Jewish Humor

larry by deer dana

Jewish humor is self-deprecating, crude, and often anecdotal humor originating in Eastern Europe, which took root in the United States over the last hundred years. Beginning with vaudeville, and continuing through radio, stand-up comedy, film, and television, a disproportionately high percentage of American and Russian comedians have been Jewish.

Jewish humor is rooted in several traditions. The first is the intellectual and legal methods of the Talmud, which uses elaborate arguments and situations often seen as so absurd as to be humorous in order to tease out the meaning of religious law. There is an egalitarian tradition among the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe in which the powerful were often mocked subtly, rather than attacked overtly—as Saul Bellow once put it, ‘oppressed people tend to be witty.’ Jesters known as badchens used to poke fun at prominent members of the community during weddings, creating a good-natured tradition of humor as a levelling device.

Rabbi Moshe Waldoks, a scholar of Jewish humor, argued: ‘You have a lot of shtoch, or jab humor, which is usually meant to deflate pomposity or ego, and to deflate people who consider themselves high and mighty. But Jewish humor was also a device for self-criticism within the community, and I think that’s where it really was the most powerful. The humorist, like the prophet, would basically take people to task for their failings. The humor of Eastern Europe especially was centered on defending the poor against the exploitation of the upper classes or other authority figures, so rabbis were made fun of, authority figures were made fun of and rich people were made fun of. It really served as a social catharsis.’

After Jews began to immigrate to America in large numbers, they, like other minority groups, found it difficult to gain mainstream acceptance and obtain upward mobility. As Lenny Bruce lampooned, ‘He was charming… They said, ‘C’mon! Let’s go watch the Jew be charming!” The newly-developing entertainment industry, combined with the Jewish humor tradition, provided a potential route for Jews to succeed. One of the first successful radio ‘sitcoms,’ ‘The Goldbergs,’ featured a Jewish family. As radio and television matured, many of its most famous comedians, including Jack Benny, Sid Caesar, George Burns, Eddie Cantor, Jack Carter, Henny Youngman, and Milton Berle, were Jewish. The Jewish comedy tradition continues today, with Jewish humor much entwined with that of mainstream humor, as comedies like Seinfeld and ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ indicate.

Sigmund Freud in his ‘Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious,’ analyzes the nature of the Jewish jokes.

One popular humorous tradition from Eastern Europe involved tales of the people of Chełm, a town reputed in these jokes to be inhabited by fools. The jokes were almost always centered on silly solutions to problems. Some of these solutions display ‘foolish wisdom’ (reaching the correct answer by the wrong train of reasoning), while others are simply wrong.

Hershele Ostropoler, also known as Hershel of Ostropol, was a legendary prankster who was based on a historic figure. Thought to have come from Ukraine, he lived in the small village of Ostropol, working as shochet, a ritual slaughterer. According to legend he lost his job because of his constant joking, which offended the leaders of the village.

Much Jewish humor takes the form of self-deprecating comments on Jewish culture, acting as a shield against antisemitic stereotypes by exploiting them first:

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!’

Or, on a similar note:

After the assassination of Tsar Alexander II of Russia, a government official in Ukraine menacingly addressed the local rabbi, ‘I suppose you know in full detail who was behind it.’

‘Ach,’ the rabbi replied, ‘I have no idea, but the government’s conclusion will be the same as always: they will blame the Jews and the chimneysweeps.’

‘Why the chimneysweeps?’ asked the befuddled official.

‘Why the Jews?’ responded the rabbi.

And another example, a direct slice of galgenhumor (gallows humor): During the days of oppression and poverty of the Russian shtetls, one village had a rumor going around: a Christian girl was found murdered near their village. Fearing a pogrom, they gathered at the synagogue. Suddenly, the rabbi came running up, and cried, ‘Wonderful news! The murdered girl was Jewish!’

There is also humour originating in the United States, such as this joke:

During World War II, a sergeant stationed at Fort Benning gets a telephone call from a woman. ‘We would love it,’ she said, ‘if you could bring five of your soldiers over to our house for Thanksgiving dinner.’

‘Certainly, ma’am,’ replied the sergeant.

‘Oh… just make sure they aren’t Jews, of course,’ said the woman.

‘Will do,’ replied the sergeant. So, that Thanksgiving, while the woman is baking, the doorbell rings. She opens her door and, to her horror, five black soldiers are standing in front of her.

‘Oh, my!’ she exclaimed. ‘I’m afraid there’s been a terrible mistake!’

‘No ma’am,’ said one of the soldiers. ‘Sergeant Rosenbloom never makes mistakes!’

This one combines accusations of the lack of patriotism, and avarice:

Post-Soviet Russia. Rabinovich calls the Pamyat headquarters: ‘Is it true that we Jews sold out Mother Russia?’ ‘Damn right, you filthy kike!’ ‘Oh good. Could you tell me where I might get my share?’

Some Yiddish words may sound comical to an English speaker. Terms like shnook and shmendrik, shlemiel and shlimazel (often considered inherently funny words) were exploited for their humorous sounds, as were ‘Yinglish’ shm-reduplication constructs, such as ‘fancy-schmancy.’ Yiddish constructions—such as ending sentences with questions—became part of the verbal word play of Jewish comedians.

One common strain of Jewish humor examines the role of religion in contemporary life, often gently mocking the religious hypocrite. For example:

A Reform Rabbi was so compulsive a golfer that once, on Yom Kippur, he left the house early and went out for a quick nine holes by himself. An angel who happened to be looking on immediately notified his superiors that a grievous sin was being committed. On the sixth hole, God caused a mighty wind to take the ball directly from the tee to the cup — a miraculous shot.

The angel was horrified. ‘A hole in one!’ he exclaimed, ‘You call this a punishment, Lord?!’

Answered God with a sly smile, ‘So whom can he tell?’

In particular, Reform Jews may be lampooned for their rejection of traditional Jewish beliefs. An example, from one of Woody Allen’s early stand-up routines:

We were married by a Reform rabbi in Long Island. A very Reform rabbi. A Nazi.

Jokes have been made about the shifting of gender roles (in the more traditional Orthodox movement, women marry at a young age and have many children, while the more liberal Conservative and Reform movements make gender roles more egalitarian, even ordaining women as Rabbis). The Reconstructionist movement was the first to ordain homosexuals, all of which leads to this joke:

At an Orthodox wedding, the bride’s mother is pregnant. At a Conservative wedding, the bride is pregnant. At a Reform wedding, the rabbi is pregnant. At a Reconstructionist wedding, the rabbi and her wife are both pregnant.

Often jokes revolve around the social practice of the Jewish religion:

A man is rescued from a desert island after 20 years. The news media, amazed at this feat of survival, ask him to show them his home.

‘How did you survive? How did you keep sane?’ they ask him, as he shows them around the small island.

‘I had my faith. My faith as a Jew kept me strong. Come.’ He leads them to a small glen, where stands an opulent temple, made entirely from palm fronds, coconut shells and woven grass. The news cameras take pictures of everything — even a torah made from banana leaves and written in octopus ink. ‘This took me five years to complete.’

‘Amazing! And what did you do for the next fifteen years?”

‘Come with me.’ He leads them around to the far side of the island. There, in a shady grove, is an even more beautiful temple. ‘This one took me twelve years to complete!’

‘But sir’ asks the reporter, ‘Why did you build two temples?’

‘This is the temple I attend. That other place? Hah! I wouldn’t set foot in that other temple if you PAID me!’

As with most ethnicities, jokes have often mocked Jewish accents–at times gently, and at others quite harshly. One of the kinder examples is:

One early winter morning, Rabbi Bloom was walking beside the canal when he saw a dog in the water, trying hard to stay afloat. It looked so sad and exhausted that Rabbi Bloom jumped in, and after a struggle, managed to bring it out alive.

