The Jewish Sense of Humor
Menu JTA Search

The Jewish Sense of Humor

Download PDF for this date

In these times of economic stress, the suffering of the Jew is as keen as that of any other representative class of population. Yet in searching through the storehouse of his rich past, he may still find the consolation of a keen sense of humor, ever present, and which centuries before did much to lend cheer and give heart, if only for a brief time, to his brethren of bygone days throughout the long stretches of their bitter history. From these same wells of Jewish laughter there still flow living waters to cool and refresh the troubled spirit of Israel, banishing all the darkness and sadness of the human heart, like the brlliant rays of the sun dispersing the heavy clouds and bringing light and warmth into the world.

The Jewish sense of humor is hard to define because it is so closely identified with the complex and extremely deversified nature, character and disposition of the Jew himself and so necessarily Jewish humor must reiect and chronicle in its varied aggregate the very life of the Jew. However, a number of characteristics might be ventured without danger of exaggeration. That Jewish humor in its essence is intellectual and subtle as opposed to physical and physiological; it is a larger laughter as in the contrary sense, the Jew had a keener cry of pain; it is , so to speak, the laughter of the mind as opposed to the laughter of the body, producing a humor which brims with nimbleness of intellect, with a scintillating and trenchant logic, incisive reasoning, and which actually instructs while it delights. Also, that the Jew is peculiarly given to being humorous at his own expense, preferring to laugh at himself before others do so contemptuously; and yet at the same time ready to forgive much when his risibilities are tickled. When the Jew does stike back at his oppressor, he does so by way of repartee,quip or sally growing inevitable out of the darkness of retaliation and always intending that the blows be regarded only in a spirit of jest or merriment.


Ultimately, as brevity is the essence of with in general, it is likewise the soul of Jewish wit, and as an eminent contributor to the gaiety and pleasure of nations, the Jew also, in his keen sense of humor, has cultivated a rare quickness in noting the absurdity of claims or the delicate lines which separate the sublime from the ridiculous.

Jewish repartee constitutes a prolific branch of Jewish humor and of its numerous examples several would be approprate:

A Jew once publicly derided for being of the Jewish faith obtained the attention of his tormentors and said, “Gentlemen, I am sorry I was born a Jew, I would rather have been one by cholce!”

A Rabbi once received the picture of a pig autographed with the compliments of the sender. The Rabbi immediately sent the latter a photograph of himself with the inscription, “You sent met your picture; I am sending you mine!”

When Mordecai Manuel Noah (1785-1851) ran for Sheriff of New York County, a political opponent made this statement, “It would be a pity to have a Jew hang a Christian!” Noah’s retort was, “Fine Christian that had to be hanged!”


When Joseph Chamberlain, British Colonial Secretary, suggested to Herzl, the great founder of modern Zionism, that the Jews settle in Egypt, the Jewish leader replied, “No, we will not go to Egypt! We have already been there!”

Israel Zangwill, partaking of a non-kosher meal, was asked by a rather observant woman; “Mr. Zangwill, how do you like our Chircago ham?” His stinging reply was immediate, “I much prefer it to your Chicago tongue!”


The Jewish characteristic of anwering a question by asking an other question is well brought out in the incident told about Hitler, the German anti-Semite, who while addressing a large mass meeting kept shouting, “What is the cause of Germany’s ruin ? The war! And who was responsible for the war? The Jews!” A little Jew in the rear was heard to cry out in a shrill voice, “And the bicycle-riders!” Hitler paused with surprise and and looking in the direction of the interrupter demanded in a shout, “And why the bicycle-riders?” The little voice came back, “And why the Jews?”

And in case of the pious Jew who on his death-bed requested that a clergyman be called in order that he might become converted to Christianity before dying. His surprised relatives remonstrated with him, asking him to explain. His reply was a shrug of his shoulders and the remark, “Why should a good Jew die?”

How typical are the following instanes of the Jewish sense of humor?

A Gentile instituted nuisance proceedings against his Jewish neighbor for building a Succah on his roof which shut out light from his windows. A Jewish magistrate gave the Jewish defendant ten days in which to remove the Succah. The non-Jew was quite content with the victory.

A Jew during the stock-market crash entered a synagoue, prayed for the health of his wife and children and ended his prayer as follows: “And please God give General Motors a little push!”


A Jew threw apenny into a slotmachine in the subway and when nothing came out he called it anti-Semitism.

A Jew speaking at a banquet remarked, “You know the Jews are a very funny peole; they are all so different, no two of them are alike; and the only thing that two Jews can ever agree upon is what a third one should give for charity!”

A roup of international scientists went abroad to study the elephant. Each scientist on returning to his respective country wrote a book on the animal studied, The English scientist wrote a book called “Elephants”; the German scientine History” in seven volumes; the Russian scientist wrote a book called, “The soul of the elephant”; the French scientist wrote a book called, “Les Amours D’elefact”; the american seientist wrote a book called, “Bigger and Better Elephants”; and the Jewish scientist wrote a book called, “The Elephent and the Jewish Problem.”

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund