Jewish Humor in Not-so-Funny Times
One day Mrs. Katz and Mrs. Cohen are sitting on a park bench and Mrs. Katz says to Mrs. Cohen, Did you hear the one about the Goldsteins? They are…”
“Oy, stop it,” Mrs. Cohen interrupts, “What is it with you? Why do all your jokes have to be Jewish, with Jewish names and all? Can’t you just tell me the joke without the Jewish names?”
“Alright,” Mrs. Katz says, “So Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien are going to their son’s bar mitzvah…”
“Comedy, especially standup, is to Jews what jazz is to [African-Americans]: an art form whose vocabulary and attitude they invented and that continues to bear their stamp, even when performed by others.”1
Humor has long been an essential part of Jewish culture, from the time of Moses, to Tevye the Milkman, from the Yiddish humor of Sholom Aleichem to the shtick of Jackie Mason and the clever comedy of Woody Allen to the post-ethnic humor of Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, Jon Stewart and David M. Bader. Over the past 40 years, 80 percent of America’s comedians have been Jewish, which is further story to the fact that Jewish humor has both a broad-based appeal and staying power.
This humor is recognizable as distinctly Jewish, not only in America, but around the world. Israeli Jews may have their own brand of it, as do Jews from the former Soviet Union, but Jewish humor is as globalized as our population.
It was mealtime on an El Al flight. “Would you like dinner?” the flight attendant asks. “What are my choices,” the passenger responds. “Yes or no,” she replies.
A Brit, a Frenchman and a Russian Jew are viewing a painting of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. “Look at their reserve, their calm,” says the Brit. “They must be British.” “Nonsense,” the Frenchman disagrees, “They are naked and beautiful. Clearly they are French.” “Oh please,” says the Russian. “No clothes, no shelter and only an apple to eat and they are told this is paradise? They are Russian Jews!”
Our humor is so deeply ingrained in our subconscious that it’s been said that it “in some ways [has] come to replace the standard sacred texts as a touchstone for the entire Jewish community.”2
If that’s true, then our humor bears examination, to see what it says about us as well as what it reveals about our past, present and future as a people. We live in times that are increasingly turbulent. Is our wit enough to sustain us through them? Is it enough to say simply, as we face tragic terrorist events, major natural disasters and pending catastrophes: “Oh well, at least we’ve got our sense of humor”?
“Jewish Humor is Neither Jewish nor Humorous . . . Discuss:”
Defining Jewish Humor
“What makes Jewish humor Jewish?” Is it just one of those things that you recognize when you see it? Or are there criteria for actually deeming comedy Jewish? Rabbi Joseph Telushkin writes, “What makes a joke Jewish? Obviously, it must apply to Jews, but more significantly, it must express a Jewish sensibility.”
He adds, “Jewish sensibility, however, concerns precisely those subjects and values that receive disproportionate attention among Jews. Anti-Semitism, financial success, verbal aggression and assimilation are all particularly significant in Jewish life.”3
Besides certain “Jewish” subject matters, the authors of The Big Book of Jewish Humor, Moshe Waldoks and William Novak list some other prominent, consistent subjects and characteristics of Jewish humor: laughter through tears, self-hatred, skepticism, anti-authoritarianism, fascination with the intricacies of the mind and iconoclasm.
And those subjects are often tackled through the use of irony. In an article entitled “Insight on Jewish Humor,” the writer says that, “the main characteristic of Jewish humor is the irony that measures the distance between pretense, wishful thinking and reality-the result being self-criticism and self-mockery.”4
While Jewish humor is not the only humor that utilizes self-deprecation, we do it with an unrivaled frequency and flair. Sigmund Freud once wrote, “I do not know whether there are many other instances of a people making fun to such a degree of its own character.” 5
Take for instance the story of Mandelbaum and his wife, Sarah. After Mandelbaum died, Sarah phoned the Jewish Chronicle to place an obituary. “This is what I want it to say,” she tells them. “‘Bernie is dead.'” The Chronicle employee replied, “But for $25 you are allowed to print six words.” “Fine,” Sarah said, “Then print: ‘Bernie is dead . . . Lexus for sale.'”
This joke reflects our willingness to poke fun at stereotypical Jewish “frugality.” But our ability to mock doesn’t stop at ourselves. Max Jacob Mintz points out that we also mock our oppressors, other Jews and even our relationship with God.
