The joke's on us

In a society accustomed to living with the threat of terror, humor has a unique function. "Humor often develops out of fear," explains Prof. Avner Ziv of Tel Aviv University, whose research focuses on Jewish humor. "It enables a change of perspective which allows for temporary relief from your worries." According to Ziv, this respite from daily concerns was a major factor behind the development of Jewish humor in its current form, which originated in late 19th-century Eastern Europe when Jews faced the threat of pogroms. "In Israel, where Jews are faced with trials comparable to their Eastern European ancestors, humor serves a similar purpose," he explains. A key characteristic of Jewish humor, which features strongly in Israeli humor, Ziv says, is self-deprecation. "Self-deprecating humor is a form of defense... It amounts to saying: 'Don't attack me, I can do a better job of it myself,'" he says. "Understandably this form of humor developed in Eastern European Jewish communities, and Israelis deal with the threat of attack in a similar way." Ziv cites the self-mocking tone that characterizes many works by renowned Israeli satirist Ephraim Kishon, as well as a more recent example of Israeli humor. "I heard a radio commentator joke that the reason the government doesn't want to invest more money in education is because it doesn't think Israel will be around much longer." Another facet of Israeli comedy that has its roots in Jewish humor, Ziv says, is its sometimes hard-hitting nature. "Satire can be quite aggressive in Israel... the ridiculing of politicians is one example that springs to mind," he says. "In Eastern European Jewish folklore there are two caricatures: the schlemiel (the hapless, mistake-prone character) and the hutzpan (the witty, direct character)," he explains. "In Israel we joke that the schlemiel went to America and the hutzpan went to Israel." Israelis' outspoken humor, Ziv says, bears relation to Jewish humor that "incorporates Jews' forthrightness and inability to agree on anything." This type of humor originated from the study of Talmud in Eastern European yeshivot, he explains. "The students would argue vehemently about the different angles from which the Talmud could be understood, and at some point this argumentativeness became a function of Jewish humor." Another factor that contributes to the aggressive nature of Israeli humor, says Ziv, is the tensions Israelis encounter. "As it is with most aspects of Israeli life, the tension Israelis live with is evident in their humor." - E.K.