What is a Jewish Story?

Is there anything special about Jewish stories? Perhaps they are just like the stories of other cultural traditions. But if there is a difference, what is it that makes a story distinctively Jewish?

I thought I would explore this original question – until I discovered that it wasn’t so original, that others had already asked the question and given thoughtful answers, writing about unique aspects of Jewish folktales, jokes, and humor.

Henry Eilbert wrote that a joke is Jewish if it “stems from the conditions of Jewish life or from the experience of the Jewish people, … depend[s] on the use of a Jewish language … [or] show[s] real or supposed Jewish characteristics or stereotypes.”

According to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, a Jewish joke “must express a Jewish sensibility … concerning precisely those subjects and values that receive disproportionate attention among Jews. Antisemitism … professional success … verbal combativeness and aggression … assimilation … logic and argumentation … family relationships …”

A Jewish folktale is depicted by Nathan Ausubel as “philosophical and subtle, pious and moralistic, witty and ironic … ethical, pointing a lesson of right conduct, ceaselessly instructing, often even when it is being entertaining or humorous. … The most precious quality in them is their agitation over the eternal mysteries of the human soul.”

Dov Noy’s analysis showed that a Jewish folktale involves four main elements: a Jewish time (a holiday or life cycle event), a Jewish place (such as a synagogue or the Land of Israel), Jewish characters (a rabbi, a person from Jewish history, etc.), and a Jewish message (an ethical teaching, the listener’s duty to God, family, and community).

As seen by William Novak and Moshe Waldoks, Jewish humor “is substantive … can be sarcastic, complaining, resigned, or descriptive … tends to be anti-authoritarian … has a critical edge which creates discomfort in making its point … [and] mocks everyone – including God.”

Here is one more, a brief definition I find particularly appealing.

A distinctively Jewish story is one that a non-Jew wouldn’t understand, and a Jewish person has already heard.

So what do you think makes a Jewish story? Have I just told one?


Henry Eilbert, What is a Jewish Joke: An Excursion into Jewish Humor. Jason Aaronson, 1981, pp. 59-61.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Humor: What the Best Jewish Jokes Say About the Jews. William Morrow, 1992, pp. 16-17.

Nathan Ausubel, Editor, A Treasury of Jewish Folklore: Stories, Traditions, Legends, Humor, Wisdom and Folk Songs of the Jewish People. Crown, 1948, pp. xx-xxi.

Dov Noy, “Forward: What is Jewish about the Jewish Folktale.” In, Howard Schwartz, Miriam’s Tambourine: Jewish Folktales from Around the World. Oxford University Press, 1988, pp. xv-xviii.

William Novak and Moshe Waldoks, Editors, The Big Book of Jewish Humor, Harper Perennial, 1981, pp. xx-xxii.

Additional Resources

Defining “Jewish Writing” by Erika Dreifus

Is There Such a Thing as Jewish Fiction? by Moment Magazine Staff

A Question of Reading: Nu, What Makes Jewish Literature so Jewish, Anyway? by Rachel Barenblat

Are You a Jewish Storyteller? by Jennifer Rudick Zunikoff

About the Author
With personal, historical, and fantastical stories, Sandor (Sandy) Schuman has captivated and moved audiences at storytelling festivals, professional conferences, interfaith events, and synagogues. In his recent book, "Adirondack Mendel's Aufruf," the stories of Chelm meet the tall tales of the Adirondacks. Sandy’s new storytelling program is called "My Father was a Storyteller."