Jewish humor begins with the fundamental assumption that each of us is flawed and worth poking fun at. Henry Spalding, in his preface to The Encyclopedia of Jewish Humor, writes, “. . . the narrator recognizes himself for what he is-a simple human being, subject to all the foibles of mortal mind and frailties of the flesh. And because he has the moral and intellectual courage to recognize and then ridicule his own weaknesses, he sees no reason to spare the sensibilities of his adversaries for their own deficiencies.”6
According to many a psychologist and scholar, this view of humanity and the world, and the humor that comes as a result of such low expectations, is precisely what has seen Jewish people through some of the worst that humanity can dish out. Paradoxically, many also posit that it is this suffering that largely contributed to our being funny in the first place.
How Did we Jews Get to Be so Funny Anyway?
At a colloquy on Jewish humor at New York University in 2002, a group of respected Jewish voices in the entertainment industry gathered to identify aspects of comedy that were distinctly Jewish. Forward writer Abraham Genauer reports:
“The group also debated just how it was that Jews became funny. The ability to laugh at suffering was offered as a possible reason, although [Murray] Horowitz pointed out that suffering alone doesn’t necessarily lead to humor. ‘There’s not a lot of Armenian comedians,’ he offered as evidence.”7
Yet, as noted above, Jewish humor revolves around those objects, ideas and situations that are familiar to Jews everywhere and indeed, one thing that Jewish people can most universally relate to is our past (and in some cases present) suffering.
From the time of the pogroms in czarist Russia, even to the concentration camps in Europe, not only did our people survive, but so did examples of the humor that bore them through such suffering. The famous Chelm stories are an example.
In the face of disaster, we Jews get going, we look for ways to defy the odds-and if not, we laugh. Rather than merely succumb to the dire circumstances, we learn to fashion our own reality. Though we are sometimes gasping for air in our underwater existence, humor is our life preserver, as the classic joke tells us:
Scientists discover that a great flood will engulf the world in a few days.
In response, the Pope announces to his people: “Repent and you will go to heaven”
The Buddhists say: “Contemplate and you will achieve Nirvana.”
The Chief Rabbi announces, “My Jewish friends, we have three days to learn to breathe underwater.”
But while comic relief has long been a coping mechanism for Jewish survival, the Jewish comic vision often belittles the importance ascribed to suffering. Jewish tradition does not glorify suffering, nor is suffering deemed worthy of deification. Rather it is accepted as the inevitable. “If you want life, expect pain,” the saying goes.
So it appears true that suffering had a part to play in the development of Jewish humor. But in the long run, is humor enough to get people through lives that might be filled with pain and misery, or is something else needed?
Humor: A Doorway to Hope
Maurice Samuel, a student of Eastern-European Jewry, asserts that shrewd and ironic humor is a source of the necessary inner strength that is a mode for survival. He writes, “There was nothing jolly and hilarious about the destitution that lay like a curse on millions of Jews in the Yiddish-speaking world. . . . They were miserable, and knew it; but the question that haunts us historically is, why did they not disintegrate intellectually and morally? How were they able, under hideous oppression . . . to keep alive against a better day the spirit originally breathed into man? The answer lies in the self-mockery by which they rose above their condition to see afar off the hope of the future.”8
So it seems as though Jewish humor itself might be a means to an end. Mixed in with Jewish cynicism and self-criticism is a yearning for something greater-a world in which justice, mercy, understanding and equality will prevail, not only for us but for all people. A world without suffering.
These days this hope has faded for many of our people. And some are convinced that if anything better is going to come along, it will be a result of our own achievement. The idea of tikkun olam demonstrates this “if it is to be, it is up to me” attitude as many endeavor to repair the world themselves.
But this point of view overlooks some key parts of our history, and it ignores the original hope for the Jewish people that dates back to biblical times.
A History of Hope
Our Scriptures tell us that God chose us as a people for himself, to make his name great among the other nations, and to bless us. Nowadays, such an idea brings a smirk or an offhand remark like Tevye’s in Fiddler on the Roof: “Lord, I know we are the chosen people, but once in awhile couldn’t you choose somebody else?”
Our troubles and tsuris started almost immediately after God chose us. And in those hard times were the seeds for our sense of humor. Telushkin says that our culture and history shaped our values and our worldview to include self-criticism. He points to the prophets as examples:
The biblical prophets repeatedly denounced their fellow Jews for their moral lapses: the Jews reacted, not by hating the prophets, but by canonizing their words and making them part of the Holy Scriptures. This tradition has carried over into Jewish humor….
Horowitz likewise concurs that our humor has its roots in the Bible. But the story of the Jewish people as told in the Bible (see sidebar), while it includes moments of comic relief, is no comedy of errors. It is a serious chronicle of numerous failures on the part of people to please God and God’s displeased response. This cycle occurred so many times, that many Jewish people started to lose hope.
