Jews and Their Jokes

“How odd of God / To choose the Jews,” a scrap of verse by the English journalist William Norman Ewer, has over the years had many answering refrains. “Not odd, you Sod / The Jews chose God” is one; “What’s so Odd / His son was one” is another; and a third goes “This surely was no mere whim, / Given that the goyim annoy ’im.” But the central mystery remains: God chose the Jews for what, exactly? After reading Jeremy Dauber’s Jewish Comedy: A Serious History, an excellent new survey of Jewish humor from the Old Testament through Adam Sandler, some might say that God chose the Jews to convey jokes, write sitcoms and comic movies, and publish novels peopled chiefly by clownish antiheroes.

Citing a Pew Research Center study titled “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” Dauber reports that “42 percent of respondents felt that ‘having a good sense of humor’ was part of ‘being Jewish in America today,’ 14 percent more than being ‘part of a Jewish community’ and 23 percent more than ‘observing Jewish law.’ ” In other words, at the heart of being Jewish, in the minds of a preponderant number of American Jews, is comedy. How did this minority people produce so much humor, so many jokey jakeys?

The Old Testament, to put it gently, is not notable for humor. As Dauber notes, the first of its paucity of laughs is given to Sarah, wife of the 100-year-old Abraham, who informs her she is to have his child. Dauber early considers, and frequently harkens back to, the book of Esther, which he cites as “the first work to feature the joyful celebration and comic pleasure that comes with an anti-Semite’s downfall and the frustration of that form of persecutory intent.” After a recent rereading, I must report that the book of Esther is less than uproarious. But the book does record a resounding Jewish victory, and such victories, until the advent of the Israel Defense Forces, were only slightly less rare for the Jews than Super Bowl appearances for the Cleveland Browns.

Humor has not been without its dreary analysts and theorists. Along with so much else, Freud got the impulse behind comedy wrong, arguing that a joke is chiefly an act of aggression. He did, though, as was his wont, make a number of useful observations while coming to his false conclusion. “I do not know,” he wrote apropos of the Jews, “whether there are many other instances of a people making fun to such a degree of their own character.”

Their often ambiguous place in the world has given Jews a great deal to think about and, having taken thought, subsequently to joke about. Jeremy Dauber divides this body of humor into seven categories, devoting a chapter to each. His categories are:

1. Jewish comedy is a response to persecution and anti-Semitism.

2. Jewish comedy is a satirical gaze at Jewish social and communal norms.

3. Jewish comedy is bookish, witty, intellectual allusive play.

4. Jewish comedy is vulgar, raunchy, and body-obsessed.

5. Jewish comedy is mordant, ironic, and metaphysically oriented.

6. Jewish comedy is focused on the folksy, everyday, quotidian Jew.

7. Jewish comedy is about the blurred and ambiguous nature of Jewishness itself.

Every decent book on comedy should at a minimum include several good jokes, a criterion by which both Freud’s Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious and Henri Bergson’s Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic notably fail. So does Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation. Even a bad book on comedy, one with the most improbable theories, is partially saved by a few good jokes, so that it “shouldn’t,” as the punchline from an old Jewish joke has it, “be a total loss.” Jeremy Dauber, recognizing that analyzing comedy is a mug’s game, along with being one of the quickest known paths to boredom, lards—or should I say “schmaltzes”?—his text with several splendid jokes within his seven categories.

Of Dauber’s categories, anti-Semitic jokes have never been in short supply (“What is the ultimate Jewish dilemma: Ham—on sale!”). Jokes about anti-Semites, though, tend to be richer, like the one about the drunk at the bar who three times offers to buy drinks for the house, each time excluding from his generosity “my Israelite pal at the end of the bar.” When the Jew asks the drunk what he has against him, the drunk answers, “You sank the Titanic.” The Jew replies, “I didn’t sink the Titanic, an iceberg sank the Titanic.” After belching daintily, the drunk responds: “Iceberg, Greenberg, Goldberg—you’re all no damn good.”

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I used to fancy a definition of the Jews as “just like everyone else, only more so.” But more needs to be said if one is to understand Jewish humor—not the jokes but the impetus driving the humor. I should say this derives from the split social personality of Jews, their simultaneous feeling of resentment at not being entirely in the mainstream of ordinary life joined to their disdain for the vapidity of that life, thus linking a sense of inferiority to one of superiority. Jeremy Dauber notes that there are essentially three kinds of Jewish jokes: “jokes that showcase particular Jewish conditions or circumstances, jokes that highlight particular Jewish sensibilities, and jokes that feature particular Jewish archetypes.”

Dauber sets out the various theories of humor. These include the incongruity theory, the relief (of tension) theory, and the congruity theory. There is also the Jewish superiority theory and, thrown in at no extra charge, the lachrymose theory of Jewish history (the joke here is that the theme of every Jewish holiday is “We suffered, we survived—let’s eat!”). Dauber also considers the comedy of Jewish novelists and storytellers—S. Y. Abramovitch, Sholem Aleichem, and I. L. Peretz; Bellow, Malamud, and Roth (the Hart, Shaffner & Marx of American literature, as Bellow derisively called them); Bruce Jay Friedman, and others. Dauber’s comments on these writers are necessarily scant, but then to have given this aspect of his subject full attention would have swollen his book and diverted him from his main task.

