The real Jewish history in Mel Brooks’ and Hulu’s ‘History of the World: Part II’
Offering up its share of his Catskills-style Jewish humor, the eight-episode, four-night romp through history stops frequently on items of Jewish interest
Spoilers for “History of the World: Part II” follow.
(JTA) – Finally fulfilling the promise Mel Brooks made in 1981, the long-belated “History Of The World: Part II” brings us … “Hitler on Ice.”
For a sketch first teased during the end credits of Brooks’ film “History Of The World: Part I,” the leader of Nazi Germany can be seen attempting to land some difficult moves (perhaps a triple Axis?) at an Olympics-like skating competition.
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Needless to stay, Hitler wasn’t known as a figure skater. But some aspects of the sketch — such as why collaborationist Vichy France would give the Nazi leader’s routine a perfect score — might benefit from a more detailed understanding of the real history that’s being pilloried.
The same goes for the sendups of Christianity, the Russian Revolution and Henry Kissinger — all historical events and figures depicted in the first episodes of the series, which landed on Hulu on Monday. Produced by Brooks and offering up its share of his Catskills-style Jewish humor, the eight-episode, four-night romp through history stops frequently on items of Jewish interest. Some sketches recur throughout the series.
So here is your guide to the real-life Jewish history of the first episodes of “History of the World: Part II.”
The Russian Revolution
In a longer narrative first introduced in Episode 1, the show’s depiction of the fall of the Russian Empire is a high-wire blend of parodies and stylistic influences, as well as a crash course on Russian antisemitism.
It begins with a grody depiction of early-1900s Jewish shtetl life borrowing heavily from “Fiddler on the Roof.” Mud-pie dealer and patriarch Shmuck Mudman, played by Jewish actor Nick Kroll, uses a truncated song-and-dance number (“Submission”) to encourage his feisty son to follow Jewish traditions and stay away from cosmopolitan life in Moscow. But his son is unconvinced: “The shtetl stinks, it’s no place for a Jew.” Like Anatevka, the tiny Jewish village from “Fiddler,” the Jews are heavily implied to be living in the “Pale of Settlement,” the only region of the Russian Empire where Jews were permitted to live starting in the early 19th century and lasting until the Russian Revolution in 1917. State-backed schooling and “Russianization” programs sought to erode Jewish communal identity and replace it with a Russian national identity; a small number of Jews were allowed to work or study beyond the Pale if they had special skills.
In “History,” the Mudmans, including a mother played by Jewish comic Pamela Adlon, are menaced by the Cossacks, the Ukrainian mercenaries and feared horsemen who carried out a series of pogroms agains the Jews often at the behest of the Russian state. Meanwhile, the gilded Romanov family are depicted as Kardashian-like beauty influencers headed up by Tsar Nicholas II (Danny DeVito), who discovers their empire is on the brink of collapse.
In real life, the Russian Revolution liberated the state’s Jewish population with the fall of the tsar in 1917, and a large percentage of Communist party members at the time were Jewish. (Like DeVito, Nicholas II in real life was a short man, around five-foot-six.) In the decades to follow, Communist rule would come to have a devastating effect on the Jews of the Soviet Union, suppressing their religion and culture, and purging many of the Jewish party members.
Hitler on ice
It’s hard to impress a team of international judges when you’re the genocidal maniac who tried to conquer them.
In the skit, Hitler is despondent when judges from the countries in which he waged war all give him zeroes — with the exception of Vichy France, which awards him a perfect score, and Poland, which awards him an expletive. (It’s an uneasy restaging of the line “Winter for Poland and France,” from “Springtime for Hitler,” the musical highlight in Brooks’ “The Producers.”)
The scores reflect Nazi Germany’s relationship with the countries: It conquered France and installed a puppet government that acquiesced to Hitler’s orders to round up and denationalize the country’s Jews. Meanwhile, the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, dividing up its rule with the Soviets and murdering much of its Jewish population in the Holocaust. Unlike the French government, which signed an armistice with Germany after heavy losses to clear the path for Vichy rule while preserving the Republic in name, Poland does not acquiesce to a collaborationist narrative; decades later, it is illegal in Poland to suggest that the country was complicit in Nazi atrocities.
