Laughing Through the Tears

Jewish humor as coping mechanism

Print this page Print this page

In Jewish humor, comedy and tragedy are intertwined and it is often what you might call "laughter through tears," or as we say in Yiddish, "a bitterer gelekhter!"

Jewish humor is unique, not only because it pokes fun at our short­comings and weaknesses, but because it reflects upon the history of our people. Let us consider, for example, some of the anecdotes and jokes that express our determination to stay alive in spite of everything and our res­olution to overcome the threatening situations in which we find ourselves.

A classic story, illustrating the instinct of survival, is an anecdote quoted by Reuven Bulka:

A Jew in Russia falls into a lake, and, not knowing how to swim, he frantically screams, "Help, save me!" But his calls are totally ignored by all present, including a number of soldiers standing nearby. In des­peration, the Jew yells out, "Down with the tsar!" At that moment, the soldiers immediately jump in, yank the Jew out of the water, and haul him off into prison.

Staying Alive

To stay alive, in spite of all forms of oppression, has been one of the major concerns of the Jewish people through the centuries, and their jesters found many ways to convey this message in humorous terms.

In France, during World War II, a funny anecdote circulated among Jews:

A Jew manages to hide in a psychiatric asylum during the war. He is acting like the other demented patients. One day, the director of the institution informs the residents that the führer, Adolph Hitler, is plan­ning to visit the asylum. When he enters into the main hall, they are told, they are to stand up and greet him with the words "Heil Hitler!"

The day comes, and they all welcome the führer with the words they had so carefully rehearsed, except for the Jewish man, who re­mains seated in the back of the hail.

"You," says Hitler, "why didn't you greet me like everybody else?"

"My führer," says the Jew, "they are all meshuge [insane]. I am not!"

Hope, Always

Even in the face of impending doom there may still be some hope, as the following story will tell us:

Prominent scientists have just announced that, as a result of the global warming phenomenon, an uncontrollable flood would soon devastate planet earth and bring death to every living being. There were only three days left before doomsday.

The Chief Rabbi of Israel goes on international radio and says: "Fel­low Jews, we must all accept the will of God with humility. We must prepare ourselves to meet our Maker and pray that God may receive us with love and compassion."

The leaders of the Hasidim address their communities and say, "Yidn (fellow Jews), let us do teshuvah and repent from our sins, and let us be prepared for the great Day of Judgment, at which time we will appear in the presence of the Court on High."

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.