Buried in the Pew Research Center’s serious findings about Jewish belief and Jewish practice in the United States is one not-so-serious fact — about Jewish humor.
According to the “Portrait of Jewish Americans” study, which was released last week, 42 percent of American Jews consider “having a good sense of humor” to be “an essential part of what being Jewish means.”
That places humor a single percentage point behind “caring about Israel.” And it’s far ahead of such other indications of Jewish identity as “being part of a Jewish community” or “observing Jewish law.”
In other words, for four in 10 American Jews, being funny outranks being frum.
“For much of Jewish history Jews were not viewed as having a sense of humor,” said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. “Indeed, Herman Adler, Chief Rabbi of England, felt it important in 1893 to counter the canard that Jews were humorless.
“Humor became part of Jewish life as Jews became modern,” Sarna tells The Jewish Week in an e-mail interview. “It helped them to overcome the traumas of change.”
Humor, especially ethnic humor, is traditionally a weapon wielded by the outsider, the marginalized, the disenfranchised, the minority group member who lacks access to a society’s power. “I suspect that Sholem Aleichem … writing in the very midst of the most traumatic and wrenching eras through which modern Jews passed … established the idea that Jews need a sense of humor,” Sarna said.
“Those who put a sense of humor on the list of key Jewish attributes probably knew nothing of any of this,” he said. “But they do know that Jews are utterly disproportionate among America’s humorists. And they understand, at a deep level, that the humor emerges from the modern Jewish experience itself. The ease with which Jewish humorists are simultaneously part of contemporary culture and yet stand apart from it suggests a stance for American Jews, a way to be ‘part of’ and ‘apart from’ simultaneously.”
The study did not specify exactly what the Jewish participants meant by a sense of humor, whether it was a typically Jewish attitude of dismissive irony, or a joke’s demonstrably Jewish subject matter.
Jewish humor over the years has influenced wider American humor, experts have observed.
“It seems to me that ‘the sense of humor’ has become a value among Americans at large,” said Ruth Wisse, professor of Yiddish literature and comparative literature at Harvard University, and author of “No Joke: Making Jewish Humor” (Princeton University Press).
The findings of the Pew study are not surprising, said Rabbi Bob Alper, a Vermont resident who has performed as a stand-up comic around the country, often appearing with Muslim and Christian colleagues, for three decades.
Being funny is “a good stereotype,” Rabbi Alper says. “It’s part of our identity, [something] we pride ourselves on. Jews are proud of the role that Jews have played in the humor industry.”
In the Pew survey, “Remembering Holocaust” ranked first, at 73 percent, in the “What Does It Mean To Be Jewish?” category. It was followed by “Leading ethical/moral life” (69 percent), “Working for justice equality” (56 percent), and “Being intellectually curious” (49 percent). Then Israel and humor.
The oldest age group in the survey (65+) placed more importance on a sense of humor than did the youngest (18-29), by 47 to 39 percent. While 46 percent of the participants who identified themselves as belonging to “no denomination” of Judaism saw importance in a sense of humor, one third of those in the “ultra-Orthodox” group also did.
Is Rabbi Alper discouraged by the importance that many American Jews place on humor — at the cost of other indications of Jewish identity?
“Not al all,” the rabbi said. “Humor is worth valuing. Anything that keeps Jews constantly Jewish is a good thing. Love of humor keeps that spark going.”