It’s becoming somewhat tiresome, frankly, to be confronted on a nearly daily basis with concerns over antisemitism and theories on how best to confront the problem. Nothing, unfortunately, comes out of these discourses, which, for the most part, concentrate on the “usual suspects” and say, more or less, the same. Perhaps it’s time to change direction and look elsewhere for both the triggers that nurture the growth of this international malady and the secret to diffusing it.
Some time ago I stumbled upon a review of an anthology of Jewish American humor. Such anthologies are by no means rare; I have, in fact, two or three such collections of Jewish wit and wisdom in my home library. This one, though, was somewhat different. It was compiled by an ivy league professor of sociology who structured the book to parallel the social development and experience of Jews in the United States through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It sounded interesting and although I promised myself to acquire a copy of the anthology, regrettably, I never did. I do recall, however, some of the samples of humor that the reviewer provided. In particular (with some personal enhancements):
The lone survivors of a terrible storm at sea – an Englishman, a German, a Russian and a Jew – find themselves marooned on a deserted island. The meager provisions that they were able to salvage did not last very long and they very quickly began to suffer from hunger, and in particular, thirst.
“Blimey,” croaked the Englishman. “This thirst is driving me mad. What I wouldn’t give for a cuppa right now.”
“Verdammt,” agreed the German. “You have no idea how terribly I am suffering from thirst. Surely there must be somewhere I can get a cold beer.”
“Vot eta da,” the Russian nods. “I cannot stand this thirst. Vodka, I must have a bottle of vodka.”
And, finally, the Jewish survivor, too, expresses his grievance. ”Gevald, you can’t believe how toisty I am.” And, then, in a shaky, nervous voice adds, “Oy vey ist mir…I must have diabetes.”
That mode of humor – which features the insecure, Jewish neurotic stereotype – has been the foundation of iconic comics such as Woody Allen through most of the twentieth century. Indeed, the pathetic nebbish has been the punchline in countless jokes and sketches that made audiences – both Jewish and non-Jewish – roar with laughter in Borscht Belt hotels, Las Vegas nightclubs and late-night television talk show studios. Looking back, though, with the clarity from a more realistic twenty-first century prism, the time has come to wonder if allowing ourselves to be cast in such a self-deprecating manner was, as the metaphorical question goes, good for the Jews or bad for the Jews.
Historians make a case, quite convincingly, that Jews have made use of humor as a means of self-defense against the bigotry and hatred that they were forced to endure throughout the medieval and renaissance periods. These arguments, over the decades. received support from psychologists and sociologist whose research has determined that humor has been proven to provide effective protection against aggression and hostility. At the same time, however, it is not all inconceivable to think this humor works in the other direction as well, and may very well be one of the contributing factors to the ongoing plague of antisemitism that consumes so much of our attention and thought. After all, if we have no problem providing, as caricature of course, financial frugality, sexual repression and social isolation as Jewish foibles in order to generate a laugh or two, why should non-Jews have any problem doing the same. And building on them.
“Jewish humor” has been around in one form or another since the time of the Midrash, and has been incorporated into the plots of both fiction and drama for at least the last two centuries. There was, it seems, muted protests to this creative bigoty from the Jewish communities, most likely out of fear of physical and legal retaliation, and so a policy of “grin and bear it” became the norm. What may have started out as something nasty but harmless evolved into the evil that is now, unfortunately, an inherent part of Jewish existence.
Non-Jews and antisemites are not, obviously, one and the same. Which is why non-Jewish comediennes of note – Bob Hope, Red Skeleton, Bill Cosby – kept Jewish-flavored humor out of their routines. It’s one thing for a Jew to make a joke about the religious deli owner who is audited by the Internal Revenue Service*; that same joke told by a Polish, African American or Hispanic comic would immediately elicit charges of antisemitism. Are we, as Jews, being overly sensitive when it comes to Jewish humor from non-Jewish channels? Maybe, but more importantly, is that sensitivity the driving force behind Ben & Jerry’s ugly reproach to the State of Israel or the vile behavior and attitudes of the others who vied for the position of 2021 Anti-Semite of the Year? Could very well be.
It’s imperative, I think, that the traditional motif of Jewish humor change from paranoia and hesitation into pride and courage. It would not be as funny or familiar as Alan King talking about how his uncle Yoel is always losing his false teeth, but it just might, in time, make anti-Semites think twice about expressing anti-Jewish sentiment, both verbally and physically.
The newly designed Museum of the Jewish People (formerly Museum of the Jewish Diaspora) has a section devoted to Jewish humor as it evolved through the twentieth century, with the prevalent themes ranging from clownish buffoonery to intellectual sophistication. The idea behind this section is sound; humor is, after all, part of Jewish culture and to pretend otherwise would be dishonest. The display, however, fails to elicit the pride in being Jewish. The same pride that is evident elsewhere in the museum – Jewish achievements in science, sport, literature, and the like – is not hanging on the walls of the humor section. And until it does, anti-Semites will have no reason to think twice before seeing us as viable, defenseless targets. After all, why should they think any better of us than we do our ourselves.
During an audit by the Internal Revenue Service, Shloimi, the owner of a kosher deli in Brooklyn, is doing his best to justify the business expenses he listed on his tax return. “I use only the best of everything,” he explained. ‘The meat, the vegetables, the oil, the spices…only the best and, as you can see from my receipts, the most expensive.”
The auditor smiled. I’m not questioning those purchases Mr. er, Shloimi. What I am curious about are these ten trips to Israel you listed as business expenses.”
“Oh, those,” replied Shloimi. “We also make deliveries.”