Fast-forward several centuries and, as Jewish humor evolved it began to take issue with God or the idea that he had chosen our people for anything but misfortune. Rabbi Marc Gellman of TV’s “The God Squad” suggests that a chief earmark of Jewish humor is our readiness to poke fun at rabbis and leaders, and even at God.
The story is told of a middle-aged Jewish woman who asks God, “Is my time up?” God tells her she has another 40 years to live. She then has extensive cosmetic surgery, changes her hair color and as she exits the beauty salon she’s hit by a car and dies. Arriving in front of God, she chides him with, “You said I had another 40 years!” “I didn’t recognize you,” says God.
Max Jacob Mintz suggests “. . . By giving God a sense of humor, these jokes make him or her seem more human, and with shortcomings. This makes them feel that there is perhaps a way of getting closer to God.”9
But at the root of all this, one cannot help but wonder if these jabs at ourselves and God don’t come from a deep-seated fear that perhaps God has left us or no longer loves us; that we are on our own to fend for ourselves. It’s a scary thought indeed and so we reach for our humor, because as Telushkin puts it, “Anything that can be mocked immediately seems less threatening.” But is this perception correct?
Beyond the Laughter
According to our Scriptures, there is a vast disparity between the way we Jews often view ourselves and the way God views us. The Bible tells us that God has not abandoned us; rather, he has always sought to be actively involved in our lives:
“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands. Your walls are continually before me” (Isaiah 49:15-16).
God has not given up on us. In fact, true to his word, God has sustained us, even to this day.
Humorist Mark Twain noted: “. . . the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of. . . . Other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. . . . What is the secret of his immortality?”10
We may think our self-mockery or our wit or our chutzpah have sustained us over the centuries, but really, what our Scriptures have always taught is that God is the one who has kept us alive and will continue to do so. Skepticism may offer us some self-protection, but those who wished our demise were not stopped by our humor but by the will of God to preserve and protect us. Just as he promised.
Conclusion: The Punch Line
Jewish humor works under the fundamental assumption that people are flawed and that in order to survive we must create a reality for ourselves that is more bearable than the one around us. According to Telushkin, “The ‘distressed optimist’ strikes the right chord in much Jewish humor. By insisting that the world is moving toward perfection, and that the Messianic days lie in the future, Judaism encourages Jews to be optimists. But Jewish history, with its tragic record of crusades, expulsions, pogroms, and the Holocaust, impels Jews to pessimism. Hence, as Jews, we are optimists-with worried looks on our faces.”
This attitude is reflected in a joke that goes like this:
A traveler arrived in a village in the middle of winter to find an old man shivering in the cold outside the synagogue.
“What are you doing here?” asked the traveler.
“I’m waiting for the coming of the messiah,”
“That must be an important job,” said the traveler. “The community must pay you a lot of money.”
“No, not at all. They just let me sit here on this bench. Once in a while someone gives me a little food.”
“That must be hard. But even if they don’t pay you, they must honor you for doing this important work.”
“No, not at all, they think I’m crazy.”
“I don’t understand. They don’t pay you, they don’t respect you. You sit in the cold, shivering and hungry. What kind of job is this?”
“Well, it’s steady work.”
We are strangely comfortable as cynics. Our clever repartee comes naturally. Our self-deprecating humor seems to fit our lot in life. Yet what if we have more than humor as a resource we rely on through the difficult times? What if instead of looking to a Seinfeld, Sandler or Stewart for our inspiration, we turn to the inspired words of the Hebrew prophets. They believed that the one who knows all things and is all-powerful is our true defender. What if he is ours? Then, his promises are ours to appropriate as well.
And he says that we have the potential for a glorious future: “‘For I know the thoughts that I think toward you,’ says the Lord, ‘thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope'” (Jeremiah 29:11).
If that’s true, then we have reason, not for cynicism but for smiles and laughter, and for deep joy, as our ultimate hopes are realized.
- “Laugh and About .0016% of the World Laughs With You” by Andrew Silow-Carroll published in Forward February 22, 2002.
- Rabbi Telushkin, Joseph. “Introduction: What is Jewish About Jewish Humor?” Jewish Humor: What the Best Jewish Jokes Say About the Jews. New York: William Morrow and Co.,1992, 15-26.
Director of Communications, Missionary
Susan Perlman is one of the co-founders of Jews for Jesus. Susan is the associate executive director of Jews for Jesus and also director of communications for the organization. She also serves as the editor in chief of ISSUES, their evangelistic publication for Jewish seekers. She left a career track in New York City to help launch Jews for Jesus in San Francisco in the early 1970s. See more here.