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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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.”

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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