Friday, August 24, 2007

Elliott Horowitz responds to David Kaufmann on Bugs Bunny

In response to the recent article by Dr. David Kaufmann in The Forward questioning Bugs Bunny's purported Jewish identity, Bar Ilan University professor and Jewish Studies Quarterly (new series) co-editor Dr. Elliott Horowitz has written a letter to The Forward, available below to readers of the Seforim blog. (It has not yet appeared in The Forward.)

As noted in the letter below, Prof. Elliott Horowitz has written two articles on the very question that Kaufmann discusses. See his "Odd Couples: The Eagle and the Hare, the Lion and the Unicorn" Jewish Studies Quarterly 11:3 (August 2004): 243-258, and "The People of the Image," The New Republic 223:13 (September 25, 2000): 41-49.

This is Prof. Horowitz's first contribution to the Seforim blog. We hope that you enjoy.
Dear Sirs:

The subtitle of David Kaufmann's entertaining essay ("Carrot and Shtick," Aug, 10, 2007) provocatively asks: "Can we claim Bugs Bunny as Jewish?'' I would like to point out that I have already made that claim more than once; first in a review essay in The New Republic ("The People of the Image," Sept. 25, 2000), and more recently, fortified with footnotes, in the Jewish Studies Quarterly (vol. 11, 2004). In both essays I sought to trace the Bugs vs. Elmer rivalry, reminiscent of that in the Bible between wily Jacob and Esau the hunter, visually back to the hares pursued by hounds in sixteenth-century Ashkenazi illustrated Hagadot, such as those of Prague and Augsburg.

Kaufmann is correct to stress that "the 'Looney Tunes' shorts in which Bugs appears are always structured around extinction and endurance, the two great poles of Jewish thought and dream," but he might have done a bit more with the Holocaust and post-Holocaust context of Bugs Bunny, who premiered in the 1940 animated film Wild Hare. Five years later Warner Brothers released Herr Meets Hare, in which "Buggsenheimer Rabbit" is pitted against Herr Hermann Goering, and in 1946 they brought out Hare Remover (my personal favorite), in which Elmer Fudd is cast as a chemist seeking (unsuccessfully) to perform scientific experiments on Bugs. Soon afterwards, like other American survivors, Bugs began to speak more candidly about his origins and childhood. In a Hare Grows in Manhattan (1947), he returned to his childhood on the Lower East Side, where constant hounding by the neighborhood dogs sharpened his survival instincts, and in What's Up, Doc (1950), he talked about the piano and music lessons he took as a youngster, and the bit parts he played on Broadway until he was discovered by Warner Brothers.

As Kaufmann points out, neither Chuck Jones nor Tex Avery or any of the other writers or directors who created the Bugs Bunny cartoons were themselves Jewish, but as their contemporary Claude Levi-Strauss, who himself only narrowly escaped the fate of Buggsenheimer Rabbit, might have said, Jews were "good to think with." Not only was the rabbit's voice assigned to Mel Blanc, who combined, as he later explained, equal parts of Brooklyn and the Bronx, but by making Bugs a New York native who toiled in obscurity until he was discovered by the Warner Brothers, those sly gentiles may have poked fun at their famously self-hating employers, who had earlier rejected George Jessel for the lead role in The Jazz Singer (1927) on the grounds that he was "too Jewish."

Elliott Horowitz
New York

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