When is a joke not a joke?

I have just returned from New York. It was quite a trip. I managed to "medicate" Mr O to the point where he could shop for seven straight hours without moaning. At least not out loud. Mind you, he didn't have much to moan about. This trip was all about Art and Jews. The Guggenheim's "Picasso Black and White", the Met's beautiful Matisse show and Moma's thought-provoking "Inventing Abstraction" were inspiring.

We were lucky enough to see a luminous Scarlett Johansson grace the stage in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, and scored two great seats for the hottest musical in town, the outrageous Book of Mormon. But the highlight, apart from sitting in the booth next to Jerry Seinfeld at our favourite diner, was seeing Old Jews Telling Jokes!

Not my sort of thing at all, I insisted en route. But I loved it - a simple celebration of the humour I grew up with, via my great-grandma fresh from the pogroms, down to my little daughter fresh from cheder, who loves a Jewish joke. Such as the one about the Jewish mother who pleads with God to bring her son back after he has been swept out to sea. The Good Lord returns the child on a huge wave that places him carefully at her feet. She looks up angrily to the sky and shouts: "He had a hat!"

Jewish humour, often borne out of times of crisis, is what has kept us going over the years. It's in our DNA. It's the shtick that has done as much as anything else to keep alive our cultural identity.

In New York, I didn’t switch on the news with a knot of anxiety

And boy do we need a sense of humour at the moment.

As regular readers will know, I'm no blind apologist for the Land of Milk and Honey. I see its faults and there are many. But I know a distortion, too, when I see one. In New York, I didn't switch on the news with a knot of anxiety as I do in London, waiting to see how the latest Israel news story would disproportionately dominate the programme with a biased and one-sided viewpoint. I didn't worry that the man in the yamulke on the subway would be glared at like he is on the London Underground.

I recently re-read a 2010 interview with author Martin Amis: "I live in a mildly antisemitic country… If you bring up Israel in a public meeting in England, the whole atmosphere changes. It is traditional, snobbish, British antisemitism combined with present-day circumstances." I didn't agree with this when reading it at the time. Now I'm not so sure.

Here's a story that I don't believe could happen in New York. A close actor friend in rehearsals for a play was stopped this week by a fellow company member. "Is it true that you have family in Israel?" he was asked.

My friend replied in the affirmative.

The other actor pressed on: "You mean you have family living in Israel today."

"Yes I do" he replied.

The other actor shook his head gravely. "I'm so sorry," he said. And he walked off.

And that's no Jewish joke.

    Last updated: 11:45am, January 29 2013