Laughing Until We Cry (Thanks, Pew Survey on #JewishAmerica!)

Why Is Sense of Humor So Essential to Our Identity?

Funny Man: Woody Allen is part of a long tradition of Jewish humor.
Getty Images
Funny Man: Woody Allen is part of a long tradition of Jewish humor.

By Leonard Fein

Published November 01, 2013, issue of November 08, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

And what do American Jews view as “essential” to their sense of Jewishness?

Large majorities of U.S. Jews say that remembering the Holocaust (73%) and leading an ethical life (69%) are essential. More than half (56%) say that working for justice and equality is essential to what being Jewish means to them. And about four-in-ten say that caring about Israel (43%) and having a good sense of humor (42%) are essential to their Jewish identity. (Just 19% think that observing Jewish law is essential.)

Pew Survey! Click Here! Click for more on the survey.

I’m all for remembering the Holocaust, leading an ethical life, working for justice and equality and caring about Israel. But my interest here is in the notion that a sense of humor is regarded by 42% of us as essential. Presumably, these are the ones who understand that humor is a useful antidote to the usual Jewish view of the world, as captured by the telegram that reads “Start worrying, letter follows.” Or: We are a people that cannot take “yes” for an answer.

For example, we have the man who comes into the psychiatrist’s office: “How can I help you?”, the psychiatrists asks. “You can’t help me, I am deceased.” “I beg your pardon, are you sure you are deceased?” “Indeed I am. If I were alive, I’d stake my life on it.”

The psychiatrist thinks for a moment. “What do you know about dead people?” “Well,” says the man, one thing I know is that dead men don’t bleed.”

At this, the psychiatrist takes a razor blade out of his desk drawer, takes hold of the man’s finger, psychiatrist nicks it, and sure enough, there’s a drop of blood.

“What do you know,” says the man. “Dead men do bleed.”

Think about it. That dead men do bleed is an illustration of the triumph of theory over data, a richly Jewish tradition. Though the walls crumble around us, we insist on believing, with perfect faith, no less, that the Messiah is just around the corner. (As Ani Ma’amin says, even if he tarries, we will still wait and believe.)

There are other ways of handling a punishing reality. Says one Jew to another, “I can’t take it any more. Our lives are so miserable. Everywhere you turn, anti-Semitism, pogroms, violence, plagues. Some days I wish I’d never been born.” “Hah,” says his friend, “luck like that maybe only one in 10,000 has.”

There are also accommodations between theory and facts. Take, for example, the complaint of the citizens of Chelm that only rich people got to sit next to the prestigious East wall of the synagogue. The elders of the community contemplated the complaint, and reached a judgment. “Henceforward,” they proclaimed, “all walls of the synagogue will be designated East walls. In addition, if there are members of the synagogue who want to pay extra to sit next to what was formerly recognized as the West wall, that is their right.”

There’s dark humor and light humor. And, of course, medium humor.

Dark: He is lying on his death bed, attended by his son. He says, “I can smell that your mother is making chopped liver. Get me a cracker with chopped liver.” The son exits to fulfill his father’s request, then returns and says “Mom says she is saving it for the shiva.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.