BROOKLINE, Mass. (Nov. 19)
Here’s one: Michael Bloomberg walks into a diner and orders coffee and a danish. When the bill comes in at $14, the flummoxed billionaire mayor asks, “What, are danishes so rare in these parts?” “No,” replies the waiter, “but Bloombergs are.”
The story is a variation on a joke about Rothschild and 20-ruble eggs made famous in the Big Book of Jewish Humor, first published a quarter of a century ago.
The story also is partly true. Bloomberg spokesman Stu Loeser — an avid devotee of the Big Book of Jewish Humor — was sharing the joke about Rockefeller with Bloomberg when Loeser and the mayor were overcharged for danish and coffee at a New York diner. Before Loeser got to the punchline, however, the Jewish mayor finished the joke for him.
Whether that’s a sign of the diffusion of Jewish humor into the national consciousness, the success of the 25-year-old compilation by William Novak and Moshe Waldoks or simply a telling anecdote about the mayor’s sense of humor, is anybody’s guess.
What’s certain is that a quarter-century since the publication of the “Big Book,” Jews are still laughing at themselves — and Americans are laughing along with them.
“Although many of the people listed on the cover are no longer around,” Novak and Waldoks write in their introduction to the 25-year anniversary edition, which HarperCollins released this month, “and Sholom Aleichem is still dead, ‘The Big Book of Jewish Humor’ is still very much alive.”
The authors sat down with JTA recently over a pair of pastrami sandwiches at Rubin’s kosher delicatessen in Brookline, Mass., to talk about the book — and to trade jibes and wisecracks.
A lot has changed in 25 years, they said.
“When we first put the book together in 1981, we were not sure Jewish humor would continue,” Waldoks said. “But Jewish humor is still active. It’s more self-conscious, much more knowledgeable. It goes beyond the stereotypes.”
The pair cited TV programs like Comedy Central’s “South Park” and “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart, both mainstream shows laced with Jewish references and Jewish jokes. They noted that the central character on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Larry David, creator of “Seinfeld,” goes beyond stereotypical portrayals of Jews.
No longer are television references to Jews limited to bar mitzvahs. There’s the “atonement phone” that Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” kept on his desk during the 10 Days of Awe, encouraging his Jewish friends to call him to beg for forgiveness.
There were the esoteric references Stewart made to obscure Shabbat prohibitions when Sen. Joseph Lieberman was running for vice president in 2000. There are the unabashedly Jewish themes in shows from “Will and Grace” to “The Simpsons.”
“Are there still more goyim in America?” Waldoks quips between bites of pastrami on rye.
What there isn’t anymore, Novak says, is Jewish joke-tellers in the tradition of the Borscht Belt and Henny Youngman (“Take my wife, please”). Those kinds of jokes have all but disappeared, relegated to mass e-mails and Top-10 lists on Web sites like Bangitout.com.
What’s left, however, is Jewish humor that is much more knowledgeable, and much more popular.
“People were hiding who they were 50 years ago, when we were born,” Novak said. “Now you have an educated Jewish youth culture.”
“The younger generation is more comfortable with their Jewish identity,” Waldoks says, noting the success of Heeb, the hip Jewish magazine and cultural phenomenon. “Assimilation has peaked.”
So what is Jewish humor?
Jewish humor goes all the way back to the Bible, Waldoks says. When the Jewish people follow Moses out of Egypt only to find themselves pinned between the pursuing Egyptian army and the sea, they say to Moses, ” ‘Whatsa matter, Moshe — there weren’t enough graves for us in Egypt?’ Badum-bum!” a grinning Waldoks pronounces with a flourish. The actual verse reads, “Are there no graves in Egypt that you took us away to die in this wilderness?”
The first joke in the Bible appears as early as the fourth chapter of Genesis, Waldoks points out: Cain, after killing Abel, answers an interrogative God, “What am I, my brother’s keeper?” (Badum-bum!)
But Jewish humor really has its origins in the prophetic tradition, Waldoks explains. Just as the job of the prophet was to make people uncomfortable, often speaking the truth to powerful people, comedians have the power to puncture pomposity.
And if it’s toilet-related, all the better.
“For a Jew, a bowel movement is an event,” Waldoks declares. “That’s why there’s so much bathroom humor.”
Novak nods in agreement.
“As you get older, it becomes a wonderful thing,” he says.
Twenty-five years on, these authors are a little grayer and perhaps a little paunchier, but not much worse for wear.
Waldoks has become a rabbi at a nondenominational synagogue, Brookline’s Temple Beth Zion, which he has transformed from a moribund Conservative temple into a popular “egalitarian Chasidic” house of prayer and song.
Novak, who 25 years ago had but one book to his name, the rather obscure “High Culture: Marijuana in the Lives of Americans,” has since become a bestselling author and ghostwriter, coauthoring books with celebrities such as Nancy Reagan, Lee Iacocca, Oliver North and Magic Johnson.
His son B.J. shares his father’s appreciation and talent for recognizing humor; he’s a writer and actor on NBC’s hit comedy “The Office.”
Though sales of the original “Big Book” far exceeded the authors’ expectations — they estimate that more than 100,000 copies sold — the two say they’re most pleased about how it has been used: by children, given as bar mitzvah gifts, passed from friend to friend.
“It’s a wonderful introduction to Judaism,” Novak says. “This is a Jewish book your kids are going to enjoy reading. Buy it for that, if for no other reason.”
Novak says he sheps nachas when his kids sit around the dining room table trading punchlines from the book. After 25 years, everyone already knows the jokes.
Novak’s favorite Jewish joke is about the Jew who goes to the post office in Pinsk to ask how often the mail goes out to Warsaw.
“Every day,” he’s told.
The man nods and is silent for a moment. “Thursdays too?”