Did you ever notice how many cartoons there are about hell? We tend to joke about matters that make us uncomfortable. Perhaps nobody does it better than Woody Allen, whose favorite subjects for humor are the existence of God, the fear of death, and the nature of morality.i “It’s not that I’m afraid to die,” writes Allen, “I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”ii Or, “Can we ‘know’ the universe? . . . It’s hard enough finding your way around in Chinatown.”iii As one commentator suggests, “Glibness is [Allen’s] antidote to grappling with the hard questions. The eternal is brought down to the level of the earthly, and therefore minimized.”iv
As a Jewish follower of Jesus, I’ve noticed that many references in the popular culture to my belief are treated in the same vein. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy a good joke. Even when the joke is on me. And I’m glad to have witnessed the increase of pop culture references over the years to those who believe as I do. But I wonder if some of the humor is a way of deflecting an issue that otherwise might be disturbing.
Much of the wit is directed at the name, Jews for Jesus. To clarify terms, Jews for Jesus is actually the title of the organization, of which I am a part. Because we are frequently in the public eye handing out literature and making major statements in the media, many have wrongly assumed that all Jewish believers in Jesus are “members” of Jews for Jesus. Actually, Jews for Jesus is the “Kleenex” or “JELL-O” of Jewish people who believe in Jesus. It is the brand name.
In The Simpsons, Homer frequently refers to Jesus as Jebus (which, by the way, is the ancient name for the city of Jerusalem before it was captured by King David).1 In one episode, Bart goes into business selling T-shirts, one of which is “Jews for Jebus.” In fact, you can buy a “Jews for Jebus” T-shirt online or, if you are a baseball fan, you can get a “Jews for Jeter” jersey in honor of the New York Yankees’ All-Star shortstop. In the heyday of the Grateful Dead (which had a strong Jewish following), you could spot Deadheads wearing “Jews for Jerry” buttons for the late Jerry Garcia, the lead guitarist.
Bangitout, the online “kosher comedy community,” posted its Top Ten “Jews for Jesus” alternatives, which included Jews for Jerry Maguire (“They had me at Shalom”) and Jews for Michael Jordan (“They are preparing for ‘His Return’”).2
Our name lends itself to humor by those who see it as a contradiction in terms. On The Daily Show, Jon Stewart reported on a lawsuit filed by Houghton Mifflin against Jews for Jesus because we used the likeness of Curious George on one of our gospel pamphlets, known as broadsides. Stewart quoted Susan Perlman, spokesperson for Jews for Jesus: “It’s curious and a bit ironic that Houghton Mifflin lacks an ordinary sense of humor and as a literary organization cannot detect parody.” Stewart quipped, “Not Jew-believing-in-Jesus ironic, but ironic nonetheless!”v
In a skit entitled “Jews for Jesus,” performed by the Impending Moustache theater troupe, a young woman is on the street corner handing out Jews for Jesus broadsides. One activist after another invades her corner, including Anorexics for Food, Dead People for Life, and Fish for Land.vi In fact, the fish dies of suffocation on the street corner. The implication? You can’t be a Jew and be for Jesus at the same time.
Jews for Jesus has also been fodder for various plays on words, such as Jiu-Jitsus for Jesus in the National Lampoon book, Doon (a parody of the science fiction novel, Dune). In the movie Bad Santa (2003), Bernie Mac exclaims, “Sweet Jews for Jesus!” One of the characters in the television show, “Pushing Daisies,” wears a T-shirt with a Star of David and the words, “Jews for Cheeses,” while attending a Hebrew Feta Fest! In a “Veronica Mars” television episode, the group Semites for the Savior (an obvious clone of Jews for Jesus) tries to stop rock star Desmond Fellows from performing on the college campus because “this man makes songs that mock our religious beliefs.”
The ubiquitous nature of our organization, which focuses on high visibility in major urban centers with large Jewish populations, has also been a source for comic material. Someone named Dave posted this blog on the Internet: “The Jews for Jesus in Philadelphia have been cloning themselves to increase their numbers . . . . They’re everywhere!vii In the movie Airplane (1980), Captain Rex Kramer (Robert Stack) gets so frustrated by the representatives of various religious groups approaching him as he walks through the airport that he begins to deliver karate chops to each, including a young man wearing a “Jews for Jesus” T-shirt.
