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."

And a scholar of our acquaintance who is often asked to lecture on this subject now responds to the inevitable question "Isn't Jewish humor masochistic?" by saying: "No, and if I hear that line once more I'm going to kill myself!"

Psychoanalyzing Jewish Humor

Freud, perhaps the first serious student of Jewish humor, correctly identified a self-critical component in many of the jokes, noting: "I do not know whether there are many other instances of a people making fun to such a degree of its own character." Some of Freud's followers--most notably Theodor Reik in his book Jewish Wit--and various other commentators have taken Freud's observation and expanded it into a general insight into Jewish character.

According to this view, Jewish humor arose as a way for Jews to cope with the hostility they found all around them, sometimes by using that hostility against themselves. In the words of the psychoanalyst Martin Grotjahn: "Aggression turned against the self seems to be an essential feature of the truly Jewish joke. It is as if the Jew tells his enemies: 'You do not need to attack us. We can do that ourselves--and even better.'"

The allegation of Jewish masochism (otherwise known as self-hatred) has been made with increasing frequency in recent years (especially against Philip Roth), and while there are certainly elements of it among other contemporary Jewish humorists, it is important to ask whether this reductive concept is the best way to describe an uninhibited and frequently critical treatment of Jewish life. Jewish humor, after all, is an extension of the Jewish mind, which has traditionally been a highly self-critical instrument, reluctant to accept anything at face value, and not unwilling to search for evidences of the storm beneath the surface tranquility of everyday life. It is no accident that the pioneer of psychoanalysis was especially interested in Jewish jokes.

Taking Humor Too Seriously?

In addition, the established Jewish community, in the absence of severe anti-Semitism in America, has at times been overly sensitive to those Jewish artists and writers who are occasionally unflattering in their depictions of Jewish middle-class life. It is sometimes suggested that such descriptions provide "ammunition" for anti-Semites, but one suspects that the real sin lies elsewhere. Jewish comedians and writers may be critical of the Jewish community, but as we have said, there is nothing new about that. What may also disturb the official Jewish community is that some of the contemporary humorists, such as Lenny Bruce and Wallace Markfield, taunt not only the Jews but also the goyim [non-Jews].

The point, then, is that the real offense of the contemporary humorists is not in their dwelling on Jewish inferiority, but rather their revealing the more or less secret feelings of Jewish superiority. And so, for example, Sam Levenson and Harry Golden, who have stressed the similarity of Jews to other Americans, have been far more readily embraced by a nervous community than, say, Lenny Bruce and Philip Roth, who have made much of the differences.

Finally, and perhaps more obviously, contemporary Jewish comedians have unprecedented access to the general public and no longer depend upon the approval of the Jewish community. Traditional Jewish humor, by contrast, was primarily in Yiddish, which functioned as a kind of secret Jewish parlance which permitted one to saying anything without worrying what the goyim would think. For better or worse, those days are over.

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William Novak

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