A joyful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit dries up the bones – Proverbs 17:22
Conquered kingdoms, pogroms, blood libels, persecution, the Holocaust. It hasn’t always ended well.
And yet, this could be the very reason that, despite a history wrought with tragedy, Jews make some of the best comedians of all time.
Just look at the Jewish-dominated list of American comedians from the early days of film to the present: The Marx Brothers, Danny Kaye, George Burns, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Jackie Mason, Joan Rivers, Woody Allen, Gilda Radner, Billy Crystal, Fran Drescher, Adam Sandler, Jerry Seinfeld and Sarah Silverman represent just a fraction of Jewish powerhouses in comedy.
Time magazine reported that in the 1970s, 80% of American comedians were Jewish – when Jews comprised less than 3% of the population. According to a Pew poll in 2020, more American Jews considered “having a good sense of humor” more basic to their Jewish identity than following Halacha (the ratio was 34%:15%). Their gentile counterparts, too, consider “humor” to be one of the primary characteristics of American Jews, according to another survey.
And it’s not just in America. The top satirists, stand-ups, writers and comedians in the former Soviet Union and across Europe are Jewish.
So much is humor a part of the Jewish ethos that it earned an entire exhibition at ANU-Museum of the Jewish People, in Tel Aviv. From a replica of Jerry Seinfeld’s fictional living room to a wax figure of Luba (the Russian-Israeli supermarket cashier known to Israeli comedy connoisseurs) the exhibition highlights the hilarious world of Jewish comedy and explores its roots.
What exactly elevated “Jewish humor” to its own genre? Referring to the self-deprecation used by Jews, Sigmund Freud observed that he did not know “whether there are many other instances of a people making fun to such a degree of its own character.”
Prof. Arie Sover, author of Jewish Humor: An Outcome of Historical Experience, Survival and Wisdom has made a career of examining how Jewish humor burst to the forefront of the industry. “Jews laugh at themselves like no nation does – in the profound,” he tells The Jerusalem Report. “There is no self-deprecating humor as Jews have, not to the riches and depths of Jewish humor.”
Sover says that constant antisemitism and the tragic experiences of Jews living as a minority under Gentile control have engendered the production of “a psychological weapon.”
“If you laugh at yourself, at a bad situation, then, psychologically, you take yourself out of the situation and look at yourself as a spectator. It’s a psychological process that enables you to keep on living.”
Survival also requires sharp cognition.
“You become very alert, you have an alert mind that has to bring immediate responses,” Sover says. “Immediacy is one of the parameters of making humor.”
Wisdom is the third ingredient that shapes humor, which he called a “complicated product.” And for Jews, study of the Talmud and the method of quibbling to prove one’s point are mental gymnastics that train the brain.
“Everybody can laugh, a Gentile, a Jew; but a Jewish mind that is complicated, that is smart, that can produce humor – that’s the Marx brothers, that’s Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld – they have the Jewish computer,” he says. “You have to be smart to produce humor, and the Jews are smart.”
The origins of Jewish humor
Jewish humor dates back, at least, to 11th-century Spain when Jewish servants entertained their wealthy masters with satirical poems, Sover says. This was followed by the Ashkenazi badchen – essentially jesters who were hired to be the life of the party and used a combination of riddles, religious references, juggling and music to entertain guests.
But Sover points to the mid-18th century when Jewish humor took off on its current trajectory. At the time a split among Jews separated Hassidim from the mainstream Orthodox, while another class was also emerging, the Maskilim (“those educated and integrated into secular society”).
Naturally, each group mocked the other.
“When you step into a new place you have to criticize the old place,” Sover explains.“In the 18th century, Jewish jokes appeared – the three groups joked about each other. That’s how the Jewish jokes started.”
Then, satirical literature began to appear in the 19th century, largely written by the Maskilim. The Ashkenazi Jews took their satire with them to America. There, comedians initially entertained each other in Yiddish before mixing it up with English for a wider audience.
At the forefront, in the early 1900s were some brothers who grew up in New York City’s Upper East Side. Famously known as the Marx Brothers, Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo (and Gummo) are credited with forging the comedy industry’s transition from the stage to talking films.
