The Origin of Jewish Humour

In a small village in Poland, a terrifying rumor was spreading: A Christian girl had been found murdered.

Fearing retaliation, the Jewish community gathered in the synagoguel to plan whatever defensive actions were possible under the circumstances.

Just as the emergency meeting was being called to order, in ran the president of the synagogue, out of breath and all excited. “Friends,” he cried out, “I have wonderful news! The murdered girl is Jewish!”

People often ask me where my humour came from. The proper question is what is the origin of Jewish humour? There is considerable debate on this subject but what does emerge is that Jewish humor as a distinctive cultural phenomenon bloomed in 19th century Eastern Europe. There, in the marketplace, the synagogue, and in the home, the Jewish joke developed into its own recognizable species. The shtetl (village) became home for the new Jewish-humor folk tradition. Enriching this street humor were new Jewish texts. Jewish writers — including Mendele Mokher Seforim, Sholem Aleichem and I.L. Peretz, — mined the bittersweet grumbling of the Jewish ethos and produced lasting classics of Jewish humour, which in turn fed the comic banter of Jewish daily exchange.

What was the genesis of this humorous? It’s all or about coping: Jews were miserable, and laughter kept them going. Living in those shetls, Jews were always a minority and even when not actually under threat from their gentile neighbours, that fear was always around. Their jokes were most often self-deprecating. They targeted themselves, their dire circumstances, and even their own religious leaders.

Jew: Rabbi, why is not acceptable to dance with my wife?

Rabbi: Dancing with the opposite sex is not considered modest.

Jew: But it’s alright to have sexual relations with my wife?

Rabbi: Yes, of course.

Jew: And what if she wants to be on top?

Rabbi: That would be permitted.

Jew: What about from behind?

Rabbi: That’s no problem.

Jew: And if we were both standing?

Rabbi: That is forbidden. It’s too much like dancing.

Self-deprecating Jewish humour is not to confused with Jewish jokes which are often meant to be demeaning and anti-Semetic. As is the case with other minority groups, it’s fine to poke fun of yourselves but not of others.  

The destruction of Eastern European Jewry in the Holocaust did not bring an end to the comic Jewish spirit, but it did change both its content and style. In pre-war European Jewry, humour was predominantly an internal affair — the Jewish joke was an inside joke. The comic lines were in Yiddish, the religious allusions were familiar to all, the fears and frustrations shared across classes, and the context of the storyline shared histories. Jokes about the Holocaust were considered taboo by many Jews. It’s likely the last frontier of Jewish humour. In a humour writing course that I took several years ago, we were asked to write a short story the incorporated dark humour. I did a story that took place in a concentration camp. I was the only Jew in the class and the other people were in shock. I will share that piece in a future blog post.

Two Holocaust survivors are sharing some jokes about life in the concentration camp when God appears.

God: How can you make jokes about such a horrible event.

One of the survivors: How would you know? You weren’t there.

Then came the 20th century, where the story of American Jewish humour since World War II is largely the story the American humour since World War II. As Jews increasingly entered the American mainstream, they were not telling “insider jokes” but shaping the sense of humour of an entire country, depicting America to America.

In the early part of this Jewish humour explosion, Yiddish was part of the repertoire, but this faded along with the European memories. The mid-20th century Borsht Belt shtick–acts that thrived in New York’s Catskills region, where Jews flocked for vacations–thrived on shared immigrant histories and traditions. But by century’s end many of these Jewish references were wearing thin. The majority of American Jews are now more comfortable eating sushi than gefilte fish. Jews are not outsiders, they generally don’t cope daily with anti-Semitism, and the average Jew is not poor.

Will the Jewish humour survive assimilation? Will the old Jewish comic themes–biting social commentary discomfiting satire, the undermining of the high and mighty, arguments with everyone, including God, – continue to drive the Jewish jest? Who know?

A 40ish Jewish couple have two girls and badly want to have a son. The wife finally gets pregnant again and it’s a boy. The husband rushes to the hospital to see his new son.

Husband: Our son is so ugly, but the girls are beautiful. I feel cheated.

Wife: No, that was the first two times.

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