A Serious Study Of Jewish Humor


There’s a lot of laughter at Baruch College this year, and it’s coming from the classroom of a professor of statistics & computer information systems. The new course is “Jewish Humor,” which attempts “to walk the fine line between scholarship and playfulness.” The teacher is Linda Weiser Friedman, co-author — with her husband, Heshy Friedman, a professor of business at Brooklyn College — of “God Laughed: Sources of Jewish Humor” (Transaction). On the eve of Purim, a Jewish holiday that celebrates humor, The Jewish Week caught up with Friedman by email. This is an edited transcript of the interview.

Q: Jewish humor is a rich enough field to warrant its own course?

A:Are you kidding? Just look at all the books published, conferences, scholarly articles, even entire journals devoted to the subject. There is a tremendous interest in humor, and in Jewish humor in particular. One of the most fascinating aspects of studying Jewish humor is trying to answer the question — what is unique about Jewish humor?

What is unique about the type of Jewish humor that has developed in this country?

This country has an entire genre of Jewish humor — jokes about assimilation — that is missing or very limited elsewhere. In much of assimilation humor we poke fun at ourselves for even considering being able to “pass” — which, when you think about it, is supposed to be easy for the Ashkenazi-skinned Jews that populate this genre. Certainly easier than for an African-American trying to pass as white.

We are all familiar with the insult “Oreo,” which African-Americans use to imply that someone may look black but is really white on the inside. In contrast, in assimilation humor, Jews are trying hard to pass as non-Jews, but the joke is that no matter how “white” they are on the outside, they are still Jews in their cores.

What type of distinctive coping humor have you found among Jews who survived the Holocaust and other times of persecution?

The Holocaust [brought] … a coping mechanism on a societal scale. Mel Brooks, creator of that wonderful show “The Producers,” said: “One of my lifelong jobs has been to make the world laugh at Adolf Hitler, because how do you get even? There’s only one way to get even, you have to bring him down with ridicule.”

A young standup comic, David Finkelstein, has a bit in which he describes seeing a swastika spray-painted on the sidewalk in his neighborhood. He thinks it’s hysterical (as a comedian) that the anonymous vandal thought it was necessary to add the words “Kill the Jews,” like a caption. Because we might make a mistake and think that the swastika was just an interesting symmetrical design.

There is no shortage of books about Jewish humor. What is distinctive about what you and your husband co-author add?

Our book takes the position that Jewish humor goes all way back to ancient times. We use examples from the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud to show that much of the humor we think of as modern Jewish humor is very similar to that found in these ancient documents.

You write that “it may be futile” to offer a brief definition of what constitutes Jewish humor. Can you do it in one paragraph?

But then you won’t read the book. Or come to my class. Or attend any of our book talks.

The title of chapter 3 is, “Does God Have a Sense of Humor?” What’s the answer?

Read the book. Mine, not God’s. Oh, OK, read God’s book too. There’s funny stuff in there.

Obvious question. What’s your favorite Jewish joke?

That changes. Generally, I like the ones that are very Jewish rather than the ones that could be told by, for, and to any people. Purim might be a good time for us to remember Robin Williams who, while not Jewish, told the story of the time he was interviewed in Germany: “I was once on a German talk show, and this woman said to me, ‘Mr. Williams, why do you think there is not so much comedy in Germany?’ And I said, ‘Did you ever think you killed all the funny people?’”