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You Could Die Laughing

What is the humor in Jewish jokes?

Aug 19, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 46 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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'Two Jews, each with a parrot on his shoulder, are in front of a synagogue,” Hyman Ginsburg begins to tell his friend Irv Schwartz, when the latter interrupts. 

Sam Levenson, Jack Benny, George S. Kaufman, Clifton Fadiman, 1952

Sam Levenson, Jack Benny, George S. Kaufman, Clifton Fadiman, 1952

everett collection

“Hy, old pal, don’t you have any jokes that aren’t about Jews?” 

Ginsburg replies that of course he does, and begins again: “Two samurai meet on a dark night on the outskirts of Kyoto. The next day is Yom Kippur .  .  .”

What is it about Jews and jokes, and what, especially, is it about Jewish jokes? The most put-upon people in the history of the world, Jews, and they’re telling jokes: endless jokes, ironic jokes, silly jokes; jokes about czars and commissars, rabbis and mohels, widows and wives and mothers-in-law and matchmakers; and some jokes which, if told by Gentiles, might result in strong letters from the Anti-Defamation League.

What happens when a Jew with an erection runs into a wall? Answer: He breaks his nose. One of the small perks of being Jewish is having the right to tell such anti-Semitic jokes. 

Walking along the beach, Goldstein finds a bottle, picks it up, and—surprise! surprise!—a genie emerges. The genie instructs Goldstein that he will grant him one wish, and one wish only. Goldstein says he wishes for world peace. The genie tells him he gets that wish a lot, but it is impossible to fulfill, so, if he doesn’t mind, please try another wish. 

In that case, Goldstein says, he would like more respect from his wife, who maybe would spend less time and money on shopping and prepare a decent home-cooked meal for him every once in a while and possibly make some attempt to satisfy his sexual desires. The genie pauses, then says, “Goldstein, tell me what, exactly, it is you mean by world peace.”

If I change the name in that joke to O’Connor or Pilsudski or Anderson, the joke dies. Why? Because it is based on certain stereotypical assumptions about Jews: about henpecked Jewish husbands, demanding Jewish wives, and even about liberal Jewish politics. Are these stereotypes true? Only, I should say, in that they tend to be less true (or so we are given to believe) of Irishmen or Italians or Poles.

Two Gentile jokes:

A Gentile goes into a men’s clothing store, where he sees an elegant suede jacket. “How much is that jacket?” he asks the clerk. When the clerk tells him $1,200, the Gentile says, “I’ll take it.”

At the last minute, a Gentile calls his mother to announce that, owing to pressure at work, he will be two hours late for the family Thanksgiving dinner. “Of course,” his mother says, “I understand.”

Put Jews in both of those situations and you have the working premise for at least 50 possible jokes. Jews are rich material for jokes because they are so idiosyncratic, so argumentative, hair-splitting, self-deprecating, hopelessly commonsensical, often neurotic, and amusingly goofy. Not all Jews are, of course, but enough of them to have kept a vast number of Jewish comedians in business for decades. 

Jewish history begins on a joke, of sorts. The Jews are designated God’s Chosen People—chosen, it turns out, for endless tests and nearly relentless torment. (“How odd of God to choose the Jews,” wrote the English journalist William Norman Ewer, to which some unknown wag, in attempting to come up with a reason, wrote: “Because the goyim annoy him.”) Any Jew with his wits about him must assume that God loves a joke—silly, practical, cruel—and it too often seems His favorite butt or target is the Jews. 

Still, Jews themselves keep joking. Too bad we’ve all missed out on what must have been some terrific one-liners during the 40-year exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land. 

Ruth R. Wisse claims that “Jewish humor obviously derives from Jewish civilization, but Jews became known for their humor only starting with the Enlightenment.” A professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard, Wisse argues that “Jewish humor erupts at moments of epistemological and political crisis, and intensifies when Jews need new ways of responding to pressure.” In No Joke, she demonstrates how this works, and successfully shows that “Jews joke differently in different languages and under different political conditions.”

