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.
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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.
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Medium: Two elderly Jews are sitting on a park bench when a group of scantily clad females jogs past them. One says, “Remember when we used to chase after girls like that?” His friend: “Of course I do. I just can’t remember why.”

Light: “Oh, do I have for you a bargain.” “What’s the bargain?” “I can let you have a full-grown elephant for just two hundred dollars.” “Are you insane? I live in a fourth floor walk-up. What am I going to do with an elephant?” “Two hundred dollars, it’s a bargain.” “Bargain, shmargin, I have no room for and no use for an elephant. So the answer is ‘no’. “You are a tough customer. What if I sweeten the offer? Two elephants, just $300.” “Now you’re talking! Sold.”

And so forth, a virtually endless stream of jokes, some self-deprecating, some other-deprecating, all in all a coping mechanism of no small significance. Truth to tell, I am somewhat surprised than only 42% of us list a sense of humor as essential. My father used to complain that many of the jokes we tell do not hinge on the characters being Jewish, and he was right. But by making them Jewish we make them intimate, we lay personal claim to them. And some of them capture enduring truths.

I mean to say, intending no offense, that when you’ve remembered the Holocaust, then what? Sackcloth and ashes? But that is not our way. We rise the next morning, and maybe even rise up. We build a new home for our people, we search out new and then newer ways of doing Jewish. And yes, we work for justice and equality, we try to be gracious to the stranger, we search for meaning, we sing a song – and tell a joke.

Contact Leonard Fein at feedback@forward.com


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