Humor and the Jewish People

366 words read out loud should take about 2.8 minutes

Humor and the Jewish People

The Jewish people lay claims to the oldest of written histories, as well as an endless list of grievances toward the mostly hostile world in which we have lived. We have endured over 4,000 years of persecution, slaughter, torture, inquisitions, pogroms, and death camps.

We were enslaved by the Egyptians, slaughtered by the Philistines, exiled by the Babylonians, dispersed by the Romans, and butchered and chased from land to land in Europe. A history of pain and suffering, tragedies, of great losses, and of surviving against all odds. Jewish humor, too, has persevered over many a generation. Wit and laughter helped sustain the us in our misery. It also provides us with a unique and insightful tool for the examination of our chronicles, attitudes, and way of coping with reality.

Jewish humor derives from the immense disparity between what was expected to be the glorious destiny of the “Chosen People” who were to be “light until the nations” and our long tormented and often bleak existence.

We perceived ourselves as the “Nation of the Book,” the people who view themselves as an intellectual powerhouse and have pride in our ability in interpreting vast complexities of sacred texts found ourselves powerless in our dealings with hostile rules, malicious brainless peasants, and anti-Semites throughout our history. Though cohesive in our private world, we felt isolated and apart from the world at large. To help cope with this disparity, we Jews created a humor where laughter and tears, happiness and fear were inextricable.

The typical Jewish joke revolves around those situations that are familiar to all Jews, geography notwithstanding. The point of a traditional joke was grasped as quickly by the shtetl dweller as by his more sophisticated brother in the large metropolis.

The humor is full of acute social observations, exposing mental follies and the frailties of human nature. The gist of the jest is often a play on words, double entendres, animated facial expression, and conspicuous body language.

An old Yiddish proverb expresses it poignantly, “burdens are from God, shoulders too.” Shoulders at times bear the load, and at times shrug it off. The humorous element of a conventional Jewish anecdote is as amusing today as it was in days past, forfeiting none of its biting relevance to time.


Lightly edited; Original article copyright David Minkoff
May be freely copied for private use only.