Annual Hillel Rogoff Lecture Focuses on the Connection between Clothes and Jewish Humor

Ted Merwin, professor of religion and Judaic studies at Dickinson College and chief theater critic for the New York Jewish Week, delivered the annual Hillel Rogoff Memorial Lecture at Stern College for Women on March 31. His talk, “Unbuttoned: Clothes and the Making of American Jewish Comedy,” focused on the garment-industry roots of American Jewish humor, tracing the use of clothing in the comedic work of entertainers such as Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor and Jerry Seinfeld.

Ted Merwin delivers Rogoff Lecture

Ted Merwin delivered the Annual Rogoff Lecture

“We know that self-deprecation has always been a trademark of Jewish comedy,” Merwin said. “At the beginning of the 20th century, there was a sense that, even at their best, Jews were not genteel enough to fit into American society, and that made its way into the humor.” During the interactive lecture, Merwin demonstrated how clothes and dress gained significance as symbols of anxiety about the role of Jewish identity in American culture, using examples from the lyrics of Brice’s 1921 hit “Second-Hand Rose” and an episode of Seinfeld called “The Jacket.”

“There was a terrible sense of ambivalence and stigma,” Merwin explained. “These themes of questioning your identity, where you belong, and whether you can pull off being an American run in Jewish entertainment.”

“It was interesting to see him put our relationship with clothes in a historical context, rather than the modern setting, which is how we’re used to hearing about it,” said Alexandra Michalowski, a psychology senior at Stern College, who felt that the tensions expressed in early Jewish comedy were still a part of the Jewish American experience. “As young Orthodox women, we try to preserve our strong Jewish identity and dress according to our beliefs while also looking for a place in American society. There was a similar dichotomy going on then.”

Marc Leavitt, an attorney and political satirist, found the talk’s focus on the development of Jewish comedy intriguing. “I’m very familiar with the repertoire of a lot of Jewish humor, message humor and the theater,” Leavitt said. “I appreciated delving into these issues and examining what it is about Jewish culture that meshes with humor and clothing.”

Merwin brought the tensions of Jewish identity and American culture into especially sharp relief with a screening of “The Jacket,” an episode of Seinfeld that centers on Jerry’s uneasy purchase of a fashionable American coat. Merwin said that Seinfeld’s mixed feelings about owning such a coat mirrored his ambivalence about his role as an American Jew.

“We are perpetual outsiders,” Merwin said.

The lecture is named for Hillel (Harry) Rogoff, an alumnus of Yeshiva University and longtime editor of The Jewish Daily Forward. It was established in 1971 through the efforts of the late YU English professor and administrator David Mirsky and members of the Rogoff family.