Defining Jewish Humor

Jewish humor mocks the powerful (including God) and pokes fun at the Jew's often-downtrodden status


Reprinted with permission from The Big Book of Jewish Humor (HarperCollins Publishers)

What do we mean by Jewish humor? To begin, it is humor that is overtly Jewish in its concerns, characters, defini­tions, language, values, or symbols. (A Jewish joke, goes one definition, is one that no goy can understand and every Jew says he has already heard.) But not all Jewish humor derives from Jewish sources, just as not all humor created by Jews is necessarily Jewish. In these matters it is best to examine not the singer but the song.

jewish humorJewish humor is too rich and too diverse to be adequately described by a single generalization. Jewish theologians used to say that it is easier to describe God in terms of what He is not; the same process may be useful in understanding Jewish humor. It is not, for example, escapist. It is not slapstick. It is not physical. It is generally not cruel and does not attack the weak or the infirm. At the same time, it is also not polite or gentle.

But individual humorists come to mind immediately to negate each of these tendencies: the Marx Brothers are slap­stick performers; Jerry Lewis and Sid Caesar are physical; Don Rickles is cruel; Sam Levenson is polite, and Danny Kaye is playful. So much for generalizations.

What Jewish humor is may be even more difficult to deter­mine, and we offer the following broad statements in full awareness of the possible futility of the exercise:

Jewish humor is usually substantive; it is about something. It is especially fond of certain specific topics, such as food (noshing is sacred), family, business, anti-Semitism, wealth and its absence, health, and survival. Jewish humor is also fascinated by the intricacies of the mind and by logic, and the short if elliptical path separating the rational from the absurd.

jewish humor quizAs social or religious commentary, Jewish humor can be sar­castic, complaining, resigned, or descriptive. Sometimes the “point” of the humor is more powerful than the laugh it deliv­ers, and for some of the jokes, the appropriate response is not laughter, but rather a bitter nod or a commiserating sigh of recognition. This didactic quality precludes laughing “for free,” as in slapstick humor, which derives its laughter from other people’s misfortunes.

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William Novak is a writer, editor, and comedy scholar.

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