I’ve been teaching a virtual class on Jewish humor through our partner site, My Jewish Learning. I share classic jokes and bits and then discuss what they say about both the Jews who tell them and the Jewish audiences that enjoy them.
We have a lot of fun, and I think I’ve made the case for how a classic Jewish joke can be as revealing and meaningful as any other classic Jewish text. But I do wonder if I am complicit in a worldview that sees humor as the sum total of Jewish identity. The Pew Research Center found that 42% of Jewish Americans associate being Jewish with having a sense of humor — twice as many who said the same thing about observing Jewish law.
Have we all become Tim Whatley, the dentist on “Seinfeld” who Jerry suspects has converted to Judaism just to be able to tell Jewish jokes?
I am having these doubts on the eve of Tisha B’Av, the annual fast that mourns the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem and other historical calamities. Leading up to the fast day, observant Jews take on many of the rituals of mourning the dead. It’s a grim period, and I’ve always bristled at a custom that demands I perform grief at the height of summer.
The unrelenting sadness of the period must have gotten to the sages of the Talmud. They tell the story of the elders who look down on the Temple Mount after it has been ransacked by the Romans, and see a fox scamper out of what had been the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum of the Temple. They begin weeping, but Rabbi Akiva laughs instead.
They want to know why he’s laughing, and Akiva explains. On one level, he understands the absurd irony — the cosmic joke — of what they are witnessing: While the Torah says that any non-priest who approaches the Holy of Holies shall die (Numbers 1:51), the fox violates the space unscathed.
But Akiva is also laughing because the scene of destruction fulfills a prophecy: that Jerusalem won’t be restored to the Jews until after it is reduced to rubble. The other sages are comforted.
Miriam Zami, in a deep analysis of the story, says Akiva “resists the notion that the only future is a bleak one.” Laughing and recalling God’s promise to restore Jerusalem is “an act of healing, protesting Roman power and protesting the notion of a fundamentally meaningless existence.”
That’s the kind of laughter that scholars of Jewish humor have long celebrated: “laughter through tears,” the “laughter of defiance.” As the Yiddish scholar Ruth Wisse wrote in her study of Jewish humor, “Both mystic and comedian aspire to get the better of a world they are powerless to reform.”
I worry, though, that humor can offer an undeserved escape from grim reality — perhaps healthy in small doses, but delusional when it becomes a way of being in the world. When we celebrate the genius of Jewish humor are we mocking those who suffered without its comforts? To paraphrase the German philosopher Theodor Adorno, is making comedy after Auschwitz barbaric?
Like Akiva’s buddies, however, I found some comfort in the latest HBO special by veteran comedian Marc Maron. Now 59, Maron has long been a “comic’s comic” but found wider fame in recent years on the strength of a popular podcast and his roles in the Netflix series “GLOW” and his eponymous sitcom on IFC. His style is dyspeptic and confessional, and Jewish to a degree that seems to surprise even him: “There’s part of me that just wants to keep poking the Jew thing,” he says at one point in the new special.
“From Bleak to Dark” is Maron’s first special since the death, in 2020, of his partner, the filmmaker Lynn Shelton. He is one of a number of comedians who have been exploring their personal grief in their comedy; as New York Times critic Jason Zinoman pointed out in a recent essay, “These new shows illustrate how grief, precisely because it’s usually handled with solemnity, jargon and unsaid thoughts, is ripe territory for stand-up.”
The very first words of Maron’s special would fit right into the key text of the Tisha B’Av liturgy, known as “Lamentations“: “I don’t want to be negative,” he says, “but I don’t think anything’s ever gonna get better ever again. I don’t want to bum anybody out but I think this is pretty much the way it’s gonna be for however long it takes us to polish this planet off.”
He’s talking about global warming, but he eventually shifts to talking about Shelton’s death. At first he wonders how he can discuss his loss on stage,tims and then imagines a sad one-man show called “Marc Maron: Kaddish, A Prayer for the Dead,” and even chants the opening words of the prayer.
But Maron is not one to take comfort in Jewish ritual. “I’m not religious. I’m Jewish,” he explains, as if the second sentence makes the first one self-evident.
As for comedy, he says, “I’m a guy who talks about his life. So I wasn’t clear how that was gonna go. How am I going to talk about [Shelton]? You know, is that ever going to happen? Is there a way to bring humor to that?”
There is, and it came to him on the night the doctors took Shelton off of life support. At first, he is not sure he wants to be there, but his friends convince him that he would regret it if he didn’t say goodbye. “So I walk in there and really see her and she’s gone,” he relates. “And I was able to touch her forehead and tell her I love her and cry for a few minutes.” And then, because he is at heart a comedian, he thinks of a joke: As he walks away from her hospital bed, he thinks, “Selfie?”
“When I wrote that joke, or when I came up with it, it made me feel so happy,” he says.
Maron knows he is not the only person in the theater, or watching at home, who is grieving, and his words are solace for them as much as for himself. In another famous Talmud story about laughter, Elijah the Prophet and a Rabbi Baroka come across two men in the marketplace. The two explain that they are jesters. “When we see a person who is sad, we cheer him up,” they explain. “Likewise, when we see two people quarreling, we try to make peace between them.”
Fighting darkness with comedy
Says Elijah, “These two have a share in the World to Come,” which is a prophet’s way of saying they have a free pass to Heaven.
I don’t know if Maron knows the passage, or the one about Akiva, but his special feels like essential viewing on the eve of Tisha B’Av, when Jews are asked to hold onto hope and embrace life despite a tragic history.
“I find that humor that comes from real darkness is really the best because it disarms it,” he explains. “It’s elevating the spirit. It’s why I got into comedy, because I’ve watched comics and they would take things that were complicated or horrifying and simplify them and sort of make you see them in a different way and have a laugh. And I think it’s a beautiful thing and necessary.”
And then, because he is a comedian and Jew, he can’t resist a joke: “I believe there were probably some hilarious people in Auschwitz.”
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JTA or its parent company, 70 Faces Media.