20th Century Jewish Humor

Modern humor for a modern world.

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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.

Like the myth of laughter through tears, the charge of masochism has some truth to it, especially with regard to jokes about anti-Semitism. Jewish humor is frequently self-critical and sometimes even self-deprecating. Still, the negative element of recent Jewish humor is characteristically overstated, just as traditional Jewish humor was subject to similar criticisms in its own time. As the folklorist Dan Ben-Amos has observed: "Perhaps the only validation of the Jewish-masochism thesis is its mass acceptance by Jewish intellectuals, for the actual evidence derived from the jokes themselves does not support it."

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William Novak

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