The Torah tells us that Sarah, the matriarch of the Jewish people, laughed when told she’d give birth in her old age. Since that moment, it seems, Jews have continued laughing — at themselves and their predicaments, at each other, even at God. And beneath that laughter, and the humor that sparked it, lies the story of the Jewish people throughout the age.
Jewish humor as a genre got its start in 19th-century Eastern Europe, where Yiddish folk tales found the humor in the often-difficult everyday life of the shtetl (village). The great Jewish novelists and playwrights–like Sholem Aleichem, whose stories were the basis for the musical hit Fiddler on the Roof — infused their writing with this humor, enshrining it for posterity and ensuring that humor would become one of the hallmarks of Yiddish literature.
With the steady growth of the American Jewish community and the Jews’ acceptance into mainstream American society in the 20th century, Jewish humor likewise found a welcoming home. Beginning with Yiddish publications and plays and gradually moving to English, Jewish comedians poked fun at the immigrant experience and the foibles and frustrations of Jewish-American life.
But a funny thing happened on the Jews’ way to acculturation in their new home: As the immigrant experience faded and the old jokes began losing their audience, Jewish humor expanded beyond the borders of the Jewish-American neighborhoods and Catskills hotels (known as the Borscht Belt) and was embraced by America at large. Jewish humor in the second half of the 20th century became virtually synonymous with American humor in general. From Sid Caesar and Lenny Bruce to Jerry Seinfeld, Sarah Silverman and Jon Stewart, the great American comedians, comic actors, and humor writers were by and large Jewish — and often infused their humor with a decidedly Jewish sensibility.
So what makes humor Jewish? Defining it is no easy task, but there are some characteristics that stand out as common to much of Jewish humor. Jewish humor, for instance, laughs at authority and blurs boundaries, such as those between sacred and secular or Jew and non-Jew. It also displays a fascination with language and (often twisted) reasoning. And, not surprisingly, Jewish humor often played the role of coping mechanism. With the anti-Semitism, poverty, and uncertainties Jews faced throughout so much of their history, there often seemed little to do but laugh. So they did. And we are still reaping the benefits of the humor they produced.
While there’s a lot to learn about Jewish humor, there’s even more to laugh about. Humor is one of those thing you probably need to experience to truly understand. Of course, what’s funny to one person is not funny, or even offensive, to the next person — though the world of Jewish humor is broad enough to encompass virtually any taste or opinion. So, smile and enjoy!