A passer-by who saw this remarked, ‘That was very brave of you! You must love animals; are you a vet?’

Rabbi Bloom replied, ‘And vhat did you expect? Of course I’m a–vet! I’m a–freezing cold as vell!’

Jewish humor continues to exploit stereotypes of Jews, both as a sort of ‘in-joke,’ and as a form of self-defence. Jewish mothers, ‘cheapness,’ hypochondria, and other stereotyped habits are all common subjects. Frugality has been frequently singled out:

An old Jewish beggar was out on the street in New York City with his tin cup.

‘Please, sir,’ he pleaded to a passerby, ‘could you spare seventy-three cents for a cup of coffee and some pie?’

The man asked, ‘Where do you get coffee and pie for seventy-three cents in New York? It costs at least a dollar!’

The beggar replied, ‘So who buys retail?’

Or,

What did the waiter ask the group of dining Jewish mothers? ‘Pardon me ladies, but is ANYTHING all right?’

Or,

A Buddhist monk goes to a barber to have his head shaved. ‘What should I pay you?’ the monk asks. ‘No price, for a holy man such as yourself,’ the barber replies. And what do you know, the next day the barber comes to open his shop, and finds on his doorstep a dozen gemstones.

That day, a priest comes in to have his hair cut. ‘What shall I pay you, my son?’ ‘No price, for a man of the cloth such as yourself.” And what do you know, the next day the barber comes to open his shop, and finds on his doorstep a dozen roses.

That day, Rabbi Finklestein comes in to get his payoss [sideburns] trimmed. ‘What do you want I should pay you?’ ‘Nothing, for a man of God such as yourself.’ And the next morning, what do you know? The barber finds on his doorstep — a dozen rabbis!

Or,

A Jewish man lies on his deathbed, surrounded by his children. ‘Ah,’ he says, ‘I can smell your mother’s brisket — how I would love to taste it one last time before I die.’ So one of his sons hurries down to the kitchen, but he returns empty-handed.

‘Sorry, papa. She says it’s for after the funeral.’

Or, on parenting (from David Bader’s ‘Haikus for Jews’):

Is one Nobel Prize

so much to ask from a child

after all I’ve done?

Regarding hypochondria:

A Frenchman, a German and a Jew walk into a bar. ‘I’m tired and thirsty,’ says the Frenchman. ‘I must have wine.’ ‘I’m tired and thirsty,’ says the German. ‘I must have beer.’ ‘I’m tired and thirsty,’ says the Jew. ‘I must have diabetes.’

Or, on kvetching,

An old Jewish man riding on a train begins to moan: ‘Oy, am I thirsty; oy, am I thirsty,’ to the annoyance of the other passengers. Finally, another passenger gets a cup of water from the drinking fountain and gives it to the old man, who thanks him profusely and gulps it down. Feeling satisfied, the other passenger sits down again, only to hear ‘Oy, was I thirsty; oy, was I thirsty.’

A version of that joke is quoted in ‘Born To Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All Its Moods,’ by Michael Wex, who writes, ‘It contains virtually every important element of the Yiddish-speaking mind-set in easily accessible form: the constant tension between the Jewish and the non-Jewish; the faux naivete that allows the old man to pretend that he isn’t disturbing anyone; the deflation of the other passenger’s hopes, the disappointment of all his expectations after he has watered the Jew; and most importantly of all, the underlying assumption, the fundamental idea that kvetching—complaining—is not only a pastime, not only a response to adverse or imperfect circumstance, but a way of life that has nothing to do with the fulfillment or frustration of desire.’

Many Jewish jokes involve a rabbi and a Christian clergyman, exploiting different interpretations of a shared textual background. Often they start with something like ‘A rabbi and a priest…’ and make fun of either the rabbi’s interpretation of Christianity or (seeming) differences between Christian and Jewish interpretation of some areas. For example:

A Catholic priest says to a rabbi, ‘It seems to me that, since the Creator made pork, He must have made it for some purpose. Therefore, it must be a sin not to use it, don’t you think? So, will you finally eat some pork?’

