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

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

Laughter is an indispensable and a wonder-working catharsis for pain. It diminishes the magnitude of one's trials and tribulations, it elevates man from victim to conqueror, from a weakling to one possessing strength and stature. Sholom Aleichem's characters, though all destitute and impoverished found merriment in the mastering and taming of fear. One of his most famous and celebrated personalities is "Motl, son of Peysi the cantor." Motl's family was forced due to "financial" difficulties to sell their humble abode and all its contents. When Motl's sick, dying father hears his wife’s cries, he calls out from the next room, wanting to know what the commotion was about. "'Nothing' mother answers, wiping her red eyes, and the way her lower lip and her whole face quiver you'd have to be made of stone not to burst out laughing."

Sholom Aleichem, like others, was distressed and terribly shaken by the pogroms afflicted on his brethren in czarist Russia. He expresses the terror and dread in a humorous manner with Motl as his mouthpiece. Motl says, "At first when I heard people talking about 'a pogrom' I was all ears. Now when I hear the word 'pogrom,' I run! I prefer happy stories."

"Better to laugh than to cry," says an old Yiddish proverb, and another famous quotation circulating in the Jewish community concurs: "Tears cleanse the heart, but laughter makes it lighter."

In the United States, where the majority of the world's Jewry resides, the trend continues. Approximately 70 percent of the America's working comedians are Jewish, while Jews account for less than 2.5 percent of the country's total population. The explanations given above as to the reasons for this occurrence, and for the function of Jewish humor in every day Jewish life are not entirely relevant. Though anti-Semitism exists, oppression does not. A Jew is no more in danger walking down a New York street than anyone else. What then is the major drive that nourishes this phenomenon? A story is told of an old woman who approached a blonde, blue-eyed man.

"Excuse me, Mister," she began tentatively, "but you're a Jewish boy?"

He regarded her disdainfully for a moment and then replied,"No, madam, I am not." Still uncertain she repeated her question.

Irritated, he answered icily, "I told you, I am not a Jew!"

But she was a persistent soul and she put the question to him for the third time: "You're sure you're not Jewish?"

The old lady's determination finally broke down his defenses. "Yes," he confessed, "I'm Jewish."

                    To which she replied, "That's funny, you don't look Jewish."

The tradition of Jewish humor gains force by the fact that the American Jew cannot escape his birthright, hard as he may try. With his Jewish identity a constant companion, he invariably feels an outsider - different. In addition, there is a reflection he sees of himself when he observes the society around him, according to Sig Altman. Mr. Altman, in his research of the phenomenon of the Jew's comic image, asserts that "on the basis of the popular culture survey . . . it can be confirmed that the media indeed not only conveys a comic picture of the Jew, as expected, but that there exists a Jewish Comic Image, in the sense that the Jewish image is more comic than that of any other group."

Regardless, the aspiration for total acceptance and assimilation persists. And to gain this coveted acceptance Jews resort to the well-practiced routine of self-ridicule and self-criticism. Self-degradation is still prominent in Jewish comedians’ monologues and presentations, though displayed somewhat differently. While in the past most Jewish jokes were directed by Jews at other Jews and focused on the intricacies and complexities of Jewish life, nowadays America’s Jewish comedians share their comical observations with the gentile world. Consequently the focus has changed. What constitutes a Jewish joke in contemporary culture is the ridiculing of what is seen as Jewish weaknesses and characteristic vices. Humorous barbs are aimed at the "traits" of the "Jewish American princess," the Jewish mother, the cheapskate, the miser, the studious nerd, and of course, Jewish Hutzpah. Though some see it as camouflaged anti-Semitism, American Jewish "Badchans" presume that people sharing laughter cannot possibly be laden with hate and prejudices. The comedians hope, and maybe even believe, that by inviting outsiders into their world, by broadcasting the fact that human nature is universal, and by championing the fact that Jewish or not, we're all similarly "endowed" with virtues and faults, they will procure society's approval and attain the ultimate goal.

"Laugh, and the world laughs with you?" Maybe. In any event the Jew will continue to rely on humor to see him through rough times. And, as age-old prejudices against Jews persist with remarkable tenacity, so will this mistreated and tormented nation persevere in its quest for survival. They also will continue to laugh. And while Saddam Hussein and his disciples in Iraq, Le Penn and his followers in France, the members of Pamyatt in Russia, and America's Ku Klux Klan associations conspire to eliminate these beleaguered people, the Jew will tremble--but tell he will his fellow brothers the following anecdote with a knowing smile.

An Englishman, a Frenchman, an American and a Jew are in the midst of a philosophic discussion. The problem is posed how each would act when it became unmistakably clear that they had only a few hours to live. They hypothesize the situation in which a flood inundates the land, there is no means of escape and they are awaiting the inevitable end. The Englishman speaks first:

"I would open my last bottle of port. Sit and enjoy every sip. Think of the life I've lived, the experiences I've had and let the waters come and take me."

The Frenchman says, "I would drink a great Bordeaux, prepare a coq au vin,
make love, and let the waters overwhelm me thus."

The American is next: He would eat, drink, make love, try to improvise a raft and finally swim until his strength gave out, and he drowned, "fighting to the end."

The Jew says: "I would do all you have described and when the water got over my head, I guess I would have to learn how to live underwater."


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
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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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