Jewish Humor: A History

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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.

The destruction of Eastern European Jewry in the Holocaust did not bring an end to the comic Jewish spirit, but it did change both its content and style. In pre-war European Jewry, humor was predominantly an internal affair--the Jewish joke was an inside joke. The comic lines were in Yiddish, the religious allusions were familiar to all, the fears and frustrations shared across classes, and the context of the storyline shared histories.

Then came the 20th century, where the story of American Jewish humor since World War II is largely the story the American humor since World War II. As Jews increasingly entered the American mainstream, they were not telling "insider jokes" but shaping the sense of humor of an entire country, depicting America to America.

In the early part of this Jewish humor explosion, "Yiddishisms" were essential to the repertoire, but this faded along with the European memories. The mid-20th century Borsht Belt shtick--acts that thrived in New York's Catskills region, where Jews flocked for vacations--thrived on shared immigrant histories and traditions. But by century's end many of these Jewish references were wearing thin. The majority of American Jews are now more comfortable eating sushi than gefilte fish. Jews are not outsiders, they generally don't cope daily with anti-Semitism, and the average Jewish income is among the highest.  

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