One of the most delicious sounds in the world is Kirsty Young’s laugh. It’s glorious and authentic and if it was sold in shops, I’d fill my bath and splash about in it all day. It’d pop up every so often when Kirsty was the host of Desert Island Discs…and every time it did, my earholes would throb with utter joy.
One memorable occasion was in 2012 when she interviewed the late Jackie Mason. Jackie was telling her how no one would’ve eaten uncooked fish till they called it “sushi”. “It was invented,” he explained, “by two Jews who were saying to themselves, ‘how can we open a restaurant without a kitchen?’” and out pours Kirsty’s laughter like an audio hug.
Total bliss. There’s just something magical about genuine, spontaneous laughter, and it’s particularly special when it follows that wonderful, vital thing: Jewish comedy.
On the show, the two of them actually got a little into the question of what “Jewish humour” is (after all, who knew more about that than ex-rabbi Mason?). It’s always, said Jackie, “been about a guy who’s an underdog and the problems he’s facing as an alienated character”. He went on: “You’ll make fun of your rejection and persecution.”
It’s completely true. From the time of our biblical forefathers (Isaac’s very name means “he will laugh”) to Sholem Aleichem (whose Tevye led to Fiddler on the Roof) to Larry David (whose final season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, alas, arrives this year), there’s endless pleasure to be had in the comedy of the Jewish outsider.
They’re persecuted, confounded, constantly downtrodden – both in society and back at home. Who doesn’t love the story of the Jewish man who retires after 40 years and takes up amateur dramatics? He tells his wife that he’s been cast in a play as a Jewish husband. “What?” she replies, “You couldn’t get a speaking part?” Or the one about the man on his deathbed who smells mouth-watering rugelach being cooked downstairs by his wife. He asks his children to bring him some so that he can eat his beloved’s baking once last time before he dies. The kids come back empty-handed. “Sorry Dad,” they tell him, “she says she’s saving it for the shiva.”
We appropriate the mockery others might throw at us, do it better than they ever could and in so doing neutralise it. This is the strength that comes through humour.
Sometimes, true, when things are going badly it doesn’t change the situation but – at the very least – it’s still good for our communal mental health. The late Rabbi Lionel Blue once said that when he had been a young rabbi he (wrongly) thought all problems were solvable: “They’re not. But you can tell a joke about them, which helps.” Because when we laugh, we’re drawn closer together.
It’s probably why in the darkest moments in our history (in the shtetl, in the ghetto and beyond) there was always humour. Yes, it was often of the starkest, most unsettling kind – but it was there. There’s something truly important in seeking the funny side while others try their hardest to destroy us. Who can forget the Jew in 1930s Germany who saw a member of his community reading Der Stürmer. “Why are you reading that rag?” he asked. “Well,” said the reader, “if I read the Jewish papers, I hear about the horrible things happening to us: arrests, brutality, murders. But when I read this, it turns out we control the world, the banks and we’re still on the rise!” It’s a joke told so often we can forget just how dark it is – bleak but in its own way necessary.
One of my heroines, Maya Angelou (not Jewish, though definitely at the top of my “honorary” category) said she never trusts people who don’t crack jokes because “if you’re serious, you understand that it’s important to laugh as much as possible”.
It’s a view I endorse with all my heart.
Just now, as the world seems to be falling apart, some people might feel it’s inappropriate to look for humour, especially as next week we head towards Holocaust Memorial Day.
They might feel it’s somehow frivolous or tasteless but I simply don’t agree. Because when times seem desperate, laughter becomes even more valuable. In fact, those are the moments we need it most.