Psychoanalyzing Jewish Humor

What Freud & his disciples said about Jewish comedy.

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Reik went on to suggest the possibility of the coexistence of masochistic humility and provocative insolence. As an example of this attitude, he referred to a letter written by the German Jewish poet and writer Heinrich Heine, who had converted to Christianity in hope of being accepted by Western society, in which Heine a few months before his death says to his brother Max, "Our forefathers were brave people; they humbled themselves before God and were stubborn and fearless towards the worldly powers. I, on the contrary, challenged Heaven with impudence and was humble and servile towards people, and now, I lie on the ground, like a worm that has been crushed under a foot."

That does not mean, of course, that we do not have some true maso­chists or paranoid personalities among us from time to time, as the say­ing goes: "Just because you are paranoid, does not mean that they are not out to get you."

What Grotjahn meant by an aggression turned against itself might be expressed in these words: "You don't need to attack us. We can do that ourselves and even better. We can take it. We know our weaknesses, and in a way, we are proud of them." Jewish jokes, he writes, contain a kind of resignation and occasionally a stubborn pride. They seem to say: "This is the way we are and will be as long as we exist."

Two Sides to Every Story

For Freud and for Reik, the truth seemed at once simpler and more complex. There is often a kind of oscillation between a pseudo-masochis­tic self-humiliation and a sense of paranoid superiority in Jewish humor. Thus, there are two sides to every Jewish story.

No one will deny that there is a high degree of resiliency and courage that is displayed in many Jewish stories, and that has served as a kind of defense-mechanism enabling Jews to confront adversity. The fact that Jews are capable of making merciless fun of the shortcomings of their own people is a positive trait, not a negative one, as some anti-Semites have tried to construe it. Self-criticism, and even self-sarcasm, are part of the thought process of the individual who is committed to intellectual and moral integrity.

The world has changed considerably in the years since Reik wrote his book, and we may say, today, that the universal character of Jewish wit has come to be enjoyed by many--Jews and non-Jews alike. Some of the finest humorists on the American scene are Jewish, and many gentiles have learned to enjoy and appreciate a good Jewish joke

Woody Allen is a case in point He may be ambivalent about his Jew­ishness, but he has certainly not rejected the Jewish tradition of humor He has been quoted as saying, "I have frequently been accused of being a self­-hating Jew, and while its true I hate myself, it's not because I am Jewish."

That's Jewish humor in full flower.

This article is the last in a four-part series on the characteristics of Jewish humor. The 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.