Deep thoughts, random insights, and musings by Susan Jacobs

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Why Jews are funny

Here's my latest column, about Jewish humor:

You might call it the intellectual borsht belt.

Go to hear the average Jewish guest speaker or scholar in residence, and you are bound to get at least a few good laughs. Whether they are rabbis, professors or writers, effective speakers for Jewish audiences are almost inevitably funny, even when their areas of expertise are anything but.

After attending a couple of such presentations recently – one about the astonishing rates of assimilation among young Jews and the other about the environment, each with several laugh out loud moments (who knew?) – it occurred to me that, within the Jewish community, we don’t merely appreciate humor, we practically demand it from our speakers.

As I thought about this, I asked Danny Butler, the local former magistrate who is also a popular (and very funny) speaker, for both Jewish and general audiences, whether Jewish audiences, more than others, expect speakers to be funny.

Not necessarily, he said, since non-Jewish audiences also appreciate good humor. But then again, not all audiences are created equal.

“The more educated and intelligent an audience is, the more they seem to absorb humor,” said Butler.

That makes sense, given that an expert speaker will probably rely on sarcasm, puns and other subtle forms of humor, not the low-brow sort.

And, with our advanced degrees and prominence in a variety of intellectual fields, it is no secret that Jews are brainy folks.

But with Jews, it’s not just that we appreciate humor, but that we are comfortable with it, even in the unlikeliest of places.

I asked Butler if a minister on the guest speaker circuit would be expected to be as funny as the average rabbi. He said probably not. “They would be afraid of not being taken seriously.”

Apparently this is not a concern for rabbis.

But seriously, something about Jewish culture allows us to be simultaneously funny and somber, and to understand that the two are not mutually exclusive.

“Memorable funerals even include laughter,” said Butler. “Humor helps to make what might otherwise be an uncomfortable [situation] more palatable for people.”

And that led us to the old standard explanation for Jewish humor, which is that persecution and powerlessness led us to develop humor as a defense mechanism.

Unfortunately, this has not been the response of the Palestinians or the Kurds.

Hardship alone never made anyone funny. So, it seems, there’s something more to the comedic tendencies of Jews, and it goes back to our very roots.

Years ago, Butler told me he asked the late Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, who wrote his own translation of the Torah and authored several books, whether there were any jokes in the Talmud.

“Without missing a beat, he said, ‘Yeah, but they’re all old.’”

In fact, said Butler, the Talmud instructs teachers to open their lessons with jokes, and quotes the prophet Elijah as predicting that the comedians of a particular town would surely go to heaven for all the laughter they brought to others.

So, even before the expulsions and pogroms, we had reasons to laugh.

Our good humor allows us not to take ourselves too seriously and to find something happy or hopeful in the bleakest of life’s moments.

To illustrate the Jewish approach to humor, I like to think of the parent’s advice to a child who has just endured an embarrassing situation.

“Someday you’ll look back on this and laugh.”

As Jews, we say, “Why wait for someday? Laugh now!”

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Living the cliche

On Dec. 25, Jews are supposed to go to the movies and out for Chinese food. Well, I didn't have any Chinese food this year, but I did go to the movies, and it seemed like everyone at the theater was someone I knew.

Totally by coincidence, four of my friends were going to the same showing of Juno as me, so we sat together. Meanwhile, my boss and her daughter were just leaving the previous showing, and another one of my coworkers had stopped by the theater to bring some food for her son, who was working there. I guess that's what happens when you go to a theater in the middle of a Jewish neighborhood on Dec. 25.

Anyway, Juno is a very good movie -- funny and touching and unpredictable. Lots of great lines, lots of great music, and some very poignant moments. The language is a bit crude, but very clever. Also, even though the film is based around a teen pregnancy, and there is no pretending about how that happened, the, shall we say, preceding circumstances are referred to artfully and minimally.

