What Do Memes Tell Us About Jewish Identity?
When she feels sad or stressed with schoolwork, Rebecca, a 20-year-old Canadian college student, will look through comments on the posts she and her friend Gabi have made from their Facebook page, “Jewish Memes for the Chosen Teens.” On one particularly popular post, bold text on a pink background asks, “Is your child expressing interest in Jewish life? Watch out for these warning signs,” then lists text message abbreviations with alternate definitions related to Judaism and Jewish culture. It has more than 1,200 reactions (or “reacts”), nearly 300 shares and more than 2,500 comments. Most are people commenting their friends’ names to “tag” them and subsequently send them a notification, sharing the meme as an inside joke with their fellow Jews.
But what’s in a meme? Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins first coined the term “meme” in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Etymologically rooted in Ancient Greek, it is a shortening of “mimeme,” meaning “imitated thing” and was meant to signify an idea unit that spread. “Memes (discrete units of knowledge, gossip, jokes and so on) are to culture what genes are to life,” Dawkins wrote. His purpose was to analogize the discussion of thought proliferation with genetics. In the digital era, however, “meme” has taken on a more internet-specific meaning. Heidi Campbell, a professor of communication at Texas A&M, often discusses memes in her classes on religion and media. In the classroom, she defines an internet meme as “a digital image with a slogan that’s closely associated, often drawn from pop culture or digital culture which seeks to communicate a message in a humorous way.” According to Campbell, “what makes memes work is that they have to be some kind of image that is easily decoded by the people who are seeing it and have some kind of message that people can identify with.”
This means that memes, in addition to being proliferatory, are necessarily communal. On social media, memes are shared through communities of culture and practice. There are pages dedicated to everything from urban development to popular television shows to, indeed, Judaism. There’s even a name for Judaism-focused pages and groups: “Jewbook.”
Joe McReynolds, a co-founder and administrator (“admin”) of the closed Facebook group called “sounds goyish but ok,” which is home to nearly 11,750 members, doesn’t post or even really like memes, but he concedes, “Jewbook kind of has all kinds. It has meme groups, it has shitposting groups, it has—I would call [sounds goyish but ok] a catharsis group…Everyone has their own sort of journey to that place where it’s ‘I share something with my fellow Jews—they may not be religious Jews, but they’re of the same peoplehood—that I don’t necessarily share with the broader culture.’”
Through the page Rebecca and Gabi manage from Toronto, they are able to connect with fellow Jews in the U.S. and around the world. “A huge part of the idea of community has shifted to the internet, and memes are now just part of that online community,” Rebecca says. “Especially in Judaism, where community is so important, it’s neat how so many different Jewish meme pages have somehow surfaced.”
There are a variety of Jewish meme pages and groups to be found on Facebook alone, not to mention other platforms like Twitter, Instagram and Reddit. Memes’ format and content evolve over time: “Hey Girl” memes, composed by overlaying pictures of Ryan Gosling with flirtatious messages or pick-up lines, have been popular since the early 2010s, when Ben Soussan started his “Jewish Memes” Facebook page while a student at McGill University in Montréal. Soussan’s take on the “Hey Girl” meme includes a still of Gosling playing a yeshiva student from the 2001 movie The Believer.
Formats like “Hey Girl” become popular for a reason: They’re easy to fill in and adapt to fit any theme or purpose, in this case Judaism. A popular meme since late last August has been a stock photo of a man looking back at a passing woman while the woman with whom he is holding hands, presumably a girlfriend or wife, glares at him in disgust. Each person is labelled, and the meme is usually used to illustrate giving up one thing for another. Jewish Memes for the Chosen Teens used this format to make light of the carb-heavy nature of Ashkenazi foods, while another page, “Torah U’Memeda,” used it to criticize students at secular colleges for going off the derech, or deviating from the path of Orthodox Judaism.
Almost any meme can be made Jewish. There are pages designated as more Orthodox or more Reform. Some tout scriptural literacy, while others flout it in favor of a more cultural focus. The plurality of Jewish meme pages reflects the plurality of perspectives on Judaism. In fact, while meme pages seem to be born out of college student boredom, many are started to fill a void in representation or discourse.
Soussan’s takes on the “Hey Girl” meme hit big, but before that he was mainly just creating content that he and his friends could relate to. “At the time I didn’t like the way Jewish humor was done. I thought it was either too political or too specific or too religious,” Soussan says. “For me, being Jewish is more about people and about living together as a people. I wanted to make it about that, and I wanted it to have no political affiliation whatsoever. Also, you didn’t have to be too religious to understand Jewish Memes.”
Soussan’s recent memes have taken on more modernized popular forms, but they remain secular and generally accessible to the culturally Jew-ish. A recent example is the “Is this a pigeon” meme, which plays off an animated still wherein a human-like robot misidentifies a butterfly. The robot and butterfly are each labeled and a caption reading “Is this ____?” illustrates the misidentification. Soussan used it to make fun of the Jewish mother stereotype, a common subject for more culturally-oriented Jewish meme pages.
