What is Jewish Humor?

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And yet, while it’s often about subversion, Jewish humor also tends to navel-gaze, philosophize, ponder. As Moshe Waldoks and Bill Novak suggest in their Big Book of Jewish Humor, Jews are most often funny about something, and it’s usually something they know quite a bit about. In this mood, Jewish humor takes on many forms, ranging from extreme exaggerations of the logical acrobatics of a talmudic scholar, to Saul Bellow’s riffs on philosophy, to Seinfeld-ian analyses of social etiquette.

In each of these examples, humor performs a social function, drawing together people who share similar cultures: If you haven’t studied the Talmudic tractate Masekhet Beitzah, struggled through Heidegger, or visited New York City, you may not end up laughing. Whenever a joke is about something--whether that something is as general as an ethnic stereotype, or as specific as one rabbi’s bad breath--who laughs and how much they laugh depend on how familiar they are with the target. As the philosopher Ted Cohen suggests, humor divides the world into “us” (we who get the joke) and “them” (those humorless jerks who don’t).

For Jews, throughout history, various lines between “us” and “them” have been crucial, imposed internally as well as externally--think Jewish/Goyish, to use the Yiddish for non-Jews, offensive today but part of the vernacular in Yiddish culture past. There's also Orthodox/Reform, Israel/Diaspora, Ashkenazic/Sephardic, et cetera. Humor has always been, and continues to be, one way to draw such fundamental lines.

Attentive readers might now be scratching their heads: Jewish humor (1) crosses boundaries and (2) draws lines? Isn’t that a bit, well, hypocritical? It is. And that’s part of the beauty of humor, and Jewish humor in particular: it doesn’t have to make sense, be consistent, or tell the truth.

Comedy doesn’t have to do anything, in fact, except make people laugh--and often enough in Jewish history, a bit of laughter has provided solace when nothing else could. Joking has served as a coping mechanism for all the worst afflictions faced by the Jewish people, from persecution in Czarist Russia to ongoing trauma in the Middle East to the threat of assimilation all over the world. Dark Jewish joking has even, in some controversial examples, responded to the Holocaust.

Some may decry jokes about Hitler, pogroms, or intermarriage as tasteless, but humor by its nature breaks every rule. And this is the power of Jewish humor. Comedy grants an unlimited license to experiment, to invent, to create. And Jewish humor--in all its contradictions, subversions, and possibilities--is one of the ways that Jews, through the ages, have created an idea of themselves. 

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