What Is Your Favorite Jewish Joke—And Why?
Jokes, including the Jewish variety, are a staple of Western civilization. Some Jewish jokes have been around for centuries and are passed from generation to generation; others might have made their first appearance this week. It turns out that even the Talmud is teeming with surprising zingers. Twitter too.
A first-rate Jewish joke—whether told by a Talmudic sage, Sigmund Freud, Joan Rivers, Jerry Seinfeld, Sarah Silverman or your grandmother—does more than make you laugh; it illuminates complex corners of the Jewish psyche, culture and history. That’s why we’ve asked joke tellers, writers and scholars to share their favorite Jewish joke and explain why it’s funny or meaningful. Fair warning: Some jokes in this collection will make you laugh, others will make you groan and grimace, and many are for mature audiences only. All will teach you something.
Interviews by Diane M. Bolz, Suzanne Borden, Sarah Breger, Amy E. Schwartz, Lilly Gelman, Francie Weinman Schwartz, Michelle Naim, Tricia Crimmins, Ellen Wexler, George E. Johnson, Laurence Wolff, Dan Freedman
I don’t really have a favorite Jewish joke. It depends on what I’m reminded of by the joke that preceded it. For instance, if I hear a joke about Jews and priests—
Cohen has officially converted to Catholicism after months of study and is invited to address those gathered for Mass. He begins, “Fellow Goyim”…
I might think of the one about two Jews…
…Maish and Benny, who walk by a church whose sign says that anyone who converts will be given $1,000. Maish goes in to check it out. When he returns, Benny says, “Did you get the $1,000?” And Maish says, “Don’t you people ever think of anything but money?”
Whoever invented that joke was stating what is often spoken of as one of the origins of humor among a people who have so often faced prejudice: We can turn anything you say about us into something funny. In a joke included in Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish, a Jew crossing the street bumps into an anti-Semite. “Swine!” bellows the paskudnyak [nasty or contemptible person]. “Goldberg,” bows the Jew.
I have on many occasions sat around swapping Jewish jokes, but I can’t remember the last time I did that with non-Jewish jokes. (I suspect that there are academics turning out scholarly articles with titles such as “Jewish Joke Exchanging as a Form of Bonding.”) If I ever did get involved in a joke-telling session dominated by the sort of secular jokes that begin “This guy walks into a bar” or “There are three guys stranded on a remote island,” I would probably, from force of habit, say—
There are three guys—a Frenchman, a German and a Jew—making their way across the desert after their car breaks down. The German says “I’m so thirsty. I must have some beer,” and the Frenchman says, “I’m so thirsty. I must have some white wine,” and the Jew says, “I’m so thirsty. I must have diabetes.”
What makes a joke Jewish? Try that punch line spoken by somebody identified as a Presbyterian or an Irishman.
Calvin Trillin is a journalist, humorist and author of 31 books. He is a longtime contributor to The New Yorker as well as The Nation, where he currently serves as Deadline Poet.
What did the waiter say to the group of Jewish women sitting in a restaurant? “Hello, is anything okay?”
When I tell this joke, people scream laughing. They all shake their heads like, “Yes, of course.” It really says a lot about our people. In my family, we’ll go to a restaurant—my great-grandmother, my grandmother, my mother and now me—and we all complain: We complain about the food and the drinks, the heat and the cold. It’s cooked too much, it’s not cooked enough. We have to switch seats all the time, there’s too much of a draft. I have this new joke in my act where I say, “I had lunch with my mother the other day, and she looked up at me and said, ‘I didn’t like this chicken salad.’ And I’m like, ‘It didn’t even come yet.’”
When I was a kid, I used to be so uncomfortable with this kvetching. My grandmother would go to restaurants looking for something to complain about. She would always be kind to people, say thank you and tip well—but she’d be constantly complaining, and I would be so mortified and embarrassed. But then I would make fun of her, we’d all make fun of each other, and we’d crack up about it. We’re aware of it, that’s the thing. We complain a lot, and we own it.
Jessica Kirson, a comedian, is the producer of Hysterical, a documentary about women in stand-up comedy, and host of the podcasts “Disgusting Hawk” and “Relatively Sane.”
