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The Mysterious Jewish Roots of Yosemite Sam

Yo, Semites: Was the gunslinging, rabbit-hating Yosemite Sam Jewish all along? We spoke with the creator’s family to learn the truth

Most days it’s best to ignore the combination of garbled nonsense, hateful vitriol and warm gruel that pours out of our president’s mouth. But on Tuesday, Donald Trump emitted a gaffe funny enough to provide a brief moment of levity during this summer of agony. During a White House event celebrating the signing of the Great American Outdoors Act, he mispronounced “Yosemite” — as in Yosemite National Park — as “yo-semites.” Like what an overeager 36-year-old rabbi might say when entering a room full of Jewish youngsters: “Yo, Semites!”

It’s the kind of illiterate gaffe that, had it been uttered by George W. Bush in 2002, might have been fodder for one of those novelty books of “Bushisms” that liberals for some reason liked to gift each other. (The modern equivalent, perhaps, is the Sarah Cooper parody video your dad will inevitably email you.) In 2020, “Yo Semites” provided easy joke fodder for bored, quarantined Jews, and a merchandise boom for the National Museum of American Jewish History, which has been making a small fortune selling “YO SEMITE” T-shirts.

In one corner of Jew Twitter, Trump’s fuck-up also prompted an unexpected revelation about a 75-year-old cartoon character: Yosemite Sam. Yes, the belligerent, rabbit-hating, Bugs Bunny-antagonizing cowboy from Looney Tunes. Was he in fact… Jewish?

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As historian and Atlantic editor Yoni Appelbaum pointed out, Yosemite Sam — the self-described “roughest, toughest, he-man stuffest hombre who’s ever crossed the Rio Grande” — really did have ambiguously Jewish origins:

The cartoon character’s legacy as the most colorful villain from the Looney Tunes universe — aside from union busters — is secure. Yosemite Sam taught millions of children (apparently not Trump) how to pronounce “Yo-SEH-mi-tee,” and he’s been name-checked in rap songs ranging from Beastie Boys’ “Egg Man” to Clipse’s “Young Boy.”

But who knew he was a member of the tribe?

‘He’s a Western-bad-guy type. We don’t associate Jews with that.’

Appelbaum’s curious claim is supported by a website called Jew or Not Jew, which in 2016 examined the available evidence. “Yes, Yosemite Sam, the red-mustached, screaming, gun-toting, bipolar, rabbit-hating maniac, is a Jew,” the site reluctantly concluded. “His real name, as revealed on a recent episode of The Looney Tunes Show is… Samuel Rosenbaum.”

But that particular episode, “Daffy Duck, Esquire,” is from 2013. The Yosemite Sam character was first introduced much earlier, in 1945, when it was created by the legendary Jewish animator and cartoonist Isadore “Friz” Freleng, a longtime director for Warner Bros.

Upon Freleng’s death in 1995, the Associated Press noted that he “once admitted to serving as the model for the brazen, gun-slinging Yosemite Sam.” Whether that makes Sam canonically Jewish is unclear.

When I reached out to animation historian Jerry Beck, author of the book Looney Tunes: The Ultimate Visual Guide, he seemed bewildered. “To be honest, I have no information on the Jewish origins of Yosemite Sam,” he emailed back. Later, by phone, Beck elaborated. “He’s a Western-bad-guy type. And we don’t associate Jews with that, I don’t think,” Beck says. “Bugs himself might have some Jewish tendencies, with Mel Blanc as his voice and a certain New York speech pattern.”

In fact, there’s at least one British scholar out there who does claim Bugs Bunny is Jewish. And MEL’s own Miles Klee recently argued that Bugs Bunny is a communist, noting his Brooklyn accent and leftist ideals.

But Bugs isn’t the one with “Semite” hidden in his name.

A Jewish kid from Seattle named Mel Blanc

Determined to solve the mystery of Yosemite Sam’s rumored Jewish roots, I tracked down Freleng’s daughter, Hope Freleng Shaw. Shaw seemed delighted to hear from me — both because she is an active steward of her father’s unique legacy, and because my last name happens to be the same as her mother’s maiden name. (“We could be related,” Shaw tells me as we compare notes on our Jewish ancestors.)

According to Shaw, her father created Yosemite Sam in 1945 because he felt Bugs Bunny needed a stronger adversary than the dim-witted Elmer Fudd. The character was inspired by trigger-happy train-robbers from Westerns. “He just wanted a rough, tough little guy to go against Bugs Bunny because he didn’t like Elmer Fudd,” Shaw says. “It was my father’s idea, and my father’s character.”

For the character’s voice, Freleng used Warner Bros. voiceman Mel Blanc, who found the character’s brash, shouty delivery so draining that he had to save Sam’s lines for the end of each recording session. “There weren’t too many Jewish people in the industry at the time,” Shaw says. “And [my father] gave Mel Blanc his job because he was a kid from Seattle and he was Jewish and he kept wanting to get a job and nobody would hire him. My father hired him to do the first Porky Pig cartoons.” (Shaw later clarifies that Freleng hired Blanc because of his talent, not because he was Jewish.)

Shaw said she’s not aware of Yosemite Sam being Jewish — or of his real name being Samuel Rosenbaum. But the character did bear a striking resemblance to her dad. “My father never saw that in Yosemite Sam,” she says. “But everybody else thought that Yosemite Sam was absolutely my father. He had red hair when he was a kid. And he was very tiny — only 5-foot-4.” A short king.

As for personality? “He did have a little temper, but he was also the sweetest, most wonderful father any children could have,” Shaw says. “It was really an unbelievable life that I had growing up. My dad would draw Bugs Bunny on my notebooks. And I didn’t realize he was famous. I said, ‘Why don’t you have a grown-up job?’”

‘All these characters that my father created are Jewish’

Freleng was also known to hide the occasional Jewish pun in his work, such as a 1954 cartoon titled Muzzle Tough (say it out loud). Perhaps it’s a reminder that any cartoon or work of children’s entertainment can carry subversive or political elements that only adult viewers pick up on. Consider the subliminal pro-union messaging of Space Jam, as Steven Perlberg previously reported for MEL.

Speaking of, there’s the distinct possibility that Goofy is Jewish, having been developed by pro-labor Jewish cartoonist Art Babbitt, who helped lead a strike of lower-paid Disney workers. (Maybe this explains why I’m so hypnotized by this clip of Goofy’s voice dubbed onto Jewish film icon Howard Ratner.)

As for Freleng’s daughter? She can’t tell you if Yosemite Sam is a true (yo!) Semite or not. She’s just happy her dad’s work lives on. “I used to [joke to] my friends, ‘All these characters that my father created are Jewish. Because we’re Jewish!’” Shaw says with a laugh.

“My father drew Bugs Bunny with a tallis for my son’s Bar Mitzvah,” she continues. “It was so cute. But Warner Bros. did not want people to assume that Bugs Bunny was Jewish, so they would not let him put it on a Hallmark card.” So instead, on the family card, Freleng wrote for his grandson: “Nobody thinks that rabbits can be Jewish, but I’m a Jewish rabbit.”