CJL: Dark and funny Jewish humor

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman 

Confession: I’d never heard of actor/comedian Brett Gelman before learning about his book “The Terrifying Realm of the Possible: Nearly True Stories” (Dey Street Books). I also didn’t remember seeing its title on any list of upcoming books with Jewish themes. Even when I received an e-mail about it, I wasn’t sure I could review it for the paper. Although the characters seemed to have Jewish names, it wasn’t clear the stories contained Jewish content. Fortunately, I answered the publicity person’s e-mail and asked that question because not only are its characters Jewish, but Gelman’s very dark and strange work offers the most jaundiced and jaded look at Judaism and God since Shalom Auslander’s “Beware of God.” His characters, though, reminded me of early Woody Allen films, the ones filled with nebbishes and their overbearing families. 

Gelman’s stories feature characters from a wide range of life stages. Abraham Amsterdam (the child) either has severe mental health issues or is actually being tormented by demons. Mendel Freudenberger (the teenager) wants so desperately to be popular that he can’t tell when other teens are making fun of him. Formerly popular comedian and actor Jackie Cohen (the adult) watches his career disappear after writing, directing and acting in one of the most politically incorrect films ever produced. Iris Below (the senior) drives her son to distraction in one of the funniest sections of the book. Although the last section features Z (the dead), God’s appearance is the story’s highlight and will either delight or offend readers. That section also ties together other sections of the book.

However, readers are less likely to become invested in the characters’ lives than in Gilman’s humorous descriptions of their thoughts and actions. For example, Abraham has just learned that Christians hate Jews, although he doesn’t really understand exactly what happened between the Jews, Jesus and the ancient Romans to cause that hatred. He does know one very important thing, something that will influence the course of his life: People don’t hate Jews if they’re funny. “If a Jew is funny, people forget they’re a Jew and they could be loved. If a Jew is funny, he or she would become famous. He or she could become quite popular. ‘Cause that’s what fame is. Popularity. Popularity on a grand scale. And that’s the second thing Abraham wanted the most. To be popular.”

The plot of Jackie’s film will make readers either gasp with horror or laugh. Even though everyone else who worked on the film wants to forget its existence or claims to have PTSD from the filming, Jackie defends his work. The film, called “Auschwitz Antebellum,” was supposed to be “a magical realist romantic comedy about a Jewish prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp and an enslaved Black woman on a plantation in the antebellum South magically switching places, then, after switching places, learning the similarities of their two situations, then after learning their similarities magically finding themselves together, first in the concentration camp, and then the plantation.” The two then fall in love, marry and form a successful jazz record label. It won’t be a surprise to learn that Jackie was never able to get a film financed after this one was shelved without being shown in theaters.

Z feels fortunate to have a private meeting with God after arriving in heaven. Well, at least, Z does at first. But there is a problem; it turns out that, although God claims to hate insecure people, God is the most deeply insecure creature Z has ever met. Z is then faced with a dilemma: be truthful in his conversation with God and possibly get expelled from heaven or lie. The decision is not made any easier by the fact that God’s temper gets triggered when God is asked a question. At one point, God explains a need for validation from humans, saying, “I have a universe to run. A pretty great universe at that, right? Sure, it’s not perfect. What is? But it’s a universe, and I should get some credit for that. Now I know what you are going to say. If I am so secure, why do I need the validation, right?... I just deserve it. There, I said it. I deserve the credit and, sue me, I want to be acknowledged for that. That’s my right, right? At least I can ask for that? After all I’ve done, right? I mean, I invented sex, for crying out loud. That’s pretty cool. Right?” Things only go downhill after that, which means Z soon gets to experience the joys of hell.

While I had a wonderful time reading “The Terrifying Realm of the Possible,” the stories didn’t make a lasting impression. It’s the humorous sections I remembered, especially the most outlandish ones, rather than the characters and their actions. The book is obviously not for everyone: it aims to challenge and offend, all the while offering a very Jewish view of the world.