Wisse chronicles the humor of the European ghetto and shtetl, Talmudic humor, the humor of converts away from Judaism, humor during the Holocaust and in the Soviet Union, humor in Israel, and, above all, humor after the emigration of Jews to North America. Her book, as she writes, 

explores Jewish humor at the point that it becomes a modern phenomenon. .  .  . The ensuing rifts between the religious and agnostics, elites and masses, and especially warring impulses of loyalty and restiveness within individual Jews and their communities generates the humor that is the book’s subject.

Wisse retells many good jokes along the way, and makes a number of provocative connections about Jewish humor and the fate of the Jews in the modern world. A serious scholar, she is also an intellectual much engaged in contemporary political life, and she has a political point to make about Jewish humor that she only emphasizes in her final chapter.

“You can have too much even of kreplach,” says a character in an Isaac Bashevis Singer story. Wisse wonders if, perhaps, Jews can have too much even of humor, and many perfectly formulated sentences in No Joke both bring to mind and explain classic Jewish jokes: “Jewish humor at its best interprets the incongruities of the Jewish condition,” suggesting, for example, the joke about the meat shipment from Odessa .  .  .

On a laceratingly cold and relentlessly snowy morning in Moscow, Soviet citizens are lined up for five blocks awaiting a shipment of meat from Odessa. After an hour, a loudspeaker announces that the shipment is rather smaller than expected, so all Jews are asked to leave the line. An hour later, there is an announcement that the meat shipment has been further curtailed, so anyone who is not a member of the Communist party must leave the line. Two hours later, there is a further announcement that a large quantity of the meat in the shipment turns out to have been spoiled, so everyone is asked to leave the line except members of the Politburo. Three hours after that, the snow falling continuously all this time, there is an announcement that the meat shipment from Odessa has been cancelled.

“Those Jews,” says one member of the Politburo to another as they shuffle off toward home, “they always have it easy.”

The Soviet Union, that great and useless bump in world history, in its wretched 69 years left in its wake nothing but suffering and organized murder and a dozen or so good jokes, perhaps half of them Jewish. “Jewish experience was never as contorted as under Soviet rule,” Wisse writes. 

The Holocaust, which she also combs for its dark jokes, surely the ultimate gallows humor, is finally tragic beyond joking. She does bring out the terrifying one-liner, said by Jews in the midst of Hitler’s slaughter: “God forbid that this war should last as long as we are able to endure it.” Her gloss on this sentence reads: “I take this expression as an acme of Jewish humor and recognition of its fatal potential.” 

Jewish jokes elide into literature, with Sholem Aleichem certainly the most beloved, and perhaps also the greatest, of Yiddish writers. Aleichem’s comedy—turned into kitsch with the musical Fiddler on the Roof, where most people come in contact with it—is, Wisse notes, often “called ‘laughter through tears,’ [but] is more accurately understood as laughter through fears.” The fears were those of a people arbitrarily awarded pariah status, living under Russian and Polish despots and among brutish peasants. 

In The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (1903), powerless Eastern European Jews were accused of plotting to take over the world through their (non-existent) international connections, they were libeled about using the blood of Gentile children to make matzos, and they met with murderous pogroms staged by Cossacks and drunken peasants—sometimes as official government policy. One of the reasons so many Eastern-European Jewish families are unable to trace their lineage far back is that so many of the memories of their forefathers were thought best forgotten. 

Wisse explains scholarly rabbinical and Talmudic jokes. She sets out a nice array of comic curses used by Eastern-European Jewish women: “May you grow so rich that your widow’s second husband never has to work for a living,” is one example. “May you lose all your teeth but the one that torments you” is another. Wisse’s own mother, an emigré from Romania, was a dab hand at curses and at twisting proverbs into cynical yet sound advice, and Wisse supplies samples of her work in this line. Wisse suggests that Jewish women, provided less education than men, “developed more freewheeling oral aggression.”

