Jewish comedy is serious business

Sometimes, a great joke can make us laugh until it hurts. But the opposite is also true.

Comedy (Illustrative) (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Comedy (Illustrative)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
DURING MY seven decades on this planet, one of the life lessons I acquired is this: People are often most serious when they are joking. There are things we all find very hard to say straight out. So we make a small joke about them and chuckle or laugh. Suppose someone you love is ignoring you. You can say, “Pay attention!” Or you can say, “Hey, what am I, chopped liver?”
If you listen carefully to what people joke about, you can get small windows into their souls about what troubles them, troubles that are otherwise opaque. A Yiddish saying goes, “m’lacht mit yash’akas” (you laugh, even when the worms are eating you).
Reading Jeremy Dauber’s fine book confirmed this hunch. Dauber is the Atran Professor of Yiddish Language, Literature and Culture at Columbia University. He is the author of many fine books on Jewish literature, including “The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem,” a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award.
In his new book, he shows how Jewish comedy is in fact a window into the minds and souls of the Jewish people throughout the ages − our fears, hopes, joys, sorrows, tragedies, victories and complex intimate relationship with our Maker. You can read it for deep insights, or simply for the great classic Jewish jokes.
How did Dauber come to write the book?
He recounts, “The first time I walked into a Columbia University classroom to teach a course on Jewish comedy, Seinfeld had just gone off the air … I was a little nervous—a wet behind the ears twenty-seven-year-old assistant professor, lecturing to the largest class I’d ever had (apparently this was the kind of course that could attract a crowd), and I looked down at my notes to focus myself: JEWISH COMEDY IS SERIOUS BUSINESS I’d typed across the top (in caps). And so it is.”
Sometimes, a great joke can make us laugh until it hurts. But the opposite is also true. Sometimes, we hurt until we laugh, until we joke about the hurt, wrapping laughter around the deep pain. This is very Jewish.
Dauber quotes at length the former Chief Rabbi of Britain, Hermann Adler, who said wisely in a lecture on January 5, 1893, “The mirth of the Hebrew does not come to him spontaneously. It is not the result of an overabundance of animal spirits. It is not an outcome of a mere exuberance of being. I would rather liken it to the weapon with which a beneficial Maker has provided his feeble creatures, whereby they have been enabled to survive in the fierce struggle for existence… there is an undercurrent of sadness even in the mirth of the Hebrew…even the scherzo of his song moves in the minor key.”
As Jews gained practice at making humor a weapon of survival, they transformed it into a path to fame and success. Consider such masters of comedy as Sholem Aleichem, Isaac Babel, Franz Kafka, the Marx Brothers, Woody Allen, Joan Rivers, Milton Berle, Buddy Hackett, Jerry Lewis, Philip Roth, Mel Brooks, Sarah Silverman, Jon Stewart, and, today, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, to name just a few.
According to the late Steve Allen, a prominent TV and radio personality, “American comedy is … a sort of Jewish cottage industry.” At the time (the early 1980s), he put Jewish participation in the field at approaching 80 percent [of all comedians].
In scholarly fashion, Dauber lists seven key observations that define Jewish humor. Here they are, along with jokes that illustrate them. Some of the jokes are from Dauber’s book and some are my own personal favorites, many by Woody Allen, who has made his Jewish neuroticism into a film platform.
Jewish comedy is a response to persecution and antisemitism.
Avram went into Church, took out his tallis, and yarmulke, and proceeded to pray.
The clergyman entered to start the services.
“Will all non-Christians please leave!” Avram continued davening.
Again the clergyman said, “Will all non-Christians please leave!”
And again, Avram prayed.
Finally, the distraught clergyman moved to Avram. “Will ALL JEWS please leave!!”
At this, Avram removed his yarmulke, packed up his tallis, then went to the altar, picked up a statue of Jesus and said, “Come, bubbela, they don’t want us here anymore!”
Jewish comedy is a satirical gaze at Jewish social and communal norms.
A distinguished Orthodox rabbi arrived in heaven and was greeted by an angel.
“Rabbi, we’ve prepared a special feast in your honor, with the best meats, fish and cakes.”
“Who, may I ask, prepared the meat?” asked the rabbi.
“Our finest chef, Elijah Manoshevksy.”
”And who is the mashgiach?”
“Why, God himself,” replied the angel.
“Thanks very much,” said the rabbi, “but I’ll just stick with the fish.”
And then there’s this one:
Sheldon visited Mama and Papa. He said, “Finally, I’ve found my bashert (my intended). Just for fun, I’m going to bring over three women and you guess which is ‘the one.’” Mama and Papa agreed.
The next day he brought three beautiful women who sat on the sofa and chatted with Mama and Papa over a little cake. After they left, he challenged, “OK! Guess which one I’m going to marry?”
“The one in the middle with the red hair,” his parents replied instantly.
“Right! But ... how did you know?" asked Sheldon, amazed.
Mama said, “Simple. Her, we don’t like!”
Jews’ relationship with God is very personal, complex and intimate. Here is a joke Dauber recounts in his book:
A grandmother takes her small grandson to the beach. Suddenly a giant wave washes the little boy out to sea.
Bobba prays to God: “Please, bring back my grandson!”
Immediately a huge wave washes the little boy unharmed back onto shore.
Bobba points to heaven and says indignantly, “Hey! He had a hat!”
Woody Allen: “If you want to make God Jewish comedy is serious business laugh, tell him your future plans.” This is his adaptation of the Yiddish saying, “A mentsch tracht … und Got lacht” (a person thinks and plans, and God laughs).
As the movie director Samuel Goldwyn (and Yankees catcher Yogi Berra) once said, verbal agreements are not worth the paper they are written on. Neither, they might have added, are long-range strategic plans, according to Jewish mores.
Jewish comedy is bookish, witty, intellectual allusive play.
Woody Allen, on Nietzsche: “Not only is God dead – just try to get a plumber on a weekend!”
Jewish comedy is vulgar, raunchy, and body-obsessed.
Woody Allen again: “If I die and return to earth, I want to come back as Tom Cruise’s fingertips.”
Jewish comedy is mordant, ironic, and metaphysically oriented.
Woody Allen: “I cheated on a Metaphysics exam. I looked into the soul of the girl sitting next to me.” And: “I’m not afraid of death. I just don’t want to be around when it happens.” And: “Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering – and it’s all over much too soon.”
Allen on the Bible: “True, the lion and the lamb shall lie down together − but the lamb won’t get much sleep.”
Jewish comedy is focused on the folksy, everyday, quotidian Jew.
During one service in a wealthy synagogue, the rabbi got carried away. Falling on hands and knees, forehead to floor, he said, “Oh God, before Thee I am nothing.”
The Cantor, not to be outdone, also got down, forehead to wood and said, “Oh God, before Thee I am nothing.”
Seeing this, Levy, a tailor in the fourth row, left his seat, fell to his knees, forehead to floor and he too, said, “Oh God, before Thee I am nothing.”
With this, the Cantor elbowed the rabbi and sniffed, “Look who thinks he’s nothing!”
Mendel was on a ship emigrating from Russia to America. The second day, a huge storm erupted. People screamed and chairs went flying. Yet Mendel calmly read his book.
“Mendel!” yelled a fellow passenger. “How can you sit there when the ship may be sinking?!” “What’s to get excited?” answered Mendel. “The ship belongs to me?”
Or this one, from Dauber’s book:
“You want to hear a joke? I’ll tell you a joke. What’s green, is nailed to the wall, and whistles?”
“I give up.”
“A herring.”
“A herring’s not green!”
“Nu, you can paint it green.”
“But it’s not nailed to the wall!”
“You could nail it to the wall. If you wanted to.”
“ But a herring doesn’t whistle!”
“All right, fine, so it doesn’t whistle.”
Or: “I just threw in that part to confuse you.” Or: “All right, all right, so it’s not a herring.” Or: “What am I, some kind of herring expert?” And on and on.
Dauber tells this famous one:
“A tale of the Preacher of Dubno, an 18th-century Hasidic rabbi famous for his apt and witty parables. Asked by an admirer how he always managed to find such an appropriate parable for each and every sermon, he answered, not uncharacteristically, with another parable.
“He told the story of a general visiting his troops who was struck by the results of their target practice: while most of the chalk circles drawn as makeshift targets on the wall revealed your regular variety of hit-or-miss results, one showed nothing but bullseyes – dead center, every shot.
“Gasping, the general demanded to see this marksman; he was even more surprised to discover the shooter was a Jew, a conscript forced to serve in the tzar’s army. He asked the Jew the secret of his success at arms.
“The Jew looked at the general as if he were cockeyed and responded, “Well, it’s very easy. First you fire the gun, and then, once you see where the bullet hole is, you draw a circle around it.”
“This had always been his technique, the maggid concluded: find a good joke or story, then figure out the larger point to draw from it.”
Jewish comedy is about the blurred and ambiguous nature of Jewishness itself.
This joke never dies, and is retold and rephrased endlessly.
A Jewish father was very troubled by the way his son turned out and went to see his rabbi about it.
“Rabbi, I brought him up in the faith, gave him a very expensive bar mitzvah and it cost me a fortune to educate him. Then he tells me last week, he’s decided to be a Christian. Rabbi, where did I go wrong?”
The rabbi strokes his beard and says, “Funny you should come to me. I, too, brought up my son as a boy of faith, sent him to university and it cost me a fortune, and then one day he comes to me and tells me he wants to be a Christian.”
“What did you do?” asked the man of the rabbi.
“I turned to God for the answer,” replied the rabbi.
“What did he say?” asked the man.
“He said, “Funny you should come to me...”
Sometimes, on viewing the Israeli political scene and the paucity of attractive choices we face, I’m reminded again of Woody Allen and his analysis.
“More than any time in history mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray that we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”