Whenever I think about Jewish humor, I keep going back to the old “Yadda Yadda” episode of Seinfeld — not for its famous catch phrase, but for Jerry’s outrage over a recent convert to Judaism who won’t stop telling Jewish jokes.
“I wanted to talk to you about Dr. Whatley,” Jerry complains to a priest. “I have a suspicion that he’s converted to Judaism just for the jokes.”
The idea may not be as farfetched as it seems. When Pew asked Jews, “What does it mean to be Jewish?,” 43 percent said “having a good sense of humor.” That’s more than those who answered “being part of a Jewish community” and “observing Jewish law.”
Forget synagogue or Torah: We’ve become the People of the Joke.
And perhaps Jewish humor is a religion (or at least a denomination). It has fundamental texts. It has a clergy of men and women who stand before audiences and sermonize. It has a liturgy, in the form of jokes we tell again and again in the hope, sometimes fulfilled, that someone will actually respond.
And a deity? An old article in National Lampoon declared that “Mel Brooks is God.” (“Blessed Art Thou, O Brooks Our God, Creator of the Comic Universe and the nectarine,” wrote Gerald Sussman.)
Of course, like kosher sushi and themed bar mitzvas, “Jewish humor” as we know it is a fairly recent historical phenomenon. Studies of Jewish jokes tend to trace them back to the mid-19th century, and scholars usually regard Yiddish — that 12th-century upstart — as a fountainhead of what we English-speakers consider “Jewish humor.”
But earlier than that? Jews weren’t doing a lot of laughing during the Dark Ages. As for the biblical and talmudic periods, wasn’t Alfred North Whitehead right when he said, “The total absence of humour from the Bible is one of the most singular things in all of literature”?
Or was he? Hershey H. Friedman, professor of business at Brooklyn College, has written, with Linda Weiser Friedman, a new book that claims to find hundreds of examples of humor in the Torah and rabbinic literature. According to God Laughed: Sources of Jewish Humor (Transaction), classical Jewish texts abound with “puns, wordplay, riddles, jokes, satire, lampoon, sarcasm, irony, wit, black humor, slapstick” — the list goes on.
The Friedmans not only assert that “God has a sense of humor,” but that the humor in Torah, Talmud, and midrash is as essential as any other rhetorical strategy in conveying how Judaism views “God, Satan, the afterlife, marriage, good and evil, death, and, even, laughter.”
For example, the Jewish penchant for arguing with God can be traced to what may be the Bible’s first joke: When the Israelites, just seven days after their triumphant exodus from Egypt, see Pharaoh’s army approaching, they complain to Moses, “Was there a lack of graves in Egypt, that you took us away to die in the wilderness?” (Exodus 14:11) That’s a good line, if you ask me.
The Friedmans combed the Talmud for examples of rabbis using irony or sarcasm to drive home a legal ruling or make a moralistic point. Heretics and apostates are often the butt of these anecdotes.
Don’t expect knee-slappers, however. Rather, you’re more likely to get bits like these, from Sanhedrin 39: A heretic tells Rabbi Gamliel that, unlike the Jews, he knows the number of stars in heaven. Gamliel responds, “How many teeth do you have?” When the heretic puts his hand to his mouth and starts counting, Gamliel snaps, “You don’t even know what is in your mouth. Do you know what is in Heaven?”
God Laughed also links ancient jokes with their more modern counterparts, suggesting the continuity between Babylon and the Borscht Belt. In Talmud, for example, some rabbis were known for their self-deprecating humor. Rabbi Yishmael b. Yosi joked about his considerable paunch, and Rabbi Yosef considered himself hot-tempered and “overly compassionate.” The sages would compete to declare which of them was the most humble.
Fast-forward a few centuries, and the Friedmans quote the famous joke about rabbinic humble-bragging that ends with the punch line, “Look who says he’s nothing.”
If you don’t know the joke, you can find it in the book’s helpful index of “mostly punch lines.” In fact, this may be funniest index I’ve ever read, with four pages of entries like these:
If I’m dead, why do I have to pee so bad?….8
If you had a brother, would he have loved noodles?….275
I’ll have some fruit. On a paper plate….52
I know only one of the jokes attached to these punch lines, and I’m laughing anyway.
The Friedmans are best at cataloguing the huge corpus of early Jewish humor, as opposed to answering the “What does it all mean” questions. But they make a strong case that the concerns, styles, rhythms, preoccupations, and values of the Torah and Talmud are buried deep in the words that still make us laugh as Jews, and that continue to bond us a people.
“Somehow,” they write, “we are connected to each other by some sort of secret handshake” — one, I would suggest, that has a joy buzzer hidden inside.
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If you haven’t had enough of Jewish humor — or of me — and you live in the New York area, starting Nov. 19 I will be teaching a three-part class called “The History of the Jews in Ten Jokes” at the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning at Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan. For more info, go to emanuelskirballnyc.org.