I attended a UJA-Federation media dinner at the Waldorf in NY – around 2000, maybe 2001.
Joy Behar was the “talent.”
She used the occasion to mock Orthodox Jews as vulgar, benighted, unhygienic, and stupid.
At my table, the other guests – they were mostly Jewish; Behar is not – laughed at the unfunny cliched anti-religion and anti-Semitism as though it were extraordinary wit, and at least one felt sufficiently emboldened to chime in with some of his own jokes, and another to launch an ill-informed assault against Orthodox Jews and Judaism. They kept looking towards me for reaction, because they knew; they knew exactly what was happening. I remember one of the non-Jews at the table and how she seemed appalled by the transition from hostility purporting to be humor to the open attack.
I don’t know how long Behar’s screed actually lasted. I know it felt endless. Finally someone at the table flat out asked me how I felt about it. I told them, including my boss, CEO of my company, something along these lines: “I’ve been debating whether to say anything and what there is to say that would have any value, but since you ask what I’m feeling, I’ll tell you. I feel disgusted, but I’ll be fine. But know that what you are laughing at is hate speech pure and simple, because it isn’t cathartic self-deprecation, it’s vicious hostility to “the other” – and I and my family are “the other.” UJA should be ashamed of themselves for allowing this kind of hate speech, and you should be uncomfortable at your eagerness to wallow in it. And the thing is, you all know it, which is why you keep looking at me and why, finally, you are asking me. So I’m feeling disgusted by Behar and frustrated by UJA, and disappointed in you. But mostly what I feel is a deep sadness. I feel pity for you and despair for your children. I am so proud to be Jewish. I am so proud of what we have brought to the world. I feel such awe and such gratitude for the sacrifice of the generations before me who struggled for millennia, who lived their lives and who so often gave their lives with one mission – to pass on to their children the greatest gift humanity has ever been granted. And I’m sitting here watching you, who know nothing about it and understand nothing about it, mock your own grandparents whose lives were richer and deeper and more authentic and prouder than anything you have ever been exposed to. It’s tragic and it’s profoundly painful to witness. I feel sorrow that you’ve been cheated out of the greatest heritage imaginable and you don’t even know it. But what hurts the most is that, barring a genuine miracle, your children have no chance at all.”
I called UJA’s (then) head of development – who attends the same synagogue I do, but was at a different event that day – and told him about Behar’s performance. He looked into it and came back with a personal apology (which I didn’t need) and a commitment to be more vigilant (which I hope they became). It truly was disgusting – vulgar and hateful. And it’s been almost two decades, but to this day I cannot see Behar’s face or hear her voice or her name without remembering the ugliness and the sadness of that day.