You do have to be more religious, or at least scripturally literate, to understand many Jewish meme pages. While Soussan claims his “Jewish Memes” was the first Facebook page with its name, and it has over 4,000 followers, another one with the same name has over 19,000. “It’s very religious and it’s really focused on like New York Jews and New York Orthodox Jews, and they talk about passages in the Torah or specific prayers that go way over my head,” Soussan says. Another page, “Parsha Memes,” though less popular, with just over 1,300 followers, was started by a pair of brothers for a similar purpose of posting jokes related to each week’s Torah reading.
Religious memes can be used to “show how you can be religious and you can still be into the popular culture and it can be a way to send positive messages,” Campbell says. “To say, ‘We can make fun of ourselves. We understand that some of our practices, from the outside, can look a little foreign. We understand that sometimes our ways aren’t understood, but they still represent who we are,’ is using memes as a way to affirm beliefs and identity and practices in a positive, hopeful way.”
Unfortunately for Soussan, the “Jewish Memes” page with 19,000 likes wasn’t the only one to copy his name. A more nefarious name mixup resulted in Facebook putting restrictions on Soussan’s page in 2012 that have still not been lifted. “There was another page called ‘Jewish Memes’ that was not really Jewish memes, that was pretty much just Holocaust jokes, and it was really bad. The problem was that they called themselves ‘Jewish Memes’ and so people flagged my page thinking that it was the other page,” Soussan says. “I was banned from my page for like six months.”
Trolls also attacked “Torah U’Memeda” two months ago, giving one-star reviews of the page with comments repeating “Shut it down,” and occasional jabs about the admin being a “big-nosed man rubbing his hands together.” Not to be deterred, “Torah U’Memeda” made a meme, and a mockery, of the trolls themselves.
According to “Torah U’Memeda,” “‘Shut it down’ comes from a once popular meme that plays on the Jewish conspiracy theories of domination. ‘The goyim know, Shut it down’ is what the meme generally reads.” Meanwhile, “The ‘big nose man rubbing his hands together’ comes from a comic from, I believe, 2001. This stereotypical depiction of the Jew, often called hlomo shekelstein or shekelberg, is widely used online to depict a Jew. He has a hunched back, curly black hair, pale ‘khazar’ skin, a large nose, etc. and greedily rubbing his hands together.” These are part of a greater milieu of anti-Semitic content that circulates online.
“Memes are definitely a double edged sword,” Campbell says, explaining that many problematic memes relating to Judaism spread with ease on the internet. “Unfortunately, stereotypes, whether they’re about certain religions or races, are ones that people easily identify and understand because they’re based on generations of false assumptions or over-generalizations about a belief or a practice.”
Like any tool, memes can be used for a variety of purposes. Certain pages, like “Greater Israel Memes For Zionist Teens,” use memes to take on political agendas in addition to providing relatable Jewish humor. This invites further trouble. According to an admin of the page, some posts have been blocked and user accounts banned for posting certain memes, while other pages will share memes of opposite meaning without recourse. For example, they say a meme depicting a Palestinian flag on legs walking toward an Israeli flag with the text, “We all have that one friend that walks into your home like it’s theirs,” was removed and got a user account banned. The same meme with the flags reversed remains posted on a different meme page, “Political Bible.”
Perhaps such meme-troversy is the reason many admins are reluctant to share their identities. Greater Israel Memes For Zionist Teens refused to share the number of their admins, let alone their names, ages, genders or locations, citing “safety reasons.” Most of the time, it’s just “part of the shtick,” Rebecca and Gabi explain about not wanting to share their last names. “It’s really important to us that people don’t know exactly who runs the page—I’m sure you understand that Jewish communities are often small and talkative, and we enjoy making memes a lot more when they aren’t linked to our day-to-day lives,” the pair wrote via Facebook Messenger before agreeing to a phone interview.
The admin of “Torah U’Memeda” gave his age, gender and occupation but preferred to remain anonymous and communicate via Facebook Messenger. He gave a similar reason for the smoke and mirrors. “I don’t take the page very seriously,” he wrote. “I don’t want this, being engaged in all this online/social media business to take over who I am, or what people think I am.”
Soussan, who is now safely established career-wise, agreed that internet-implicit anonymity has its advantages. “Memes allow a lot of people to express themselves without showing their faces,” he says. “That means that a lot of people that are too shy to talk about their views can do it now because they don’t even have to show their face. All we see is their work. People don’t care about what I look like, they just care about my memes.”
Memes may be the new frontier for religious and cultural self-expression, but they are necessarily limited in the scope of their ability to represent any group or ideology, let alone a tradition as multifaceted and complex as Judaism. Leaving aside the fact that there is a finite amount of text one can overlay on an image before it becomes unreadable, and assuming that even the most complicated of ideas can be memed, algorithms based on reacts, shares and tags dictate which posts surface on users’ feeds. While this limits the nuance and diversity of perspectives represented, it allows for a crystallization of what the masses think it means to be Jewish in the digital age. “Hundreds of years from now, if we’re still able to access the archives of our internet,” Rebecca reflects. “I think we’ll be able to get a pretty good idea of what the general population thought about all sorts of things—Judaism being one of them.”