Jewish Humour – an antidote for all seasons
By David E. Kaplan
With US president, Donald Trump looking to be dragged off the global stage – electorally and not on trumped-up charges has led some to lament:
“What are we going to do for humour?
Whether you love or loathe Trump, he did provide endless comedic material to the nightly TV show hosts like Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel. His daily tweets were the stuff of ready-made-material. While intolerant to humour directed against himself- although he does crack a smile when it’s against others – reminded me of Jewish humour which in its DNA is self-deprecating.
Jews laugh and make fun of themselves.
When asked, “What makes a star?” the iconic epic actor Charlton Heston revealed the best advice came at a dinner party from the screen and stage legend Sir. Lawrence Olivier who said, “The ability to make fun of oneself.”
In order not to fall into the trap of believing in one’s own mythology, “Rather play on your vulnerabilities; you become more likable,” counseled Olivier.
By Olivier’s definition, Jews are “stars”. They never hesitate to poke fun of themselves, their religion and their culture. No matter how dire the situation, humour has served throughout the ages as the best prescription – alongside Torah (Hebrew Bible) – in coping with adversity.
Groucho Marx’s wisecrack that “I wouldn’t join a club that would have me as a member,” says as much about Jewish humour as it does about himself. While Muslims around the world would go on a rampage over a few cartoons that appeared in an obscure newspaper in distant Denmark, Jews would have no qualms about ‘shtoching’ (taking a jab at) their deity. What would be blasphemy in one religion is acceptable humour to Jews.
Contrast the 2005 global protests to the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad with the cartoon in the ‘Big Book of Jewish Humour’ edited and annotated by William Novak and Moshe Waldocks, of a perplexed Moses standing on the top of Mount Sinai holding up the newly acquired tablets of the Ten Commandments and facing the awesome power of God ensconced behind clouds and forked lighting. Asks Moses:
“They were wondering if this is the order of importance?”
The cartoonist here is poking fun at nothing less then the Almighty’s ‘non-negotiables’, literally cast in stone! “We relish in satirizing religious personalities, as well rituals and dogma,” Waldocks – an American raconteur, humourist, rabbi and interfaith leader – told the writer some years ago when reviewing his book.
Food for Thought or Laughs
Woody Allen’s classic one-liner on Judaism: “They tried to kill us, they lost, now let’s eat” amounts to reducing the entire Bible as an excuse to binge out on food. For Allan, essing (eating) is at the core of Judaism, reminding us of Rashi’s one-liner: “all else is commentary.” [Rashi is the acronym forthe French medieval rabbi, Shlomo Yitzhaki]
The great American novelist and 1997 Pulitzer Prize winner, Philip Roth pokes poignant fun at the Kosher Laws in his celebrated book, ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’. In this satirical writing he describes the ‘goyim (non-Jews) in America sinking “their teeth into whatever lowly creature crawls and grunts across the face of the dirty earth. ….. they know how to go into the woods with a gun, these geniuses, and kill innocent wild deer; deer who themselves nosh quietly on berries and go their way bothering no one. Reeking of beer and empty of ammunition, home you head, a dead animal strapped to each fender, so all motorists along the way can see how manly and strong you are….
Thus saith the kosher laws to the child I was and who am I to argue that they were wrong.”
He ends his comical understanding of Kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) with a clear admission of ambivalence, an astute insight on the Jewish predicament:
“If Alex Portnoy thought the taste of pork is the taste of compassionateless, murderous, unthinking, un-Jewish immorality, that’s just fine with me. I think I’m ready to move on to even more heinous, violent, and disgusting crimes unbefitting my nature as a mensch – I want lobster!”
The religious establishment and rabbis have always been easy targets for ridicule.
One Yom Kippur, in a synagogue in New York, the rabbi stops in the middle of the service, prostrates himself beside the bima, and cries out, “O God. Before You, I am nothing!”
The chazen is so moved by this demonstration of piety that he immediately follows suit, throwing himself to the floor beside the rabbi and crying, ‘O God! Before you, I am nothing!”
