Laughing Through the Tears

Jewish humor as coping mechanism

Print this page Print this page

Reprinted with permission from Midstream magazine.

A Jewish joke is more than just a funny story, for it often has a message for the listener. "First you laugh at a Jewish joke or quip. Then, against your will, you suddenly fall silent and thoughtful. And that is because Jews are so frequently jesting philosophers. A hard life has made them re­alists, realists without illusions," writes Nathan Ausubel, in the intro­duction to his Treasury of Jewish Humor.

humor as coping mechanismMany Jewish jokes and anecdotes have made a definite impact on the mind and character of the Jewish people, because they are inspired by a profound wisdom. Though not always anticipated at first, it becomes manifest as soon as we reflect upon them.

A classic Yiddish story makes the following observation:

When you tell an am ho-oretz(peasant) a joke, he laughs three times: once, when you tell it, once, when you explain it, and once, when he understands it.

When you tell a landowner a joke, he laughs twice: once when you tell it and once when you explain it--he will never understand it.

When you tell a military officer a joke, he laughs only once, when you tell it, because he won't let you explain it, and of course, he doesn't understand it.

But when you tell a Jew a joke, he tells you that he has heard it be­fore, and that you are telling it all wrong, anyway.

Turning Lament Into Laughter

Humor is one of the most effective ways of confronting adversity and coping with difficult situations, especially when we have little control over them, or none at all. "By laughing at our fate, it is as if we were stepping out of a situation and looking at it from a distance, as if we were outside observers, so to speak," writes Rabbi Reuven Bulka.

By so doing, we gain the ability to transcend the circumstances, which may be the cause of our anguish. Theodor Reik, a disciple of Sigmund Freud who settled in New York in the 1920s, remarked that life is often tragic and sad. By joking about it, we succeed in transcending the tragic character of an event and bringing it under our control. "By using humor, the lament often turns into laughter," remarked Reik (Jewish Wit, New York, 1962).

What do you suppose makes Jews joke so much about adversity? "It is the instinct for self-preservation" says Ausubel. "By laughing at the absur­dities and cruelties of life, we draw much of the sting from them. The jester's bells make an honest tinkle, and his comic capers conceal his inner gravity. His satire and irony have one virtue: you never for a moment suspect that his barbs are directed at you. And so you laugh boisterously, feeling supe­rior to the poor shmiggege, while all the time, it is you who are the target!"

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

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Leo M. Abrami served as the spiritual leader at Beth Emeth Congregation in Sun City West from 2002 to 2006.