Author Archives: William Novak

William Novak

About William Novak

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

Jewish Humor in America

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

One of the complicating factors in identifying American Jewish humor is that American Jews themselves have been strangely reluctant to recognize it and appreciate it for what it is. Even people who own records by Lenny Bruce and Allan Sherman, who go to see movies by Woody Allen and Mel Brooks, who read novels by Philip Roth, Bruce Jay Friedman, and Wallace Markfield, and who watch television performers like

Myron Cohen, Buddy Hackett, and David Steinberg, still seem to think of Jewish humor as belonging to the world of Eastern Europe and to the early stages of acculturation in America–more or less like Yiddish itself. It is true that not all the material of these contemporary humorists can properly be called Jewish, but even by the strictest measures, there is much that can.


Taking Jewish Humor Seriously

Gentiles have little difficulty in recognizing the Jewish slant of Lenny Bruce’s hipsters, or Woody Allen’s schlemiels, or Philip Roth’s compulsive intellectuals. Why is the Jewish audience more equivocal? Part of the reason may be the reluctance of these humorists to see themselves as part of Jewish America. But if this is true of the performers and writers, it is perhaps no less true of their audiences; American Jews in general have been reluctant to take seriously their own Jewishness.

jewish humor in americaAccording to this prejudice (and here is a compelling case of self-deprecation), Eastern Europe represents an idealized and “authentic” Judaism, and not incidentally, a Yiddish-speaking culture, next to which Judaism in America seems artificial, watered-down, and decidedly second best. For some aspects of Jewish culture, this bias is valid, although less so with each passing year. But in no area has it been less true than for Jewish humor.

Adding to the confusion is that while the themes of Jewish humor have not changed dramatically since Eastern Europe, America has made available (and Jews have helped to create) a host of new forms which make 20th-century Jewish humor appear to have little in common with its 19th century origins.

20th Century Jewish Humor

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

Jewish humor of 20th-century America is… difficult to identify and define. Like the Jews themselves, its very success in permeating the general society has diluted its ethnic identity, and its degree of “Jewishness” varies widely and sharply. Although it began as an extension of the folk humor of Eastern Europe, 20th-century Jewish humor underwent certain immediate changes and transformations in America. 

Of Misers and Moms

To take the most obvious example, anti-Semitism became far less central a theme to the immigrants in America, as jokes about assimilation, name-changing, and even conversion soon took its place. Jokes about fundraisers replaced stories of schnorrers [beggars]. Jokes about mothers became popular, replacing jibes at mothers-in-law. The twitting of pretentious rabbis and the well-to-do was broadened as economic and social opportunities enabled the common people to become targets of satire.

20th century jewish humorStill, to a remarkable degree, the fundamental themes of Jewish humor did not change, though so much else did for the Jews who came to America. What did change, however, were the forms it took. While the folk process of Jewish humor continued to operate in the American setting, the more creative energies came from another source: comedians and writers. Some of them continued to work, more or less, within the oral tradition, but increasingly they would provide their own material, based not only on the collective Jewish experience but also on the conditions and tensions–Jewish and otherwise–of their own lives. Their primary loyalties were not always to the Jewish community, and there began a complicated and often adversary relationship between the community and its humorists, a relationship that has grown more problematic with every passing decade.

Masochistic or Merely Self-Critical?

This brings us to a central misunderstanding about contemporary American Jewish humor: that it is largely self-hating. According to this view, traditional Jewish humor is warm, sweet, nostalgic, and unthreatening; contemporary Jewish humor, by contrast, is seen as harsh, vulgar, neurotic, and increasingly masochistic.

19th-Century Jewish Humor

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

The justly celebrated humor of the European shtetl [village] is typically referred to as “traditional” Jewish humor. Except for Sholem Aleichem and occasional pieces by other Yiddish writers, most of this material belongs to the realm of folk humor–jokes and anonymous funny stories, together with an assortment of proverbs and curses–all of which was passed along and developed over several generations. 

Some of its roots can be traced as far back as the medieval Purim shpiels–comicplays based on the story of Esther and other Biblical tales. Indeed, it is even argued that the Bible and the Talmud, as the original repositories of Jewish humor, are replete with humorous tales and witty exchanges. This claim may hold true for a few of the commentaries that the Biblical text continues to generate, but the Bible  itself is fundamentally a sober work, while the Talmud contains all too few truly funny passages.

19th c. humorComic Relief

A predominant misconception about traditional Jewish humor is that it is essentially composed of “laughter through tears.” Along with its heartwarming appeal, the phrase enjoys a ring of cogency; after all, the humor of the Russian and Polish Jews arose out of one of the grimmest stretches in all of Jewish history. Persecution, poverty, and uprootedness, three of the major conditions of that era, gave rise to much of the humor that is associated with Eastern Europe and that came to America in successive waves of immigration.

But despite the enduring popularity of the idea, “laughter through tears” is an incomplete description of traditional Jewish humor. It is true that these jokes deal with actual events, and it is also true that these events are frequently unpleasant–or worse. But the phrase wrongly emphasizes the humor that developed through suffering and implies that the Jew’s endless struggle with adversity provides its dominant theme.

Comedy in Everyday Life

The evidence suggests otherwise. For every joke about anti-Semitism, poverty, or dislocation, there are several others dealing with less melancholy topics: the intricacies of the Jewish mind, its scholars, students, and schlemiels [luckless fools]; the eternal comedy of food, health, and manners; the world of businessmen, rabbis, and schnorrers (beggars); the concerns of matchmaking, marriage, and family. What all these jokes have in common, aside from a remarkable combination of earthiness and subtlety that appeals to common folk and intellectuals alike, is not that they are primarily sad or wistful, but that they are wise and–no small matter for 19th-century humor–genuinely funny even today.

Defining Jewish Humor

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.