Staying at the Head of the (Humor) Class
By SANFORD PINSKER
The Hebrew Bible, that repository of stories about the full
range of human behavior--from the cowardly to the courageous, the noble and the
base--includes its share of humor. To get some appreciation of the humor
dotting its way through the Hebrew Bible, think of how it differs sharply the
As a character from a Bernard Malamud
story once put it, "Jesus is a humorless guy." If the stories in the
Hebrew Bible are about people, complete with a capacity for laughter, the
"greatest story ever told" is about a demi-God. No irony, no
ambivalence, and certainly no jokes need apply.
By contrast, the Jewish humor we recognize instantly happens when a wag is told
that we are the Chosen People and who wonders--out loud and after morning
prayers--if, perhaps next time, God might choose somebody else. Between
rabbinic solemnity and life's grittier edges lies Sholem
Aleichem's Tevye, a man who confides that "with God's help I
starved three times a day."
Humor of Oppression
Saul Bellow once pointed out that "oppressed people tend to be
witty." True enough--for the Irish, for blacks in America, and most
certainly for the Jews. Humor is what the powerless have, and what they rely
on. If Jewish humor is often a shield meant to deflect Gentile fists, it can
also be a weapon wielded from an oblique angle. But whether it be shield,
weapon, or some combination of the two (a shweapon?) humor has been an
essential ingredient in Jewish survival.
From the destruction of the Temple onward, Jewish humor has often been
described as "bittersweet," a laughter filtered through tears. It
produced a lively retinue of comic types--the residents of Chelm, the city of
fools of Yiddish folktales, the schnorrer (beggar), the nudnick
(pest), and my special favorite, the schlemiel,
a character who is the architect of his misfortune and as such, easily
transported to America. He shows up in everything from Charlie Chaplin's
poignantly loveable little tramp to Woody Allen's neurotic Upper-West-Side New
If 19th-century American humor was dominated by ring-tailed roarers who boasted
that they have the fastest horse, the prettiest sister, and the truest rifle in
all of Kentuck'--and furthermore, that they can beat up any man in the house--20th-century
humor was filled to the brim with people who insisted that they were smaller,
weaker, and more sensitive than anybody in the living room.
Granted, there are wide streaks of comic self-abnegation in James Thurber's
Walter Mitty and Charles Schultz's Charlie Brown, but taken as a whole, the
humor that washed up on American shores along with the waves of Jewish
immigrants soon became American humor. Jewish comics simply had a better feel
for shtick, for the highly verbal, machine-gun delivery known as
spritz--one thinks of Sid Caesar, Lenny Bruce, Don Rickles--and perhaps most of
all, for seeing the world through the perspective of an outsider.
The eventual dominance of Jewish humor did not come easily or without cost. On
the rough-and-tumble vaudeville stage, ethnic types (stage blacks, Irishmen,
and Jews) told self-hating jokes to make a simple point--namely, that, in
America, there was no room for shuffling darkies, drunken Irishmen, or kikey
Jews. As the metaphor of the melting pot would have it, ethnicity should be
willingly sacrificed on behalf of becoming a true-blue American. For Jews this
meant, among other things, shedding their Yiddish accents.
Entertainers were a notable exception, as Yiddish soon became Hollywood's lingua franca and the flavoring, however
it may have been diluted, that one recognizes in comics from Myron Cohen to
Jackie Mason. A Yiddish accent and, even more important, the very rhythm of
their speech patterns marked them as Jews, despite the fact that the words tumbling
out of their mouths were English.
Can Assimilated Jews Be Funny?
As the 20th century neared its end, the mines of Borsht Belt, that
veritable breeding ground for Jewish-American comics, reached a point of
exhaustion. Most Jewish Americans could not remember hearing Yiddish spoken
around the house either by a grandfather or an uncle. Nobody shouted "Kim bald heim" when it was time to
come home for dinner or whispered "Sha…
sha" when you were making too much racket.
