Author Archives: Rabbi Leo M. Abrami

About Rabbi Leo M. Abrami

Rabbi Leo M. Abrami served as the spiritual leader at Beth Emeth Congregation in Sun City West from 2002 to 2006.

Psychoanalyzing Jewish Humor

Reprinted with permission from Midstream magazine.

What can we learn from these anecdotes and expressions of Jewish wit?

In his book, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Sigmund Freud suggested that many Jewish jokes point to the ability of the Jewish people to (a) engage in a thorough self-criticism of themselves, (b) advocate a democratic way of life, (c) emphasize the moral and social principles the Jewish religion, (d) criticize the excessive requirements of it, and (e) reflect on the misery of many Jewish communities.

Freud, who wrote this book some hundred years ago, was actually paying homage to the capacity of the Jewish people to overcome the oppressive social conditions that had been imposed upon them and their ability to transcend them by laughing at them.


Some non-Jewish psychiatrists–even disciples of Freud–seem to have had some difficulty in understanding the gist of Jewish wit and have been particularly critical. Their preconceived ideas about the Jews may have had a certain influence in their judgment. Dr. Edmund Bergier, in a book he published in 1956, Laughter and the Sense of Humor, expresses the view that a definite tendency to “psychic masochism” is present in Jew­ish wit, and that certain external situations (discrimination, poverty, the lack of opportunity, and the bitterness of life in Eastern Europe) have pre­disposed Jews to a certain degree of masochism.

jewish humor therapyDr. Martin Grotjahn, a disciple of Theodor Reik [who himself was a disciple of Freud], published a book on the subject in 1960, titled Psychoanalysis and the Jewish Joke, in which he advances the opinion that the witticisms of Jews often start with an aggressive tendency, a shock­ing thought, or an offensive statement in a disguised form. The release of aggression is sudden, and the hostility or aggressiveness manifests itself in a masochistic way–that is, turned against the Jew himself.


These notions were corrected, however, by Reik himself, who re­marked that the masochistic aspect of the Jewish joke may not be au­thentic. It is only pseudo-masochistic because the masochism of Jewish wit is only a “mask” that does not show the face behind it. For the ulti­mate aim of this display is the unconscious wish to win the approval–or even the admiration–of the audience, and to regain one’s dignity. It is as if the jester were saying, “See how full of weaknesses and failings I am. Therefore you must recognize my humanity, forgive me, and love me again.”

The Targets of Jewish Humor

Reprinted with permission from Midstream magazine.

The desire to know the truth is the beginning of wisdom. Among the other types of people who have become main characters in Jewish humor is the schnorrer, the beggar. Theodor Reik [one of Freud’s disciples] contended that the jokes about schnorrers express the hope and conviction that the economic gap between the haves and the have-nots will be erased one day.

But we might even go one step further, says Rabbi Reuven Bulka. Indeed, Jews have often been forced to schnor, that is to beg, for what was legitimately theirs. The schnor­rer, therefore, symbolizes the Jew who begs the indulgence of others, so that he might enjoy the basic right to live with decency.

Here is the story of a schnorrer who used to visit the house of the Baron de Rothschild to receive his weekly alms. On one particular visit, he is told that he cannot be supported that week. Visibly upset, he wants to know the reason. He is told that the Baron’s daughter had been mar­ried that week and that the wedding had been particularly costly and there were no funds left for charitable purposes. The shnorrer, react­ing with a combination of understanding and protest, says: “I certainly don’t mind the Baron marrying his daughter, but not with my money!”

Jewish Occupations

It was not always easy for Jews to earn a living when there were so many discriminatory laws limiting their activities; they were not to own land or to engage in many trades, which were regulated by professional guilds that accepted only Christian members. Jews were able to survive only by putting their ingenuity to work.

As they could only engage in professions, which were not regulated by law, they practiced international commerce and banking (which was forbidden by the Church in the Middle Ages), they went into medicine, astrology, and map-making, and quite a few be­came experts in these professions. Many, however, managed to earn a liv­ing by practicing simple trades. They became tailors and shoemakers, grocers and butchers, and many shopkeepers and merchants.

