One of my college students noted approvingly that I tell jokes all the time. He was pleased that I laugh a lot. I didn’t tell him most of my writing is comedic, too. I can’t help it. It’s part of my Jewish cultural heritage.
I saw the impact first hand while teaching a class on Jewish humor in Stetson University’s Continuing Education program. I taught it three times. The first class was composed of almost all Jews. They laughed from breakfast through bedtime. The next group was about filled with Jews. The Christian portion sat there quietly and watched me; the Jews in the group couldn’t stop laughing and telling jokes.
The third class was all Christian. On the first day of class, midway through my opening monologue, I endured what performers call “flop sweat.” That happens spontaneously when no one responds. They just didn’t get the jokes. In fact, they didn’t appreciate the humor at all.
Pity. Jewish humor has become an integral part of American humor, something worth recalling as we celebrate this country’s birthday.
The names of Jewish comedians who established what is now known as American humor could fill an encyclopedia: Jack Benny, George Burns, The Marx Brothers, The Three Stooges, Ed Wynn, Eddie Cantor, Don Rickles, Milton Berle, Gilda Radner, Gene Wilder, Jack E. Leonard, Mort Sahl, Joan Rivers, Billy Crystal, Myron Cohen, Danny Kaye, Adam Sandler, Jerry Lewis and so many more.
Probably without knowing the sources, they simply built on a centuries-old tradition born in the Bible and developed under the cruelest of circumstances.
To the surprise of many, the Bible is replete with humor. A sainted teenager in the Middle Ages used to berate Christians for telling jokes because, he pointed out correctly, there’s no humor in the New Testament. He was right. That’s not true with the Jewish sacred text.
The humor is often sardonic, even sarcastic. In Judges, for example, Ehud rescues the Jews from a Canaanite oppressor by stabbing a heavy-set king. The guards don’t respond despite the resulting smell, because, the text reads, they were used to the stench when the king used the toilet. That won’t get anyone rolling in the aisle, but raises a wry smile. So does Haman’s comeuppance versus Mordecai in the book of Esther. There are also puns, plays on words and much more.
By itself, that did not allow Jewish humor to blossom. Ghettoes were needed. Isolated in a Christian world, Jews were forced to live in small communities or walled sections of towns. There, powerless and impotent to fight back, they used the only weapon readily available – their wit.
They created the Polish joke – and entire city of Chelm populated by dimwits. They turned the spring holiday of Purim into a time for skits and parodies, all new to the entertainment world. They came up with the funny emcee, a role Berle perfected; the schnorrer, a man who tries to con everyone, like Phil Silvers; the schlemiel, the clumsy oaf, who invariably trips over the schmazzel. Think the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges. All of these concepts infused American culture in time.
Jewish humor traveled here on several currents. One, of course, was the massive wave of Russian immigration that started around the 1880s. Emma Lazarus’ famed poem on the Statue of Liberty – “Give me your huddles masses yearning to breathe free” – was originally written to encourage Russian Jews to leave the shtetls of Russia for the United States. (Note: I am not related to Emma.) The Russian Jews brought with them their finely honed humor. The Broadway show, Fiddler on the Roof, reflects some of those comedic ideas.
Another avenue was theater. Abraham Goldfarb, a Russian Jew, took advantage of a thaw in Russian anti-Semitic thinking in the mid-1800s to start a troupe of touring Jewish performers. Jacob Adler became the most famous of the actors. They moved eventually to England and then the United States, bringing their uncontrolled, ribald approach to the stage. In the midst of a play, such as Shakespeare’s King Lear, the cast might break into song or perform other hijinks.
The concept traveled well in this country. Singer Al Jolson, for example, became famous for continuing his performance after his allotted time and even inviting the audience to join him after the show. He would tell them, “You ain’t seen nothing yet” and ignore the pleas of other acts to stop. He was just following the pattern set by his Russian counterparts. The Marx Brothers adlibs did that, too.
Finally, the American theater had Jewish stock characters, the Hebe. Jews who saw the performers decided that if anyone was going to make fun of Jews, they were. Jewish comedians began to flock to the stage.
Over time, Jewish humor imbued American humor with a robust, nonconventional current. Their influence was so strong that the late comedian Buddy Hackett said he had to act Jewish to become successful in Hollywood. And Buddy Hackett was Jewish.
On this most American of holidays, the role Jewish humor has played in the United States is something worth celebrating, both for how it has added joy to our lives and for another reason that transcends comedy. It serves as an almost daily reminder of the influence of foreign cultures and ideas on the growth and development of our country. And that, thankfully, is no joke.
Bill Lazarus is been a long-time writer, educator and religious historian. He started teaching when he was 13 year old and has been rarely out of a classroom since. He hold an M.A. in communication from Kent State University and is a full-time instructor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. You can write him via this website or www.williamplazarus.com