What Does Jewish Humor Mean Today?

June, 09 2017

Michael Krasny wants to tell jokes—but he also wants to explain them. “It’s important to be analytical about humor,” he says. “Not overly analytical, but nevertheless to realize that jokes—and all kinds of humor—are there for a reason.”

Krasny, a public radio host at KQED, is also a literature professor and a self-described “Jewish joke collector.” His book, Let There Be Laughter: A Treasury of Great Jewish Humor and What It All Means, is a collection—and an explication—of “more than 100 of the funniest Jewish jokes of all time.” We spoke to Krasny about Jewish humor’s history, evolution and underlying cultural anxieties.

How did you become interested in Jewish humor and Jewish jokes?

I’ve probably been what you could call a Jewish joke collector most of my adult life, and maybe even earlier. I seemed to have developed pretty good timing and I enjoyed, as I got older, the midrashic quality about them.

I was influenced early on by a book by Freud called Wit and the Unconscious. Freud was really the first one to point out how jokes can reflect unconscious aggression or sexual repression or anxieties. And I began to see how a lot of Jewish jokes reflected those kinds of unconscious motives. But then I slipped away from Freud and I began to think of them more in terms of anthropological meaning. There’s embedded in an extraordinary range of jokes so much about Jewish history, about the trajectories of Jewish history, about the way Jewish people have developed their tribal and collective identity. It seemed to me it really deserved a book.

What makes a joke Jewish, and what makes Jewish humor distinct?

What makes it distinct is our history. When you really put it under the laser, you realize that a lot of it is about themes of identity that are—and have been—important to Jews through the ages, but particularly in recent times. Assimilation, secularization, the sense of loss, the concern about preserving, memorializing and keeping Jewish identity intact, the differences between Judaism and Jewishness, the sensibility that is connected to the desire to preserve memory.

I had the privilege of interviewing Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Yiddish novelist who won the Nobel Prize. He could come up with a really good quip now and then, and one of them was, “The Jews suffer from every disease except amnesia.” In many ways, the jokes and the humor are ways of memorializing and also showing an ironic view of the world of people who have been marginalized and victimized, and who have certainly known suffering, but have also known humor as a weapon.

A lot of this humor doesn’t necessarily resonate as much for younger demographics. A lot of it goes back to the shtetl and Yiddishkeit. When I go and give talks now about this book, I look out and I see a sea of gray hair. And I’m thinking to myself, “Where are the younger people? Do they want to learn about this?” It’s their heritage, it has a lot to do with not only who they are, but what they are.

Today, in 2017, what is Jewish humor responding to? Have the themes, anxieties and culture underlying Jewish humor changed?

It has more to do with not only joking about assimilation and loss of Jewish identity, but it also spoofs the nature of how successful Jews are. It used to be that there was a kind of verboten quality about Jews making fun of the stereotypes that exist about them. Woody Allen broke some of the new ground here. He had an old joke where he talked about somebody was complimenting him on his watch and he said, “Yeah, it’s a beautiful watch. I cherish it because my grandfather sold me this watch on his deathbed.”

Jews have been assimilated—and had such success in America—that they could make jokes out of their success without feeling that it was going to be used against them. They could even joke about something like the Holocaust, when Mel Brooks started Springtime for Hitler and Jerry Seinfeld had “The Soup Nazi” and Larry David did this whole shtick about introducing a guy from Survivor to an Auschwitz survivor. And suddenly you realized anything that would push the envelope was wide open.

And that included wealth. There’s a joke about a couple Texans sitting on a plane and they’re going to Dallas. And there’s an old Jewish man who’s sitting between them.  The first Texan says, “My name is Roger, I own 250,000 acres, I have 1,000 head of cattle and they call my place Jolly Roger.” And the second Texan says, “My name is John and I own 350,000 acres, I have 5,000 head of cattle and they call my place Big John’s.” And they both look down at the little old Jewish man who says, “My name is Lenny Leibowitz and I own only 300 acres.” And Roger looks down at him and says, “300? What do you raise?” “Nothing,” says Lenny. “Well, what do you call it?,” asked John. “Downtown Dallas.” That’s more your generation, younger generations. You can accept and embrace the sense of success. And it’s wonderful to be able to do that, it’s liberating in many ways, but it becomes sometimes the sort of thing that a lot of older Jews especially are still uncomfortable with.

But there was also a lot of Jewish humor that was very bigoted, misogynistic and really politically incorrect by today’s standards. But you have to get into what’s behind it, how to interpret it, how to deconstruct it. For example, here’s a joke that’s not in my book: A Jewish girl goes off and joins the Peace Corps and goes to Africa. She comes back with a husband who is a Watusi, seven feet tall, and he’s got a bone in the nose. And the mother says, “I said rich doctor.” It’s an old joke on the idea of “witch doctor” and “rich doctor” and Jewish mothers wanting their daughters to marry rich doctors. But it’s a racist joke.

The Jewish American princess jokes I see in somewhat of a different light. I think they’re a way for men not only to release aggression, but also to brag and say, “Look, we pamper our daughters and our wives,” and to make jokes out of those kinds of spoiling and pampering—which, again, had to do with success.

Your book is separated into different themes or categories of Jewish humor. What are some of the most interesting themes in Jewish jokes, and what do they mean?