Wit, Wisdom, Humor

Reprinted with permission from Midstream magazine.

“For the past two thousand years, the Jews have been sharpening their wit as well as their wits, on the logical grindstone of the Talmud. This may explain why so much of Jewish humor,” writes Nathan Ausubel, “has an intellectual character.” For Jewish humor is not just laughter; it is in fact, wisdom!

Twisted Logic

Consider this lovely anecdote from Eastern Europe, which is all about Talmudic logic:

After months of negotiation with the authorities, a Talmudist from Odessa is finally granted a visa to visit Moscow. He boards the train and finds an empty seat. At the next stop, a young man gets on the train and sits next to him. The scholar looks at the young man and thinks: This fellow doesn’t look like a peasant, and if he isn’t a peas­ant, he probably comes from this city. If he comes from this city, then he must be Jewish, because this is, after all, a predominantly Jewish area. On the other hand, if he is a Jew, where could he be going? I am the only Jew in our district who received permission to travel to Moscow.

Ahh? That’s no problem; I know that just outside Moscow, there is a little town called Samvet, and Jews don’t need special per­mission to go there. Yes, but why would he be going to Samvet? He’s probably going to visit one of the Jewish families that live there, but let me think; how many Jewish families are there in Samvet? There are only two: the Bernsteins and the Steinbergs. The Bernsteins? No, that cannot be; it is a terrible family. A nice looking fellow like this young man, must be visiting the Steinbergs.

But why would he visit that fam­ily? The Steinbergs have only two daughters. So, my best guess is that he must be their son-in-law. But if he is, indeed, a son-in-law, which daughter did he marry? I heard that Sarah married a nice lawyer from Budapest, and Esther married a businessman from Zhitomir; so, I got it: he must be Sarah’s husband, and his name, people say, is Alexander Cohen.

But, if he comes from Budapest, a city where anti-Semitism is rampant, he must have changed his name. What would be the Hun­garian equivalent of Cohen? It must be Kovacs. But it is well known that not everyone is allowed to change his name in Hungary, and if he was able to do so, it must be for a good reason: he must have some special status. And what could that be? Obviously, this fellow Alexan­der Cohen must have earned a doctorate from the University.

Laughing Through the Tears

Reprinted with permission from Midstream magazine.

A Jewish joke is more than just a funny story, for it often has a message for the listener. “First you laugh at a Jewish joke or quip. Then, against your will, you suddenly fall silent and thoughtful. And that is because Jews are so frequently jesting philosophers. A hard life has made them re­alists, realists without illusions,” writes Nathan Ausubel, in the intro­duction to his Treasury of Jewish Humor.

humor as coping mechanismMany Jewish jokes and anecdotes have made a definite impact on the mind and character of the Jewish people, because they are inspired by a profound wisdom. Though not always anticipated at first, it becomes manifest as soon as we reflect upon them.

A classic Yiddish story makes the following observation:

When you tell an am ho-oretz(peasant) a joke, he laughs three times: once, when you tell it, once, when you explain it, and once, when he understands it.

When you tell a landowner a joke, he laughs twice: once when you tell it and once when you explain it–he will never understand it.

When you tell a military officer a joke, he laughs only once, when you tell it, because he won’t let you explain it, and of course, he doesn’t understand it.

But when you tell a Jew a joke, he tells you that he has heard it be­fore, and that you are telling it all wrong, anyway.

Turning Lament Into Laughter

Humor is one of the most effective ways of confronting adversity and coping with difficult situations, especially when we have little control over them, or none at all. “By laughing at our fate, it is as if we were stepping out of a situation and looking at it from a distance, as if we were outside observers, so to speak,” writes Rabbi Reuven Bulka.

By so doing, we gain the ability to transcend the circumstances, which may be the cause of our anguish. Theodor Reik, a disciple of Sigmund Freud who settled in New York in the 1920s, remarked that life is often tragic and sad. By joking about it, we succeed in transcending the tragic character of an event and bringing it under our control. “By using humor, the lament often turns into laughter,” remarked Reik (Jewish Wit, New York, 1962).