In the ensuing silence, a shuffling is heard in the back row. Saul Blumenthal jumps from his seat, prostrates himself in the isle and cries, “O God! Before You, I am nothing!”
Seeing this, the chazen nudges the rabbi and whispers, “So look who thinks he’s nothing?”
And another on self-importance:
A Hasid comes to the rabbi: “Rabbi, I have had a dream in which I am the leader of 300 Hasidim.”
The Rabbi replies: “Come back when 300 Hasidim have a dream that you are their leader.”
With many of the concerns in the Jewish world being addressed by the need to raise massive contributions, “it was understandable,” said Waldocks that in the 20th century, “jabs at fundraisers replaced stories of schnorrers. (A person who makes a living sponging off others)”
A rabbi in Golders Green answers his phone.
“Hello, is this Rabbi Rabinovitz?”
“This is the Inland Revenue. Can you help us?”
“Do you know Sam Cohen?”
“Is he a member of your congregation?”
“Did he donate £10,000 to the synagogue rebuilding fund last year?”
On Business and Cheating…
In his ‘Two Jews on a Train’, (Published by Dvir in Hebrew, 1995) the acclaimed Israeli animator and satirist Danni Kerman, brought to pictorial delight the humour of Alter Druyanov, who is chiefly remembered today for his three-volume anthology of Jewish humour. Druyanov, who immigrated to Palestine in 1921, captured 19th century Jewish life from the shtetl to the rich and culture in the cities of Europe.
On page 79:
Two wealthy investors in the Romanian bourse were walking along the river on Shabbat (Saturday). One of them noticed that a kid was trying to steal the handkerchief of the other one and warned him about it.
“It’s ok, let him do it, we also started small…”
And on page 27:
The local Christian constabulary raided a public place where it was forbidden to play cards. Coming across a Russian, a Pole and a Jew with cards about to be dealt on the table, all three denied guilt.
“Swear to me you were not about to play cards,” demanded the Chief constable, to which the Pole swore and was excused.
Similarly, the Russian swore, and he too was excused.
“What about you Jew?” demanded the constable.
“Why do I need to swear if the others have sworn? Do you honestly think I could play cards by myself?”
On Being Smart….
Having survived for thousands of years against all odds when mighty empires have crumbled, it has naturally been assumed that ‘Jews are smart.’ The writer a few years back interviewed an MBA student at Tel Aviv University – not Jewish – and asked:
“Why choose to study in Israel?”
“Jews are few in number and leaders in every field. I saw what was being achieved in business and hi-tech in this small country and wanted to find out how they do it?”
Here is how:
Three men – a Frenchman, an Italian and a Jew – were condemned to be executed. Their captors told them that they had the right to a final meal of their choice. The Frenchman asked for “French wine and French bread,” which they gave him and was executed. Next it was the Italian’s turn. “Give me a big plate of pasta,” he asked. So they brought it to him and was then executed. Now it was the Jews turn.
“I want a big bowl of strawberries.”
“Strawberries! It’s September. Strawberries aren’t in season for months!” exclaimed his captors.
On a similar theme, but more contemporary in the wake of the UN resolutions against Israel:
A Texan, a Frenchman and an Israeli are on a plane flying over the Pacific Ocean when the engines stop functioning. The plane crash lands on a Pacific Island and the three are immediately captured by a tribe of cannibals whose Chief tells them that before they are eaten, they will be granted one final wish.
After the Texan and the Frenchman have their wishes fulfilled by receiving their favorite cuisine, they are placed into the pot.
The Chief turns to the Israeli and asks, “And what is your wish?”
The Israeli looks the Chief squarely in the eyes and replies: “I want you to kick me in the behind as hard as you can.”
The Chief is bewildered and asks the Israeli again, only to receive the same reply. “I want you to kick me in the behind as hard as you can.” The Chief shrugs his shoulders, asks the Israeli to turn around, and kicks him as hard as he can. With that the Israeli pulls out a gun and kills the Chief and all of the other cannibals.