A young Jewish boy, being an obedient son, goes to the bakery to deliver a message from his mother to a very busy and very overworked baker. As the baker is working, the boy yells out, “My momma says there was a fly in the raisin bread.” The baker continues at his task, hardly taking notice. So the boy yells out again, “My momma says there was a fly in the raisin bread.” The baker, wishing to put an end to the nuisance, says, “Fine. So bring me the fly, I’ll give you a raisin.”
To me, this joke—which was a reliable quickie in comedian Myron Cohen’s act—captures so much of Jewishness and Jewish humor. There is the underlying message of, “The big tragedy of your life in this moment may not be the biggest tragedy. Worse things can happen.” It also captures Jewish sechel, or common sense. And it avoids any capitulation of “I made a mistake” or “I will compensate you for my mistake.” The joke doesn’t go to what we expect, which is that the baker should be horrified that his product and facility are tainted. He should be bending over backward to make amends and retain his customer. Instead, from a people with a history that includes slavery, plagues, pogroms, displacement and the Holocaust, comes the simple declaration that says, “There are millions of people that hate us, misunderstand us and want to wipe us out and you’re worried about a fly?” Jewish practicality and realism all mushed together in a short joke. Gorgeous.
Jason Alexander is an actor and comedian best known for his role as George Costanza on Seinfeld (1989-1998), for which he won several Primetime Emmy and Golden Globe awards.
A man gets on a train. He’s going from Grand Central Station in New York City to Chicago. It’s a fairly lengthy train trip, which is a good thing, because he’s going there to deliver a lecture on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, a book he hasn’t actually opened in the last 15 years. So he gets onto the train, sits down, takes out his copy of The Phenomenology of Spirit, which he’s planning to review on this lengthy train ride, and as he’s doing this an older Jewish man comes in, excuses himself and sits down opposite. For a while everything is fine. The man reads his book. Then, about half an hour outside New York, the old man leans back in his seat and looks up at the ceiling and says “Oy, am I thoisty!” Fifteen seconds later, he does the same thing. And then 15 seconds after that he does it again. The guy with the Hegel book realizes this will go on as long as the other man is thirsty, so he sighs, marks his place in the book, gets up, walks down the corridor all the way to the end of the car where there’s one of those fountain things with Dixie cups, fills one, gets about ten steps back, thinks better of it, turns around, goes back, takes another Dixie cup and fills it too. So he’s walking the aisle of this moving train, very gingerly trying to balance two full cone-shaped paper cups of water without spilling too much onto his suit. He gets back to his seat. The old man hasn’t noticed anything. He’s just sitting there going, “Oy, am I thoisty!” The professor hands the old man the cup. The old man takes the cup, his eyes shining with gratitude, and drains it. Before he can say anything, the professor gives him the other cup, and he drains that too. The professor goes past him to his seat where he’s left his Hegel, picks up the book, opens to the marked page, reads about three words, and the old man goes, “Oy, was I thoisty!”
You can’t tell this joke too fast. It needs some room to stretch.
There’s so much going on here. The tension between the Jewish and the, if not non-Jewish, at least assimilated worldview, the false naïveté on the part of the old man, who knows damn well he’s disturbing an entire train full of people, the total deflation of the other guy’s hopes and dreams. He thinks, OK, we have a problem, and the problem is solvable. But he hasn’t dealt with this kind of thing before. He doesn’t understand the old man’s underlying assumption, which is that complaining, kvetching, isn’t simply a response to adverse circumstances or imperfect conditions—which would make logical sense—but is a way of life that has nothing to do with the fulfillment or frustration of desire. And that’s what’s amazing about Yiddish-speaking Jews. They broke the satisfaction barrier! Other people only complain when there’s something to complain about. The old guy in the joke understands you can also express contentment by means of a complaint. So kvetching becomes a way of exerting some control over a hostile universe. I think this joke penetrates to the heart of the Ashkenazi Jewish mindset.
Michael Wex is the author of Born to Kvetch, Rhapsody in Schmaltz and many other books.
