From The Talmud To Jon Stewart, A Columbia Professor’s Serious History Of Jewish Humor


Shortly after he began teaching at Columbia University 18 years ago, Jeremy Dauber decided to introduce a course about something that had always interested him — Jewish humor.

The title of his course was “Humor in Jewish Literature,” but over the years Dauber broadened its scope to include instances of humor in historical contexts beyond literature.

Building up an expertise, Dauber, the Atran Professor of Yiddish Language, Literature and Culture in the university’s Department of Germanic Languages, thought a few years ago of taking the course’s content “out of the classroom.”

“There might be a book in this,” he figured.

He figured right. The 364 pages (including a 21-page index) of “Jewish Comedy: A Serious History” tell “the whole story of Jewish comedy from the Bible to Twitter.” Treading on ground that many books in recent decades have already covered, Dauber’s is arguably the most comprehensive of the genre. His emphasis is on Jewish humor in practice, not in theory.

He has a built-in audience, a home-tribe advantage, if you will: In response to a question in the big 2013 Pew Research Center’s “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” about what is essential to being Jewish, more than twice as many Jews said that having a good sense of humor as said observing Jewish law (42 percent vs. 19 percent.)

Dauber touches on the Torah and Talmud, Jonathan Swift and Franz Kafka, Spanish-Jewish poetry and wit and medieval Purim plays, Mad magazine and Philip Roth, the Haskalah (Enlightenment) and the Holocaust, vaudeville and the Borscht Belt, the wise men of Chelm and Tevye’s Anatevka, slapstick and the Ziegfield Follies, Woody Allen and Steve Allen, the Marx Brothers and Mel Brooks, Seinfeld and Sarah Silverman, Larry David and Jon Stewart, with many stops in between.

“This is not an encyclopedia,” he cautions. “It’s not an academic study.”

The book is not meant for scholars only, Dauber says; the jokes and other examples of humor are supposed to be accessible, without the need for lengthy explanations. “You don’t want footnotes on a joke.”

Is his book about Jewish humor through the lens of wider Jewish history, or vice versa? Both, Dauber says. “It’s not an either-or.”

All strains of Jewish humor, from biblical days to contemporary memes, are united by a common Jewish experience and attitude, he says. “This is a story of continuity, not disruption.”

“This is a story of continuity, not disruption.”

Over the centuries, Dauber says, humor has helped Jews reframe what was happening to them (see Sholem Aleichem’s tales about shtetl residents facing poverty and pogroms) and serve as a source of spiritual sustenance (read about the jokes and cabarets that spread humor in Nazi concentration camps and ghettoes.)

To make Dauber’s final cut as examples of Jewish humor, the jokes and comedy routines and books and other laughter-inducing representations had to be written by someone who identifies as a Jew, and be about a subject identifiably Jewish.

Dauber says he picked examples that are “historically significant” and “personally meaningful.”

His favorite joke?

The one at the end of the introduction about two old men who sit next to each other on a park bench in Tel Aviv: They recognize each other as long-lost friends, and start catching up on each other’s lives.

Shimon asks about Reuven’s parents. “Oh, they died decades ago,” Reuven says. “We’re old men now, Shimon.”

And Shimon’s siblings?

“Oh, you haven’t heard? My brother died 10 years ago. Cancer.”

And Shimon’s sister?

“She died 15 years ago. A stroke.”

And Shimon’s wife?

“Oh, you didn’t hear? She died five years ago. Bus bombing.”

“Reuven is now completely discombobulated. ‘Your kids!’ he finally gets out. ‘How are your kids?’”

“You’ll laugh,” Shimon said. “But they’re dead too.”

The “surprising” punchline is what makes the joke funny, Dauber says. It’s a mini-Jewish history lesson. Separation. Reunion. Death. Terrorism. And a touch of irreverence. “It reflects a distinctive Jewish experience.”

Though Dauber’s work covers the globe, his book has a heavy focus on the development of Jewish humor in the United States, “where the best jokes aren’t about Jewish failure,” which historically had inspired much Jewish wit, “but about Jewish success.”

“Probably the central phenomenon of the Jewish experience in diaspora has been Jewish difference, and the feelings and sensibilities that come along with it,” he writes. “And all too often that difference has been associated with hostility and persecution: which in turn generates a comedy of counteraggression and of soul-searching.”

Dauber cites the familiar statistic about “the over-representation” of Jews in the comedy scene in this country.

“There’s the low social barriers to entry of the institutions of entertainment that would carry comedy to the masses,” he writes, “and there’s the particular Jewish institutions and family networks that acted as training and recruiting grounds for upcoming comics.”

The public has shown a continuing interest in Jewish humor, Dauber says, because for many Jews, “humor is an important part of their Jewish identity,” while many non-Jews in this country feel that Jewish humor “has become a central part of American comedy.”

You don’t have to be a Levy to love Jewish wry.

When you think Jews, you think funny, right?

Not necessarily, Dauber says. “For most of Jewish history, that was not the case.” Jews, for the most part, were downtrodden and isolated.

“A lot of outside observers considered them downright glum,” he writes. “The early-twentieth-century British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, for example, remarked that Jews were ‘singularly humorless.’”

That sweeping generalization, common to people who had only superficial contact with Jews, changed when Jews left the ghettoes, establishing closer relations with the non-Jewish population, and embracing — and mastering — the practice of humor.

The image of Jews at the top of the humor industry “is a recent development,” Dauber says.

A native of Teaneck, he grew up in a Modern Orthodox family. Today he lives near the Columbia campus and identifies himself as Sabbath-observant and kosher-keeping. He’s on sabbatical this semester, at work on his next book.

Dauber says he plans to keep teaching his course about Jews and humor when he returns to the classroom. “I learned a lot” while researching the book, he says. “It helped me understand how Jewish comedy has worked. It will make me a better teacher.

“I certainly will include more material” in the course in the future, and rearrange how he presents the material, he says.

What if a student doesn’t enroll in the course, because he or she has read Dauber’s book?

“I will say,” he answers, “‘I hope you bought a copy for everyone in your family.’” ✦

Steve Lipman is the author of “Laughter in Hell: The Use of Humor During the Holocaust” (1993, Jason Aronson).