I started out with bubbies and mothers, because there are so many jokes about mothers and bubbies. Here’s a joke about a Jewish grandmother. She takes her grandson to the beach, and suddenly a huge wave takes the kid out. The grandmother is beside herself. She doesn’t know how to swim, and she’s screaming and praying. And suddenly, almost miraculously, a lifeguard shows up, dives in, brings the kid out, starts giving him mouth to mouth. And the grandmother is praying and pleading, “Oh God, save him.” And so the lifeguard turns to the grandmother and says, “He’s going to be okay. The water is coming out of his nose and his mouth, he’s going to be okay.” The grandmother nods and she says, “He had a hat.”

Now, why is that joke singularly about Jewish mothers or Jewish grandmothers? It’s an important question. I suppose you could translate it, theoretically, to certain other ethnic groups—and a lot of these jokes do translate and cross over borders. But that joke does really go back to the shtetl, because so often in the shtetl it was impossible for men to earn a living. They were trying to be studying Talmud all day long. So who was responsible for putting food on the table? It was the women. They became responsible in many ways for these guys whose head were in the clouds. Their families had to be fed, and they put food on the table.

So what does that tell us? It tells us that the Jewish woman can be kvetchy and whiny and everything. But it’s also very practical. “Okay. He’s saved now, he’s okay. I don’t have to continue praying. I’ve got to worry about the fact that he’s going to need his hat, I paid for that hat.” Looking at a lot of these jokes about Jewish mothers, what you see is the strength of Jewish women. But there are also a lot of jokes that seem to be not only bordering on but crossing the line into misogyny. And a lot of that does represent men’s struggle to be more assertive, to reinforce patriarchy.

In your book, you tell a story about Elie Wiesel running into a man he’d known in Auschwitz, laughing about the strange personal habits of a particularly violent guard. What is Jewish humor’s relationship with hardship and suffering?

Marilyn Yalom, who’s a friend of mine and a leading feminist writer, told me a story about a woman who had survived much in the way Anne Frank did. Her family was in this almost closet-like quarters. You can imagine how claustrophobic that was. And they knew they were going to be there for an indefinite period of time during the Shoah. They could only have very few things with them. The one thing that they decided they had to have was a book of Jewish humor. Now what does that tell you? It tells me volumes. And it’s also an extraordinary metaphor, a splendid metaphor for how Jews survive and what they need to have for survival in the hardest and most difficult and most oppressive kinds of circumstances.

Why does humor—and Jewish humor in particular—matter in Trump’s presidency?

Jewish humor has always made fun of power. Jews, before they came to America and before they started realizing so much success here, were almost always powerless everywhere they were. It’s no accident that black people and Jewish people are the great humorists, at least up until recently, the dominant figures in comedy in America.

When Nixon was being impeached, I remember my grandfather saying, “This tsar is bad enough, you need a new one?” It’s the idea somehow that there’s always going to be suffering and there’s always going to be power that’s going to keep you down and repress you and so forth. So how do you deal with it? You deal with it through aggression, and you deal with it through ridiculing it and making fun of it.

So many Jews have played an instrumental role in American comedy—either acting, writing or performing. And it’s extraordinary, it’s phenomenal. You can’t possibly understate it. But a lot of that political humor—you think of Mort Sahl of course right away, you think of Lenny Bruce, some of the great ones—they were able to see these figures for the ridiculousness and the humanity and the flaws that they really had within them. I’m not just talking about people like Nixon. I’m talking about almost anybody who was in a position of power, the presidency on down. And it’s been a very important contribution that Jews have made to satire, to lampooning, to parody.

Trump himself can, at times, seem averse to humor. What does this mean?

Oh, he has humor. But it’s more of a bullying, cutting kind. Like when he starts acting spastic and imitating that news reporter who had a disability. Or, “Grab women by the pussies,” that kind of stuff. It’s a humor that’s of the street. Frankly, I believe it was a lot of what appealed to many working class people and also maybe people who feel that Obama and his minions were much too politically correct. You’d be surprised how many people were drawn to that and continue to be drawn to that because they feel Trump is not trying to be PC. He can laugh and make fun of women, and he can laugh and make fun of people who have disabilities, and they love him for it.

Personally, do you use humor when you’re talking about the current political situation—either on the radio or otherwise?

I do a pretty serious radio program. But I like Bertolt Brecht, the great German playwright who said, “A man who laughs has not yet been told the terrible news.” Because there’s something about the news that can awaken you to the fact that you can look at it with great sobriety and seriousness and not see the humor, particularly when you read about what’s going on in Darfur or the Congo or Syria. It’s an onslaught, really. You have to keep a distance from it; you can’t absorb too much of it because there’s so much inhumanity.

What I find myself doing though from time to time is taking a pause and realizing, with a kind of Jewish sense of irony, how I can put things into perspective for my listeners, so they’ll see that there is a strain of humor. And it’s not always just a Jewish strain of humor. But comedy does serve me. I think it should serve anybody in a public role.

I think it pleases my audiences sometimes when I go off track and digress. My producers sometimes tell me that on occasion I’ll bomb. But I think a good Jewish sense of humor can serve you very well in almost any career in life—even a public one.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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