“A Field Guide to the Jewish People” by Dave Barry, Adam Mansbach and Alan Zweibel. New York: Flatiron Books, 2019. 233 ages. $25.99.
When I suggested to Dave the Butcher, my editor at WJW, that I review this book, he noted that many young people have never heard of Dave Barry, one of the authors.
I tisked, tisked very disapprovingly, thinking that today’s youngsters must be ignoramuses. How can they not know probably the greatest Jewish humor writer of the second half of the 20th century? Barbarians.
First of all, Dave Barry is not a member of the tribe, or as they say on the jacket flap, “He is not personally Jewish but many of his friends are.”
And even worse — please don’t tell Dave (my editor, not Barry) — I had to look up Barry’s co-writers on Google. As you, my hip, literate readers, doubtlessly know, Adam Mansbach, 43, is the author of the bestseller “Go the F**k to Sleep” and a former visiting professor of literature at Rutgers University Camden.
Alan Zweibel, 69, was a writer on “Saturday Night Live” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and co-creator and producer of the “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” may its memory be blessed.
My prejudices and ignorance aside, this is a side-splittingly funny book. And it answers so many questions for the Jewishly bewildered.
I’m sure that you — like me — always wondered why sane people would ever want to convert to Judaism. Look no further. They convert, our authors opine, because “they want to marry a Jewish person whose mother has mentioned that she will swallow rat poison if her child marries a non-Jew; they’re tired of paying retail; they’re unpopular and would like to blame it on anti-Semitism; they have heard that Jews are intelligent and they would like to be intelligent; they were devout Christians, but got subjected to the song ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ one too many times at the mall.”
“A Field Guide” provides practical advice, as well. So, your goyishe friend has asked you about Yom Kippur, and you’re not sure exactly what to say. This is the biggest holiday of the Jewish year, the authors explain. If you want to illustrate its magnitude, tell your friend that Yom Kippur is like LeBron James compared to other NBA players, Jupiter to other planets and any other administration to the Trump administration.
So, encouraged by your pithy answer to delve deeper into that holiday, your friend says, “I’ve often wondered what you people do during your fast.”
Don’t worry, Barry and his fellow authors won’t let you down, listing four things people can do while waiting a full day for sunset and food. Stare at a friend or family member; watch paint dry; mimic a hibernating bear; or beat up the next person who says it’s permissible to eat at McDonald’s on Yom Kippur because they serve “fast food.”
That same friend might want to know if he is an anti-Semite. Helping him find out, our authors provide eight questions for him to answer. For example, do you see Jews as “opinionated, pushy and prone to butting in?”
If your friend answered yes, then he is an anti-Semite for the picture of a Jew “always talking, arguing and sticking his giant schnozz into everyone else’s business, is deeply offensive.” If he answered no, he is an anti-Semite for accepting the idea that Jews are “clannish, secretive, and reclusive.”
Now, your friend is really emboldened, knowing he’ll get a frank and knowledgeable answer to his questions. He’d always wanted to know, he says, if the Yiddish “Oy” is a shortened version of the exclamation “Oy Vey.”
That’s not the case, answers this useful guide. The word “is a contraction for the Eastern European shtetl lament ‘Oh no, my wife’s mother is coming to live with us, my store just burned down, and it really burns when I pee, why G-d, why!’ ”
The humor here is not subtle; it kind of knocks you on the head with a plastic hammer, as revelers used to do to each other in Israel on Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day). There are no smiles here, but many guffaws.
So, if you like to laugh out loud, “A Field Guide to the Jewish People” is for you.
Aaron Leibel is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel, “Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family,” is available at amazon.com and in Kindle format.