Who is the best Jewish comedian of all time? My vote goes to Kohelet, author of the biblical book of that name (a.k.a. Ecclesiastes), which is read on the intermediate Shabbat of Sukkot. While little in the book would qualify as LOL funny (and the author himself equates laughter with madness), the use of irony and wordplay, the in-your-face skepticism and not-so-subtle subversiveness expose the absurdity of life and presage some of the best Jewish comics of the modern era.
Take Henny Youngman’s classic “Take my wife, please.” He must have read Kohelet 7:26:
And I find more bitter than death the woman, whose heart is snares and nets, and her hands as bands; whoso pleases God shall escape from her; but the sinner shall be taken by her.
The constant refrain of Kohelet, that life is a “vanity of vanities” is echoed in Jerry Seinfeld’s “show about nothing.” Life is pointless. So we might as well get some laughs. Or as Seinfeld himself said, “Everybody is looking for good sex, good food, and a good laugh because they are little islands of relief in what’s often a very painful existence.”
You can find Kohelet in Mel Brooks, Philip Roth or even the lyrics of “Fiddler on the Roof,” (“Sunrise, Sunset,” chapter 1:5) but Ecclesiastes reads best alongside the works of Woody Allen. Many have discussed how the more serious films of the mature Allen reflect the absurdities of the book (“Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “Midnight in Paris” come to mind), but we can go back to the early Allen, his Catskills shtick, to find the most direct parallels.
Check out these pairs of quotes, taken from the biblical book and the Woodman.
A) A good name is better than precious oil (Kohelet 7:1)
B) My only regret in life is that I wasn’t born someone else.
A) Two are better than one (4:9)
B) To love is to suffer. To avoid suffering one must not love. But then one suffers from not loving. Therefore to love is to suffer. Not to love is to suffer. To suffer is to suffer. To be happy is to love. To be happy, then, is to suffer. But suffering makes one unhappy. Therefore to be unhappy one must love, or love to suffer, or suffer from too much happiness (from “Love and Death”)
A) A lover of money never has his fill of money. This too is futile (5:9)
B) Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons.
A) Sow your seed in the morning, and don’t hold back your hand in the evening, since you don’t know which is going to succeed. (11:8)
B) Whosoever shall not fall by the sword or by famine, shall fall by pestilence so why bother shaving?
A) Cast your bread upon the waters: you shall find it after many days. (11:1)
B) Why does man kill? He kills for food. And not only food: frequently there must be a beverage.
On the unchanging nature of life:
A) All rivers run into the sea, but the sea is never full (1:7)
B) The lion and the calf shall lie down together but the calf won’t get much sleep. (Without Feathers)
A) Appreciate your vigor in the days of your youth (11:10)
B) Most of the time I don’t have much fun. The rest of the time I don’t have any fun at all.
On the cycles of time:
A) A season is set for everything; a time for every experience under heaven (3:1)
B) Why are our days numbered and not, say, lettered?
On foolish speculation:
A) The beginning of a fool’s talk is foolishness, and the end of his talk is mischievous madness. (11:6)
B) What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists? In that case, I definitely overpaid for my carpet.
A) All is futility! (1:2)
B) Not only is there no God, but try finding a plumber on Sunday.
A) It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart (7:2)
B) I’m very proud of my gold pocket watch. My grandfather, on his deathbed, sold it to me.
A) Don’t overdo goodness…but don’t overdo wickedness and be a fool (7:17)
B) A man goes to a psychiatrist and says, ‘Doc, my brother’s crazy, he thinks he’s a chicken.’ The doctor says, ‘Why don’t you turn him in?’ The guy says, ‘We would. But we need the eggs.’
A) When a crime is not punished quickly, people feel it is safe to do wrong (8:1)
B) He emerged from the hotel and walked up Eight Avenue. Two men were mugging an elderly lady. My God, thought Weinstein, time was when one person could handle that job.
C) Be not overeager to go to the house of God: more acceptable is obedience than the offerings of fools. (4:17)
D) If only God would give me some clear sign! Like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss bank.
On possessions and paranting:
A) Naked he came out of his mother’s womb and naked he will depart (5:14)
B) I don’t think my parents liked me. They put a live teddy bear in my crib.
A) For as wisdom grows, vexation grows; to increase learning is to increase heartbreak (1:18)
B) More than any time in history mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray that we have the wisdom to choose correctly.
A) Don’t pay attention to everything that is said, so that you may not hear your slave reviling you (7:22)
B) What a world. It could be so wonderful if it wasn’t for certain people.
Kohelet would have loved this Woody Allen version of a Hasidic story:
Rabbi Raditz of Poland was a very short rabbi with a long beard, who was said to have inspired many pogroms with his sense of humor. One of his disciples asked, “Who did God like better, Moses or Abraham?”
“Abraham,” the Zaddik said.
“But Moses led the Israelites to the Promised Land,” said the disciple.
“All right, so Moses,” the Zaddik answered.
After all, it was Kohelet who advised “Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise,” knowing that a little humility can go a long way, especially regarding what we know and what we think we know.
When it comes to Jews and our home-grown sense of absurdity, there is nothing new under the sun.