Future of Jewish Humor

Can Jewish-American humor survive the assimilationist 21st century?

Print this page Print this page

The Hebrew Bible, that repository of stories about the full range of human behavior--from the cowardly to the courageous, the noble and the base--includes its share of humor. To get some appreciation of the humor dotting its way through the Hebrew Bible, think of how it differs sharply the Christian Testaments. 

As a character from a Bernard Malamud story once put it, "Jesus is a humorless guy." If the stories in the Hebrew Bible are about people, complete with a capacity for laughter, the "greatest story ever told" is about a demi-God. No irony, no ambivalence, and certainly no jokes need apply.

By contrast, the Jewish humor we recognize instantly happens when a wag is told that we are the Chosen People and who wonders--out loud and after morning prayers--if, perhaps next time, God might choose somebody else. Between rabbinic solemnity and life's grittier edges lies Sholem Aleichem's Tevye, a man who confides that "with God's help I starved three times a day."

Humor of Oppression

Saul Bellow once pointed out that "oppressed people tend to be witty." True enough--for the Irish, for blacks in America, and most certainly for the Jews. Humor is what the powerless have, and what they rely on. If Jewish humor is often a shield meant to deflect Gentile fists, it can also be a weapon wielded from an oblique angle. But whether it be shield, weapon, or some combination of the two (a shweapon?) humor has been an essential ingredient in Jewish survival.

From the destruction of the Temple onward, Jewish humor has often been described as "bittersweet," a laughter filtered through tears. It produced a lively retinue of comic types--the residents of Chelm, the city of fools of Yiddish folktales, the schnorrer (beggar), the nudnick (pest), and my special favorite, the schlemiel, a character who is the architect of his misfortune and as such, easily transported to America. He shows up in everything from Charlie Chaplin's poignantly loveable little tramp to Woody Allen's neurotic Upper-West-Side New Yorkers.

If 19th-century American humor was dominated by ring-tailed roarers who boasted that they have the fastest horse, the prettiest sister, and the truest rifle in all of Kentuck'--and furthermore, that they can beat up any man in the house--20th-century humor was filled to the brim with people who insisted that they were smaller, weaker, and more sensitive than anybody in the living room.

Granted, there are wide streaks of comic self-abnegation in James Thurber's Walter Mitty and Charles Schultz's Charlie Brown, but taken as a whole, the humor that washed up on American shores along with the waves of Jewish immigrants soon became American humor. Jewish comics simply had a better feel for shtick, for the highly verbal, machine-gun delivery known as spritz--one thinks of Sid Caesar, Lenny Bruce, Don Rickles--and perhaps most of all, for seeing the world through the perspective of an outsider.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor of English at Franklin and Marshall College. He writes widely about Jewish literature and culture, and in recent years has been a judge for the Edward Lewis Wallant Prize, the Reform Judaism Prize, and the National Jewish Book Award.