20th Century Jewish Humor

Modern humor for a modern world.

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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.

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William Novak

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