How many Jewish mothers does it take to change a lightbulb? None: “I’ll sit in the dark.”
It’s such an old Jewish joke, but it just makes me laugh so much. It really encompasses the whole victim martyr syndrome. I can just visualize, “No, no, I’m fine; no, no, let me suffer.” The joke is so guilt-ridden, but it’s because it’s so true. This idea that we are going to suffer in silence when we’re never silent—what are you talking about? We don’t shut up. I had the ultimate Jewish mother, and I think unfortunately, I am also the ultimate Jewish mother, and we Jewish mothers know how to get what we need.
When I did my show 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother, so many times people would come up to me after the show and say, “I’m Baptist and my mother is exactly like yours.” There is universality to mother guilt. I know that Catholics have perfected it. I think Jewish guilt is based on real trauma, this overprotective “I’ll just wither away here.” It’s so passive-aggressive, it screams, “Please pay attention to me.” This idea of “Don’t worry about me,” which is the complete opposite of “Please worry about me, please think about me 24 hours a day, please call me every minute of every day.”
Judy Gold, a comedian with stand-up specials on HBO, Comedy Central and LOGO, hosts the podcast “Kill Me Now.” Her latest book is Yes, I Can Say That: When They Come for the Comedians, We Are All in Trouble.
A Jewish woman in a hospital says to the doctor that she wants to be transferred. The doctor says, “What is it, the food?” She says, “The food is fine. I can’t kvetch.” “Is it the room?” he says. “No,” she says, “the room is beautiful. I can’t kvetch.” “What about the staff? Is there a problem with the staff?” She says, “No. They’re beautiful people. I can’t kvetch.” “So why do you want to be transferred?” he asks. “I can’t kvetch,” she says.
What makes this joke funny? I’ll give you the simplest answer first. You laughed. That’s the empirical part. Second, it is structured as a joke is supposed to be structured. It leads you down a path where it’s going one way and then there’s the surprise at the end, the punch line. When you learn the punch line, your entire conceptualization of what has happened reverses and there’s a moment of confusion. In the end, it is both logical and illogical, makes sense but it doesn’t make sense. And that tension, that double vision, is relieved by some kind of deeper understanding. In fact, the woman wouldn’t really want to be transferred.
Of course she has to be Jewish for this joke to make any sense. We’re using the word kvetch, right? Kvetch is a Yiddish word that is kind of a right to complain or to take pleasure in complaining. Complaining is a way of coping and existing. That’s what it says about Jewish life—that being uncomfortable is our comfort zone. You don’t kvetch about horrible things. If the worst thing you’ve got happening is a thing you can kvetch about, then you’re in a good place.
That’s a quintessentially Jewish perspective. When things are going good, we should think about them as a little bit bad. When things are going badly, we should try to make it a little bit better through jokes. We make sure that we always have some problems, because if we don’t, and I’m making a big generalization, we should create some just so we can keep in shape. That’s the insight. Jokes like this are very insightful.
There are so many wonderful Jewish jokes and we can say absolutely, we have the best jokes. All the world has humor. We just happen to have the best.
Here’s the other reason that this is a Jewish joke. It’s by Jews about Jews, and it is both ridiculing Jews and loving them. There are so many wonderful Jewish jokes and we can say absolutely, we have the best jokes. All the world has humor. We just happen to have the best.
Bob Mankoff is an American cartoonist, editor and author. He was the cartoon editor for The New Yorker for nearly 20years.
The Mexican Jew dies and goes to heaven. And God is waiting there. The Mexican Jew says, “Oh, I never won the lottery. You never allowed me to win it.” He delivers a whole diatribe about not winning the lottery. And God says in Spanish—in a very Mexican Spanish—“Well, you didn’t win the lottery because you never bought a ticket.”
I’ve heard this delicious joke in English and in French but I first heard it in Spanish in Mexico. It’s like a Hasidic story to me. If you’re not going to take control of your own destiny, stop complaining to God. Luck is something you bring to yourself, it doesn’t just happen. I don’t know how this joke started and I don’t know which Mexican Jew adapted it, but I like the fact that God responds in a very Mexican Jewish accent.