T-shirts with slogans have been part of Jews for Jesus culture as well as part of pop culture, which has led to a new category of T-shirts, buttons, and other paraphernalia that satirize us (see Sidebar). The movie, In Her Shoes, based on the book of the same name by Jewish author Jennifer Weiner, revolves around two sisters. Their stepmother, Sydelle, is constantly comparing them unfavorably to her own biological daughter, Marsha, an interior decorator. Sydelle thinks that Marsha can do no wrong. But then Rose, the older sister, has the following conversation with her father, Michael:
Michael: Well, Sydelle and Marsha aren’t on very good terms right now.
Rose: What, did she decorate a room in last season’s colors?
Michael: No, she joined Jews for Jesus.
Rose cannot help but giggle at her stepmother’s “misfortune.” That line definitely got a laugh out of me when I watched the movie. In fact, one of my co-worker friends got an even bigger laugh after she had viewed the movie at her local theater. When she and the other moviegoers walked to the parking lot and she opened the door of her clearly marked “Jews for Jesus” van, the others started to chuckle, then spontaneously burst into loud applause for my friend!
Now, I don’t place any deep psychological significance in this good-natured humor. But some purveyors of pop culture have crossed the line from harmless humor about Jews for Jesus to personal jabs—and slashes—against individuals and their beliefs. Sean Altman, from the group Jewmongous, wrote a song, “Jews for Jesus,” filled with hateful and violent lyrics, including, “Jews for Jesus, Jews for Jesus, I wanna wanna chop you into pieces. Jews for Jesus, Jews for Jesus, I hope you get lots of diseases.”viii
The New Yorker published a cartoon by Roz Chast,ix in which a man is seated at a street table with pamphlets. There is a large sign in front of the table which reads, “Jews for Jesus and also for really pissing off one’s parents, even if they weren’t religious, in a way that the Hare Krishnas can’t even BEGIN to imagine.”
Not all references in the popular culture to Jewish belief in Jesus are humorous. Some artists, to their credit, take the issue seriously. Woody Allen has shown his somber side in movies like the drama, Interiors (1980). One short scene is entirely dedicated to Eve (Geraldine Page), who has been abandoned by her husband. She is watching a Christian television show in which the guest is a man who identifies himself as “a Hebrew” who believes in Jesus. It’s an unusual choice by Allen in that neither Eve nor anyone in her immediate family is Jewish. We learn later in the movie that one of Eve’s daughters feels that “all of [Eve’s] Jesus Christ nonsense is a help.” Allen’s treatment of Eve’s religious exploration appears to be neutral, although Eve does end up committing suicide. Others are far from neutral. I certainly can’t accuse them of hiding behind humor! In the novel, The Sacrifice of Tamar, by Jewish author Naomi Ragen, Rabbi Josh Feingold is considering leaving his Brooklyn congregation to live in Israel. He is concerned that by doing so he will contribute to the tide of assimilation:
In the last twenty years, half the Jewish people in America had already jumped or been swept overboard. Half! And now there were Jews for Jesus, made up of the spiritually undernourished children of assimilated Jews, denied by their ignorant and foolish parents their own faith, come to proselytize in another’s . . .x
In The Mary Hartman Story, author Daniel Lockwood, commenting on a Jews for Jesus broadside spoofing the Norman Lear television comedy that spoofed the soap opera, speculates that Jews for Jesus represents “some grotesquely logical conclusion of assimilation.”xi Eef Barzelay, who calls himself “a nice Jewish boy from New Jersey,”xii wrote and recorded a song for the group, Clem Snide, entitled the “Jews for Jesus Blues.” Although he does not mention Jews for Jesus in the song, the lyrics are about how his life has gotten much worse since he became a “believer” in Jesus. “Now that I’m saved I wish I was damned,” he sings.xiii
Sometimes references to Jews who follow Jesus betray a misunderstanding of what we believe. Jewish actor, comedian and writer Ben Stein’s film, Expelled, investigates the employment termination of several university science professors due to their doubts about Darwinism and support of intelligent design. Some people have jumped to the conclusion that because Stein, who is Jewish, believes in intelligent design, he must be a Jew for Jesus! A blogger named Peter wrote, “It just seemed odd that someone with a name like Ben Stein would be so up in arms about things so closely associated with Fundamentalist Christians. So I was wondering if perhaps he’s one of those Jews for Jesus? Or perhaps he’s not a Jew at all?” xiv But several Orthodox Jewish leaders, including Rabbi Nathan Katz, have embraced intelligent design, an argument for the existence of God.xv
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
Has the idea of Jews believing in Jesus become a part of popular culture? If so, what is the significance?
Ray Browne, a former professor at Bowling Green University, coined the phrase “pop culture” in 1972. But what is it, exactly? Sociology professor Tim Delaney defines it as “the products and forms of expression and identity that are frequently encountered or widely accepted, commonly liked or approved, and characteristic of a particular society at a given time.”xvi
References to Jews for Jesus in our culture are not uncommon. But as to popularity, that’s another matter. The concept of a Jewish individual believing in Jesus is still deeply challenging to the cultural consensus—especially among our Jewish people. Here’s what Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, had to say in a television debate (moderated by pop culture icon Larry King) with David Brickner, executive director of Jews for Jesus: “You can be either Jewish or Christian. You can’t be both. . . . If you ask a person politically, ‘What are you?’ and he says, ‘I am a Democrat and I am a Republican,’ or somebody else says, ‘I’m an atheist and I’m a Christian.’ Impossible. You’re one or the other.” Brickner disagreed: “Here’s the minority report: There are some of us Jews who do believe that Jesus is the Messiah, who do believe that there are Messianic prophecies concerning a suffering servant who would come and suffer and die for the sins of the people, and rise again. . . . And those of us who believe that are no less Jewish.” xvii
In a way, pop culture, by focusing on the immediate, has given those of us who are Jewish believers in Jesus a platform in which to articulate our “unpopular” position. Yet much in the popular culture tends to be transient. Is Jews for Jesus a fad—a part of pop culture today and “retro” tomorrow? The sign on the front of Jews for Jesus headquarters and branch office buildings reads, “JEWS FOR JESUS: EST. 32 A.D. GIVE OR TAKE A YEAR.” In every generation since the first century, there has been a significant minority of Jews who also identify as followers of Jesus.
As you can see from the plaque, we do have a sense of humor about ourselves. And at least one other person thought we were funny. Comic Robin Williams was walking by our San Francisco headquarters building one day and did a double take when he saw our plaque. He stopped to read it, and then doubled up with laughter!
So I’m not knocking the enjoyment of things that are funny, which is a staple of the pop culture. But if I may play armchair psychologist for a moment, I think we sometimes domesticate issues that are difficult for us to handle. When confronted with serious matters of God, morality, and the afterlife, we would rather divert the issue with an absurd Woody Allen one-liner (“Eternal nothingness is O.K., if you’re dressed for it.”)xviii than confront it.
It’s okay to feel uncomfortable, because that means we are in a place that prevents us from coasting and resting in the status quo. We all look for opportunities to escape the serious side of life, whether through a film, a show or a best seller. But eventually, we need to come back and face the important issues if we want to grow.
Humor in all its forms—irony, sarcasm, non sequiturs, even puns (not my favorite)—is great, as long as we don’t employ it to mask the truth about what makes us uncomfortable. And truth, unfortunately, is not a criterion for pop culture. Author Bert Thompson notes, “Truth is not determined by popular opinion or majority vote. A thing may be, and often is, true even when accepted only by the minority.”xix
Could the belief that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah be true? Let me just say that you’ll have to go beyond The Simpsons to find out!
- David Mishkin, “God and Carpeting: The Theology of Woody Allen,” ISSUES, 1 March 1993,
- Woody Allen, Death, in Without Feathers (New York: Random House, 1975), p. 106.
- Woody Allen, Getting Even (London: W.H. Allen & Co., 1980), p. 29.
- David Mishkin, “God and Carpeting: The Theology of Woody Allen,” ISSUES, 1 March 1993, http://jewsforjesus.org/publications/issues/8_8/woodyallen
- Jon Stewart, “Monkey See, Monkey Sue,” The Daily Show, 23 October 2001,
- Laurel Fauntazzo, Jews for Jesus, The Impending Moustache,
- Sean Altman and Rob Tannenbaum, “Jews for Jesus,”
- Roz Chast, The New Yorker, 25 October 2004
- Naomi Ragen, The Sacrifice of Tamar (New York: Crown Publishers, 1994), p. 306.
- Daniel Lockwood, The Mary Hartman Story (New York: Boulder Books, 1976), p. 66.
- Eef Barzelay, 2002. Interview by Martin Williams, http://cwas.hinah.com/interview/?id=94
- Clem Snide, “Jews for Jesus Blues,” End of Love (2005),
- Mariah Blake, “Darwin This: Jews Clash Over the Intelligence of Intelligent Design,” Miami Herald, 29 December 2005,
- Tim Delaney, “Pop Culture: An Overview,” Philosophy Now,
- David Brickner, “Should Christians Stop Trying to Convert Jews?”, Larry King Live, 12 January 2000,
- Woody Allen, Getting Even (London: W.H. Allen & Co., 1980), p. 33.
- Bert Thompson, Ph.D., “Why Do People Believe in Evolution?”, August 1996, Apologetics Press