Humor and Jewish Survival

Image: Mask with glasses, nose, and mustache. Photo by nito/shutterstock. Rights reserved.


Twice in the last week, someone near me has questioned the value of comedy as a tool for resistance in the current political situation. The first was my son, who argued that people are too busy laughing to take a constitutional crisis seriously. The second was a colleague, who questioned how much good the comics were really accomplishing.

This set me to thinking about Jewish humor and Jewish survival, two topics that I am convinced are closely linked.

According to William Novak and Moshe Waldoks in their introduction to The Big Book of Jewish Humor, Jewish humor tends to be mocking. As they write:

Jewish humor is usually substantive; it is about something. It is especially fond of certain specific topics, such as food (noshing is sacred), family, business, anti-Semitism, wealth and its absence, health, and survival. Jewish humor is also fascinated by the intricacies of the mind and by logic, and the short if elliptical path separating the rational from the absurd….

Jewish humor tends to be anti-authoritarian. It ridicules grandiosity and self-indulgence, exposes hypocrisy, and kicks pomposity in the pants. It is strongly democratic, stressing the dignity and worth of common folk. – Introduction, p xix

The Jewish Bible is full of humor. The late scholar J. William Whedbee examines six books of the Bible in The Bible and the Comic Vision. He argues that we cannot truly understand some stories in the text unless we appreciate the humor in each tale.

The king in the Book of Esther is a drunken fool. He staggers from one drinking party to another making a mess of things until he is rescued by the same Jews that his evil courtier, Haman, wishes to kill. Then, via the holiday of Purim, he became a convenient stand-in for every tyrant who followed him in persecuting the Jews.

Modern American Jewish humor has its roots in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, where much of life seemed hopeless and there was little way to fight back against the vast power of the Czar. Still it was possible to laugh at the man, despite his almost (almost!) godlike power, as these lines from Fiddler on the Roof remind us:

“Rabbi, may I ask you a question?”


“Is there a proper blessing… for the Czar?”

“A blessing for the Czar?  Of course!  May God bless and keep the Czar… far away from us!” – Fiddler on the Roof, book by Joseph Stein

Jews have been a stiff-necked people since the time of Moses, and one expression of those stiff necks is a propensity for making fun of the great and powerful. Whoever the oppressors, Pharaoh, the Czar, or one’s in-laws, one way to remember that they are not God is to laugh at them. As Mel Brooks says:

By using the medium of comedy, we can try to rob Hitler of his posthumous power and myths. – Interview in Der Spiegel, March 16, 2006

That is also why the great and the powerful hate humor directed at them: it cuts them down to size and undermines their power over us. Given the power arrayed against the Jewish people for much of our history, it’s a good thing we learned to laugh at tyrants.

Beyond tyrants, Jewish humor takes aim at tyranny: the tyranny of propriety, of hypocrisy, of all the unfairness in life. It can aim at money and political power:

Why is it that if you take advantage of a corporate tax break you’re a smart businessman, but if you take advantage of something so you don’t go hungry, you’re a moocher? – Jon Stewart

Or at our own vanities:

“I’ve had so much plastic surgery, when I die they will donate my body to Tupperware.” – Joan Rivers

Or even at death itself:

I intend to live forever, or die trying. – Groucho Marx

I don’t think that comedy can change the things that are wrong with the world. I have faith that it can focus our minds and insist that we pay attention:

The ‘what should be’ never did exist, but people keep trying to live up to it. There is no ‘what should be,’ there is only what is. – Lenny Bruce

Comedy at its best is courage: courage to face the things that are really, really hard, no matter how scary they may be.