The rabbi replies, ‘I will try some — at your wedding, Father.’

And finally, possibly the most gigantic clash of religions:

One Pope, in the Dark Ages, decreed that all Jews had to leave Rome. The Jews did not want to leave, and so the Pope challenged them to a disputation to prove that they could remain. No one, however, wanted the responsibility… until the synagogue janitor, Moishe, volunteered.

As there was nobody else who wanted to go, Moishe was given the task. But because he knew only Hebrew, a silent debate was agreed. The day of the debate came, and they went to St. Peter’s Square to sort out the decision. First the Pope waved his hand around his head. Moishe pointed firmly at the ground.

The Pope, in some surprise, held up three fingers. In response, Moishe gave him the middle finger.

The crowd started to complain, but the Pope thoughtfully waved them to be quiet. He took out a bottle of wine and a wafer, holding them up. Moishe took out an apple, and held it up.

The Pope, to the people’s surprise, said, ‘I concede. This man is too good. The Jews can stay.’

Later, the Pope was asked what the debate had meant. He explained, ‘First, I showed him the Heavens, to show that God is everywhere. He pointed at the ground to signify that God is right here with us. I showed him three fingers, for the Trinity. He reminded me that there is One God common to both our religions. I showed him wine and a wafer, for God’s forgiveness. With an apple, he showed me original sin. The man was a master of silent debate.’

In the Jewish corner, Moishe had the same question put to him, and answered, ‘It was all nonsense, really. First, he told me that this whole town would be free of Jews. I told him, Go to Hell! We’re staying right here! Then, he told me we had three days to get out. I told him just what I thought of that proposal.’ An older woman asked, ‘But what about the part at the end?’ ‘That?’ said Moishe with a shrug, ‘Well, I saw him take out his lunch, so I took out mine.’

In the Stalinist police state, it was not uncommon to get purged not only for telling a casual joke, but even for not reporting it to the authorities. Israeli humor featured many of the same themes as Jewish humor elsewhere, making fun of the country and its habits, while containing a fair bit of gallows humor as well, as a joke from a 1950 Israeli joke book indicates:

An elderly man refuses to leave for the air raid shelter until he can find his dentures. His wife yells at him, ‘What, you think they are dropping sandwiches?’

Israelis’ view of themselves:

An Israeli, a Brit, a Russian, a Vietnamese, and an American are sitting in a restaurant. A reporter comes by and asks, ‘Excuse me, but can I get your opinion on the recent grain shortage in the third world?’

The Brit asks: ‘What’s a ‘shortage’?’

The Vietnamese asks: ‘What’s ‘grain’?’

The Russian asks: ‘What’s an ‘opinion’?’

The American asks: ‘What’s the third world?’

The Israeli asks: ‘What’s ‘excuse me’?’

Finally, in a clash of Rabbinical humor and Israeli humor:

A Rabbi dies and goes up to the gates of heaven. Before he’s let in, the angel in charge has to consult with God for a long period of time to see if he deserves a place in heaven. As the Rabbi is waiting, an Israeli bus driver approaches the gates of heaven. Without a second thought, the angel who was consulting with God let the bus driver through. The Rabbi points at the bus driver and yells, ‘Hey! How come he gets in so quickly? He’s a simple bus driver, while I’m a Rabbi!’ The angel explains, ‘Dear Rabbi, you don’t understand. When you would be giving your sermon during the prayer services, your whole congregation would fall asleep. When this bus driver drove towards Tel Aviv, all his passengers would be at the edge of their seats praying to God!’

In 2006, in response to the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy, and, in particular, to the International Holocaust Cartoon Competition, an Israeli group announced an Israeli Anti-Semitic Cartoons Contest. The contest was opened to Jewish cartoonists only, who were invited to poke fun at their own religion and ethnicity.

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