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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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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.