You hear a lot of the same type of humor in the United States that you hear in Israel, Canada, France, Argentina, Colombia or Mexico. It’s neurotic humor. It’s the hypochondriac humor of the person who feels that the earth is shaking and is thinking I’m going to die and this is my last moment. In Mexico we say that the joke will arrive much faster than the ambulance. If there’s an earthquake in Mexico City, even before the first responders make it, there’s already somebody telling a joke about it. You can see your house on fire or your neighbor being run over, and you will be cracking a joke. Mexican and Jewish jokes are very connected in that they are very speedy. They show up incredibly fast after some tragedy, with the Jewish twist, and the twist often has to do with how we are being targeted for something or how someone is about to kill us, but we still want to make a joke before we die.
Ilan Stavans is a professor of humanities and Latino culture at Amherst College and host of NPR’s “In Contrast.” Among other things, he writes about humor. He was born in Mexico.
A seriously Orthodox family is unhappy that their rebellious and entitled 28-year-old son still isn’t married, so to move things along they bring in a shadchan, a matchmaker. As you’d expect, the shadchan asks the young man a number of questions about himself and the kind of partner he might want to meet, and the son responds as you also might expect: She should be attractive, well-educated, spirited, intelligent, with a good sense of humor, and so on.
Three weeks later the shadchan returns and meets with the boy and his family. He tells them about Rifka, who is beautiful, educated, comes from a wonderful family, is eager to have children, and meets all the other requirements that the young man and his parents have mentioned. The parents are already planning the wedding, but their son seems hesitant. “Is something wrong?” says the shadchan. “Well, I meant to ask you,” the son says. “This girl, is she good in bed?” The parents are shocked, but if the shadchan is fazed, he doesn’t show it. “Well,” he replies, “that’s a tough one. Some say yes, some say no.”
What I love about this joke is that it plucks a well-known character from traditional Jewish humor and inserts him, unexpectedly, into our own era. Shadchan jokes are a mainstay of our people’s humor, and important enough to merit several mentions in Freud’s 1905 study of humor—most of it Jewish—Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. It would be fun to balance this joke with a similarly updated one about another classical Jewish character, the schnorrer. I haven’t found one yet, but I’ll keep looking.
William Novak has written and coauthored some two dozen books, including, most recently, Die Laughing: Killer Jokes for Newly Old Folks. He is the coauthor with Moshe Waldoks of The Big Book of Jewish Humor.
SUSAN RUBIN SULEIMAN
A prospective bridegroom is taken by the shadchan to the home of a potential bride. The bridegroom takes one look at her and whispers to the shadchan, “Why did you bring me here? She’s old, she’s ugly, she has bad teeth, she squints and she seems to have a limp.” And the shadchan replies, “You don’t need to lower your voice, she’s also deaf.”
In Freud’s study of humor Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, he tells many jokes, including a whole batch about Jewish marriage brokers, or shadchans. They’re quite hilarious. This one is my favorite. Freud makes some interesting comments about this joke. Its underlying truth, the source of the pleasure that makes us burst out laughing, he says, is how good it feels when someone just blurts out the truth. The shadchan is always depicted in these jokes as a poor man trying to eke out a living by arranging matches, and many of the other jokes are about the kinds of false reasoning he relies on to show the bridegroom how good the match would be—“She has a hump? Well, you know she won’t be unfaithful!” In this instance the shadchan succumbs to what Freud calls “automatism,” the way you sometimes just can’t help automatically adding one more item to a list, in this case of the bride’s disadvantages.
Freud says that every joke involves at least three people: the teller of the joke; the person to whom the joke is told, for whom it’s supposed to cause pleasure; and the butt, the person or thing against whom the joke is directed. He argues that in all good jokes, there is an element of hostility, of aggression. The person who “gets” the joke is laughing at somebody or something. In this joke, are we laughing at the marriage broker because he’s such a liar, at the parents, or at the bridegroom who is in a position of finding himself a bride through this degrading means? In a way we’re laughing at the whole system, as Freud says, “the disgracefulness of marriage conducted in this fashion.” Freud doesn’t even mention another possibility, that the butt of the joke is the poor “ugly and old” prospective bride. From that perspective, the joke’s aggression can be seen as directed at the woman, with the prospective bridegroom and the shadchan engaging in male bonding over her flaws.
