Jewish Humor in America

From the Borscht Belt to Broadway and beyond

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Reprinted with permission from The Big Book of Jewish Humor (HarperCollins Publishers).

One of the complicating factors in identifying American Jewish humor is that American Jews themselves have been strangely reluctant to recognize it and appreciate it for what it is. Even people who own records by Lenny Bruce and Allan Sherman, who go to see movies by Woody Allen and Mel Brooks, who read novels by Philip Roth, Bruce Jay Friedman, and Wallace Markfield, and who watch television performers like

Myron Cohen, Buddy Hackett, and David Steinberg, still seem to think of Jewish humor as belonging to the world of Eastern Europe and to the early stages of acculturation in America--more or less like Yiddish itself. It is true that not all the material of these contemporary humorists can properly be called Jewish, but even by the strictest measures, there is much that can.

 

Taking Jewish Humor Seriously

Gentiles have little difficulty in recognizing the Jewish slant of Lenny Bruce's hipsters, or Woody Allen's schlemiels, or Philip Roth's compulsive intellectuals. Why is the Jewish audience more equivocal? Part of the reason may be the reluctance of these humorists to see themselves as part of Jewish America. But if this is true of the performers and writers, it is perhaps no less true of their audiences; American Jews in general have been reluctant to take seriously their own Jewishness.

jewish humor in americaAccording to this prejudice (and here is a compelling case of self-deprecation), Eastern Europe represents an idealized and "authentic" Judaism, and not incidentally, a Yiddish-speaking culture, next to which Judaism in America seems artificial, watered-down, and decidedly second best. For some aspects of Jewish culture, this bias is valid, although less so with each passing year. But in no area has it been less true than for Jewish humor.

Adding to the confusion is that while the themes of Jewish humor have not changed dramatically since Eastern Europe, America has made available (and Jews have helped to create) a host of new forms which make 20th-century Jewish humor appear to have little in common with its 19th century origins.

Modernization

Whereas traditional Jewish humor emerged anonymously from a collective consciousness, America has provided a multitude of new conduits for its transmission: public meetings and lectures, vaudeville, the Borscht Belt, Broadway, nightclubs, radio, record albums, movies, and most especially television, as well as widely circulating books, newspapers, and magazines.

America has made available a popular culture that has been not only open to Jews but positively inviting to Jewish performers and Jewish themes to a degree that was unimaginable in Eastern Europe. There has been, of course, a price to pay for accepting this invitation, which has resulted in the parevezation, or neutering, of much of the material.

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William Novak

William Novak is a writer, editor, and comedy scholar.