Psychoanalyzing Jewish Humor

What Freud & his disciples said about Jewish comedy.

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Reprinted with permission from Midstream magazine.

What can we learn from these anecdotes and expressions of Jewish wit?

In his book, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Sigmund Freud suggested that many Jewish jokes point to the ability of the Jewish people to (a) engage in a thorough self-criticism of themselves, (b) advocate a democratic way of life, (c) emphasize the moral and social principles the Jewish religion, (d) criticize the excessive requirements of it, and (e) reflect on the misery of many Jewish communities.

Freud, who wrote this book some hundred years ago, was actually paying homage to the capacity of the Jewish people to overcome the oppressive social conditions that had been imposed upon them and their ability to transcend them by laughing at them.

Masochism?

Some non-Jewish psychiatrists--even disciples of Freud--seem to have had some difficulty in understanding the gist of Jewish wit and have been particularly critical. Their preconceived ideas about the Jews may have had a certain influence in their judgment. Dr. Edmund Bergier, in a book he published in 1956, Laughter and the Sense of Humor, expresses the view that a definite tendency to "psychic masochism" is present in Jew­ish wit, and that certain external situations (discrimination, poverty, the lack of opportunity, and the bitterness of life in Eastern Europe) have pre­disposed Jews to a certain degree of masochism.

jewish humor therapyDr. Martin Grotjahn, a disciple of Theodor Reik [who himself was a disciple of Freud], published a book on the subject in 1960, titled Psychoanalysis and the Jewish Joke, in which he advances the opinion that the witticisms of Jews often start with an aggressive tendency, a shock­ing thought, or an offensive statement in a disguised form. The release of aggression is sudden, and the hostility or aggressiveness manifests itself in a masochistic way--that is, turned against the Jew himself.

Pseudo-Masochism

These notions were corrected, however, by Reik himself, who re­marked that the masochistic aspect of the Jewish joke may not be au­thentic. It is only pseudo-masochistic because the masochism of Jewish wit is only a "mask" that does not show the face behind it. For the ulti­mate aim of this display is the unconscious wish to win the approval--or even the admiration--of the audience, and to regain one's dignity. It is as if the jester were saying, "See how full of weaknesses and failings I am. Therefore you must recognize my humanity, forgive me, and love me again."

Reik justified his conclusion by stating that, contrary to the clinically di­agnosed masochist, the Jew does not derive gratification from this type of behavior, as does the authentic masochist. Indeed, the Jew makes fun of himself, but he does not come out humiliated or dirty. His self-humiliation is perhaps only a measure of self-defense, which may protect him against greater dangers. It is thus a kind of sacrifice made in order to survive. Jew­ish jokes are therefore only pseudo-masochistic and not really masochistic. 

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Rabbi Leo M. Abrami served as the spiritual leader at Beth Emeth Congregation in Sun City West from 2002 to 2006.