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 is not hard to tell when a joke or funny story or tale fits into this category. Jewish humor has different themes, but, as you shall see, it always speaks to the existential condition of the Jewish people.
Themes in Jewish Humor
To a large extent, Jewish humor is the result of the 2,000-year Diaspora when the Jews lived without a “home” (country) of their own. This perpetual exile was a source of both physical and emotional insecurity. While it is true there were shining moments in history, such as the Golden Age in Spain, they often ended in a period of Jewish persecution. In Spain, the Golden Age came to an end in 1492 when the Jews were told to convert to Christianity or promptly depart.
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 persecutions, grief, and poverty.
When God told Abraham that he and Sarah would have a son, Sarah's first reaction was to laugh in disbelief. Perhaps it was not a coincidence that the name they bestowed upon their son, Isaac (Yitzchak in Hebrew), who would become one of the patriarchs, means “laughter.” (The Hebrew word for laughter is tzechak. )
Jewish humor is more than a confirmation of life. It is a defiant answer to the question 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 and to Torah?
A number of motifs are woven through Jewish humor. Some of these motifs are apparent in the tales and jokes included here. You will see for yourself how 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 if the things they see about themselves aren't to their liking, criticism is freely dispersed. Some Jewish humorists, perhaps epitomized by Lenny Bruce, became critics of the societies in which they lived. At other times, Jewish humor conveyed a message and even encouraged certain types of moral conduct. It also had a way of deflecting the trauma endured by anti-Semitism.
Jewish humor is so vast it deserves a book by itself. In fact, there are many such books available, and Web sites with Jewish humor abound online. As a simple and entertaining introduction to Jewish humor, the rest of this chapter will illustrate some Jewish humor, organized by some of its most common themes.
Poverty, Justice, and Iconoclasm
The rabbi was walking along a street in the Bronx when he met an obese man attired in the finest clothing. The obese man was smoking.
“Why do you smoke? It's an awful vice!” the rabbi rebuked the man.
“I smoke to help me digest my dinner and, to tell the truth, I overate,” retorted the man.
A little further on, the rabbi came upon a skinny fellow wearing rags for clothes. The skinny fellow was also smoking.
“Why do you smoke?” the rabbi said severely. “Don't you know it is a terrible vice?”
“I smoke to drive away the pangs of hunger,” murmured the poor man apologetically.
“Lord of the world!” cried the rabbi, lifting his eyes to the heavens. “Where is your justice? If only the fat rich man would give the poor skinny man some of his dinner, both of them would be healthier and happier and neither of them would ever smoke again!”
This joke illustrates more than one motif in Jewish humor. It reminds the Jews of the suffering of those who are less fortunate and of the mitzvah to give to the poor, which is what the rich fat man should have done.
Yet, does the rabbi chastise the wealthy man? No, he does not. Instead, the rabbi, without any hesitation whatsoever, dares to hold God accountable for the failure to dispense justice. Thus, this joke also exemplifies the audacity of the Jews, who have never refrained from questioning God. Can it be any wonder, then, that throughout the centuries, this race of iconoclasts has never winced from challenging all forms of authority when justice was at stake?
Seeing the Glass as Half Full
One night, in the city of Chelm, a fire broke out. All the inhabitants rushed to the burning building to extinguish the blaze. When the conflagration had been put out, the rabbi mounted a table and addressed the citizens of Chelm.
“My friends, this fire was a miracle sent from heaven above.”
There were murmurs of surprise in the crowd and the rabbi hastened to explain. “Look at it this way,” he said, “If it were not for the bright flames, how would we have been able to see how to put out the fire on such a dark night?”
This particular joke exemplifies the motif in Jewish humor of looking on the bright side of things — a disposition so important in surviving the trials and tribulations Jews often faced. In fact, in this tale of Chelm, looking on the “bright” side of things is literal, because the rabbi says the citizens should be grateful for the “bright” flames. Even in a fire, there is always a bright side!
There are numerous jokes and tales about the people who populate the town of Chelm. They are consistently portrayed as being silly and having below-average intelligence — to put it mildly. Poking fun at the Jewish citizens of Chelm is a form of self-effacing humor, since they too were Jews, but it also distances the jokers from the characters of the joke — unless, of course, they are from Chelm!
How to Succeed in the World
Bella was the only Jewish girl in her class at an exclusive school in Scarsdale. Quite rightly, she considered herself very lucky. Bella's closest friend was Cynthia, a Greek Catholic. When the girls took their final examinations, Bella passed with straight A's, but Cynthia failed.
“I just can't understand it,” complained Cynthia. “Just before the tests, I lit candles to Saint Peter, Saint Barnabas, and several other saints. And look what happened!”
“I lit a candle, too,” said Bella.
“What! You, a Jewess, lit a candle? To whom?”
“To nobody,” answered Bella. “I lit the candle and stayed up all night studying!”
The Jews frequently faced discrimination that sometimes made access to higher education difficult. In such cases, the general response — illustrated by this joke — was to work twice as hard. Sitting back and complaining and hoping things would be made easier is not how the Jews have made their way up the ranks of the societies in which they lived. This joke conveys a moral and a message, albeit a realistic and hard one, that you must work for whatever success you would like to achieve.
Anti-Semitism and Survival
While riding through a forest, a collector for a Jewish institution in Russia was held up by an armed Cossack who robbed him of all his money.
“Let me ask a favor of you,” said the collector to the Cossack. “The money you have taken from me belongs to an institution in the next city. When I get there and tell the people I have been robbed, they will refuse to listen to me.”
“There is nothing I can do about that,” growled the Cossack.
“Oh, but you can,” replied the Jewish collector. “I will hang my hat on a branch of this tree and you will kindly shoot a hole through it so that they may believe I was actually held up.”
The Cossack consented and shot two holes through the hat. The collector took off his coat and begged the robber to shoot two holes through each of his sleeves. Again, the thief did as he was asked. Finally, the Jew took off his vest and asked the Cossack to make another hole but the robber said, “No more holes for you, Zhid. All my bullets are gone.”
“That's all I wanted to know,” retorted the collector, who then leaped upon the Cossack, knocking him down and bloodying his nose. The Jew recovered the money and then tied the Cossack up hand and foot.
Watching his intended victim depart and struggling with his bonds, the Cossack snarled to himself, “Well, this proves it. You just can't trust a damned Jew!”
This tale typifies the utter absurdity of anti-Semitism and how it is impossible to try and convince those who harbor such ill will how ludicrous their feelings are. After all, here a thief blames a poor Jew for defending himself! This joke also depicts how Jews survived by their wits in societies where they had little else with which to defend themselves.
And the Jews did indeed survive. Over a span of four millennia, in hostile environs and under harsh conditions, subject to persecution and oppression, strengthened by their culture, shared history, and ethnic practices, the Jewish people endured. They also persisted because of shared beliefs, which, despite disparities and divergent opinions over the centuries, can nonetheless properly be called what we have come to know as Judaism.