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!”


  • At January 1, 2008 at 11:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Jewish humor started way before the Talmud or Elijah. When Abraham smashed all the idols in his father's shop save one, and left the sledgehammer in the hand of the remaining idol, he was having a good laugh at his father's expense.

  • At January 1, 2008 at 11:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    (SW OH) That comment was from me, BTW.

  • At January 2, 2009 at 10:33 AM, Blogger michael santomauro said…

    A TRUE story--FUNNY but SAD at the same time!

    Spring 2001

    A couple of years back I was visiting my old office location, near the Garment district, in New York City. It was late night and I was hungry for a prune Danish. It was around midnight on a cold Saturday night. The only store I found was a large kosher bakery, packed with young ultra-orthodox Jewish customers entering and leaving on a constant basis.

    In front of the store was a Hasidic man with a cup. From a distance I was not sure what he was doing. He was getting more dollar bills than coins. I thought maybe he was raising money for a fundraising drive.

    As I got closer, the more I saw of this man the more I doubted he was raising money for a cause. The Hasidic was disheveled and the garb he was wearing was filthy. Where I live is the most concentrated block in Manhattan of kosher eateries. It may come as surprise to many outside of New York City, to see a man with a yarmulke in front of a kosher restaurant begging for money. It happens. In my old Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx in the 1970s it was a common sight to see old Jewish people dig through store garbage for food. Even today, in Brooklyn, there are many former Soviet Jews on welfare. Across the street from where I live is a religious Yemenite Jew who begs on the weeknights. Those who attend the same shul as him, know him on a first name basis. One, in particular, I have spoken with, prides in living under the tunnel in a nearby park. His name is Buttons. His clothing is always covered with buttons. All his buttons are political slogans and pictures with a socialist theme. Once I saw him at a food fair, that was being sponsored by the Italian Chamber of Commerce, where free food samples were being offered. He recognized me from the neighborhood and greeted me. I asked him if he liked the food. He would tell me he couldn't eat it, because it wasn't kosher. Go figure. A homeless man searching for free kosher food.

    Sorry for the digression. This was the first time I ever saw an Hasidic begging. I couldn't help but stare at him, while I was hailing for an available cab. He was near the curb and I spoke to him. I asked him a stupid question, "are you begging?" He shook his head yes. There was silence on his activity after I asked the question. As the yellow cab stopped to the side of me to enter, he rushed up to me yelling "no!" to say: "a Gentile begs; a Jew asks."

  • At February 7, 2009 at 2:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Good For Him!! and ps, certainly,Boruch Hashem, he is off of the streets and doesn't have to "ask" for anything! Great story...thanks....

  • At March 9, 2010 at 6:17 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Wow, counter racism. Nothing like inflating b.s. about your own race to feel good. Why not just be proud without having to make up lies.


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