But these wartime victories make Hitler the loser of “Hitler on Ice.” Accompanied by his “coach” Joseph Goebbels (the Nazis’ propaganda minister) and partner Eva Braun, this Hitler hangs his head in shame as he trudges away to the jeers of the crowd, intending to go shoot himself in his Berlin bunker in a repeat of his actual death by suicide at the end of World War II.
“If you put concentration camps in people’s countries,” offers one of the sportscasters (played by Jewish comic Ike Barinholtz), “you better be flawless on the ice.”
The betrayal of Jesus Christ
Titled “Curb Your Judaism,” the show’s dramatization of the events following the Last Supper is styled in the manner of Larry David’s long-running HBO comedy “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Kroll plays Judas like he’s Larry David, and his betrayal of Jesus is depicted as a series of comic misunderstandings — which, like the original “Curb,” often revolve around questions of Jewish identity. “Curb” regulars play supporting roles as disciples, with J.B. Smoove as Luke and Richard Kind as Peter.
Besides aping the “Curb” mannerisms, including Judas’ grumblings about foot-washing and the size of the portions at the Last Supper, much of the comedy of the Jesus segments revolves around to what degree Jesus himself (Jay Ellis of “Insecure”) has formally renounced his Judaism. The segment depicts how Christ endeared himself to his followers, and introduced Christianity, by relaxing many of the requirements of Jewish tradition, including kosher laws and circumcision. “Something’s off with this Jesus guy. He’s trying to phase out his Judaism,” Judas remarks.
Jewish scholars have generally viewed Jesus Christ as a teacher, but not as a prophet or messiah as Christians believe. Jews have granted differing levels of respect to Jesus depending on Jewish-Christian relations at any given point throughout world history (Jews weren’t such big fans of Jesus during the Spanish Inquisition, so memorably depicted in “Part I”).
Whether Jesus really did instruct his followers to disregard kosher laws and other Jewish practices is disputed by New Testament scholars and interpreters of the Gospel of Mark; other scholars believe Jesus intended to live as any other Jew. But “Curb Your Judaism” does depict Jesus as ultimately perishing at the hands of the Roman Empire, with whom Jews had a contentious relationship at the time, rather than at the hands of Jews, which was a popular belief used to justify antisemitism among various Christian denominations for centuries. “Nostra Aetate,” the influential 1965 papal decree, finally “absolved” the Jews for Christ’s murder, at least according to official Catholic doctrine.
A sketch that imagines Shirley Chisholm, the first Black female member of Congress, as the star of a 1970s sitcom modeled on “The Jeffersons” includes a role for Kroll as Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon’s Jewish secretary of state. (Kroll is also an executive producer on the entire series, which helps explain his regular onscreen appearances.)
Historians generally view Kissinger, a refugee from Nazi Germany, as the lead architect of the Nixon administration’s most controversial decisions, including prolonging the Vietnam War and orchestrating a secret bombing campaign on Cambodia. Some call him a war criminal.
The Kissinger of “History” catches some of that criticism. A throwaway line further suggests he is an immortal demon.
Fanny Kaplan and the Social Revolutionaries
The “Russian Revolution” storyline continues as the Mudman family, entering Moscow, become central figures in the power struggle following the assassination of the Romanovs. Fanny Mudman (Pamela Adlon) becomes the leader of the Social Revolutionaries, an anti-Bolshevik movement, and unsuccessfully tries to assassinate Vladimir Lenin; later, her family — including her son, who has fallen for Princess Anastasia, the last in the lineage of Romanovs — successfully flees Russia, while Fanny elects to stay behind and fight for the revolution.
Fanny’s character was likely inspired by a real Ukrainian Jewish figure, Fanny Kaplan, who, as a Socialist-Revolutionary, reportedly did attempt to assassinate Lenin in 1918 at a munitions factory after Lenin provoked the ire of the revolutionary class by dissolving the Constituent Assembly. Lenin was shot multiple times but survived. A lack of witnesses and Kaplan’s own poor eyesight have led some historians to question whether she actually fired the bullets, but Kaplan confessed to the crime and was executed at the age of 28, martyring herself as a symbol of Jewish revolutionaries.
