Soon after N and I moved from Tel Aviv to New York, a friend invited us to a comedy club. So we shlepped uptown to Washington Heights and settled ourselves near the back of the room, in the hopes that we would be less likely to be picked on.
Four comedians performed that night, and three of them were Jewish. I recognised one of them the moment we stepped into the room — a middle aged man with a familiar face that I couldn’t quite place, He’s Either Famous Or I’ve Seen Him At Kiddush Somewhere, I explained to my husband. The man turned out to be AJ Jacobs, journalist and author. Having read his The Year of Living Biblically numerous times, I felt I had to approach him after the performance to state that I Am A Big Fan. He was intrigued to know if we actually had met each other at a kiddush somewhere, but after some discussion, it turned out we hadn’t crossed paths.
I discovered the other two comedians were of the faith during their performances, when they dropped Jewish joke after Jewish joke. The first time it happened, my companions and I shot each other that sly We Get It Because We Too Are Chosen smirk, with the subtle camaraderie that is common in British Jewish circles. The second time, we smirked, then looked around the rest of the room, saw everyone laughing, and were puzzled. As the evening ended, I couldn’t wait to get out and discuss this strange occurrence in depth.
Why Was Everyone Laughing? We mused. We simply did not understand.
In Britain, being Jewish is a much quieter affair. On the rare occassions our Judaism is paraded in a public setting, such as the recent protests against anti-Semitism in the Labour party, we Jews stick tightly together and try our hardest to break the British barriers of behaviour that conflict with the nature of public protest — we shout our slogans, a little hesitantly, sorry for any inconvenience it may be causing; we cheer our hardest — well, almost, it comes out a little squeaky, as if our throats are filled with dust due to years of neglect; we sing Am Yisrael Hai – one round is sufficient.
We do love a Jewish joke. My own ninety-year-old grandmother is infamous for doing the rounds at the kiddush telling her latest dirty ditty. Her path is clearly visible by the eruptions of laughter she leaves trailing in her wake. But Jewish jokes are intended solely for Jews – as is Yiddish slang, challah, and Bartenura wine — god help us.
My high school wasn’t Jewish but many of my classmates were. Our gentile peers were invited to our Bar/Bat Mitzvahs – they even came into my succah, and I made a pretty penny selling Bisili and Bamba to them. But they did not tell Jewish jokes, no matter how many we told, no matter how filthy they were, how much we laughed — any attempts to do the same would immediately be met with stony faces, and if they were ballsy enough to mention the Holocaust, well! They would be shunned for weeks.
My night at the comedy club demonstrated that in New York, Jewish comedy is public property. Intent on learning more, I turned to Professor Jeremy Dauber’s Jewish Comedy: A Serious History, which explores the history Jewish comedy in America. Among other theories, he connects modern Jewish humour (20th century onwards), to American anti-Semitism; Jews were prevented from joining high status professional fields, so they turned “inferior” occupations, such as popular entertainment — vaudeville, nightclubs, radio, then television.
Many would argue that this sparked the start of stand-up, which was at the very least honed in upstate New York’s summer resorts, aka the Bournemouth of the East Coast, known as the ‘Borscht Belt,’ which hosted flocks of Jews from the 1920s-70s. The stats also help explain the extent of Jewish cultural impact — as of 2017, Jews account for 2.2% of the US adult population, while British Jewry makes up 0.5% of the population. The bigger the number, the stronger the voice, it seems.
In Britain, however, things have begun to change. 2014 brought the first Jewish Comedy Festival to the UK, which set out to rectify the lack of representation — “we’ve been scared of our own shadow,” commented Raymond Simpson, who runs the JW3 centre which has hosted the festival for the past four years.
Whilst the Comedy Festival is a significant stride forward, I’m not hedging my bets on British Jewry’s ability to permeate general society with Jewish culture. For better or worse, the community lacks the go-getter confidence that is ingrained within the American character. Before I arrived in New York, I would have certainly viewed this as “better,” dismissing Americans as brash, but there is a comfort, and sense of flattery, that comes with the ability to bask in the cultural influence of my ancestors out in the open.