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MazorGuide Home > Culture > Humor > About Jewish Humor - II

Laugh and the World Laughs With You
                     Jewish Humor in the Face of Reality

The Jews revere their written heritage as the foundation of sacred law, and a source for guidance in their every day life. Still, and possibly because of this fact, origins of many whimsical tales recapitulated over the centuries are found in the Torah and the Talmud. A pungent illustration is epitomized in the following fable:

One day, in despair, Job lifts his voice to the heavens and wails, "God, why do You permit me to suffer like this when I spend all my time in prayerful devotion?" 

A wrathful voice booms from the sky: "Because you nudge me."

Typically, Jewish humor lacks the ingredients of current American humor that is mostly stylized insults, slapstick, horseplay, and cruel practical jokes. Rather it's disturbing and upsetting, as it is dipped in tragedy. For the people who are reluctant to give up the belief of their divine appointment are too realistic to ignore the contrast between their claim and their position. Hence the main characteristic of Jewish humor is the irony that measures the distance between pretense, wishful thinking and reality--the result being self-criticism and self-mockery.

Dr. Sigmund Freud claims that the most distinguishing feature of Jewish humor was self-mockery, he writes: "The occurrence of self-criticism as a determinant may explain how it is that a number of the most apt jokes . . . have grown up on the soil of Jewish popular life. They are stories created by Jews and directed against Jewish characteristics . . . I do not know whether there are many other instances of a people making fun to such a degree of its own character."   Though Freud does not refute Nietzsche's often quoted remark which states that "the most acutely suffering animal on earth invented laughter," he attributes this phenomenon to self-hatred, to a form of masochism.

Henry D. Spalding, in his preface to the Encyclopedia of Jewish Humor, offers a different explanation. He says, "It seems to me that the reason is plain enough: the narrator recognizes himself for what he is -- a simple human being, subject to all the foibles of mortal mind and frailties of the flesh. And because he has the moral and intellectual courage to recognize and then ridicule his own weaknesses, he sees no reason to spare the sensibilities of his adversaries for their own deficiencies (xv)."

Maurice Samuel, a student of Eastern-European Jewry, asserts that the shrewd and ironic humor is a source of the necessary inner strength that is a mode for survival. He writes, "There was nothing jolly and hilarious about the destitution that lay like a curse on millions of Jews in the Yiddish-speaking world; . . . They were miserable, and knew it; but the question that haunts us historically is, why did they not disintegrate intellectually and morally? How were they able, under hideous oppression and corroding privation, under continuous starvation--the tail of herring was a dish--to keep alive against a better day the spirit originally breathed into man? The answer lies in the self-mockery by which they rose above their condition to see afar off the hope of the future."

The Jewish comic vision belittles the importance ascribed to suffering by the Western civilization, and scorns one who intends to derive respect out of tragedy. Jewish tradition does not glorify suffering, nor is suffering deemed worthy of deification. Rather it is accepted as the inevitable. Thus, the heroes are those with forbearance, those outsmarting their destiny, those who defy it. Robert Alter writes: "Jewish humor typically drains the charge of cosmic significance from suffering by grounding it in a world of homey practical realities. 'If you want to forget all your troubles,' runs another Yiddish proverb, 'put on a shoe that's too tight.' The point is not only in the 'message' of the saying, that a present pain puts others out of mind, but also in its formulation: Weltschmerz begins to seem preposterous when one is wincing over crushed bunions."

An illustration of the refusal of Jewish humor to ennoble suffering is evident in the following anecdote:

Two woebegone talmudic students came to their rabbi and made a shamefaced confession. "Rabbi, we've committed a sin."

                   "A sin? What kind of a sin?"

                   "We looked with lust upon a woman."

"May God forgive you!" Cried the holy man. "That is indeed a serious transgression."

                    "Rabbi," said the students, humbled, "what can we do to atone?"

"Well, if you sincerely seek penance, I order you to put peas into your shoes and walk about the way for ten days. Perhaps that will teach you not to sin again."

The two young men went home and did as the rabbi had ordered them. A few days later the penitents met on the street. One was hobbling painfully, but the other walked easily, his manner calm and contented.

"Is this the way to obey the rabbi?" Asked the first student reproachfully. "I see you ignored his injunction to put peas into your shoes."

"I didn't ignore him at all," said the other cheerfully. "I just cooked them first."

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Read more about Jewish Humor and get tickled by clicking below.
  Laugh A Little, Jewish Humor in the Face of Reality - Part 1
  Laugh A Little, Jewish Humor in the Face of Reality - Part 2
  Laugh A Little, Jewish Humor in the Face of Reality - Part 3
  Laugh A Little, Jewish Humor in the Face of Reality - Bibliography

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The HAUNTED SMILE:  The Story of Jewish Comedians in America
by: Lawrence J. Epstein - From the Marx Brothers and Allen Sherman to Joan Rivers and Jerry Seinfeld.
Big Book of Jewish Humor; William Novak, Moshe Waldoks (Photographer)
101 Classic Jewish Jokes : Jewish Humor from Groucho Marx to Jerry Seinfeld; Robert Menchin, Joe Kohl (Illustrator)
Jewish Humor : What the Best Jewish Jokes Say About the Jews; Joseph Telushkin
A Treasury of Jewish Humor; Nathan Ausubel(Editor)
A Treasury of Jewish Folklore : Stories, Traditions, Legends, Humor, Wisdom and Folk Songs of the Jewish People; Nathan Ausubel (Editor)




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