Pray Tell: On Joan Rivers And That One Time I Laughed At A Holocaust Joke

Call me a humorless feminist, but I’ve always thought certain subjects were beyond the realm of comedy: Helen Keller, rape, the Holocaust. But then last week I caught a clip of Joan Rivers’ E! show “Fashion Police.” While critiquing a photo of Heidi Klum wearing this dress, Rivers quipped, “The last time a German looked this hot was when they were pushing Jews into the ovens.” And then something odd happened. I laughed.

I’m Jewish. So is Joan Rivers. Does being in “the club” mean that it’s okay to laugh at jokes about our own people? One of the reasons I don’t think Holocaust jokes are funny is that they poke fun at people who are victims, and it’s much funnier to laugh at the bullies. Did I laugh because Rivers was making fun of a German person in relation to the Holocaust, instead of a Jewish one?

Rivers was criticized plenty for her joke. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a watchdog group which purports to monitor the media for anti-Semitism, demanded an apology. But Rivers told the group to get lost. “My husband lost the majority of his family at Auschwitz, and I can assure you that I have always made it a point to remind people of the Holocaust through humor,” she responded.

Unlike Rivers’ husband, I was extremely lucky in relation to the Shoah. Most of my family came to the United States around the turn of the twentieth century, meaning they were already settled into New York City by the time the Holocaust began in Europe. That said, growing up Jewish in America, even if you weren’t personally affected by the tragedy, means that the Holocaust is inescapable. Classmates’ grandparents came in on Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) to show us their arm tattoos and talk about the horrors they’d lived through. My 12th birthday present was a copy of The Diary of Anne Frank. I’ve gone on field trips to Holocaust museums in Washington, DC and Israel. All my life I’ve heard and believed that the Holocaust is one of those things that’s capital-I Important and that I owed my people the promise never to forget about it.

But then a Jewish woman made a Holocaust joke on national TV and I laughed at it.

It’s possible that within my lifetime the last Holocaust survivor will die, and there will be no one left on earth who experienced that horrifying time in the world’s history. Thanks to Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Project, which makes videos of survivors telling their stories, these first-person accounts will not be lost to time. But does it ever stop being “too soon”? Is there a chance that in a hundred years time, it will be commonplace for kids – Jewish or not – to crack wise about the Holocaust? In the South, where I grew up, slavery is still an incredibly touchy topic. Even though no one currently living in the South was alive during the time of slavery, its memory is still heavy in the air, and it’s still considered wrong and inappropriate to joke about the topic. At what point does history weigh down on us, and at what point do we say something is far enough away that it’s not ours anymore?

I don’t know the answer to that. I also don’t know why I laughed at Joan Rivers’ joke. But I do know that it caused me to reflect on the Holocaust and on my Jewish identity in a way I never had before.

Lilit Marcus is the blogger at Faith Goes Pop