More interesting are Dauber’s pages on Jews and the movies. Two of the best comic directors—Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder—were Jewish. Perhaps the most amusing comment in Jewish Comedy is about the movie Gentleman’s Agreement, a movie that attacks anti-Semitism, a comment made not by a Jew but by Ring Lardner Jr., who said the moral of the film was that “you should never be mean to a Jew because he might turn out to be a Gentile.” Dauber brings up earlier movies that were “de-Semitized,” or made less Jewish, by Hollywood studio moguls—the Jewish Sam Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, and others—lest they not find ready recognition and acceptance with non-Jewish audiences. No movie, though, could be more Jewish than Mel Brooks’s The Producers (1967). That it could be made at all, let alone come to be considered a classic, is a sign of how deeply Jewish humor has permeated American culture.

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The liveliest pages in Jewish Comedy are those on which Dauber takes up Jewish jokes within his categories. These include rabbi jokes, schnorrer (or beggar) jokes, schlemiel and schlimazel jokes, shadkhn (or matchmaker) jokes, Jewish American Princess jokes, Nazi jokes, even Holocaust jokes. A nice selection of Jewish curses—“May your bones be broken as often as the Ten Commandments”—is also provided. The most politically incorrect of such jokes are Jewish women jokes, which play on the stereotypes of the nagging, over-caring, overbearing disapproving Jewish mother (portrayed brilliantly years ago by Elaine May in one of the Nichols and May skits); the Jewish American Princess (“What does a JAP make for dinner?” “Reservations, of course.”); Jews and cosmetic surgery (Dorothy Parker said that Fanny Brice’s rhinoplasty was a case of “cutting off her nose to spite her race”); the domineering wife (when a boy returns home from school to announce that he is to play a Jewish husband in the school play, his mother sends him back to tell the teacher he wants a speaking part); and the extravagant wife (“A thief stole my wife’s purse with all her credit cards. I’m not going after him. He’s spending less than she does.”)

Perhaps the summa of Jewish women jokes has Goldberg, walking along the beach, who picks up a bottle out of which emerges a genie, offering him one wish. Goldberg wishes for world peace. The genie tells him that he gets that wish a lot and hasn’t had much success in fulfilling it. Perhaps he’d like to try another wish. Very well, Goldberg says, then he would like more respect from his wife, for her to provide the occasional home-cooked meal, perhaps allow him sex every other fiscal quarter. The genie pauses, then says, “Tell me, Goldberg, what precisely do you mean by peace?”

Several pages in Jeremy Dauber’s book are given over to Jewish stand-up comics, a group in the modern era never in short supply. (The title of the world’s shortest book, no one will be surprised to learn, is Famous German Stand-Up Comics.) The roster of notable Jewish comedians includes Mickey Katz, Belle Barth, Jack Benny, George Burns, Henny Youngman, Joe E. Lewis, Oscar Levant, Phil Silvers, Jack E. Leonard, Myron Cohen, the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Don Rickles, Shecky Greene, Jerry Lewis, Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Sam Levenson, Allan Sherman, Mel Brooks, Joan Rivers, Jackie Mason, Woody Allen, Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld, Albert Brooks, Sarah Silverman, and more. The minor league for many of these older comedians, the place where they honed their skills, was the Borscht Belt in the Catskills, whose resort audiences of mostly New York Jews provided one of the most knowing and toughest of all audiences going, so tough that Joey Adams, quoted by Dauber, remarked that “when you bomb in the mountains, it’s like a concentration camp with sour cream.”

Some of these comedians worked Jewish—told Jewish jokes, did greenhorn accents, used Yiddishisms—others not. Another division among Jewish comedians is between the safe and edgy, a few of the latter going over the edge itself into dangerous political or sexual territory (Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce) or into simple bad taste. Larry David’s specialty on his own show Curb Your Enthusiasm is to walk right up to the line of bad taste and then cross it, not to everyone’s amusement. Mel Brooks worked the line of bad taste and got away with it; recall Blazing Saddles with its flatulence campfire scene and Yiddish-speaking American Indians. Interviewed in 2001 by Mike Wallace for 60 Minutes when The Producers was reincarnated as a Broadway show, Brooks ignored Wallace’s first question to ask him what he paid for his wristwatch; instead of answering Wallace’s second question, Brooks rubbed Wallace’s lapel between his thumb and forefinger and asked what the jacket he was wearing set him back. Playing on the stereotype of the vulgar, money-crazed Jew, Brooks, somehow, came off as lovable.

