Laughing Through the Tears

Jewish humor as coping mechanism

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The science and biology students of the universities of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, the Negev, together with the leading scientists of the Haifa Technion and the Weizmann Institute, immediately go on the air and say, "Fellow Jews, everywhere, we have heard the terrible news, and we must not waste any time, for we just have three days to learn how to live under water."

The lesson of the story is quite significant: Jews wish the world to know that they are determined to survive even the worst hell, says Bulka. They will mobilize all their energies and abilities to stay alive, even in the midst of severe persecutions. The victims of discrimination and injustice have no other way than to rely upon their wit and intelligence in order to overcome the hatred of their enemies.

Responding With Dignity & Wit

Because they faced discrimination and anti-Semitism so many times in the past, Jews had to find ways of responding with dignity--but often also, with a certain amount of biting wit--to these unwarranted attacks on their personalities. One of these stories brings a Jew and an anti-Semite face to face:

An altercation takes place at a royal reception at Buckingham Palace, between the Jewish philanthropist, Sir Moses Montefiore, and an un­friendly Russian Grand Duke.

Shocked that a Jew should have been invited to an aristocratic gath­ering, the Grand Duke slyly remarks to Sir Moses Montefiore that he had just returned from Japan, and he had been intrigued to learn that in Japan, there were neither Jews nor pigs. Sir Moses calmly responds to the Grand Duke, "This is indeed quite interesting. Now, suppose you and I were to go to Japan, it would then have one of each!"

In the battle of wits, unlike other battles, a Jew could win an argument by exposing the absurdity of the prejudice. This approach often became the only way that enabled the Jew to retain his sanity and survive the in­human conditions that were imposed upon him.

An anti-Semite declares without shame, "All our troubles come from the Jews!" The Jew responds: "Absolutely! From the Jews--and the bicycle riders!"

"Bicycle riders? Why the bicycle riders?" asks the anti-Semite. "Why the Jews?" asks the Jew.

This article is the first in a four-part series on the characteristics of Jewish humor. To read the next article in the series, click here.

This series originally appeared as a single article in Midstream magazine, which was anthologized in Best Jewish Writing 2003. It is reprinted with permission.

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