According to the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, Kaplan’s family had already fled Russia without her prior to the revolution, rather than after the assassination attempt as depicted in the show. And while Anastasia’s rumored survival of the revolution has been the subject of popular myth, there is no evidence linking her to any Jewish suitors.
This storyline also squeezes in another Mel Brooks callback, as Kroll’s Shmuck Mudman gets to bellow a famous line from “The Producers”: “I’m in pain, and I’m still hysterical!” (A separate storyline set during the Civil War also takes place partially in the West Virginia town of Rock Ridge — which shares a name with the setting of Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles.”)
Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky
Prior to Lenin’s assassination, we get glimpses into the meetings of the heads of the Bolshevik leadership — which Shmuck Mudman caters via “PutzMates.” Among the real historical figures present at these sessions are Lenin (Rob Corddry), Joseph Stalin (played by Jewish actor Jack Black) and Leon Trotsky (Barinholtz).
Talking about the Jewish connections to the Soviet regime gets dicey because of a popular antisemitic conspiracy theory, Judeo-Bolshevism, that holds that Jews were the invisible puppet-masters behind Communism and used the movement to secretly plot the eradication of world religions. Still, a high percentage of Communist leadership was indeed Jewish — most notably Trotsky, the head of the Red Army. But while in power, Trotsky had no strong affinity for his Judaism and failed to stop the rise of antisemitic pogroms.
Later in life, once in exile from the Soviet Republic, Trotsky started to embrace his Judaism and became a booster of American Jewish socialist movements. He told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in a 1937 interview that “historical developments” and the antisemitism of the Soviet regime had influenced his shift, though he remained a lifelong skeptic of Zionism.
Generations after Lenin’s death, historians determined he was the descendant of shtetl Jews on his mother’s side, but he had ordered top Communist brass to keep the information from the public. It was only after the fall of the Soviet Union that a fuller understanding of Lenin’s Jewishness could be uncovered.
A brief sketch shows the Austrian Jewish father of modern psychology conducting a MasterClass — which, in a Freudian slip, he refers to as his “Mommy class.” Played by Jewish Maori actor Taika Waititi, this Freud boasts his lessons will include “my personal archives shared without my patient’s permission.”
As brief as the segment is, it manages to parody quite a bit of the real Freud’s methodology. There are references to his centering of penises in his psychoanalysis, his vocal endorsement of cocaine as a drug with significant medical application, and his theory of the Oedipal complex.
Freud himself often applied his research to Jewish issues, including a dense psychoanalysis of Jewish humor. He left Vienna for England in 1938 after various psychology organizations paid ransom to the Nazis to allow his safe passage and died a year later, mostly having holed up in his apartment in England for fear of being targeted for being a Jew.
Noah’s Ark (and Ham)
Back to the Bible: The story of Noah and the flood gets a Humane Society-friendly twist, thanks to Jewish comic Seth Rogen’s take on Noah. Instead of rounding up two of every animal, Noah’s family is horrified to discover that he has limited his conservation efforts to various breeds of small dog. Noah asks his family if they really want to be stuck on a boat with live tigers for 40 days.
A side note to this sketch is a prominent role for Noah’s son Ham (Barinholtz again). In the Book of Genesis, Ham was present on the ark, but would later humiliate his father after the flood when Ham catches him drunk and naked in his tent. Noah would respond by cursing Ham’s son Canaan, condemning him to live as a slave to his uncles. (In the sketch, Noah’s family turns into cannibals when they vote to devour Ham’s wife, but Genesis describes the entire family as having survived the flood onboard the ark.)
The story of Noah’s Ark has been embraced by Christian fundamentalists in the United States. Some have even tried to verify the events as historically accurate, most notably at “Ark Encounter,” a Christian theme park attraction that opened in Kentucky in 2016 and purports to tell the real history of the Biblical event. Flood myths such as Noah’s Ark are common foundational stories across multiple world cultures and religions. PJC