The People of The Joke

One morning, I found a seat in shul next to a friend who happens to be a dentist. On impulse (my pulse is 72 beats per minute; my impulse is about double that), I said, “I see you and I feel like singing!” (He’s my friend, not my dentist. So I wasn’t afraid to open my mouth.)

Then I started singing — to the tune of a 1950s Israeli folk song — “Tzeiner, tzeiner, tzeiner, tzeiner …

Without missing a beat, he came right back with, “The tooth, the whole tooth, and nothing but the tooth …”

Later, the thought hit me: We didn’t just jest; we jousted. (Say that fast, three times.) In Jewish joking, there’s no straight man!

If you’re not comically prone (or doubled over with laughter), the straight man is the guy in a comedy team who feeds the unfunny lines to the comedian — who delivers the punch lines. But Jews all deliver punch (or punched) lines — rarely straight lines!

An often-told joke from Poland is very telling:

“When you tell a peasant a joke, he laughs three times. Once when you tell it, once when you explain it, and once when he understands it.

“When you tell it to a porets (lord of the manor), he laughs twice; once when you tell it and once when you explain it. He’ll never understand it.

“When you tell it to an army officer, he laughs only once: when you tell it — because he won’t let you explain it. And he’ll never get it.”

What happens when you tell a joke to a Jew?

“He tells you he heard it already — and besides, you’re telling it wrong.”

Oxford English Dictionary defines joke: “Something said or done to excite laughter or amusement; a witticism, a jest; jesting, raillery; also, something that causes amusement, a ridiculous circumstance.”

But I find Jewish humor more illuminating than amusing. It lightens the darkness to help you see. We take humor very seriously.

South Africa’s Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein quotes Harav Samson Raphael Hirsch, zt”l, who points out the relation between tzachak — laughed — and tzaak — cried out in pain. The two would seem poles apart. But both the shock of pain and the punch line of a good joke depend upon the mechanism of an unexpected outcome.

Maybe one of the secrets of Jewish survival is transforming tzaak into tzachak.

This might help explain an enigmatic quote from the Chiddushei Harim: When Sarah gave birth to Yitzchak, she said, “G-d [Elokim] has made laughter for me; whoever hears will laugh for me.” The Chiddushei Harim comments, “If the joy has its source in Elokim, G-d’s attribute of unyielding Justice — not in the attribute of Mercy — then surely, everyone will laugh.”

The founder of psychoanalysis wrote a study on jokes. He focused on Jewish jokes, saying that we tend to recognize some of our own faults. But Jews “know their real faults as well as the connection between them and their good qualities.”

“Incidentally,” he added, “I do not know whether there are many other instances of a people making fun to such a degree of its own character.”

But Ruth Wisse, professor of Yiddish literature at Harvard, warned in No Joke that Jewish humor, like strong medicine, needs to be used with caution. Sometimes, it is a clear and present danger. In 1930s ­Russia, Isaac Babel joked that he had become a master at silence. But even his silence was silenced. He received what could be considered the highest honor for literature in the Soviet Union. For the crime of spreading ideas, Stalin had Babel executed.

Jewish humor is often called “laughter through tears.” It’s more than a defense mechanism, though. It’s closer to defiance or grit. It’s the positive side of being a “stiff-necked people.” Our backbone is a funny bone.

But it goes even deeper — or higher — than that. Elliott Oring, in an essay “The People of the Joke,” wrote about the “transcendent” nature of Jewish humor, going back to the ancient Rabbis and Sages.

He quoted folklorist Benjamin Rohatyn (Segel), who was disconsolate over the blood libel trials at the turn of the 19th century. How could Jews possibly find consolation? Then Rohatyn remembered our ancestors who overcame similar fates: “Their deep and firm faith had helped them — but also their indestructible and enduring joyfulness, their ability to laugh.”

It’s all in the attitude.

Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld, zt”l, waged a heroic battle against the illness that finally took him. In the hospital one night, he was writhing in pain. A student on watch by his bedside jumped up and said, “Rebbi, what can I do? … What can I get you?”

Reb Shlomo ripped off his ­oxygen mask, smiled, and said:

“Pastrami on club.”


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