The Texan and the Frenchman get out of the pot, look at the Israeli and say: “If you had that gun why didn’t you do anything sooner?”
“What? And risk being condemned by the UN, EU and the State Department for ‘overreacting’ to insufficient provocation?”
Of Mice and Men
Of major concern today in the Diaspora is the issue of young Jews turning away from organised religion. The organisations and federations spend vast amounts of money to address this situation. This problem is encapsulated in this simple joke:
Three rabbis were talking.
“Oy! We have such a problem with mice at our shul,” said the first rabbi, “The shamos set some traps but no good.”
The second rabbi admitted the same problem. “We’ve spent all kinds of gelt on exterminators, but the problem still persists.”
The third rabbi looked at them and said: “Schlemiels! I baited our mice with cheese and while they were feasting, I Barmitzvaed all of them. They’ve never been back!”
Schisms in Judaism
The split in Israeli society between ultra-Orthodox and secular is widening – particularly during Corona. There is also the impact it is having on Israel’s relationship with America’s Jewish community. This joke captures the situation:
One day, the special golden phone on the desk of the Orthodox
Israeli Chief Rabbi rings for the first time. Amazed, the Chief Rabbi
picks up the phone and asks in a halting voice, “Who is there?”
“This is God speaking. I have two very important messages to give
You. Would you like the good news or the bad news first?”
The Rabbi, after a quick blessing, responds, “O Holy One, if it
pleases you, please give me the good news first.”
God continues, “The good news is that all Jews will finally agree on
One form of Judaism, and they will unite in peace, harmony, and
mutual goodwill for ever and ever.”
The Rabbi answers, “Baruch Hashem (Blessed is God), this is the
Most wonderful news in Jewish History! What could possibly be the
God says, “I’m calling from Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation.”
Living in an age of ‘political correctness’ and at the same time the heightened fear of global terrorism, this joke covers both:
In Philadelphia, the following sign was in the window of a business: “We would rather do business with 1000 terrorists than with a single Jew.” Ordinarily this might be cause to ignite the anti-hate groups but perhaps in these stressful times one might be tempted to let the proprietors, ‘Goldstein’s Funeral Home’, simply make their statement.
“I remember a time when the best Jewish humour was heard at men’s urinals at Brith Milahs, Bar Mitzvahs and weddings,” jokes Waldoks. “Today they are passed quickly from friend to friend over the Internet. This has become the major conduit of Jewish humour. Hardly a day goes by that people who are working on the computer are not accessing jokes. And the source of this humour? Who knows? They are rarely identifiable.”
But what we do know says Waldock, is that a sense of humour “helps one look over the unattractive, tolerate the unpleasant, cope with the unexpected and smile through the unbearable.”
In this respect has anything changed since one of the earliest jokes was recorded in the Bible. The Jews were following Moses out of Egypt only to find themselves pegged between the pursuing Egyptian army and the sea?
“What’s the matter, Moshe, you schlepped us here for vot? Weren’t there enough graves for us in Egypt?”
Against All Odds
In an age of ‘roadmaps’ that often lead nowhere, Jewish humour, is often the best guide to the future.
Enslaved by the Egyptians, slaughtered by the Philistines, exiled by the Babylonians, dispersed by the Romans, and butchered and chased from land to land in Europe and finally nearly entirely exterminated there, Jews have survived against all odds.
And so to the question of “Who is a Jew?” – an issue that does not cease to confound – Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion said it best in jest:
“Anyone meshugge (crazy) enough to call himself a Jew, is a Jew.”
Israel, unlike elsewhere in the world, does not erect statues of its great leaders and warriors. One of the few there is only there as a joke – it is of Ben Gurion doing a handstand in a bathing costume on Tel Aviv beach.
It articulates much about Israel, Jews and their humour as an instrument of survival.
With well over four thousand years of ‘survival’ under our belt, “Who’s having the last laugh?”
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