In 1893, Rabbi Hermann Adler, the Chief Rabbi of England, wrote an
essay about Jewish humor for The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature,
Science and Art. He was responding to comments made by two prominent
intellectuals, Ernest Renan and Thomas Carlyle, suggesting that Jews completely
lack a sense of humor. (They probably were projecting a medieval caricature of
the rigid Pharisees onto their Jewish contemporaries.) Rabbi Adler wrote a
lengthy essay in response, in which he collected examples of Jewish humor from
the Tanakh down to Moses Montefiore. Rabbi Adler himself had a sharp wit, and
in his essay, he makes it clear that he took great pride in the Jewish sense of
One might find it difficult to believe that anyone could accuse the Jews of being unfunny. Steve Allen, in his 1981 history of American humor “Funny People,” labeled comedy as a “Jewish cottage industry,” and observed that 80% of the comedians in the U.S. at that time were Jewish. The association of Jews with humor is so strong, that in the 2013 Pew study, 42% of American Jews responded that having a sense of humor was an essential part of what being Jewish means to them. (Of course, one wishes that contemporary Jews were as devoted to Shabbat as they are to sitcoms.) There are many, many books of Jewish humor, numerous studies analyzing Jewish humor, and multiple types of Jewish jokes. There are jokes about antisemites, foolish Jews and rabbis, off-color jokes and witty jokes, jokes about business, family and Judaism itself.
Jewish humor is not a religious tradition. In fact, rabbinic literature is ambivalent about comedy, and there are frequent condemnations of “leitzanut,” mockery, in ethical guidebooks. Many rabbis condemned the folk tradition of a “Purim Rav,” a comedian who would parody the local rabbi on Purim, mimicking the rabbi’s mannerisms and ridiculing his idiosyncrasies. Some rabbis found the lampooning they received on Purim difficult to take; there is a legend that Rabbi Shimon Sofer, the Chief Rabbi of Krakow, died right after Purim due to the grief caused by a particularly irreverent “Purim Rav.” At the same time, jokes are recognized as being a valuable psychological tool; the Talmud tells of one rabbi who would always tell jokes before he taught, to get the students to relax and focus. In another passage, Elijah comes from heaven to tell a local rabbi that two jesters in his neighborhood have an honored place in the world to come, because their jokes cheered up the depressed. Humor can certainly be a spiritual tool, but there is no commandment to be funny.
So why are Jews so funny? Sigmund Freud, in his 1905 essay “Jokes And Their Relation To The Unconscious,” devotes an unusual amount of space to Jewish jokes; it is clear that he believes Jewish humor is remarkable. In a time when Jews were extremely discreet in what they wrote about their compatriots, Freud features some unflattering jokes Jews would tell about themselves. He repeats a joke about Galitzianer Jews that pokes fun at their reputation for rarely taking baths:
“Two Jews met in the neighbourhood of the bathhouse. ‘Have you taken a bath?’ asked one of them. ‘What?’ asked the other in return, ‘is there one missing?'” (This is one of four different jokes about Jews and bathing that Freud repeats.)
Ruth Wisse, in her book “No Joke: Making Jewish Humor,” points out that Freud’s contemporary Arthur Schnitzler criticized Freud for publishing these jokes, which Schnitzler said made Freud sound more antisemitic than antisemites. However, Freud was unconcerned, and saw these jokes as depicting a positive side to Jewish culture. He explains that these Jewish jokes are “meant to portray the democratic mode of thinking of Jews, which recognizes no distinction between lords and serfs, but also, alas, upsets discipline and co-operation.”
