4,000 Years, 10 Jokes
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4,000 Years, 10 Jokes

Jewish history is like the waiter who asks the table full of retired ladies, 'Is anything all right?'

Andrew Silow-Carroll, editor-in-chief of the New Jersey Jewish News, is a veteran of the Jewish community’s communications world, with previous stints at The Forward and CLAL. He’s also a maven on Jewish humor. He’ll talk about “The History of the Jews in Ten Jokes” at Temple Emanu-El’s adult education Skirball Center on Nov. 19, Dec. 3 and 10. The Jewish Week interviewed him by email. This is an edited transcript.

Q: A Google search of “Jewish history” brings up 111,000,000 results. You can condense it into 10 jokes?

A: Nine, if I leave out the one about a rabbi, the priest and the gastroenterologist. In fact I like to think of this as a history course, with jokes as the organizing principle for a discussion of 10 major themes in Jewish history, from the Israelite’s relationship with God to the growing divide between cultural and religious Judaism in the early 21st century. I was inspired by the British Museum series, “A History of the World in 100 Objects.” But coming up with 100 anything is too much like work.

Humor experts say there are seven jokes; the rest are variation of the paradigms. Jews have three extra?

In Israel they have seven jokes; in the Diaspora we observe the other three — four if it’s a leap year.

How has Jewish humor changed over the centuries to reflect the changing times?

There are jokes told from a position of power, and jokes told from positions of relative powerlessness. In the Talmud, the sages can be quite cutting in their replies to nonbelievers and skeptics, and since the rabbis wrote the book, and felt in control of their political and religious domain, you can imagine who comes out better in these debates. But skip ahead a millennia or so, and you can see more self-deprecating Jewish humor — whether it is the wedding badchan [Jester] ridiculing the bride and groom, or the Catskills comic roasting his fellow Jews.

Does all Jewish humor translate — in other words, is it dependent on a specific location, a specific culture, a specific language?

There’s Jewish humor, and there’s Judaism humor. Jewish humor tends to translate, since it trades in stock stereotypes — miserliness, assertive wives, smothering mothers, hypocritical or incompetent clergy — that listeners either share or can plug into their own culture. The Judaism jokes require a certain level of Jewish education or knowledge. There’s a great old joke with the punch line, “your dog is so machmir! [halachically strict]” which kills in the yeshiva, but no so much at Caroline’s.

At one time, the overwhelming majority of stand-up comics in the U.S. were Jewish. The percentage is going down now. Are today’s American Jews less funny than earlier ones?

Not less funny — less hungry. The Jewish humor explosion of the mid-20th century came at a time of limited opportunities for Jews in so many professions, including on the stage. It’s sort of like Jews and basketball — it used to be our game, until we got into law school.

Is all of Jewish history funny?

It’s like the waiter who asks the table full of retired Jewish ladies, “Is anything all right?” We don’t have a very happy history. But even in the midst of misery, Jews developed a sense of humor as a coping style. Jews tell jokes about the Inquisition, about the Holocaust, about pogroms — oh wait, that’s just Mel Brooks.

Does Jewish humor go back to biblical times?

Hershey Friedman wrote a fun, smart paper called “Humor in the Hebrew Bible,” and gives examples of all these different styles found there: “puns, wordplays, riddles, jokes, satires, lampoons, sarcasm, irony, wit, black humor, comedy, slapstick, farce, burlesques, caricatures, parody, and travesty.” The funniest set piece in Chumash is probably that of Balaam’s ass, and not just because 8-year-olds giggle whenever their Hebrew schoolteacher says “ass.” It’s the forerunner of every 19th-century joke about the lowly peddler who turns the tables on a Cossack or a Russian policeman.

Was it hard to get a speaking gig for such a shortened version of Jewish history?

I speak very quickly.

steve@jewishweek.org

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