The world in which activities were sharply divided into the encouraged
(studying, eating your vegetables, and being "nice") and the
forbidden (climbing trees, playing baseball, and running around like a vilde chaiye, a wild animal) has long
ago been replaced by young Jewish adults who play tennis at the country club,
go on Colorado ski trips, and think of their tanned athletic bodies without
What could Jewish humor of the old-fashioned sort mean to people who have
become so comfortable in America that it is hard for them to remember a time,
an ethos, when a Jew's joy was immediately followed by trembling? Which brings
me, at long last, to the point of my title: Will assimilation's successes be
the death knell for Jewish-American humor? I think not.
Why so? Because I count myself among those who feel we are enjoined to
"Choose life," I've long turned down invitations to any number of
burials--for the American novel during the late l960s, the formalist poem a
decade later, and for literature itself during the theory-mad l980s. I suspect
that the coffin of Jewish-American humor will be equally empty.
True enough, 20- and 30-somethings will want a hipper, edgier Jewish-American
humor (how could they not?), and they are finding it in things like Adam
Sandler's "Hanukkah Song"--a
send-up of "I have a little dreidl" Hanukkah ditties as well as a
frank, unembarrassed look at what assimilation means in terms of half- and
three-quarter Jewish Americans--and in Jon Stewart's The Daily Show, a savagely satiric, and I would argue, outsider's view of American politics.
In addition, the comix-as-art crowd have a Jewish-American champion in Ben
Katchor. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Katchor grew up in a Yiddish-speaking
home and this fact flavors such long-running strips as The Jew of New York and Julius
Knipl, Real Estate Photographer. Those "in the know" know that a
"knipl" is money put aside for a rainy day, which in the case
of Katchor's real estate photographer is part of the joke about his history of
economic reversals. He is yet another form that the schlemiel can take, just as
HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm makes it
clear, week after week, that an annoyingly funny millionaire curmudgeon can
also be a schlemiel.
Three Glimpses of the Future
I conclude with three Jewish-American fictionists: Jonathan Safran Foer, Gerald
Shapiro, and, Steve Stern. There are, of course, dozens of other writers who
have livened up contemporary Jewish-American fiction; moreover, what I say
about the ones I've chosen is limited to the prospects for Jewish-American
humor in this century.
I begin, then, with Jonathan Safran Foer's ambitious first novel, Everything is Illuminated, a work in
which dialect humor happens not from its Jewish protagonist but from his
Ukrainian guide. The fractured English is hilarious in its own right but also
part of the sheer excess at the heart of the various "histories"
Safran Foer learns about.
By all the laws of literary logic Gerald Shapiro's three collections of short
fiction should not exist. Writing about delis and Jewish guilt is not only
quixotic but downright doomed. Still, Shapiro brushes off the old, by-now-stale
material and makes it sing. As Kafka, and later Philip Roth, knew full well, Jewish
guilt is funny.
Here is how one of Shapiro's protagonists describes his conflicted feelings
when visiting day at camp was over and his father drove out of sight: "as
Ira watched his father disappear into the dust of the gravel road, he felt free
again, as if he'd just been pulled out of a lake full of glue… until the guilt
started nibbling away at his innards again, a sensation that made him imagine
that some angry little carnivore that was trapped inside his stomach was eating
its way out."
Steve Stern combines many of the threads I've been talking about in The Wedding Jester, a story set in a
crumbling Catskill hotel where an old comic turns up as a dybbuk (demon) who takes over the body of the bride. Moldy jokes,
many of them x-rated, pour out of the bride's mouth, and one of the book's
wonders (there are many) is that the jokes are funnier than they probably
Many have argued that humor is the major export of the Jews. With a few
caveats, this is probably true, just as it is certainly true that
Jewish-American humor will not only continue but also find new ways to thrive.
Smart-alecky Jewish kids, full of moxie, used to make their way to vaudeville
stages where they sang, danced, and often got a shpritz of seltzer vasser up their
pants. Nowadays, bright, restless kids create websites and put together shows
(imagine a kosher Wayne's World) for
public-access TV. No doubt lots of this is self-indulgent junk, but thus was it
ever. As the Curies discovered, it takes sifting through a mountain of
pitchblende to find an ounce of uranium. With Jewish-American humor, then and
now, it's pretty much the same thing.
Some people disagree with Pinsker, arguing that Jewish humor will ultimately
die. What do you think? >>