Lena Dunham on Purim, Jew Jokes, and her favorite Jewish things

Lena Dunham was the queen of last night’s Jewish Museum Purim Ball at the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan, delivering the night’s spiel from the perspective of her six-year-old self.

“Welcome to my bat mitzvah,” Dunham greeted the crowd of some 950 people. “If anything I say offends you, please don’t fucking tweet it. It’s going to be so stressful for me and I was told to come here and make jokes about Jews. I’m a Jew, it’s all coming from a really good place.”  

I hope you’re reading this, Abe Foxman! 

Dunham’s bit was inspired by Eloise, the fictional city girl living at the Plaza Hotel on Fifth Avenue, who Dunham said was her favorite character as a child.  

“I suppose I’m Jewish, depending which way you look at things. For instance, my mother is Jewish, and you are a Jew if your mother is one too — at least that’s what the Jews say. The Jews also say, ‘You’re too skinny, eat,’” Dunham said, a sly nod to the haters who give her flak for going nude on her HBO show, even though she’s “heavy.”  

“Here’s the thing about Jews — they really couldn’t care less who your father is: unless he is on the board of one of the better New York hospitals. My father is a WASP. That is not an animal, it stands for something: White, Angry, Saxophone, Protestant. He respects the Jewish religion but will not wear a yarmulke — he said it feels like a bird took a shit on his head.”  

Dunham said she prefers Hanukkah to Christmas, explaining there were eight days of presents instead of one.  

“On the seventh or eighth night of Hanukkah, my mom starts to get lazy and just wraps things she already owns: like a shoe horn or some earrings that are missing some posts. One time she gave me a jewelry box that was beautiful and said Lexapro on the side,” she said, right before noting that much of her spiel involved fictional information about her parents.  

“I always ask people if they are Jewish because, you know what? I want to know! It gives you a certain feel about a person. My nanny’s name is Nonny and she is Irish and Catholic, which I think means Irish Catholic,” Dunham went on. “One time she cried when I said Jesus Christ, like I said the name of friend who is dead. I don’t get it: all I did was say the name of a friend of hers who never even existed in the first place.”

Dunham told the crowd she was an atheist, but one that believes in heaven, and “definitely one that believes in God.” She said most of her friends are Jewish, “even the Korean ones.”

“One of my best friends was adopted when she a baby,” she said. “Her parents, Henry and Barbara, look like they fix violins for a living because their hair is so crazy. But Kimberly’s hair cannot get crazy because she is not a Jew by birth. Only true Jewish hair can get truly crazy.”  

Dunham moved on to list her favorite things about being Jewish: “Potato pancakes, gelt (why would anyone want regular money when there’s money that is chocolate inside?!), matzo balls, musicals, my grandpa, lifting people up in chairs, being worried all the time so that when something truly bad happens, you’re really ready for it.”  

Dunham also took shots at her friend John Konigsberg, “who doesn’t shut up about his time at Camp Ramah.”

“Between you and me, it’s a tragedy when parents send a six-year-old to sleep away camp. It’s like they are wearing a sign that says, ‘Hello, I don’t even care about you.’ Sleep away camp is basically child abuse.”  

“Purim is not one of the really good holidays, where they change the alternate side of the street parking but it is still a holiday,” she said. “Most ordinary Jews I know don’t make a big thing about it but they should because it is very interesting because of its history. Purim celebrates the deliverance of the Jewish people, as told by the book of Esther — is it me, or are the Jews absolutely always getting delivered?”

Dunham then gave an abbreviated version of the Purim story, using two friends, her doctor, and her mom as actresses behind her on stage. She made sure to wave her grogger every time she said “Haman,” and when she got to the part of the Purim story about Esther not telling anyone she was Jewish, Dunham reminded the crowd that religion was not something to be spoken about in public. She then dramatically leaned forward into the microphone, and whispered, “Don’t, don’t talk about Palestine at a party of Jews when you don’t know their views!”

Dunham called Vashti “a feminist,” hypothesized that there was a “Haman and Mordechai inside all of us,” and had a hard time pronouncing “Achashverosh,” but the crowd loved her anyways.

Dunham headlined the museum’s fundraiser as a favor to Claudia Gould, the museum’s director, who is a close friend of Dunham’s mother, Laurie Simmons. Gould told the crowd she called Simmons two years ago, asking if Dunham would want to participate in last year’s Purim ball, to which her mother replied, “Lena is not that famous. Give her a year.”

The crowd — older, upper crust Jews guzzling Bartenura alongside their teenage daughters — certainly found Dunham enough to their liking. Attendees lined up for hours just to snap a selfie and have their 14-second conversation with the actress. (“You’re, like, amazing, do you know that?” And, “Oh my God, you are like my best friend and you don’t even know it!” As well as, “Is there any chance you could come home with me and read through the book I’m writing?”)  

I spotted a few journalists from other Jewish publications stalking Dunham throughout night, hovering and pestering her for some photos and quotes, but I was politely rejected by her publicist and opted to bask in the sixteen seconds I had alongside one of my idols. I asked her if she was nervous to deliver the Purim spiel (she was not) and if she liked the glitter tattoo I got per her inspiration (she did).

Dunham appeared to be overwhelmed, probably because of all the 16-year-old girls that were endlessly hitting on her, and maybe because she was worried she’d get the same flak Seth MacFarlane received for his Jew jokes at the Oscars, but her performance was definitely a success. She took to Twitter later to write, “The Purim Ball was a fucking crazy time!”

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