It’s clearly a Jewish joke—the word shadchan gives it away. Freud had moved away some distance from his Jewish background, and his relations to it were very complicated. It’s interesting that he never really talks about the Jewishness of the shadchan. This is quite an early work, published in 1905, just a few years after The Interpretation of Dreams. That book also has things in it that are obviously Jewish but that are not treated that way. He’s writing for an audience that knows what a shadchan is, but he doesn’t really acknowledge this.
Susan Rubin Suleiman is emerita professor of the civilization of France and of comparative literature at Harvard University. Her memoir is Budapest Diary: In Search of the Motherbook.
An old Jewish man and his old Jewish wife are in bed together. The wife says to the husband, “Can you get up and close the window? It’s cold outside.” And he says, “If I close the window, it’ll be warm outside?”
This sort of comeback says a lot about a certain kind of Jewish comedy—coming to a conclusion that doesn’t really address the main issue at all. Of course, the husband is both right and wrong at the same time, and I think that’s where some of the loveliness of the humor comes from. There’s a problem, there’s pain (even if it’s a minor pain of just a cold room), and this husband waves
it away with this illogically logical line.
I think this short joke—I went with the shortest one I could think of—speaks to the largest of questions: What is Jewish comedy doing? Is it helping people? Is it therapeutic? Does it help people cope, with anti-Semitism, with God’s seeming unfulfillment of his covenantal promises? Or has it somehow reinforced the failures; is it a reminder of how useless all of this is?
Maybe the wife will laugh and go back to sleep; or maybe she’ll be unsatisfied and cold and furious with her husband. And in some ways that’s exactly what the two choices are in terms of what Jewish comedy may or may not do: alleviating pain with humor, or reminding you of how insufficient the comedy is to alleviate the pain.
It’s got to be a decades-old joke. Maybe today we’re reading this more sensitively than its first listeners did, as a husband who is cruel to his wife, right? But maybe not. I’m not sure that the joke would have worked in the first place if there wasn’t a little bit of a sting to it.
Jeremy Dauber teaches Yiddish and American studies at Columbia University, where he is also the director of the Institute of Israel and Jewish Studies. He is the author of Jewish Comedy: A Serious History.
MICHAL BAR-ASHER SIEGAL
It is very hard to pick one favorite joke in the Talmud, because the rabbis are hilarious all the time, even if they don’t always mean to be. What is amazing is that these texts, which are about 1,500 years old, still make me, and my students, laugh! I chose a sequence of three related stories in Tractate Berachot 62a of the Babylonian Talmud, which are really one joke, not only because they are extremely funny, but for what they say about the history of the text and about Jewish life in general.
Rabbi Akiva follows Rabbi Yehoshua into the bathroom, and peeks through the gap in the stall while Rabbi Yehoshua is going to the bathroom. He tells us what he learned. He learned how he should wipe his behind, how one should stand or sit while doing whatever he is doing in the toilet. Rabbi Akiva is telling this in the study house! Hearing this, his student, Ben Azai, looks at him and says, “How dare you? How could you do this?” And Rabbi Akiva answers back, looking very serious, and says, “This is Torah, and we need to learn it!”
This is followed by a second story where Ben Azai, the one who said, “How dare you!” then says, “You know what, I went and I checked on Rabbi Akiva when he went to the bathroom; I checked and he is doing what he told us he is supposed to do!” Rabbi Yehuda says to him, “How dare you do it! You just said that this is unacceptable!” And Ben Azai says, “Yes, but I learned that this is Torah, and I need to learn it!”
The third story is about Rav Kahana, who goes under the bed of Rav (his teacher) and he hides under the bed while Rav has intercourse with his wife. And he is so surprised by what he hears above his head, that he exclaims, in the middle of the act, “Whoa! That sounds like they’re having a lot of fun! And I’m very surprised by it.” Rav is so surprised hearing a voice under the bed that he says, “What are you doing here!” Rav Kahana answers him with the punch line: “This is Torah, and I need to learn it!”
