'Jewish jokes are serious business'

Jim Jones's lesson: Humor is a powerful tool.

April 29, 2010 04:40
3 minute read.
US National Security Adviser Jim Jones.

jim jones 311. (photo credit: AP)


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“In order to set the stage for my remarks,” began US National Security Adviser Jim Jones in a speech to a room full of Jews this week, “I’d like to begin with a story that I think is true, and it happened recently in southern Afghanistan.”

The story, of course, was not true. It was the now-infamous joke about a Jewish merchant taunting a thirsty Taliban warrior and eventually succeeding in selling the anti-Semitic Islamist a tie so that he could enter a nearby restaurant to purchase water.

Jones got into hot water for the joke, drawing a predictable lashing from the ADL and some Jewish commentators. The mini-crisis, (jokingly) labeled “Jokegate” by The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, sheds light on the malleable nature of humor, especially ethnic humor.

It was a stale old joke where the punch line centered on the unexpected importance of a tie shop in the middle of the desert. And Jones didn’t tell it well, delivering it in a monotone that suggested National Security Council meetings must require a lot of coffee.

But for all the complaints, it’s worth noting that Gen. Jones intended the joke not to disparage Jews, but to “join” them. The joke was meant “to set the stage for my remarks,” remarks that included an affirmation of the US administration’s concern for Israeli security and perhaps the strongest-yet castigation of the Iranian regime’s two-faced diplomacy over the nuclear issue.

Jones seemed to believe that a “Jewish” joke was a good way to ingratiate himself to the audience, which included many Jewish donors and staff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. It was, after all, a story about the Jews’ witty triumph over their enemies.

At least, that was what Jones seems to have had in mind.

Unfortunately for the grizzled former Marine Corps commandant, humor is a double-edged sword. Its power comes from its malleability, the way it plays with multiple meanings and unexpected results.

And for Jews, it is high art, one of the most cherished weapons in the Jewish storytelling arsenal, a sacred inheritance from the master Yiddish storytellers who used it to express life’s many troubles and their own foibles.

Shalom Aleichem, in a Yiddish tale that was the precursor to the Fiddler on the Roof franchise, delivered a sharp social critique of the hopelessness and collapse of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. But even while critiquing the old Jewish world’s failure to deal with the new, he couched his criticism in loving, compassionate humor.

Similarly, the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto would chuckle morosely during those dark years at the “Eleventh Commandment” that had been inexplicably left out of the Bible: “Choose the right grandparents.”

Humor can cut to the bone, expressing awesome agony in manageable prose. Jewish humor holds a special place in our history precisely for that power.

For that reason, too, it is too powerful to be manhandled carelessly by the inexperienced. The Sages forbid one to criticize when that criticism will not be listened to. So, too, with humor – it must be conveyed in such a way that it will be heard.

And for that, context is key. The same joke can be told by a rabbi with love and a glint of conspiratorial solidarity, or by a bigot as a despicable slur.

Jones’s mistake was not that he told a Jewish joke, but that he told it badly, without injecting into the delivery the camaraderie that would give the joke its raison d’etre.

Soon the dust will settle, the small gaffe will be forgotten, and America’s national security adviser will, one hopes, take away from the experience a deeper lesson: Humor is a serious business.

And perhaps, having now discovered his comedic Achilles’ heel, the four-star general will be inspired to hone his craft at every opportunity. In that vein, here’s hoping that this silly tale has a happy ending: Maybe, just maybe, future US National Security Council briefings will be a lot more fun.

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