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    Jewish humour is no laughing matter

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple appeared in The Jerusalem Report on 6 February 2023.

    Jewish humour is no laughing matter – even though the Bible says that He who sits in Heaven laughs (Psalm 2:4). Many Biblical stories tell of people poking fun at others. Miriam mocks Moses’ wife for being coloured; Miriam herself now becomes whiter than white (Num. 12). In the Book of Ruth, the obstinate wife is called Ruth (meek) and the meek one is Orpah (obstinate). When Baal fails to send fire on Mount Carmel, Elijah suggests that he is in the sherutim or out for a walk (I Kings 18).

    In my family the leading jokester is myself. Daddy Jokes are famous amongst my children and grandchildren – but not my great-grandchildren. Daddy Jokes are in English and are no use to those who only know Hebrew. A good Daddy Joke sets me laughing uncontrollably; maybe my laughter is funnier than my jokes, and the Hebrew-speaking great-grandchildren still wonder what’s with Saba Rabba.

    My grandchildren sometimes say, “Saba, I have a joke for you!” They start off in Saba-friendly slow Hebrew but then they increase the pace and wonder why all they get from me is a sardonic smile (not that they know the word “sardonic” nor do I know how to say it in Hebrew). Zeevy is good with jokes in both languages, for example about the 54 bus (you wait 50 minutes and then four buses arrive together!)

    Kohelet says there is a time for laughter (Eccl. 3:4). In my years in Sydney that time was the preserve of the little group of early-birds at the Great Synagogue Shabbat service. There was an established procedure. Each week, Phil Rothman would greet us all with “Welcome to Australia!” This specially appealed to Mr Chile, the former president of the Chilean Jewish Community. Jack Freedman would have a joke (often in Yiddish) about the incumbent prime minister. If I turned up without a joke of my own they wondered what I had been doing all week. When it was time to start the service, Selwyn Jones would announce, “A Yiddish vort! A Yiddish vort!” The latecomers had no idea of the pre-service human comedy!

    In Israel my usual shule is Bet Yosef in Jerusalem where a fellow-member gives me Hebrew or Yiddish jokes (often about Bibi and Lapid) before Shacharit. These days when we daven in a local carpark we haven’t yet worked out a pre-service comedy routine.

    Are we talking about Jewish humour… or general humour clothed in Jewish/Hebrew/Israeli idioms?

    As far as I am concerned, what makes humour Jewish is that its content could only happen amongst Jews. It has a Jewish setting, a Jewish set of idioms and experiences. Its components are a peculiarly Jewish amalgam of, for example, Yom Kippur, Seder night, Torah teachers and kosher food; the shadchan, who is not just a matchmaker; the mohel, who is not just a surgeon; the rav, who is not just a clergyman. Interestingly, there is no smut in Jewish humour, though some Jews are grob.

    “What is Jewish humour?” was addressed and analysed by Dr Elizabeth Eppler for Jewish Book Week in London in 1967. She thought that the Jewish joke was really a creation of the ghetto and was “an expression of the nostalgia that Jews in a free society feel for the bitter-sweet, warm and generous atmosphere of the ghettoes”.

    She can’t be right. There must have been Jewish humour before or outside the ghetto. I know that Israel Abrahams has a section on Purimspiels in his “Jewish Life in the Middle Ages”, but I’m not certain he writes about humour in the wider sense.

    There is an analysis by Dr Meir Gertner called “Tales of Tears and Smiles”. He looks at four humorous tales, “Benjamin’s Travels” (by Mendele Mocher Sefarim), “Tevye the Milkman” (Sholem Aleikhem), “Mesubbin” (Shai Agnon) and “Berl Make Tea” (Chaim Bermant). Each story has an Eretz-Yisra’el motif, which suggests that it is not just nostalgia for the ghetto but messianic hope that informs Jewish humour.

    Sigmund Freud said that Jewish humour does two things – it makes us laugh, though it is not slapstick; it serves our ideological interest, which begins with the interplay of the Jew and his Jewishness and proceeds to the Jewish relationship with the goyim. Humour inverts the underdog and what we might call the overdog. The latter thinks he is on top and finds it laughable (and right) to see the discomfiture of the supposed Chosen People. Nonetheless the Jew has an inner power to rise above and laugh at his situation.

    Natan Sharansky says that in freedom, humour is a luxury; in prison it is a weapon. Regardless of the jailer, the Jewish sense of humour grants the Jew the victory.

    Jewish humour has moved on from the issues of social adaptation – the immigrant becoming American, the Jew facing the antisemite. In Israel the humour pokes fun at the prime minister, the post office, the bus drivers and the banks, and of course the neighbours and the matzav (the situation). But is this Jewish or Israeli humour?

    All over the Jewish world, stereotypes somehow become oddities, and even those who exemplify them laugh at themselves. There is the ger (convert) who forgets to daven Minchah and rebukes himself, “Oy – my goyishe kop!” There is the former Seventh Day Adventist who is seen working on Saturday and he explains, “This week I was converted to Judaism, so now I can work on Shabbat!”

    When Jews think another Jew has become too froom they find it highly amusing… as they do when they think he has become too un-froom. When a Jew becomes obsessed with money and ostentation he laughs at himself for being grob (coarse) and a gevir (a tycoon). When synagogues become rowdy and untidy, a Jew thinks that even God finds it funny. I’m sorry for God, having to put up with a difficult people like us. He laughs because otherwise He would have to cry.

    If a gentile tells a Jewish joke we feel affronted. Jewish jokes have to be told by Jews, preferably to fellow Jews (outsiders are unlikely to understand).

    There was a time when a Jew tried to overcome antisemitism by changing his name from Israel to Irving. Someone suggested that anti-Zionist prejudice could likewise be overcome by changing the name of our country from Israel to Irving!

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