Let me begin with a joke, which in America would likely be called sophisticated: Sam, a young Jewish New Yorker who certainly considers himself to be sophisticated, is on a vacation trip in New Mexico. In a tourist trap selling “authentic Navajo folk art” (most of it made in Taiwan) he meets Sally, a young woman who was born and raised on the reservation that owns and operates the tourist trap. She is immediately captivated by Sam’s elegant worldliness, he by what sees as her magical otherworldliness. The inevitable happens: They fall in love, he prolongs his stay, he takes her back with him to New York. They get married at a fancy midtown hotel, by a somewhat reluctant guitar-playing Reform Rabbi. After a few months she visits her parents back home. They had been a bit worried about her: Is she happy so far from home? Are his folks nice to her? We have heard that Jews don’t much like their children marrying outsiders. Do you feel anything like this?
Definitely not, replies Sally. Not only have they welcomed her warmly into their family, but they have given her an affectionate nickname. She is now called “Sitting Shiva!” The message of the punchline is very clear: Not only is Sam’s family unhappy about Sally’s marriage to Sam, but it is occasion for mourning! In order to understand this joke, one must know two facts: Sitting Bull (1831-1890) was a Sioux holy man and one of the last leaders of a large-scale rebellion against the United States (his warriors killed Colonel George Armstrong Custer and his men). Sitting Bull maintained his dignity during his rather degrading career acting as a noble savage in Buffalo Bill’s itinerant show about the “Wild West.” Sitting Shiva is the mourning ritual practiced by Orthodox Jews upon a death in the family.
I think that one of the traits of sophistication is the capacity to cross borders between different cultural relevancies. Humor is often, intentionally or not, the result if not the very technique of such border-crossing. Much of Jewish humor reflects a long history, perhaps all the way back to the Exodus, of Jews migrating between cultures. Woody Allen is a very interesting case of this. His sense of the comic reflects the highly distinctive Jewish culture of the Upper West Side of Manhattan—conceived at Zabar’s and born on the pages of the New York Review of Books. Yet the most unlikely people laugh at Woody’s jokes! I have been to several events full of young versions of what Samuel Huntington used to call “Davos man”—young men and women in their late twenties to late thirties, in every shade of skin color, aspiring to the international corporate elite, speaking fluent American-accented English—who laughed at these jokes. I should think that this is Woody Allen’s core audience. I once went on a walk in Tokyo, entered a theater in which one of Woody’s films was playing, in a dubbed Japanese version. The audience was almost all Japanese—perhaps a first training course. They laughed at all the right places. Did they understand the film and know what was funny, or were they coached? Either way, American Jewish humor functioned as a marker of insider sophistication.
I had encountered this before. My first full-time teaching job was at the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina. Residents of the state paid little tuition, so most of the students came from small towns in North Carolina. (At the time there was nothing that could be called a metropolitan area.) The English department was the hub of local sophistication. Young faculty and students sat together in the student union, talking loudly about matters that nobody outside the little group could understand. Inevitably some shacked up. This was quite dangerous—then as now the faculty person risked job and career (though the rationale of course was different—then overlapping bourgeois and Christian morality, now gender exploitation. If you stick around long enough everything comes back). I knew the illicit couple: She came from a small town on the Piedmont and was also in one of my sociology classes; the young English professor was from New York (Columbia) and was not Jewish, but might pass. As this drama continued, I could observe a strange transformation in the language of the student: Her local dialect persisted, but it acquired a strange overlay of quasi-BBC English, with a Jewish intonation (dim communal memories of long-vanished yeshivas), and bits and pieces of Yiddish vocabulary.
Sophistication has always been the product of cities, more or less synonymous with urbanity. The Greek spoken in the great cities of the Hellenistic period put the rustic yokels in their place as soon as they opened their mouths. The same sophisticated urbanity flourished in modern Europe in the great salons of Paris (all those magnificent royal mistresses) and London (think of Oscar Wilde and perhaps of English gay culture in general, on the road through public school and Oxbridge to the glittering capital), and in the coffeehouses of the large cities of the Habsburg monarchy. The American critic Leslie Fiedler (1917-2003) wrote about the place of Jews in the American imagination. Fiedler thought that the marginal perspective characteristic of Jews had spread throughout American society—and, so to speak, made America ready for Woody Allen. Claudio Veliz, the Chilean history, has argued that European settlers in Latin America from the beginnings avoided the frontier existence of the British colonists in what became the United States (urbane sophistication came later). They preferred to live in cities where elite sophistication could be cultivated. He quoted an Argentinian who was asked why he never left Buenos Aires to explore the wide expanses of the country over which the Gauchos roamed—he explained: “That is where chickens march around alive.” Gauchos were actually proud of being uncouth. They knew how to tame wild horses, but they were intimidated by aristocratic ladies lisping erudite Castilian.