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When Is It OK to Make a Joke About Jews?


Making new friends is hard, so I was really excited when I started to form a friendship with another mom of a child in my daughter’s My Gym class. We had a lot in common. We each had two boys in elementary school and baby girls the same age. So we planned a few playdates and found that we really got along. And while I’m Jewish, and she isn’t, this didn’t matter. In fact, as someone who lives in central Florida, I can tell you that most of my mommy friends aren’t Jewish. Totally a non-issue.

Over several months, we formed a friendship. I was really excited about it.

On our first kid-free afternoon together we settled into our pedicure chairs and started talking about our summer plans. She mentioned that they were going to visit her mother-in-law who lived six hours away. The mother-in-law had never met the (almost 2-year-old) daughter, which surprised me. I just couldn’t imagine a grandmother having a granddaughter and not making the trip down to meet her.

My friend explained:

“She’s Jewish; maybe you didn’t know that my husband is half-Jewish. Anyway she’s really a typical Southern Jewish lady, you know, complaining all the time about everything.”

Slightly shocked, I said, “I’m not sure what a typical Southern Jewish lady is.”

To which she said, “You know–she just complains about everything. She doesn’t want to travel because her back hurts blah blah blah… My husband is a half-Hebe so I can say that to you.”

I was pretty shocked, and I didn’t know what to say. The conversation moved on, but in the back of my mind I couldn’t get over that she just said Hebe. I have never heard anyone say it in person. I also was really, really uncomfortable with the stereotype she put out there.

I have a really bad poker face, so after about 10-15 minutes, she said, “I’m really concerned that I offended you–please tell me.”

So I did. I explained that Hebe is offensive, and that it just rubs me the wrong way when people who aren’t Jewish make Jewish jokes. I likened it to non-blacks making racial jokes. Race and religion, as different as they are, both are sensitive subjects. She apologized and promised me it was out of ignorance and not intolerance. I believe her 100%. In fact, she gave me her blessing to write this post. She wanted to learn from it.

But here’s my dilemma. I make Jewish jokes all the time.

Case in point: I was at a birthday party recently. The dad hosting the party was Jewish. We were playing on his kids’ new swing set when I asked him if he put it together himself.

He said: “No, I paid someone $100 to do it.”

I replied, “That’s what we Jews do! We pay someone to do it for us.”

This got a big laugh from him and his friends who were standing nearby. His friends weren’t Jewish. I was happy to get the laugh (as always), but it felt wrong.


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