Lenny Bruce spoke of putting “the jargon of the hipster, the argot of the underworld, and Yiddish” together in his act. I saw him one evening in an east side New York movie theater—he had not long before lost his cabaret license owing to his generous use of obscenity—doing a bit in which a Jewish nightclub owner is attempting to persuade a Puerto Rican busboy to service sexually Sophie Tucker, the grand old lady of show business, who is appearing at the club and who is presumed to be an insatiable nymphomaniac. They go back and forth, the Puerto Rican busboy and the Jewish owner, the latter arguing and pleading, the former stalwart in his refusals, until finally the busboy exclaims, “She is an old woman, Mr. Rosenberg, I don’t care how much you pay me, I won’t [a slight pause here] schtup [word drawn out] her.” The joke, of course, is not only in the premise of Sophie Tucker’s low needs, but also in the young Puerto Rican’s reverting to Yiddish to close the argument.

Perhaps the edgiest of contemporary Jewish comedians is Sarah Silverman, who in one of her bits, quoted by Dauber, claimed it was neither the Romans nor the Jews who killed Christ but the blacks. In another, not in Jewish History but in some of her shows, Silverman plays a fauxnaïve Jewish American Princess, whose niece tells her that she learned in school that Hitler killed 60 million Jews during the Holocaust. Silverman corrects her niece: “ ‘I think he’s responsible for killing 6 million Jews.’ And she said, ‘Oh yeah, 6 million, I knew that. But seriously, I mean, what’s the difference?’ ‘Uh, the difference is 60 million is unforgivable.’ ” In another bit Silverman plays a ditzy woman in her early 30s, childless, her biological clock running, who recounts how inconvenient at various earlier stages in her life it would have been to have had a child, and concludes, “The best time to have a baby is when you’re a black teenager.” How Silverman has been able to tell such politically incorrect jokes and not been stoned to death is an interesting question.

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Jewish Comedy seeks to be comprehensive, to touch all aspects of its subject, from the Old Testament through the Talmudic canon through the past century and up-to-the-moment comedy, and all in under 300 pages (not counting endnotes). Dauber does an impressive and fairly complete job of it. Some things, inevitably, are more lightly touched than others. Talmudic humor is among them. The humor of Jewish intramural rivalry—the snobbery obtaining among Eastern, German, and Sephardic Jews—is another. All I remember from a novel read decades ago, whose title and author’s name are lost to me, is that what separates Sephardic Jews from all others, apart from their extravagant genealogical pretensions, is that no Sephardic Jew can stand gefilte fish. German Jews were known by Eastern Jews as yekkes, meaning jackets, or suit jackets, which German Jews in their formality were said never to remove. The stereotype made possible the joke that holds the difference between a yekke and a virgin is that a yekke remains a yekke.

Of television comedy, Dauber takes up, among others, Norman Lear, Larry David, and Jerry Seinfeld. Lear’s most memorable show, All in the Family, featured the rebarbative Archie Bunker, who tossed off anti-Semitic, racial, and reactionary remarks and could only have been created by a Jewish liberal, which Lear, still working at 95, remains. Larry David was of course one of the principal writers for Seinfeld, a show whose Jewish content I think Jeremy Dauber may overemphasize. He calls the character Elaine Benes, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, “a classic example of the Jewish American princess,” which she is not, and he suggests that Jewishness was central to the show in a way that doesn’t ring true, even though Jerry’s parents are stereotypically Jewish and so is the character George Costanza and his family. (Jerry Stiller, who plays Frank Costanza, remarked that the Costanzas were “a Jewish family living under the witness protection program under the name Costanza.”) Yet not Jewishness but heightened selfishness and a refusal to accept adulthood seem to me the twin comic engines which kept the show humming along for nearly a decade.

A category that Dauber might have added to his other seven is that of jokes about Jewish assimilation and Jews sliding away from Judaism and their Jewishness generally. This would include all those jokes about nose jobs and name-changing. Perhaps the subtlest of these jokes is the one about the three rabbis who over lunch discover that all of them have a problem with mice in their synagogues. The first rabbi recounts that he called in an exterminator, but without great success. The second rabbi tells that he set tens of mousetraps around his synagogue, but when one of the traps went off it greatly disturbed the service and he had to remove them all. The third rabbi, however, announces that he found a solution by buying a 25-pound wheel of Stilton cheese that he set on the byma, or altar, whereupon 68 mice suddenly appeared. When asked how that got rid of the problem, the rabbi replies, “I bar mitzvahed all 68. They never returned.”

At the close of his book, Dauber mentions the possibility that the end of the era of Jewish comedy may be near. Political correctness figures eventually to take its toll on Jewish comedy, as it does on all humor. The greenhorn accent, often central to the telling of Jewish jokes, is unknown to (because unheard by) generations of younger Jews. The art of joke-telling itself, a form of oral short story, seems everywhere in decline.

My own view is that Jewish humor will continue as long as the reigning note behind Jewish jokes continues to be the belief, everywhere confirmed, that out of the crooked timber of humanity nothing entirely straight can be made, that human nature in all its nuttiness does not change, and that the greatest fool of all—he could be mayor of Chelm, that legendary Jewish town of fools—is he who thinks it can.

Joseph Epstein, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is the author, most recently, of Wind Sprints: Shorter Essays.

This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard


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