Jewish history is no laughing matter; it is painfully riddled with tragedy, trauma, and loss. Yet, despite the tragic periods that often define our heritage, the Jewish experience has been the subject of countless jokes.
As if by some peculiar case of cognitive dissonance, humor seems to be an integral part of our collective Jewish identity.
More than a third of American Jews consider “having a good sense of humor” to be an “essential part of what being Jewish means to them,” a 2020 Pew Research Center survey found. This is far from a recent phenomenon.
The emphasis on humor in Jewish tradition can be traced back to ancient times, with both the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud containing humorous references: Sarah is said to have laughed when it was revealed to her that she will bear a son in the future, whose name, Issac (יצחק), is derived from the Hebrew word for laughter (צחוק). Similarly, the Talmud contains many comical banters, especially in its narrative sections.
It was not until the 19th century, however, that Jewish humor became more well-defined. With the rise of Jewish writers and folklore stories about Jewish daily life, such as the tales of the hilariously silly inhabitants of Chelm, Jewish humor became part of the common vernacular in predominantly Jewish communities.
With the arrival of the 20th century, Jewish humor went mainstream in the United States. As comedians like Lenny Bruce, Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld, and Jon Stewart rose in popularity, Jewish humor became a fundamental part of American culture.
What is it about humor, then, that makes it such a central component of Jewish life?
“The foundation of Jewish humor is Jewish history,” according to Professor Arie Sover. As a persecuted group, Jewish people have historically found refuge in humor, using it as a “means of survival.”
Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis and the originator of a number of rather questionable theories about mothers, speculated that for Jewish people, humor serves as a defense mechanism. In his book Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Freud characterizes Jewish humor as uniquely self-deprecating, writing: “Incidentally, I do not know whether there are many other instances of people making fun to such a degree of their own character.”
“I believe this is an expression of power,” says Sover in reference to the Jewish people’s tendency to resort to self-deprecation in their comedy. “When you laugh at yourself, who can laugh at you?”
Indeed, the practice of humorous self-deprecation helps Jewish people fight prejudice in their social environment, but it is far from being exclusively a “Jewish” phenomenon.
According to a 2019 study, minority groups often use self-deprecating humor to ease intergroup interactions, subtly inquire about other people’s attitudes toward them, and subvert power dynamics
“When you’re a marginalized group, humor is such a major coping mechanism,” says comedian Judy Gold.
Jewish humor, however, is not just characteristically self-deprecating. It is also fundamentally anti-authoritarian, openly mocking those in positions of power.
The comedian and filmmaker Mel Brooks famously said: “Rhetoric does not get you anywhere, because Hitler and Mussolini are just as good at rhetoric. But if you can bring these people down with comedy, they stand no chance.”
In Jewish culture, humor is much more than mere entertainment. It is ultimately a psychological defense against prejudice and a means for social change.
I often joke that the human experience is, in a nutshell, a dramatic-comedy. It is a perpetual state of dualism—unbelievably funny in one moment and heartbreakingly sad in the next.
In life, like in Jewish culture, comedy and tragedy are closely intertwined. After all, we shed tears at weddings and funerals alike.
Inevitably, in our lifetime, we will face countless moments so frustrating and so confusing that we will be unsure whether to laugh or cry. Jewish tradition suggests we do both, preferably at the same time.
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