Life & Culture

Why Jewish jokes make the world a little more bearable, for a while

I am pleased there’s a new free online course in American Jewish humour (or humor) across the pond, and it’s always nice to be reminded of my favourite quips


My three favourite Jewish jokes are these (I shall tell them in compact form, for you know them already): “The food here is terrible,” “Yes, and such small portions;” The waiter asking the ladies “is anything all right?” and the shipwrecked Jew who builds two synagogues so he can have one he refuses to go to.

I am pleased that the YIVO institute for Jewish Research, which has started a free online course in American Jewish humour (or humor?) has picked the second of these as its overall title; and in a brief promotional YouTube video, have provided me with a fourth favourite: two Jews on the deck of the Titanic as it starts sinking, and one of them bursts into tears. “What are you crying for?” asks the other. “It’s not your boat.”

You can’t quite pin down Jewish humour, or American Jewish humour, but you can recognise it when you see it. Certain attempts at definitions provide too many exceptions to prove the rules – for example, you might think that it’s not slapstick or physical – but what about the Marx Brothers or Jerry Lewis or Danny Kaye? (Although there is still a part of me that half-believes that Chico Marx was actually Italian.)

What I suggest is that the main thing Jewish jokes and humour (for they are not necessarily the same thing) have that distinguishes them from other kinds of humour from around the world is that it punches upwards, sometimes right to the very top, you know Who I mean, and sometimes sideways, but never down. If Jews are going to make a joke about poor or oppressed people, then those people are going to be themselves. And the other common characteristic is that it is very often profound. Take the jokes I mention at the beginning of this piece: the first two aren’t about food, really: they’re about life. The third is about life, too, or rather the Jewish tendency to indulge in a broiges; an extreme example of the two Jews equals three arguments saying. And the fourth? That’s also about life, too, when you think about it.

There is also another notable phenomenon: the capacity of Jews to make jokes about absolutely anything, up to and including the worst things that have happened to them. Look, for example, at the jokes that arose after the recent Iranian missile attacks. In Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson says that one of the things he loves most about the British is the overwhelming compulsion many of them have to make a joke, or at least a quip, at any given moment; but a British joke does not come from a place of oppression, unless it is the British compunction to do oneself down.

And this is why the British appreciate Jewish humour so much, perhaps. I saw this exemplified in my own family: my father might have been technically half-Jewish but he was quintessentially English, and my mother may have come from Catholic Polish stock but she grew up in Atlantic City and New York; mixing in artistic and creative circles she was surrounded by funny, successful Jews (and her first marriage was to a Jew, so it wasn’t as if she had any antisemitism to overcome). My mother never quite fell for certain kinds of British humour – she found nothing inherently funny in men dressing up as women, for instance – but my father very much grew to love American Jewish humour, which, by the time they met, in the 1960s, was pretty much the same thing as American humour. My mother might have left the room when Les Dawson put on a dress, but my father couldn’t get enough of the earlier, comedic Woody Allen, even if the pair of them were as different as different, physically and culturally, as it was conceivable to be. This was a useful and joyous education: when I was at school, a Jewish joke was an invariably unfunny and mean-spirited (and wholly antisemitic) accusation of meanness with money. The Jewish humour that came from the other side of the Atlantic was a kind of liberation.

Which may be the essence of the kind of American Jewish humour that YIVO are concentrating on. Humour has been embedded in Jewish culture ever since Solomon suggested cutting a baby of disputed parentage in half, but it took the transplanting of Jewry from Europe to the USA for it to really come to full flower. On another continent, on the other side of the world, Jews felt liberated to make jokes about the worst things: look at how Mel Brooks succeeded with The Producers, in which the rise of Hitler is treated as comedy; and look, decades later, to South Park, whose creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, both with Jewish mothers, have in their adipose anti-hero, Cartman, a character who regularly embraces Nazism. Look also at Larry David, whose Curb Your Enthusiasm has just finished its twelfth and final series: Larry David, or rather “Larry David”, the warped version of himself in the TV show, not only regularly addresses his Jewishness – at the same time he makes himself look like the worst shlemiel in Los Angeles. I would strongly recommend the episode Palestinian Chicken as a hilarious example of how the situation in the Middle East can be the basis for the kind of humour that can make you gasp, at the same time, at its audacity. (Example: in that episode, David has a fling with a beautiful but militant – and antisemitic – Palestinian woman; when confronted by an appalled and newly-devout Jewish friend, he says “the penis doesn’t care about race, religion, or colour. All it wants to do is return to its homeland.” Just think about the layers in that joke for a moment.)

I think, too, of Philip Roth, who made a certain strain of self-loathing one of the bedrocks of his scathing humour; although it must be said that Portnoy’s Complaint made him very unpopular indeed with a lot of Jews, especially American Jews. But it doesn’t stop him from being a great novelist. See also Saul Bellow and Canada’s Bernard Malamud, who are both funnier than people realise, if less outrageous than Roth. (I don’t want to say too much about Jewish novelists in North America: we’d be here all day.)

But the genius of Jewish American humour is the way it made something that is considered essential to the identity of only 0.2 per cent of the world’s population pretty much universal. The subjects or indeed butts of the jokes may be Jewish, but everyone gets it, because (I would argue) that being Jewish is to encapsulate the human condition very thoroughly. It is very important that the people telling the jokes, of course, be Jewish: but this adds a certain moral force to the joke, something unarguable. It’s a pre-emptive technique: as Robert Burton put it in his preface to his Anatomy of Melancholy, “thou canst not think of me worse than I do of myself.” Burton may have been a seventeenth-century Christian Englishman as opposed to a twentieth-century East Coast Jew, but his book is the longest kvetch in all literature, and that should grant him some kind of honorary status. And that is the fundamental essence of all Jewish humour: the kvetch. It makes the world, for a while, a little more bearable.

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