These stories take on what the whole rabbinic project is about—the authority rabbis have over students and that their teachings touch on every aspect of life—and they say, let’s examine that project by taking it to the extreme and by using humor. A good joke has to involve the very basic, smelly, sweaty parts of life—peeing, pooping, having sex. The rabbis ask the big question: How far do we go with this idea of following our masters, learning everything, copying our masters in everything? The rabbinic authors know that this way of life can lead to extreme, absurd situations. They don’t shy away from anything and are very open and aware of what they are doing. It is a very rabbinic thing to do.
Michal Bar-Asher Siegal is a professor of Jewish thought at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and author of Jewish-Christian Dialogues on Scripture in Late Antiquity: Heretic Narratives of the Babylonian Talmud.
What did the Jewish mother say to her porn actress daughter after a gang bang? “You were the best one.”
This is an original written by [the late songwriter] Adam Schlesinger. (He said I could have it, even!) I love it because the Jewishness being made fun of here is that Jewish mothers are so freaking proud of their children, no matter what. I love that.
Sarah Silverman is an actor and comedian. She recently created and hosted the Emmy-nominated Hulu talk seriesI Love You, America. She currently hosts “The Sarah Silverman Podcast.”
RUTH R. WISSE
A Jew has converted to Christianity. Very shortly after his conversion, the priest comes around on a Friday to check on him to see how he is doing. He is appalled to see that the man is eating meat. He says, “You have just been converted. You did so, knowing the rules of the church, and here you are so soon after your conversion, already eating meat on a Friday against Catholic law.” And the Jew says, “Oh Father, don’t worry about it. I did exactly what you did! I sprinkled water over it, and I said, ‘Turkey, turkey, you’re a fish!’”
This joke does not work for contemporary audiences, because even Christians might not know that Catholics were not allowed to eat meat on Friday. But everyone of a certain generation would have gotten that.
The joke for me always starts with the punch line—“Turkey, turkey, you’re a fish!” This was less anti-Catholic than it sounds. It actually made fun of those who took conversion seriously. The joke belittled, ridiculed and played down the importance of formal conversion. In the late-19th and early-20th centuries, thousands of Jews were converting to Christianity in order to be able to enter the university, to be allowed to live in major cities like Kiev and St. Petersburg. There were so many restrictions against Jews that were lifted if you converted that for many it was just, as [the German poet and literary critic Heinrich] Heine said, “the ticket of entry to Western civilization.” The numbers were quite staggering, so there were many such jokes about the inauthenticity of the act.
This joke serves me a little differently. I use it within Jewish life, within modern life. It’s about the ease with which people are willing to rationalize the fact that they are abandoning principle, articles of faith, leaving important markers of identity. They just substitute one set of values for another! And they say, “Oh, this is Jewish!” For example, what is Judaism? It’s social justice! Tikkun olam! Nowadays people too casually trade in one marker of identity for another. This joke originally was composed to justify deceptions of convenience, in a time of repression and threat. But I use it more to question facile rationalization, justification for the abandonment of what should be preserved.
When I am trying to point out that someone has falsified the rules but pretends innocence, as if nothing serious were at stake, I say, “Oh really, ‘Turkey, turkey, you’re a fish!’” And then the person looks at me, and says, “What is this about?” Aha! Then I have my chance to tell the whole joke, and, if necessary, to explain, which real humor never does. Everybody knows that if you have to explain a joke, the joke is dead. To have to explain that Catholics have to eat fish on Fridays, that would ruin everything. But for my purposes, making my point, it doesn’t really matter if I annihilate the humor. What matters to me is the power of this joke, of this folk creation. If you can use a joke in this way, it diffuses whatever tension there was, and very often it can seal the point you are making, because it is funny. It allows the conversation to continue.
Ruth R. Wisse is professor emerita of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard University, and currently a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Tikvah Fund. Her latest book is No Joke: Making Jewish Humor.
