To be hip and Jewish: Writer enthralls Berkeley crowd

David Wild took to the stage in a rumpled black suit, carrying a half-dozen books under his arm, looking only slightly out place in front of the 150 or so mostly U.C. Berkeley students who arrived to hear him speak. His pant legs were too short, his coat sleeves too long and his curly hair showed the effects of a receding hairline.

Without a doubt, he was a very cool Jew.

And in the hour that followed, "coolness" and how it relates to Judaism was exactly what Wild discussed. Jews in pop culture, Jews in rock and roll, Jews in Hollywood. He never once pulled a punch, never hesitated to tackle controversial topics and never stopped entertaining his enraptured audience.

Wild, a writer and editor at Rolling Stone, delivered the lecture earlier this month on the U.C. Berkeley campus, at the invitation of Berkeley Hillel. He covered the finer points of American pop culture, the life of a Jewish journalist covering that culture and the tremendous success of Jews in show business.

"I know it's Thursday, so I thank all of you for skipping 'Survivor' and coming to the real tribal council," Wild said in his opening remarks. "Besides, we're the only tribe that matters."

Wild's opening witticisms evoked both laughter and applause from the audience, and set the tone for his entire lecture. He was humorous and charming throughout the night.

"I am a wandering Jew," Wild said. "And if this was Jews Anonymous, you'd all have to say, 'Hello, David.'"

Wild told some of his favorite journalistic war stories, of his travels with bands while doing magazine pieces for Rolling Stone. Without exception, there would always be at least one member of those bands who would come out of the closet, he said.

"I think it's just because I'm so obviously Jewish, other people feel like they can confess their Judaism to me," Wild said. "I can't tell you how many times I was on the road with heavy metal bands, and the drummer would pull me aside and whisper, 'Hey man, I'm Jewish too.'"

Wild covered a wide spectrum of pop culture while writing for Rolling Stone, stretching from music to movies to television. Each time, there was a story to tell about Jews who influenced their field.

"Michael Bolton is Jewish, I found out about that the other day," Wild said. "Though I'm still not sure if I'm proud about that one."

Throughout his lecture, Wild tried to tie together all the Jews who have succeeded in pop culture and examine how and why they have triumphed in the world of music, movies and television. It's a phenomenon that is very difficult to explain, he said.

"We sort of joke about it, but the percentages don't lie. There are just a tremendous number of Jews in the arts."

His own success in the arts stretches from his journalistic experiences with Rolling Stone to other writing opportunities behind the scenes at television sitcoms, MTV award shows and a Christina Aguilera Christmas special.

Wild has even written presidential jokes. "There's nothing better than watching the leader of the free world bomb with your jokes," he said.

Without a doubt, though, Wild said he and many other Jews have found their place in pop culture. But trying to put a finger on what it is that makes them cool, hip and successful artists isn't easy. In looking for deeper meanings, he talked about the Jewish writers behind the "Seinfeld" show.

Those writers, he said, took a show that was too New York and far too Jewish by television's standards and still turned it into a huge mainstream hit.

Wild said there probably isn't just one factor that is making Jews so successful in pop culture. Instead, there are probably a number of reasons.

Perhaps at the top of that list, he said, is the remarkable, good-natured wit many Jews possess. Additionally, there is a certain amount of "Jewish sensibility" that is developed when you come from a Jewish family. With craziness and insanity a key ingredient of many Jewish families, he added, Jews often develop a self-deprecating sense of humor.

Even with those explanations, Wild really didn't have an answer for why so many Jews succeed in show business. Instead, he said he could only relate his personal experiences with the Jewish stars, and try to go from there.

"You start looking around, and you'll see that everything is at least half Jewish. Even stars and celebrities who aren't Jewish end up marrying Jews," Wild said. "I can't explain that one either, except to say that they have good taste."