Inside Out and Outside In: Jewish Humor and the Jewish People
By: Rachel Druck
Shimi bar Chiyya said to Rav: “As they say, camels in Medea dance on a kav; here is a kav and here are camels and here is Medea, and they are not dancing!”
While this may have had the other rabbis rolling on the floor with laughter, suffice it to say that this joke has not aged well. But it does point to the fact that as far back as Babylon, Jews were telling jokes to one another in order to make a point.
Indeed, Jews throughout the centuries have used humor—including telling jokes, using their wits, or engaging in some very quick-thinking—to deal with a variety of situations and events. Other than making life funnier and more enjoyable than it would otherwise be, humor served the Jewish people in a variety of ways.
Humor as Self-Defense
“You do not need to attack us. We can do that ourselves—and even better.” (Dr. Martin Grotjahn)
As a minority living in areas with majority populations that were often hostile to them, humor was often one of the only ways in which Jews could fight back against, and even disarm, their oppressors. As Lawrence Epstein, the author of “The Haunted Smile; The Story of Jewish Comedians in America” puts it, “If you got Gentiles to laugh, they weren’t going to go after your throat.” This sense of alienation and oppression was felt both in Eastern Europe, where Jews were subject to overt hostilities, and also in the United States, where anti-Semitism could be subtler, and Jews felt that they had to navigate between their ethnic and religious heritage, and their desire to be seen as Americans. While Jews could not overpower their opponents physically, their jokes often show the clever or quick-witted Jewish protagonist triumphing intellectually.
A rabbi once asked a priest, “Could you ever be promoted within your church?”
The priest says, thoughtfully, “Well, I could become a bishop.”
The rabbi persists, “And after that?”
With a pause for consideration, the priest replies, “Maybe I could be a cardinal, even.”
After thinking for some time, the priest responds, “Someday I may even rise to be the Pope.”
With an air of incredulity, the priest cries, “What more could I become? God Himself?”
The rabbi says quietly, “One of our boys made it.”
Additionally, Jewish humor could be a coping mechanism, a way in which to deal with a complicated and frightening reality. Just as some jokes served to intellectually disarm their opponents, other helped Jews to diffuse existential threats:
Rabbi Altmann and his secretary were sitting in a coffeehouse in Berlin in 1935. “Herr Altmann,” said his secretary, “I notice you’re reading Der Stürmer! I can’t understand why. A Nazi libel sheet! Are you some kind of masochist, or, God forbid, a self-hating Jew?”
“On the contrary, Frau Epstein. When I used to read the Jewish papers, all I learned about were pogroms, riots in Palestine, and assimilation in America. But now that I read Der Stürmer, I see so much more: that the Jews control all the banks, that we dominate in the arts, and that we’re on the verge of taking over the entire world. You know – it makes me feel a whole lot better!”
For centuries, Jewish life was unpredictable and often scary, defined by otherness and physical, economic, and social limitations. Humor could help Jews protect themselves, and even transcend their circumstances.
Humor as Internal Criticism
In spite of the major inroads Jewish humor would eventually make in American popular culture, throughout most of its history Jewish humor was internal: a way for Jews to communicate with one another that non-Jews would not understand. As such, Jewish humor could serve as a way for Jews to criticize each other, or to raise delicate issues that they would not have wanted outsiders to know about.
Perhaps the best example can be found in the Railroad Stories of the father of Yiddish literature, Sholem Aleichem (Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich, 1859, Pereyaslav-1916, New York City). One story, “The Man from Buenos Aires,” has the anonymous narrator of the stories traveling with a man who has returned to Poland from his new home in Buenos Aires in order to visit his parents’ graves and to find a wife. Throughout most of the story the visitor brags about his wealth, while never actually stating what this lucrative business is. Finally, just before the man disembarks, he is asked to finally reveal what it is that he does for a living. The man from Buenos Aires replies (spoiler alert): “What do I deal in? Ha, ha! Not in esrogim, my friend, not in esrogim!” Jewish readers familiar with shtetl life are meant to pick up on two things: first, the wry last parting line, and second, the continued emphasis on Buenos Aires. This evidence subtly, but pointedly, indicate that the man works as a human trafficker, and may be traveling to shtetls not in search of a wife, but for more nefarious purposes. Beneath this lighthearted short story, and the winking last line, is Sholem Aleichem’s attempt to raise awareness of a major issue within the world of the shtetl in a way that would be understandable almost exclusively to Jews.
Meanwhile, particularly in the United States, Jewish jokes could work as a critique of assimilation, and those Jews who all-too-willingly give up their heritage for life as Americans:
On Yom Kippur, during the afternoon break between prayers, a Jew walking home from the synagogue passes by the golf course. He is overtaken by an urge to play some golf, and he says to himself, I’ll play just one hole and the return to the synagogue. Amazingly, for the first time in his life he hits a hole-in-one.
The angels cry out to God: “How can you do this? A Jew desecrates the holiest day, and you reward him with a hole-in-one?!”
God responds: “True, but who is he going to tell?”
This joke may not be in Yiddish, but it does work best as an internal conversation that takes place between Jews who have a shared understanding of Yom Kippur and the line that is being crossed. The joke both acknowledges the strong pull felt by some Jews away from the synagogue and towards American life (what, after all, could be WASP-ier than a golf course?), while also making the case for God having His own sense of humor in dealing with His wayward people. Because we are ultimately meant to be on God’s side, the joke is a way for Jews to communicate the value of tradition, and even of the God who has His own way of enforcing those traditions.
Humor as a Way In
The comic actor Jerry Stiller tells a story of when he was 12 years old and walking home from his synagogue. Along the way, he was surrounded by a group of neighborhood boys. One boy asked Stiller if he was Jewish; Stiller replied that he was, to which the questioner responded “You killed our Lord.” Thinking quickly, Stiller returned with “Would you like a stick of gum? I chew Wrigley’s.” While this story is not a classic example of a joke, it is a good illustration of the ways in which Jews have relied on their wits and on quick-thinking not only in self-defense, but ultimately as a means of entrée into the dominant culture.
In 1978 Time Magazine estimated that although Jews made up 3% of the population of the United States, 80% of professional comedians were Jewish. While these comedians were not telling explicitly Jewish jokes, they brought a Jewish sensibility to pointing out the absurdities of American life. As Yiddishisms and Borscht Belt tours turned outward, Jewish comic voices were increasingly heard in the homes of millions of Americans, on the radio, on television, and in movies. The perpetual outsiders became some of the mainstream voices of American popular culture. This irony was ultimately best illustrated in the television series Seinfeld, itself a hugely popular and mainstream American cultural phenomenon with a very Jewish sensibility. In the episode “The Yadda, Yada, Yada,” Jerry Seinfeld’s dentist converts to Judaism for, Jerry suspects, the jokes. From telling jokes for protection against outsiders to non-Jews wanting in so that they can tell Jewish jokes, Jewish humor has come a long way.
Rachel Druck is the editor of the Communities Database at Beit Hatfutsot-The Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv. Do you know of any funny people and the jokes they tell? E-mail her at email@example.com