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Midwest Jewish Studies Association - Shofar Book Reviews

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Jews and Humor, edited by Leonard J. Greenspoon.  West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press Studies in Jewish Civilization, 2011.  236 pp.  $35.00.


Humor is the lingua franca of the Jewish people, and much has been written about Jewish humor. This book, a relatively recent contribution to this oeuvre, is a compilation of scholarly papers presented at the 22nd Annual Klutznick-Harris Symposium, Nebraska; the Symposium was also titled “Jews and Humor.” The title of this book, Jews and Humor, brings to mind that an investigation of Jewish humor is at the same time a contribution to the field of humor studies and to the study of the Jewish people.

Although we may agree that the core values of Judaism based on the Torah include such lofty ideals as the pursuit of justice and caring for the weak and marginalized members of society such as the orphan, widow, and stranger, some might not realize that the Jewish people have also made a major contribution to humor. 

This book is a must for anyone interested in the area of Jewish humor. The only problem is that many of the articles are too brief to fully explore their particular subject. For example, “Humor in the Bible,” by Charles David Isbell, is 11 pages long and thus barely touches on the different kinds of humor found in Scripture. The same can be said of Eliezer Diamond’s “But is it Funny? Identifying Humor, Satire, and Parody in Rabbinic Literature” and also of David Brodsky’s “Why Did the Widow Have a Goat in her Bed? Jewish Humor and Its Roots in the Talmud and Midrash,” perhaps the best paper in the collection. The Talmud and Midrash are replete with humor. There are so many types of humor in the Talmud and Midrash that an entire book can easily be devoted to this topic. 

What this book gives us are 14 excellent articles providing a great deal of breadth in the area of Jews and humor and, often, Jewish humor. Some of the key figures in Jewish humor are covered here, including Woody Allen (“Heckling the Divine: Woody Allen, the Book of Job, and Jewish Theology after the Holocaust,” by Jason Kalman), Kinky Friedman (“‘They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore’: The Musical Humor of Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys in Historical and Geographical Perspective,” by Theodore Albrecht), Groucho Marx (“Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Karl: Immigrant Humor and the Depression,” by Leonard M. Helfgott), and Mel Brooks (“Tragicomedy and Zikkaron in Mel Brooks’s To Be or Not to Be,” by Joan Latchaw and David Peterson). And no book on Jewish humor would be complete without mention of Sholom Aleichem (“Jewish Jokes, Yiddish Storytelling, and Sholem Aleichem: A Discursive Approach,” by Jordan Finkin).  

The paper by Joyce Antler (“One Clove Away from a Pomander Ball: The Subversive Tradition of Jewish Female Comedians”) is especially valuable in that it highlights the contributions of Jewish female comedians. It is well known that large percentage—some say 80 percent—of comics are Jews. We tend to forget that some of the earliest comics were Jewish women. These included such greats as Fanny Brice, Gertrude Berg, Molly Picon, Sophie Tucker and many others. They blazed the trail for many of the comics of today such as Sarah Silverman, Susie Essman, and Judy Gold. In a similar vein, the all-but-forgotten stand-up comics Belle Barth, Pearl Williams, and Patsy Abbott, bawdy comics of the late 50s and early 60s, are featured here as well (“The Bad Girls of Jewish Comedy: Gender, Class, Assimilation, and Whiteness in Postwar America,” by Giovanna P. Del Negro). These “nice Jewish girls” released numerous “party records,” sexually suggestive albums that contained very risqué material. Belle Barth was known as the female Lenny Bruce and was banned from television and radio. 

Joanna Sliwa, in her article “Jewish Humor as a Source of Research on Polish-Jewish Relations,” uses Jewish humor in Poland as a lens through which to study the place of Jews within the larger Polish Catholic society. In another ethnic crossover, David Gillota (“The New Jewish Blackface: African American Tropes in Contemporary Jewish Humor”), using episodes from the Sarah Silverman Program and Curb Your Enthusiasm, posits that Jewish comics have used a new kind of blackface to make it clear to the rest of America that Jews were still an oppressed minority and not actually part of the dominant majority. One of the more important contributions here may be Michael W. Ruvinoff’s “Nuances and Subtleties in Jewish Film Humor,” in which he discusses the portrayal of assimilation, unflattering stereotypes, and outright antisemitism in early American films.

According to the Talmud, when Elijah the prophet was asked by Rabbi Beroka if any of the individuals around them in the marketplace were destined for Heaven, he pointed out two people. Rabbi Beroka asked them what they did, and they replied: We are merry-makers, and we cheer up people who are depressed. So we know that jesters go to Heaven when they die.  Perhaps no article in this book embodies this point of view as well as Peter J. Haas’s “Masekhet Purim,” about a medieval parody of the Babylonian Talmud.

And elsewhere in the Talmud, we have the story of Rabbi Kahana who, in order to learn everything he needed to know about life, went so far as to hide under his mentor’s bed.   The mentor, Rav, did not appreciate discovering that the student hiding under the bed had overheard him bantering with his wife and then having sexual relations with her. Rabbi Kahana, however, argued: “It is all Torah and I need to learn.” Humor, too, has been an important part of Jewish life for more than 3000 years. For those of us who “need to learn,” this is the book. 

Linda Weiser Friedman

Baruch College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York

Hershey H. Friedman

Brooklyn College, City University of New York