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What, exactly, is Jewish humor? For the most part, Jewish humor concerns itself with all things Jewish. Symbols, language, values, character, definitions, and the concerns of the Jewish people are all a part of what has come to be known as innately Jewish humor.
Jewish humor is not always concerned with things that are Jewish, however. There are several different forms of Jewish humor, and there are things that it does not usually encompass. Sometimes these rules are broken too because comedy is, at its core, unpredictable.
Jewish jokes are generally not cruel, nor do they attack people that are weak or sick. Much of Jewish humor is anecdotal. Jewish humor is seldom gentle or polite. Usually, slapstick humor is not part of the repertoire. But sometimes it is.
If this sounds confusing, it is. When it comes to Jewish comedy, the general rule is that there are “rules,” but those rules are meant to be broken. The Marx Brothers, for instance, were famous for their slapstick. Don Rickles was notedly cruel in his comedy. Sam Levenson was known for being polite.
A Bit About Jewish Humor
In the 1970’s it was estimated that as many as 80% of American comedians were Jewish. There are a large number of Jewish comedians in America. Adam Sandler, Jon Stewart, Larry David, Sarah Silverman, and Seth Rogan are household names.
Jewish humor is typically substantive. It’s always about something — but what that “something” is can vary vastly. The path from rational logical subject matter to the rather absurd is a short trip many Jewish comedians take. Jewish humor often focuses on food, family, stereotypes Jews face (like the relentless quest for wealth), anti-Semitism, business, and survival.
Sigmund Freud noted that Jewish humor is famous for mocking those who are popular rather than those who are excluded, primarily. Jewish humor derives its power from being fair above all else.
Even God himself is not safe from Jewish comedians. But this is unsurprising, as Jewish people are taught to question their faith in order to strengthen it. Jewish humor often aims to expose hypocrisy in the world — and since there is a lot of it, Jewish comedians find no shortage of material.
Self-deprecation and gallows humor are on the table. “You do not need to attack us. We can do that ourselves—and even better,” Eliott Oring once wrote of Jewish humor. “But we can take it, and we will come out alright.”
Jewish humor is often sarcastic, complaining, resigned, or descriptive. Often, laughter is not even the goal. You’ll find yourself letting out a resigned sigh at the truths expressed by the comedian.
“Comedy comes from the feeling that, as a Jew, and as a person, you don’t fit into the mainstream of American society,” Jewish comedian and filmmaker Mel Brooks once said. “It comes from the realization that even though you’re better and smarter, you’ll never belong.”
Jewish Humor Gets Deep Sometimes
In some ways, Jewish humor is the best defense mechanism ever created. Some animals can fend off predators by shooting blood from their eyes, breaking their own bones, turning their ribs into spikes, or even exploding. But Jewish comedians have something the rest of nature doesn’t — cutting wit honed by generation after generation of oppression. And they’re not afraid to talk about it.
Throughout history Jews have had a lot of problems such as discrimination, and a lot of the Jewish jokes revolve around a kind of gallows sense of humor.
Even during the Holocaust, Jews found the ability to rise above their circumstances and joke about them. One such joke goes like this:
“Today in Germany the proper form of grace is ‘Thank God and Hitler’,” a father tells his son by way of teaching him to say thanks before a meal.
“But suppose the Führer dies?” asks the boy.
“Then you just thank God,” the father replies.
During Hitler’s occupation of Romania, Emil Dorian kept his faith, but he put God on trial with a short prayer: “Dear God, for five thousand years we have been your chosen people. Enough! Choose another one now.”
Sometimes, it’s best to beat bigots to the punch with a little traditional self-deprecating humor, like this gem:
A Rabbi and a secretary were sitting in the office, and the secretary said, “Rabbi why are you reading a Nazi libel sheet? What are you, a self-hating Jew?”
The Rabbi replied, “No, I see here it says that these people believe that the Jews control all the banks, they dominate the Arts, and they’re on the verge of taking over the entire world. I’ve never felt better about myself my whole life!”
Jewish Humor is Serious Business
In many ways, Jewish humor is serious business. It helps deal with the otherwise painful reality that Jews are one of the most marginalized and attacked groups in the world. It serves as a shield against bigotry and hatred. In many ways, it makes us bulletproof — except, of course, against actual bullets.
Humor helps us withstand almost any attack that might come our way. Ultimately, our main strength is that we can survive through almost anything. And comedy is one of the many tools we have with which we can show our resilience.
In the darkest of times, humor can help one keep one’s sanity. It can also lessen the pain of tragedy and horror. This is especially true today. While U.S. Jewish claims of antisemitism are low at the moment compared to other times in our history, the U.S. has seen a spike in anti-Semitic incidents since late 2016 and early 2017.
We can endlessly debate the reason for the recent rise in anti-Semitism in the United States and other places, but one thing is for sure: Jewish humor is needed more now than ever. And humor is especially useful in dealing with anti-Semitism.
After all, when a bigoted waiter tells you “We don’t serve Jews here,” you should know to reply, “That’s fine; I don’t eat Jews.”