Jewish Humor: A History

“Garbage is garbage,” it’s been noted, “but the history of garbage is scholarship.” So, too, Jewish humor is funny stuff, but the history of Jewish humor provides a penetrating window into the core of the Jewish story. No doubt, one might say the same thing about Jewish language, food, literature, or music, but because humor is so sensitive to inner tensions and outer concerns, Jewish humor provides a unique entry into the Jewish psyche. humor quiz

Jews have been seeing the humor in their lives for a very long time. The Bible itself recounts how Sarah laughed when told she’d have a child, and our forefather Isaac is named for that laughter. The Talmud, particularly in the aggadic (narrative) sections, is replete with witty asides and repartees, and in one famous account, the Talmud speaks of even God laughing. (Consider the theological implications of a God with sense of humor!) During the medieval period, the valuation of humor was institutionalized in Jewish communal customs, perhaps most famously in Purim shpiels, comic plays based on the book of Esther, which continue today in Jewish communities across the globe.

But Jewish humor as a distinctive cultural phenomenon first lights up in 19th century Eastern Europe. There, in the marketplace, the synagogue, and in the home, the Jewish joke developed into its own recognizable species. The shtetl (village) became home for the new Jewish-humor folk tradition–stories of the fools inhabiting the town of Chelm but one example. Sustaining and enriching this street humor were new Jewish texts. Jewish writers–including Mendele Mokher Seforim, Sholem Aleichem, and I.L. Peretz, along with playwrights such as Abraham Goldfaden–mined the bittersweet grumbling of the Jewish ethos and produced lasting classics of Jewish humor, which in turn fed the comic banter of Jewish daily exchange.

man laughingWhat was the genesis of this turn to the humorous? Theorists in the next century offered a parade of hypotheses. Jewish humor, insists one standard view, is all about coping: Jews were miserable, and laughter kept them going. Jewish psychologists further deconstructed Jewish humor as introjections of this external hostility–in other words, self-mockery. Freud writes, “I do not know whether there are many other instances of a people making fun to such a degree of its own character.” Other commentators suggested the Jewish jest is a survival tactic: By altering one’s perspective, the Jew can accept the unsympathetic world for what it was. “Want to alleviate your big-time worries? Put on a tighter shoe,” advises the Yiddish proverb.

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