Jewish humor is no laughing matter – even though the Bible says that He who sits in Heaven laughs (Psalm 2:4). Many biblical stories tell of people poking fun at others. Miriam mocks Moses’s wife for being colored; Miriam herself now becomes whiter than white (Numbers 12). In the Book of Ruth, the obstinate wife is called Ruth (meek), and the meek one is Orpah (obstinate). When Baal fails to send fire on Mount Carmel, Elijah suggests that he is in the sherutim or out for a walk (I Kings 18).
In my family, the leading jokester is me. Dad jokes are famous among my children and grandchildren – but not my great-grandchildren. Dad jokes are in English and are no use to those who only know Hebrew. A good dad joke sets me laughing uncontrollably; maybe my laughter is funnier than my jokes, and the Hebrew-speaking great-grandchildren still wonder what’s with Saba Raba?
My grandchildren sometimes say, “Saba, I have a joke for you!” They start off in Saba-friendly slow Hebrew, but then they increase the pace and wonder why all they get from me is a sardonic smile (not that they know the word “sardonic” nor do I know how to say it in Hebrew). Zeevy is good with jokes in both languages; for example, the one about the 54 bus: You wait 50 minutes, and then four buses arrive together!
Kohelet says there is a time for laughter (Eccl. 3:4). In my years in Sydney, that time was the preserve of the little group of early birds at the Great Synagogue Shabbat service. There was an established procedure. Each week, Phil Rothman would greet us all with “Welcome to Australia!” This specially appealed to Mr. Chile, the former president of the Chilean Jewish Community. Jack Freedman would have a joke (often in Yiddish) about the incumbent prime minister. If I turned up without a joke of my own, they wondered what I had been doing all week. When it was time to start the service, Selwyn Jones would announce, “A Yiddish vort! A Yiddish vort!” The latecomers had no idea of the pre-service human comedy!
In Israel, my usual shul is Beit Yosef in Jerusalem, where a fellow member gives me Hebrew or Yiddish jokes (often about Bibi) before Shacharit. When we davened in a local car park during the pandemic, we didn’t work out a pre-service comedy routine.
Are we talking about Jewish humor or general humor clothed in Jewish/Hebrew/Israeli idioms?
As far as I am concerned, what makes humor Jewish is that its content could only happen among Jews. It has a Jewish setting, a Jewish set of idioms and experiences. Its components are a peculiarly Jewish amalgam of, for example, Yom Kippur, Seder night, Torah teachers and kosher food; the shadchan, who is not just a matchmaker; the mohel, who is not just a surgeon; the rav, who is not just a clergyman. Interestingly, there is no smut in Jewish humor, though some Jews are grob.
“What is Jewish humor?” was addressed and analyzed by Dr. Elizabeth Eppler for Jewish Book Week in London in 1967. She thought that the Jewish joke was really a creation of the ghetto and was “an expression of the nostalgia that Jews in a free society feel for the bitter-sweet, warm and generous atmosphere of the ghettos.” She can’t be right. There must have been Jewish humor before or outside the ghetto. I know that Israel Abrahams has a section on Purim spiels in his Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, but I’m not certain he writes about humor in the wider sense.
There is an analysis by Dr. Meir Gertner called “Tales of Tears and Smiles.” He looks at four humorous tales: “Benjamin’s Travels” (by Mendele Mokher Sefarim); “Tevye the Milkman” (Sholem Aleichem); “Mesubbin” (Shai Agnon); and “Berl Make Tea” (Chaim Bermant). Each story has an Eretz Israel motif, which suggests that it is not just nostalgia for the ghetto but messianic hope that informs Jewish humor.
Sigmund Freud said that Jewish humor does two things – it makes us laugh, though it is not slapstick; and it serves our ideological interest, which begins with the interplay of the Jew and his Jewishness and proceeds to the Jewish relationship with the goyim. Humor inverts the underdog and what we might call the “overdog.” The latter thinks he is on top and finds it laughable (and right) to see the discomfiture of the supposed Chosen People. Nonetheless, the Jew has an inner power to rise above and laugh at his situation. Natan Sharansky says that in freedom, humor is a luxury; in prison, it is a weapon. Regardless of the jailer, the Jewish sense of humor grants the Jew the victory.
Jewish humor has moved on from the issues of social adaptation – the immigrant becoming American, the Jew facing the antisemite. In Israel, the humor pokes fun at the prime minister, the post office, the bus drivers and the banks, and, of course, the neighbors and the matzav (the situation). But is this Jewish or Israeli humor?
All over the Jewish world, stereotypes somehow become oddities, and even those who exemplify them laugh at themselves. There is the ger (convert) who forgets to daven Mincha and rebukes himself, “Oy – my goyishe kop!” There is the former Seventh Day Adventist who is seen working on Saturday and he explains, “This week I was converted to Judaism, so now I can work on Shabbat!”
When Jews think another Jew has become too frum (religious), they find it highly amusing... as they do when they think he has become too un-frum. When a Jew becomes obsessed with money and ostentation, he laughs at himself for being grob (coarse) and a gevir (a tycoon). When synagogues become rowdy and untidy, a Jew thinks that even God finds it funny. I’m sorry for God, having to put up with a difficult people like us. He laughs because otherwise He would have to cry.
If a gentile tells a Jewish joke, we feel affronted. Jewish jokes have to be told by Jews, preferably to fellow Jews (outsiders are unlikely to understand).
There was a time when a Jew tried to overcome antisemitism by changing his name from Israel to Irving. Someone suggested that anti-Zionist prejudice could likewise be overcome by changing the name of our country from Israel to Irving! ■
The writer is emeritus rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney.