One of the most distinctive traits of Jewish culture is Jewish humor, something that the Jewish people are very proud of. Despite all the hardships of exile and persecution over the centuries, the Jews never lost their particular sense of humor. In fact, laughing at themselves often helped them survive and flourish.
Humor does not become “Jewish” because it is about Jews. Nor, for that matter, are jokes considered “Jewish” because they were told or created by someone who happens to be Jewish. And yet it's not hard to distinguish Jewish humor, perhaps because it always speaks to the existential condition of the Jewish people.
A Coping Mechanism
To a large extent, Jewish humor is the result of the 2,000-year Diaspora. This perpetual exile was a source of both physical and emotional insecurity. While it is true there were shining periods in history when the Jewish people thrived, we have also seen how these epochs were always brought to a painful conclusion.
In the face of misfortune and calamities, Jewish humor evolved to become an affirmation of life. Gaiety and laughter were necessary to offset harsh and despairing conditions. In a way, the laughter generated by their humor was a form of therapy to assuage the pain from persecution, grief, and poverty.
Jewish humor is more than a confirmation of life. It is a defiant answer to the questions of “Why?” and “How to go on?” How else, when confronted by a hostile world for thousands of years, could this small band of people so audaciously cling to their beliefs?
When God told Abraham that he and Sarah would have a son, Sarah's first reaction was to laugh in disbelief. When the baby was born, his parents named him Yitzchak (Isaac), a name that shares its root with tzechak, the Hebrew word for laughter.
Laughing at Ourselves and the World
Jews have a way of poking fun at themselves, as if to say to the world, “Hey, you can't malign us, we'll do it to ourselves!” Jewish humor is often incisive and succinct. Henny Youngman's one-liners have their source in hundreds of years of Jewish jokes.
Jewish jokes also deal with the world in which the Jews live and which they love to criticize. Some Jewish humorists are really social critics. Others are more like prophets who carry a certain message or even encourage certain types of moral conduct.
Jewish humor relies on a number of motifs. One recurring theme reminds the Jews of the suffering of those less fortunate and of the mitzvah (commandment) to give to the poor. A second motif reflects the iconoclastic disposition imbedded in the Jewish psyche, beginning with Abraham who, when only a child, dared to destroy the idols in his father's house. Consequently, Jewish humor loves to debunk myths and long-held opinions.
Another pattern woven into Jewish jokes reminds the Jews to keep looking on the bright side of things—a disposition so important in surviving the trials and tribulations Jews often faced. And more than a fair share of Jewish jokes emphasize the importance of diligence and hard work to achieve success, values learned during centuries of restrictions and discrimination.
Jewish Comedians in America
The story of the American Jewish comic deserves special attention because of the extraordinary role they have played in American humor; it's perhaps no coincidence that so many comic geniuses and innovators of American comedy are Jews. The success of the American Jewish comedian lies in the ability to bring the themes ingrained in Jewish humor to the wider American public.
Given that anti-Semitism is a major motif in Jewish history, it is not surprising that it is also a major motif in Jewish humor. Many Jewish jokes portray the utter absurdity of anti-Semitism while still recognizing its danger.
Whether consciously aware of it or not, many of these comics delivered their jokes in the unique rhythm of the Yiddish language and the style in which Jewish jokes had been bantered about for centuries. In coping with anti-Semitism, which presented a major hurdle to aspiring comics in the first half of the twentieth century (a reason so many changed their names), they adopted the techniques of early Jewish humor by making the Jews themselves the butt of their jokes while at the same time demonstrating the fallaciousness of anti-Semitism. No one did this better than Jack Benny, who played the character of a cheapskate and yet in his personal life was generous to a fault.
By the second half of the twentieth century, feeling more secure in American society, a number of Jewish comics began using humor to challenge the mores and hypocrisy around them. Comics like Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce were scathing in their criticism of bigotry, politics, and war. Indeed, these comics along with the likes of Alan King, Jackie Mason, and Shelly Berman—just to name a few—took stand-up comedy to a new level.
