Feeling funny: Devorah Baum on Jewish jokes and emotions

Devorah Baum has two new books out which examine the essence of Jewishness. Keren David met her to find out more.


Two Jews, Moshe and Itzik, are walking in the Ukrainian forest. In the distance, they see two local guys walking towards them. Moishe turns to Itzik, panics, and says, “Itzik, what should we do? There’s two of them, and we’re all alone!”

This, according to Devorah Baum is the world’s most Jewish joke. And she should know. The author of a new book entitled The Jewish Joke, she has written an “essay with examples (less essay, more examples)” which not only contains a lot of jokes, but also an insightful analysis of what lies behind them. (I know what you’re thinking, but, honestly, it doesn’t ruin the humour. Baum’s tone is light and she is never boring).

What’s more, this is only one of the two books of huge Jewish interest that Baum had published within a week of each other. Her debut Feeling Jewish (A Book for Just About Anyone) examines emotions commonly associated with Jewish people, drawing on texts from Portnoy’s Complaint to Jane Eyre. Put it this way, if you’re looking for Chanukah presents for intelligent, introspective, cultured Jews, with a sense of humour, you’ve found them.

On the way to interview Baum at her home in West London, I try a little experiment. In the introduction to Feeling Jewish she writes: “Whenever I’ve been asked the name of the book I’ve been writing — the book you’re reading — I nearly always fudge or muffle my answer. Can I really say ‘Feeling Jewish’ out loud? Oh the irony, that ‘feeling Jewish’ for me at least , should be so neatly exposed by the way I feel about saying those very words.” I decide to travel from Finsbury Park to Putney Bridge on public transport, reading Feeling Jewish, just to see what emotions it evokes in me, and possibly other people, displaying something which acts as an instant “I’m Jewish” label. (Of course some people do this all the time by wearing a kippah, say. Not me, though).

And, sure enough, pulling the book out of my bag, I feel a little anxious and nervous, and instantly worry that this indicates a certain level of paranoia. In fact, no one reacts to my reading matter, apart from a lady on the Victoria Line who gives me a meaningful smile. I interpret this as a silent “I’m Jewish too.” And then I ponder how this fits Baum’s thesis, that the emotions we think of as stereotypically Jewish — including guilt, self-hatred and paranoia — are pretty much universal as globalisation has left people, Jews and non-Jews, feeling marginalised, uprooted and existentially threatened.

Arriving at the terraced house in Fulham which she shares with her husband, the film-maker Josh Appignanesi and their two young sons, aged three and one, Baum makes me comfortable in their sofa-lined kitchen, a space made for hordes of friends to lounge in. She explains, almost apologetically, why there are two books. One grew out of the other. She sent the proposal for Feeling Jewish to one publisher, but then decided it needed a more traditional academic publisher. The first publisher had liked the humour in her proposal, and asked if she’d consider a shorter, joke-led book. The two projects proceeded side by side, and ended up coming out at the same time.

Calling the original book Feeling Jewish is, she says “a provocation”. It’s not meant to suggest that all Jews feel the same or share the same emotions. “It’s an argument about the nature of feelings,” she explains. “Feelings don’t come out of nowhere. They have a history.”

Baum is a lecturer in English Literature at Southampton University, and her book draws on literature, film and memoir. Her focus is the modern, post emancipation period, “when Jews were admitted into society, yet not quite accepted.” The sources for the joke book stretch from the Zohar to Louis CK. Both seek to identify answers to the question of what is quintessential Jewishness. “It’s being at odds with oneself. It’s taking pride in one’s difference and feeling ashamed of it at the same time,” writes Baum.

Many Jewish jokes, and many emotions identified with Jews come from an insider/outsider consciousness, she tells me. “We create borders and tackle them. Jewishness becomes a good metaphor for boundary-troubling ideas.” She quotes Kafka, who wrote in his diary; “What have I in common with Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself and should stand very quietly in the corner, content that I can breathe.”

“You don’t have to be Jewish to feel that ‘I’m a weird Jew’ feeling that you don’t really fit in, you’re not really part of the family, you don’t belong,” she says. “You don’t have to be Jewish to feel you have nothing in common with Jews, but being Jewish helps.”

Matters of Jewish identity have always fascinated her. She grew up in south west London, part of a “profoundly Jewish-identifying” family, members of Richmond United Synagogue. It was a happy secure upbringing, but “we were inheritors of modern Jewish history. Our grandparents had come from the Old World. There was a horrible history burned inside us.”

She was the only Jewish girl at her school. “There’s a sense of secrecy and privacy, that you are carrying something that might get found out.” She talks about feeling proud, yet somehow “vigilant”, charged by a need to represent Jews and Jewishness, which leads to a feeling that “no one will assume that I am speaking for myself…if myself is even a possibility”. These ideas are brilliantly explored in Feeling Jewish, in particular in her discussion of The Diary of Anne Frank and the almost inescapable tendency to turn a real girl into a saint and a symbol.

Baum read English at Bristol University and became an academic, because “I never knew what I wanted to do. I’m a real kvetcher.”

Avowedly impractical — “ I never cook” — she felt teaching was something that she could cope with. I’m not sure how much to believe this claim, as Baum, as well as being super-bright and very likeable, has managed to produce two books alongside two small children, as well as commuting to a full-time job in Southampton, all of which points to someone pretty practical. “I’m an old mum,” she points out — she’s 43 in December — and the books are a culmination of a long period of research. “It’s a blur,” she says of the last few years.

We talk about the Jewish propensity to make all of life into a joke, a kind of sitcom, like Larry David or Jerry Seinfeld. It’s something that she and Appignenesi did when she first became pregnant. They wrote in the JC earlier this year about how their “fun experiment”, of documenting the pregnancy in film, turned from a gentle comedy about a neurotic father-to-be, into something very different. Baum was pregnant with twins, but as the film, entitled The New Man, progressed they learned that one would die and the survival of the other was uncertain. The film ends with the birth of their first son, Manny and the burial of his brother, Ben.


Her loss is still raw — she has tears in her eyes as we discuss it — a moment, ironically, interrupted by her husband arriving to film our interview. And there’s another irony to discuss, the humour and over-the-top emotion surounding the very notion of being a Jewish mother.

“Mother blaming isn’t exclusive to our community,” she points out. And in Feeling Jewish she expands on this “Like Jews, not only are mothers convenient scapegoats who can find themselves blamed for pretty much every ill in society, but they can also wind up feeling terribly bad about this fact — guilty, paranoid, self-hating, all the various feelings this book has been associating with modern Jewish experience.” Or, in the words of Philip Roth’s mother Bess: “All mothers are Jewish mothers.”

Baum “likes religion a lot”, but is not currently a member of a synagogue. She grew up Orthodox, the couple were married by Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg of Masorti and for a time she was involved with the Yakar community. “I am always feeling nostalgic for being deeply religious.”

Baum’s company is so good, her home so welcoming, that I accept another cup of tea when our interview is done. Which prompts another joke from her book.

Moskowitz and Finkelstein were in a cafeteria drinking a cup of tea. Moskowitz studied his cup and said with a sigh, “Ah, my friend, life is like a cup of tea.”

Finkelstein considered that for a moment and said “But why is life like a cup of tea?”

Moskowitz replied: How should I know? Am I a philosopher?”


Feeling Jewish: (A Book for Just About Anyone) is published by Yale University Press

The Jewish Joke: An essay with examples (less essay, more examples) is published by Profile Books

Devorah Baum will discuss The Jewish Joke with David Baddiel at JW3 on December 7

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