grossman also wisely recommends a Moment Magazine article from last December, "Jews & Chinese Food: A Love Story," that explains this mixed gastronomic marriage and begins with an appropriate ditty:
"Twas the night before Christmas and there was hardly a sound,
As Jews jumped in their cars and drove to Chinatown.
Their orders were given to waiters with care,
In hopes that wonton soup soon would be there.")
Jason Diamond, editor of Jewcy.com, a popular web site for younger Jews, admitted he was also smitten by Kagan's Chinese-on-Christmas reference.
"There is something simple and great about Jews eating Chinese food on Christmas," Diamond wrote. "My family didn't observe a long list of Jewish traditions, but Chinese food was one of them. So yesterday, when Elena Kagan declared that she gets busy on Christmas Day eating Chinese food, just like most of us do, I'll admit that a serious burst of pride shot through my being when a person who is possibly (hopefully) going to sit in the highest judicial seat in the land, made mention of one of my favorite Jewish traditions."
On the other hand, some of Kagan's fellow Jews also had reason to wince just a bit -- in private, of course.
For one thing, they point to the fact that finding any decent Chinese food on the Upper West Side is a challenge any day of the year, as online foodies know. Zagat's, the popular dining guide, doesn't even have an Upper West Side Chinese place among the top 10 best Chinese eateries in New York.
Moreover, some say eating Chinese on Christmas is a fading Jewish tradition, replaced with other activities, such as attending movie premieres.
The real concern, however, was that Kagan's open display of a particular Jewish identity would only draw attention to her Manhattan roots, which to many conservatives are synonymous with "liberal" and "elite" and just about any other East Coast epithet you can name.
"Larry," a poster at Jewcy.com, wondered if he was being a little bit "paranoid" watching the hearings (from the Upper West Side), or whether in the Republican senators' question there was "a little reminder here and there that this nominee is one of them Jewish liberals from the Northeast?"
"For example," he wrote. "why do some in the Senate emphasize the nominees childhood on Manhattan's UPPER WEST SIDE, and her work in CAMBRIDGE MASS. Are these codewords for liberal attitudes? or another way of saying 'Jewish?' "
Weighing in at Salon, the liberal columnist Joe Conason also blasted Republican senators for going out of their way to point up Kagan's roots on the Upper West Side, "a place renowned as liberal in politics, Jewish in ethnicity, and therefore...foreign to the nation's heartland."
But, as Conason continued, Rush Limbaugh used to live in that neighborhood, and MSNBC's conservative voice, Joe Scarborough, says he "loves" living on the Upper West Side. (Though he notes that he is stopped on the street all the time by curious Democrats. "I don't think they've ever actually met a Republican before.")
The Weekly Standard's William Kristol was also raised there, a few blocks from the Kagan homestead, as was Commentary editor John Podhoretz, who noted that the Upper West Side of his -- and Kagan's -- youth was rather diverse place.
So maybe the Upper West Side ties could work for Kagan as much as against her.
Moreover, Jewish culture, like that represented by Elena Kagan, is arguably so embedded in the American psyche that the nominee was likely to have struck most viewers as a familiar figure rather than something exotic or alien. After all, "Seinfeld" -- as well as its progeny, "Curb Your Enthusiasm," or Sarah Silverman's comedy -- wouldn't be so popular if they weren't a hit in the Red States as well as the Blue Cities. Not to mention the fact that bagels, and even lox, are to be found in most any American town. (Though that doesn't necessarily vouch for their authenticity).
The Upper West Side of Manhattan IS the American Heartland in so many ways.
Besides, Judaism is often as popular among conservatives and Christians these days as it is among, well, Jews.
Orrin Hatch, a Mormon, wears a golden mezuzah necklace every day, and mezuzahs (technically, "mezuzot" in the plural) are tacked to the lintels of his homes in Washington and Utah. Hatch also keeps a Torah in his Senate office. ("Not a real Torah, but sort of a mock Torah.")
"Mormons believe the Jewish people are the chosen people, just like the Old Testament says," Hatch, a prolific hymn writer, told the Mormon Times last December after he recorded a Hanukkah song, his first foray into Jewish music. "I feel sorry I'm not Jewish sometimes."
"Anything I can do for the Jewish people, I will do," Hatch added.
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