Residence: Oceanside, New York
Date of Performance/Collection: April 2012
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): None
“The way you can sum up every Jewish holiday, for the most part, is: they tried to kill us, we survived, now let’s eat. It means to me two different things. One is very serious… for some reason, so many other cultures have decided that the Jews should be annihilated. The other thing it means to me, that bothers me, is that many of our uh… that Jews tend to dwell on these negative events to define who they are and what they are about.”
The informant told me that she doesn’t know where she first heard this phrase, but that “probably some other Jew said it to me.” I have heard this phrase and similar phrases throughout my entire life, and I have often used a variation of this phrase to try to explain my religion or the holidays we engage in to people who are unfamiliar with Judaism.
The thing that interests me the most is this informant’s take on the phrase. I have usually heard this phrase used in a way that is dismissive (oh, all of our holidays are just like this…) or, more often, in a way that is humorous. It’s almost comical to think that most Jewish holidays follow this pattern and that they usually involve the consumption of a lot of food, which seemingly, on the surface, has little relevance to the heavier, darker fact that Jews have been persecuted and have had to escape death time and time again.
For instance, Sean Altman is a singer-songwriter who performs under the band name Jewmongous. He has a comedic song called “They Tried to Kill Us (We Survived, Let’s Eat)” that supposedly explains the story of Pesach. It contains a ton of pop culture references and factual inaccuracies, which is supposed to prove that all of the details of the holiday are basically irrelevant, because all you need to do is boil down the holiday to this one simple phrase, which is contained in the chorus. The song is available as an MP3 and on a CD, which you can purchase on his website at http://www.jewmongous.com/. You can also watch a live performance of the song (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=34atu3WGUgc).
Despite the fact that this phrase is typically repeated for its humor, I have always heard this informant use the phrase in a sort of melancholy way. To her, the phrase represents a long and depressing history of the Jewish people, and she believes that the use of this phrase, combined with the practice of Jewish holidays, tends to perpetuate a tendency to dwell on the negative. While I see her point and definitely agree that Jews tend to have a martyr complex, I strongly believe that this phrase is a way for Jewish people to reclaim their history and bring joy by making light of very serious problems. Rather than dwell on the negative, we look forward to the positive— in this case, a large feast.