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A Serious Look at Jewish Humor

June 13, 1986
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There was this nice man who passed away to heaven and after his deeds were charged, it was found he was not so nice and should go to hell, but it should be an easy one. The attendant said there are two kinds of easy hell, a Jewish one and a gentile one.

In the gentile one, you go to the boiling water at 9, go out at 5 and the rest of the day you can watch television or do whatever you want. In the Jewish one, you go to the boiling water at 9, stay until 5 and the rest of the day you can watch television or do whatever you want.

The man said, “I’ll take the Jewish one,” and the attendant said, “Why? They’re both the same.” The man said “you don’t know. In the Jewish one 9 is not 9, 5 is not 5, and the water is not really boiling.”

All joking aside, the study of Jewish humor and particularly its impact on American humor were the serious theme of the Second International Conference on Jewish Humor, sponsored by Tel Aviv University. During the daily concurrent sessions, held here this week at the New School for Social Research, academicians from a dozen countries presented papers on various topics in an effort to understand the roots and meanings of Jewish humor.


Even Mayor Edward Koch, the guest of honor at the opening ceremony, cut down on the jokes and anecdotes to open the floor to questions. “I did not come here really to participate in the humor side of the evening,” he said. “It was more to extend the greetings of the city…and maybe to repeat a joke that I heard.”

“Do you know what Waldheimer’s disease is? It’s a Nazi who’s forgotten his past, “the Mayor said. Much of Koch’s brief appearance addressed audience questions, some amusing and some political. He described Jewish humor as self-deprecating and sophisticated, but not all that different from other ethnic humor.

“I think all people who have suffered probably depended ultimately on a certain sense of humor to pull them through,” he said.

“Humor is universal,” Koch added. “Stories and anecdotes that I would tell here and would be well-received here, I’ve told in the People’s Republic of China and were also well-received.”


While Koch’s one-liners and anecdotes aroused chuckles and mild laughter, one of the largest responses came from a teasing question. “A long time ago you responded to the energy crisis by saying you’d use less oil on your salad. “an audience member said. “Now with the energy surplus, how will you change your culinary habits?”

The Conference was also opened last Monday by Allen Austill, dean of the New School for Social Research; Yehuda Ben-Shaul, rector of the Tel Aviv University; Moshe Yegar, Consul General of the Israeli Consulate here; and Raphael Patai, a scholar and author.

Throughout history, Jews have been able to laugh at their own troubles, according to Ben-Shaul, and have used humor as “one of the strongest weapons for survival.”

The tendency for Jews to laugh at themselves dates back centuries to the shlemiel, shlemazle, village idiot, miser, matchmaker, and Yiddishe name of Eastern Europe folk humor.


Yegar recalled reading that “through humor, Jews try to deal with internal conflicts, problems of self-identity and problems of Israel … Jewish jokes are close to masochism. The stereotypes are almost cruel, bordering on anti-Semitism.”

Since World War II, American Jews have felt secure enough to depict the JAP–Jewish American Princess–as materialistic, self-centered, and lazy, the martyred Jewish mother and the money hungry Jewish professional.

These Jewish jokes and stories are second to no other in revealing the mental state of Jews, according to Patai. “Jokes and anecdotes are peepholes to understanding the lives of people,” he said.

Ben-Shaul noted that about 80 percent of successful humorists are of Jewish origin. Despite the high number and the spotlight on such stars as Woody Allen and Joan Rivers, Patai warned of a rapid disappearance of traditional Eastern European folklore and humor with the gradual downfall of the Yiddish language.

“The number of Jewish anecdotes in Yiddish are greater than in all other languages combined,” Patai said. In order to save the characteristic Jewish humor, Patai suggested that the works must continue to be preserved in collections. He also hopes for a comprehensive study of the problems and issues created by Jewish humor.

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