In their films, the Marx Brothers used slapstick to swipe at high society, while playing the struggling working class. Or, in Groucho’s case, trying to make money on the hustle instead. Groucho was also the master of timing with quick, witty retorts – and not just on film.
Though they were not billed as Jews – Chico for one took on an Italian persona – or known for specifically Jewish humor, the Marx Brothers were credited for inspiring many comedians who followed.
The Borscht Belt/Catskills – Jewish resorts in upstate New York – became a breeding ground for the next generation of comedians including Woody Allen, Jack Benny, Mel Brooks, Jerry Lewis and Jackie Mason.
Most comedians draw from their pain, putting Jews historically at an advantage. Brooks, who was bullied as a child, famously said: “If your enemy is laughing, how can he bludgeon you to death?”
During the Holocaust, Jews who were forced to perform for the Nazis inserted insider jokes into their routines, Israeli-American stand-up comic Molly Livingstone noted: “When we can get the jokes, and they weren’t in on it, that was our power,” she says in a podcast interview.
“We were vulnerable, we were honest, and it gave us community. It gave us strength,” she adds.
Joan Rivers, who was Jewish, referred to the Holocaust in a joke – and refused to apologize for it. “It’s a joke, Number One; Number Two, it’s about the Holocaust. This is the way I remind people about the Holocaust,” she said at the time: “I do it through humor.”
Amy Sherman-Palladino, creator of Gilmore Girls and now the very Jewish series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, described finding her “inner Jew” in her own comedy while listening to a skit with Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner.
“Carl is interviewing Mel, the 2,000-year-old man. ‘But I don’t look more than 16, 17 hundred, right?’” Sherman-Palladino recalled: “It wasn’t just the words. It was the way he said everything. And then it dawned on me. That was Jewish. That’s how it’s supposed to sound. And feel. It’s fast and furious and human and exhausted and hilarious.”
Jewish humor in Israel
Israel has caught up fast in 75 years and now produces its own brand of comedy, largely steeped in politics and satirical sitcoms that take down society’s stereotypes. The popular and long-running Zehu Ze! was revived in 2020. Eretz Nehederet (“A Wonderful Country”), Israel’s equivalent of Saturday Night Live, is celebrating 20 years and still going strong.
Before he rose to Fiddler on the Roof fame, Haim Topol played the title role in Sallah Shabati, a 1964 Israeli comedy – directed by Israeli comic writer Ephraim Kishon and based on one of his short stories – about the ordeals of immigrating to Israel.
But believe it or not, Israeli humor (which is by default Jewish) doesn’t fall into the Jewish humor genre, where comic relief is born from being the underdog.
“Here, we are the boss,” Sover notes.
That informs the tone and content of Israeli humor, he says.
In 2018, Noam Shuster was the first Jewish Israeli to perform at a Palestinian comedy festival in Jerusalem. To a crowd of mostly Arabs, she promised: “Don’t worry, I’m only here for seven minutes, not 70 years.”
Abroad, audiences embrace humor that identifies with the underdogs, or “weak” heroes, such as the neurotic Woody Allen or the fumbling Jerry Seinfeld. This is the humor produced where Jews are still a minority.
“In Israel, on the contrary, we are the governing people, so the humor is the humor of the strong, not the weak,” Sover argues.
He believes that this makes Israeli humor less rich.
“The humor of the weak is much more profound than the humor of the strong,” he says..
Is Jewish humor genetic?
All societies and communities forge their specific brand of humor. But is humor somehow genetic for the Jewish people? Although the Bible isn’t funny in and of itself, laughter is encouraged and joy is at times commanded in scripture.
Perhaps the coping mechanism was divinely inspired. Sarah laughed when she heard that she was going to give birth to a son at the barren age of 90. The Book of Genesis 17:17 has Abraham falling flat on his face in laughter when God informed them. “Abraham fell face down; he laughed and said to himself, ‘Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old?’”
Nine months later they named this son Yitzhak (“Laughter”), aka Isaac, because, as “Sarah said, ‘God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.’” (Genesis 21:6)
And maybe with that, humor was scripted into the DNA of the Jewish people. ■