Oh, and as a bonus for Jewish audiences, one character has an alef-beis chart and a dreidel in his bedrooom, which of course set half of the theater today off into whispered conversations of "Was that?" "Yes it was!" Ah, the perfect Jewish moment in a theater on Dec. 25.

Just me and the guys

Last Thursday I was invited as the guest speaker for the men's club at a local Jewish assisted living facility. Since men are in the minority at the residence (which is fairly typical of most senior homes) they have their own group that meets twice a month for lunch-time activities, which gives them a chance to form friendships with other men and have their own space, away from all the female-dominated activities.

Apparently the men-only rule does not apply to guest speakers, which was lucky for me, since I had a wonderful time with this group of gentlemen.

I wasn't sure what to expect before I went. Often, even facilities for fairly independent older adults end up caring for those with early dementia and other serious health problems. I thought perhaps my lunch crowd would not be able to hear what I said, and not be able to understand what they could hear.

Fortunately, I was wrong about that. While one man complained at the end that he "hadn't heard a word" I said, the rest of the group of about 11 men seemed to be able to hear me (I spoke as loudly and clearly as I could), and a few of the men were very inquisitive. I was asked to talk about my work at The Chronicle, while we all lunched together. I had prepared some notes, but they were really unnecessary, since there were enough questions to keep the conversation going for about an hour.

Even the food was good -- most of us had the four-cheese chef salad with various side dishes and chocolate cupcakes for dessert. The meal was served restaurant-style, with each person asked for his order. The waitresses told me that this meeting of the men's group was the largest one yet. Since there were more men than could fit around the large dining room table where we were seated, some ended up clustering around me at the head of the table. I felt like the most popular girl in the high school cafeteria, especially since all the men were so intent on hearing what I had to say.

I was also glad to see that the men treated each other well. Some of the ones who came earliest to lunch gave up their seats at the table for those who came later, so that everyone would be comfortable, and everyone was nice to the waitresses. Altogether, it was one of the nicest lunch meetings I have had in a long time.

Now, if only these guys were 50 or 60 years younger...

Monday, December 10, 2007

Taking the time to listen

In the mornings on my way to work I usually listen to public radio. Since I am often running late, I am frequently tuned in at the point when the local broadcast concludes Morning Edition. After a few minutes of national headlines, there is a local sports report, followed by a broadcast of jazz music.

Being neither a sports fan nor a jazz enthusiast, I usually switch stations at that point. However, I have become accustomed to hearing the raspy voiced announcer -- who typically would banter with another commentator -- start the report with a standard opener, "Sunshine and blue skies...," which is often a sarcastic remark since it rains a fair amount in Pittsburgh.

Today, I was startled to hear announcer #2 say that there would be no sports report in recognition of the death of Sean Doherty, the raspy-voiced announcer. I was shocked and saddened, especially since I hadn't registered that he had been off the air for quite some time, due to illness. Judging from the sound of his voice, I thought he must have been fairly old, or maybe a smoker.

Neither was true. Doherty was only 47, and had been seriously ill for some time due to complications to a condition he had had since his teen years. While playing on his high school football team, he suffered a spinal cord injury and had spent the rest of his life as a quadriplegic. In all the times I had heard his voice on the radio, I had never known this about him.

In spite of the raspy tone of his voice, Doherty was rather upbeat -- a bit sarcastic, a bit colloquial, but never a downer. In spite of his debilitating condition, he earned a college degree and worked for about 20 years in local sports broadcasting. He was well-known and respected. He never let his injuries hold him back.

His voice became raspy after being hospitalized in 2000 because of a blood clot in his lungs, whose treatment required a tracheotomy. He used his local fame to raise money for spinal cord research, but never asked for pity.

Even though I wasn't interested in what he had to say about sports, I am glad I caught bits and pieces of Sean Doherty's voice over the years. If I had known more about him, I would have listened more.

Apparently, he hoped that his story would help inspire others to realize their dreams. His story has certainly moved me today.