Future of Jewish Humor

Can Jewish-American humor survive the assimilationist 21st century?

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The eventual dominance of Jewish humor did not come easily or without cost. On the rough-and-tumble vaudeville stage, ethnic types (stage blacks, Irishmen, and Jews) told self-hating jokes to make a simple point--namely, that, in America, there was no room for shuffling darkies, drunken Irishmen, or kikey Jews. As the metaphor of the melting pot would have it, ethnicity should be willingly sacrificed on behalf of becoming a true-blue American. For Jews this meant, among other things, shedding their Yiddish accents.

Entertainers were a notable exception, as Yiddish soon became Hollywood's lingua franca and the flavoring, however it may have been diluted, that one recognizes in comics from Myron Cohen to Jackie Mason. A Yiddish accent and, even more important, the very rhythm of their speech patterns marked them as Jews, despite the fact that the words tumbling out of their mouths were English.

Can Assimilated Jews Be Funny?

As the 20th century neared its end, the mines of Borsht Belt, that veritable breeding ground for Jewish-American comics, reached a point of exhaustion. Most Jewish Americans could not remember hearing Yiddish spoken around the house either by a grandfather or an uncle. Nobody shouted "Kim bald heim" when it was time to come home for dinner or whispered "Sha… sha" when you were making too much racket.

The world in which activities were sharply divided into the encouraged (studying, eating your vegetables, and being "nice") and the forbidden (climbing trees, playing baseball, and running around like a vilde chaiye, a wild animal) has long ago been replaced by young Jewish adults who play tennis at the country club, go on Colorado ski trips, and think of their tanned athletic bodies without noticeable guilt.

What could Jewish humor of the old-fashioned sort mean to people who have become so comfortable in America that it is hard for them to remember a time, an ethos, when a Jew's joy was immediately followed by trembling? Which brings me, at long last, to the point of my title: Will assimilation's successes be the death knell for Jewish-American humor? I think not.

Why so? Because I count myself among those who feel we are enjoined to "Choose life," I've long turned down invitations to any number of burials--for the American novel during the late l960s, the formalist poem a decade later, and for literature itself during the theory-mad l980s. I suspect that the coffin of Jewish-American humor will be equally empty.

True enough, 20- and 30-somethings will want a hipper, edgier Jewish-American humor (how could they not?), and they are finding it in things like Adam Sandler's "Hanukkah Song"--a send-up of "I have a little dreidl" Hanukkah ditties as well as a frank, unembarrassed look at what assimilation means in terms of half- and three-quarter Jewish Americans--and in Jon Stewart's The Daily Show, a savagely satiric, and I would argue, outsider's view of American politics.

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Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor of English at Franklin and Marshall College. He writes widely about Jewish literature and culture, and in recent years has been a judge for the Edward Lewis Wallant Prize, the Reform Judaism Prize, and the National Jewish Book Award.