Jewish Humor On The Continent


The European Day of Jewish Culture has officially matured, at least by Jewish standards: this Sept. 2, it turns 13.

The event — a continent-wide celebration around an annual theme — has grown in both scope and participation over the past dozen years. This year’s theme is “The Spirit of Jewish Humor,” a particularly appealing topic and one rich with material.

Introducing Jewish life to non-Jews in the most accessible and relevant way possible is the goal of the Day’s sponsor, the European Association for the Preservation and Promotion of Jewish Culture and Heritage, which is organized by two groups: B’nai Brith Europe and Red de Juderías de España – Caminos de Sefarad, the Spanish network of Jewish heritage sites.

This year’s participating countries are Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Italy, Macedonia, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom.

That’s just 12 out of more than 30 nations in Europe, but it’s an encouragingly broad list in terms of geographical distribution. A disproportionate number represent the Balkans and ex-Yugoslavia, which is interesting given their relatively modest Jewish populations.

Bosnia and Herzegovina — not two decades old, and with a predominantly Muslim citizenry — will host Jewish art exhibits and a Jewish comedy show in no fewer than six cities. In Skopje, capital of Macedonia, another ex-Yugoslav republic, a performance of Jewish music and jokes will take place in a restored medieval theater built around the time Jews settled in Macedonia from Iberia. Young Macedonians, many of them ethnic Albanian Muslims, might for the first time connect their historic quarter with a historic Jewish community.

Even before the concerts and lectures start, though, the European Day keeps Jewish culture visible in the most basic sense of the word. From Bologna to Belgrade, Groucho Marx’s signature bushy eyebrows, glasses and mustache are plastered across billboards and kiosks.

That visibility is sorely needed for European Jewry. With some notable exceptions (London, Paris, Antwerp), post-Holocaust Europe is relatively devoid of Jewish presence. Jewish populations are miniscule, and still fewer Jews are affiliated, having assimilated into the dominant secularism of modern Europe.

The result is that it is easy to live in major European cities for years and never knowingly meet a Jewish person or see any visible evidence of Jewish life. The intent of the European Day of Jewish Culture, then, is to demystify Jewishness and engage the larger population in a culture that, for many Europeans, might otherwise exist only in hearsay and stereotypes.

So on the first Sunday of each September, synagogues, museums and Jewish centers across Europe fling open their doors to the public. There are tours and tastings, along with a roster of activities that varies from country to country, based on each year’s theme.

After years of more obvious topics that included Jewish music, art, cooking, and holiday traditions, the focus on humor seems inspired. Legions of young Europeans have never heard of Passover or klezmer, but they idolize Groucho, Woody Allen and the Coen Brothers.

What’s more, I’ve noticed that even in places where Jews are few and anti-Israel (or anti-Semitic, or anti-American) sentiment commonplace, Jewish artists — filmmakers and writers in particular — are warmly, even passionately, embraced. The depth and sophistication of the Jewish humor tradition inspires tremendous respect from young Europeans. Many of them hail from small, struggling nations and identify with voices from the margins of a dominant culture.

Some nations use the culture day as the anchor for a weeklong festival, while others sponsor just an event or two: a concert, say, or a tour of a historic Jewish cemetery. In Italy, dozens of cities are participating, from Turin in the north down to Syracuse in Sicily. Many of the towns are small and little-known, but have an historic synagogue, mikveh, restored medieval ghetto or Sephardic culinary tradition that’s a point of local pride.

Unsurprisingly, given the theme, films (and talks about Jews in film) are a big part of this year’s event. And it’s more than a little ironic that so many iconic Jews hail from America, not Europe: the Marx Brother, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Philip Roth.

But each country’s organizers have made a point of highlighting local connections to Jewish history and humor. You can taste kosher vino and Italian-Jewish aperitivi in Trani, Italy, while in Novi Sad, Serbia, you can hear local Sephardic music for clarinet. At the Alsace Jewish Museum, scholars will discuss the Marx Brothers’ Alsatian roots. And in Istanbul, where the event is postponed to Oct. 7, Turkish-Jewish cuisine and music are the focus.

All in all, for an event coming into its own, it’s a pretty nice bar mitzvah party.