In America, meanwhile, with Jews settling into affluence, Jewish wives have been the target of enough jokes to warrant establishing a special branch of the Anti-Defamation League. What does a Jewish wife make for dinner? Answer: Reservations. “A thief stole my wife’s purse with all her credit cards,” Rodney Dangerfield (born Jacob Rodney Cohen) used to remark, “but I’m not going after him. He’s spending less than she does.” What does a French wife say when making love? “Oui, oui, oui!” What does an Italian wife say? “Mamma mia, mamma mia!” What does a Jewish wife say? “Harry, isn’t it time we had the ceiling painted?”

One could go on, and I think I shall. Ira Silverberg, walking up the stairs of a nearby bordello, discovers his father coming down the stairs, and, in dismay, asks him what he is doing there. “For three dollars,” his father says, “why should I bother your mother?”

Jewish humor in America became professionalized. From the 1920s through the 1970s, stand-up, radio, and television comedians were preponderantly Jewish. Wisse estimates that, by 1975, three-quarters of professional comedians in the United States were Jewish, many of them using mainly Jewish material. She recounts the rise of the Jewish stand-up comic from his origins in the Borscht Belt, as the conglomeration of resort hotels in the Catskill Mountains was called, where such young comics as Milton Berle, Jerry Lewis, Red Buttons, Mel Brooks, and Lenny Bruce worked as waiters, busboys, and lifeguards during the day, and entertained at night.

Initially, these Jewish comedians specialized in recounting Jewish failings to a largely Jewish audience. But some of the more successful Jewish comedians did not mine Jewish material. One thinks here of Danny Kaye (David Daniel Kaminsky), Sid Caesar (Isaac Sidney Caesar), and Jack Benny (Benjamin Kubelsky), none of whom featured his Jewishness, thus increasing the size of his audience.

Jack Benny, perhaps the most beloved comedian of them all, had at the center of his act his miserliness. (“Your money or your life,” a robber demands of him. After a lengthy pause, Benny replies, “I’m thinking.”) But so un-Jewish did Jack Benny come off that no one, so far as I know, thought, anti-Semitically, to chalk his extreme parsimony up to his Jewishness.

As the years passed, and Jews began to feel more secure in America, many Jewish comedians became more aggressive. Don Rickles and Jack E. Leonard did insult comedy, attacking their own audiences. Some went after other ethnic groups. One night in San Francisco I heard a second-line, obviously Jewish comedian named Bobby Slayton—why did so many Jewish comics call themselves Bobby or Jackie?—say that in high school he took Spanish as his required language: “I figured the Puerto Ricans can learn it, how tough could it be?” Toward the close of his brief career, its brevity induced by an overdose of drugs, Lenny Bruce used to ask that the lights be turned off in the clubs where he worked, after which he announced to the audience, “I’m pissing on you.” 

Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) is a work that Bruce, had he the literary skill, might have written himself. Wisse characterizes Roth’s novel as the literary equivalent of stand-up humor: Like even the most superior stand-up, it does not have to be heard—or, in this instance, read—more than once. In its day, though, Portnoy’s Complaint came with a shock value not since repeated. Most shocked of all were the Jews who were not of Roth’s generation: The great scholar Gershom Scholem wrote that anti-Semites could not have done the Jews greater harm than Roth’s novel. “Portnoy’s Complaint,” Wisse writes, “warns that the cure, laughter, may be worse than the disease. A strategy for survival may have become a recipe for defeat.”

Roth is only one among the comic Jewish writers considered here. Wisse also discusses Sholem Aleichem, Israel Zangwill, Leo Rosten, S. Y. Agnon, Isaac Babel, Saul Bellow, and Howard Jacobson. She also takes up Israeli humor. Life in Israel, a country in perennial peril, might seem too serious to allot a place for humor. But the unfunny Israeli, Wisse reports, himself became a target for humor. The confident Zionist became another such target. Humor in Israel, there is—but it has a dark cast, with jokes playing off the Auschwitz generation and Arab bombings. “Political and social satire, censored or self-censored while Jews lived under hostile regimes,” she writes, “acquired a thousand new targets once Jews began running a country of their own.” 

Wisse touches on Mel Brooks’s musical The Producers in her chapter on Holocaust humor, but neglects to mention that Brooks’s specialty as a comedian has always been bad taste in its Jewish variant (though Brooks’s specialty has been to make bad taste amusing, even winning). Interviewed some years ago by Mike Wallace, Brooks averted Wallace’s first earnest question by asking him what he had paid for his wristwatch. Before Wallace could formulate his second question, Brooks, feeling the lapel of Wallace’s sports jacket, asked him how much such a jacket cost. 

Larry David has taken Jewish bad taste a step further, playing on his television series Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000-11) the Jewish boor, the small-advantage man with a flawless gift for always saying the wrong thing. 

Of the current generation of Jewish comedians, the only one Wisse considers is Sarah Silverman. Silverman’s act is to play the faux-naïf while attacking political correctness. In one of her bits, a niece tells Silverman that she learned in school that, during the Holocaust, 60 million Jews were killed. Silverman corrects the girl, saying that the true number is not 60 but 6 million—adding, “60 million [would be] unforgivable.”

Much of Jewish humor in America over the past few decades has been about assimilation. With the increase of intermarriage among Jews and Gentiles, and the lessening of overt anti-Semitism, the fear among Jews who value both their religion and their ethnicity is that Jewishness and Judaism are in danger of dwindling and, ultimately, disappearing. 

One such assimilation joke is about the rabbi who has mice in his synagogue; to rid himself of them, he sets out on the bima, or altar, a large wheel of Chilton cheese. “Nearly 80 mice appeared,” the rabbi reports, “so I bar mitzvahed them all, and they never returned.” (The joke here is about American Jewish children who never return to the synagogue once they have completed their bar mitzvah at age 13.)

Another such joke is about a nouveau riche Jew who has recently acquired a Porsche. He drives it to the home of a nearby Orthodox rabbi, who he asks to say a brocha, or blessing, over it. The rabbi refuses, because he doesn’t know what a Porsche is. So the man takes his car to a Reform rabbi, who also refuses—because he doesn’t know what a brocha is. 

Is all this—is Jewish humor generally—good for the Jews? Wisse is not so sure. She begins her final chapter with an epigraph from the English comic novelist Howard Jacobson: “This is not the place to examine why I, a Jew, feel more threatened by those who would wipe out ethnic jokes than by those who unthinkingly make them. But it may be the place simply to record that I do.” Although scarcely without humor herself—she tells too many good jokes here ever to be accused of that—Wisse nonetheless finds that the general recourse on the part of Jews to humor in the face of serious adversity may be overdone. 

Humor was no help to German writers and artists when up against Hitler. Wisse is confident that there are limitations to the Jewish response of humor when Jews today face murderous, humorless terrorists in the Middle East or the cowardly politicians of Europe seeking the votes of their increasingly Muslim electorates. She isn’t asking Jews to stop joking; yet, more than humor, she knows, is required to fend off the strong anti-Semitic fervor that finds its initial target in Israel. 

If Jews truly consider humor to have restorative powers, they ought to encourage others to laugh at themselves as well. Let Muslims take up joking about Muhammad, Arabs satirize jihad, British elites mock their glib liberalism, and anti-Semites spoof their politics of blame.

Wisse is undoubtedly correct about this. But it is less than certain that any argument, no matter how cogent, is likely to squelch, or even reduce, the habit of Jewish joke-telling. The jokiness of Jews as a people is imperishable—a reflex of millennial duration—and can be found in odd places. To cite a personal example: Not long before reading No Joke, I learned that the solemn and serious Rabbi Benjamin Birnbaum of Ner Tamid Synagogue in Chicago, the man under whom I was bar mitzvahed, was the brother of the comedian George Burns.

What the Jews in a hostile world must do, Wisse argues, is back up the jokes with military and political power. To ring a slight change on the line of the heroes in the old Westerns and detective movies, they have to have behind them the might to be able to tell their enemies, “Smile when you hear me say that.” 

Joseph Epstein, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, is the author, with Frederic Raphael, of Distant Intimacy: A Friendship in the Age of the Internet.