Jews certainly know how to laugh at themselves, and to make fun of their failings. There is a joke about three Jews who are about to be executed by firing squad. The sergeant in charge asks each one whether he wants a blindfold. “Yes,” says the first Jew, in a resigned tone. “OK,” says the second Jew, in a quiet voice. “And what about you?” he enquires of the third Jew. “No,” says the third Jew, “I don't want your lousy blindfold,” followed by a few choice curses. The second Jew immediately leans over to him and whispers: "Listen, Moshe, don't make trouble. Take the blindfold. "
This joke is mercilessly self-critical and funny at the same time; but laughter helped Jews contend with a hostile environment, and cope during the most difficult of times. There was an entire genre of jokes created by Jews from the Soviet Union; and several books have been written about Jewish humor during the Holocaust. One would think that there are times and places where humor is impossible; but actually, that is where humor is most needed. Comedy is a refuge, a shelter for the heartbroken. One excellent example of this, from an obituary in Canadian newspaper, tells of a Holocaust survivor returning to visit the concentration camps:
“When, in the 1980s, Celine returned to Theresienstadt with her husband Maximilien, they were stopped at the ticket counter. ‘Last time I was here,’ Celine told the ticket vendor, ‘I got in for free.’”
I had heard a similar anecdote about another survivor who returned to Auschwitz. At the ticket counter, he rolled up his sleeve, showed the number tattooed on his arm, and asked, “do I get an alumni discount?” Laughter offers ready relief for the persecuted.
Some Jewish jokes wield ridicule as a weapon. The Midrash tells the story of a young Avraham breaking his father’s idols, and then claiming that the largest idol was angry, and broke the others; this is pure satire, a joke about the silliness of paganism. (And the Talmud makes clear that one is entitled to mock paganism, even in an extreme fashion.) In response to antisemitism, Jews mocked their boorish and barbaric enemies. One example of this is the joke that Joseph Telushkin retells in his book “Jewish Humor”:
“During the Second World War, a southern matron calls up the local army base. ‘We would be honored,’ she tells the sergeant who takes her call, ‘to accommodate five soldiers at our Thanksgiving dinner.’ ‘That's very gracious of you, ma'am,’ the sergeant answers. ‘Just please make sure they're not Jews,’ the matron adds. ‘I understand, ma'am.’ Thanksgiving afternoon, the woman answers the front doorbell and is horrified to find five black soldiers standing in the doorway. ‘We're here for Thanksgiving dinner, ma'am,’ one of the soldiers says. ‘Bu ... bu ... but your sergeant has made a terrible mistake,’ the woman says. ‘Oh no, ma'am,’ the soldier answers. ‘Sergeant Greenberg never makes mistakes.’”
Mockery was a weapon, a way for Jews to belittle and diminish those who mistreat them.
But there is no purer form of Jewish humor than the absurd. A classic example is a joke told by Leo Rosten in “The Joys of Yiddish.”
A man posed a riddle to his son: “What’s purple, hangs on the wall and whistles?”
When the son gave up, he answered: a herring.
“A herring?” his son said. “A herring isn’t purple.”
“Nu,” replied the father, “they painted the herring purple.”
“But hanging on a wall? How does a herring hang on a wall?”
“Aha! You nail the herring to the wall.”
“But a herring doesn’t whistle,” his son shouted.
“Nu, so it doesn’t whistle.”
This joke is actually a joke about jokes, a riddle that fails to add up; it absurdly ends up with a “nu” for a conclusion. And it is here where the Jewish love for humor begins. Let me explain why.
The name of the second Jewish patriarch is Yitzchak; the root word of his name is tzachak, which means laughter. In our Parsha, the root tzachak is employed several times; almost all are in relation to the birth, naming and raising of Yitzchak. They indicate the joy and shock Avraham and Sarah have when learning they will have a child in old age. The root word is also used when Lot tells his sons-in-law that their home city of Sodom is about to be destroyed. They do not believe him, for his words are “like a joke [kimitzacheik] in their eyes.”
The double reference to laughter highlights that both events are improbable to the point of being funny. And indeed they are. To an observer at the time, the possibility that a major city like Sodom will disappear, or that a childless, wandering, elderly couple will be the progenitors of a great civilization seems ludicrous. The funny thing is, this strange outcome is precisely what occurs; and it is here that the Jewish love for humor begins.
It is difficult to write a short article on Jewish humor; there are only so many jokes that you can tell, and so many others that have to be left out. But the greatest Jewish joke is ever-present: that am yisrael chai, that a small nation beat ridiculous odds time and time again. Just like the elderly couple Avraham and Sarah, Jews were expected to disappear; instead, they continue to thrive, year after year. Isn’t that laughably absurd? Yes, it is; and that’s why the first Jewish child was named Yitzchak.