Despite pushing the boundaries to get Americans to look at themselves and their culture, these Jewish comics were for the most part well received; through them, Jews in general became more accepted by American society. Jews are now so much a part of the mainstream, some of the most popular television shows were made by and about Jews, like Milton Berle's Texaco Star Theater (number-one show at one point in the 1950s) and Seinfeld, the brainchild of Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David (both Jewish).
Excluded from gentile country clubs, Jews opened their own country club in Hollywood called the Hillcrest Country Club. Every Friday, comics including Jack Benny, George Burns, George Jessel, Groucho Marx, and Danny Kaye met there regularly for lunch.
The list of outstanding Jewish comics is impressive, but several deserve a special look:
Jack Benny (Benjamin Kubelsky): Despite the aloof and frugal character he portrayed, Benny was beloved by the American public. Few American entertainers have ever made the transition so successfully from vaudeville to radio, and then to film and television.
Milton Berle (Mendel Berlinger): Credited with bringing the fledgling medium of television to the homes of the American public with his zany humor, Berle made his transition from radio to television in 1948; his program, Texaco Star Theater, was so popular on Tuesday nights that many restaurants, theaters, and clubs adjusted their schedules so that their customers could watch the show at 8:00 P.M.
The Three Stooges: This comic band of brothers with their slapstick humor has been entertaining generations of Americans. Moe, Curly, and Shemp, who went by the surname of “Howard,” were really the Horwitz brothers (Moshe, Yehudah, and Shmuel). The other prominent “stooge” was Larry Feinberg.
The Marx brothers: Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo took their unique brand of comedy from the stage to the screen, sometimes poking fun at traditions and society—particularly high-brow culture. In later years, performing on his own and starring in a television series, Groucho Marx used puns and non sequiturs to challenge any smugness people had about themselves. He laid the groundwork for subsequent Jewish comics, who carried on the tradition of the Jewish iconoclast.
Lenny Bruce: Of all the great comics of twentieth-century America, Bruce might have been the most innovative and daring; as with all trailblazers, he incurred the wrath of the establishment and met a tragic end, dying of a drug overdose. Speaking as a fast-talking hipster and often employing Yiddish expressions, Bruce's material was frequently directed at bigotry and limitations on the freedom of expression. To prove his point, he sometimes used profanity, for which he was arrested and prosecuted.
Woody Allen (Allan Konigsberg): Allen began his career as a comic writer and landed a spot on the writing staff for Sid Caesar (another Jewish entertainer). Caesar's television show was highly popular, and its cadre included many Jewish writers who went on to distinguish themselves—including Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. Allen made the foray into stand-up comedy, where he tackled the “angst” of life—issues such as marriage, love, sex, and death. These themes would be repeated with humorous and serious deliveries in his subsequent movies.
In the tradition of Jewish humor, Woody Allen has made some memorable one-liners, such as his observation on death: “It's not that I'm afraid to die. I just don't want to be around when it happens.”
There are literally hundreds of outstanding American Jewish comics, almost all of whom you would recognize and some of whom, it may surprise you to know, are Jewish. Here is a very incomplete list for you to peruse: Jason Alexander (Greenspan), Richard Belzer, George Burns (Nathan Birnbaum), Rodney Dangerfield, Fran Drescher, Al Franken, Goldie Hawn, Andy Kaufman, Lisa Kudrow, Jerry Lewis (Jerome Levitch), Richard Lewis, Jon Lovitz, Walter Matthau (Matuschanskayasky), Sarah Jessica Parker, Rhea Perlman, Tony Randall (Rosenberg), Carol Reiner, Rob Reiner, Joan Rivers (Molinsky), David Schwimmer, Pauly Shore, Gary Shandling, Jerry Stiller, Ben Stiller, Peter Sellers, Jon Stewart (Leibowitz), Gene Wilder (Jerome Silberman), and Henry Winkler.