A synagogue is having an ongoing dispute that started small, but is now getting completely out of hand. It’s over whether you sit or stand during the Shema. The argument is incredibly bitter. There are people who are not talking to each other. There are people who are threatening to leave the synagogue unless they get their way. Family relationships have been destroyed.
The rabbi doesn’t know what to do, so he finds out that one of the founders of the synagogue, old Mr. Bernstein, is still alive in the Hebrew Home. He sits on the porch in a wheelchair when the delegations for each viewpoint pay a call. Before the rabbi can complete his opening spiel, one of the partisans bursts forth: “Mr. Bernstein, Mr. Bernstein, isn’t it the tradition in our synagogue that you stand during the Shema, so as to show your respect to God?” After a couple of seconds pass, he just shakes his head slightly and says “No.” So an advocate from the other side says: “So, isn’t the tradition in our synagogue that we always sit to show our humility before God?” Mr. Bernstein shakes his head and again says “No.”
The rabbi and the rest of the delegation look at each other. Finally the rabbi says, “Mr. Bernstein, that can’t be right. It has to be one or the other because the synagogue is tearing itself apart. There are people who hate each other and families that aren’t speaking to each other and we’ve practically got fist fights in the parking lot. We’re just constantly at each other’s throats.” And old Mr. Bernstein smiles, nods and says, “That’s the tradition!”
This is my favorite Jewish joke because like all good jokes it captures an essential truth: As Jews we are obstreperous by nature. I heard it from my brother, who is a rabbi. But it’s not exclusive to Jews. Oftentimes there is no right answer. That’s the norm. As old Mr. Bernstein says, that’s the tradition. And I like that. In a weird way, it’s both depressing and hopeful. I’m getting a little philosophical here, but I just love the idea that we’ve been around all this time, and yet nothing is settled. You’d expect that after thousands of years, everything would be. But in a very real sense, nothing ever gets decided. Except the indecision.
Peter Sagal is the host of the comedy game show “Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me” on NPR.
Old Rabbi Cohen retires to a nursing home, and a new young rabbi is employed by the community. On his first Shabbat in his new post, they are about to start reading from the Torah when a huge, heated argument breaks out over whether you should stand or sit during the reading of the Ten Commandments. The following day, the traumatized young rabbi goes to visit his predecessor and asks him, “Rabbi Cohen, I need your advice. What is the custom of our community when we read the Ten Commandments?” Rabbi Cohen replies, “Why do you ask?” “Well, because yesterday we read the Torah portion containing that important section, and half of the community sat, while half of the community stood, and the ones who were sitting were yelling and screaming at the ones who were standing and the ones who were standing were yelling and screaming at the ones sitting!” “Ah,” replied Rabbi Cohen, “now that’s our custom.”
As a young child growing up in a traditional home, we often spent Shabbat and Jewish holidays with my paternal grandparents. All of the men on that side of the family were funny and after lunch they would gather in the living room, recline on the armchairs and sofa, loosen their belts from the enormous meal and try to competitively out-joke each other. The women would be in the kitchen, chatting, making coffee, clearing up. I would sit on the staircase, listening to the men, desperately wanting to be in the room where the comedy happened. I’d hear them tell those old Jewish jokes over and over from my seat on the stairs, “She had a hat!” “I’ll just sit in the dark!” “His brother was worse!” Those stories are the soundtrack of my childhood. They are like family, as they gently, or not so gently, shine a light on the familiar behaviors that are part of our shared psyche.
I love this joke’s punch line, “That’s our custom,” because it’s an exaggeration, but only a slight one! It sounds like something that could happen in any synagogue. In fact, last weekend there was a dispute in mine (about when or if you say the Prayer for Dew) that my husband was still mentioning over our kugel two hours later. There is something comforting about the way we disagree, and it fascinates me how what sounds like an apocalyptic-level clash of views can blow over in a moment, while a tiny petty grudge can become a broyges [dispute] that lasts through many generations. We know how to put effort into our disagreements; that’s what’s kept us alive.
Rachel Creeger, a comedian, writer and director, is the only Orthodox Jewish woman on the British comedy circuit. She cohosts the podcast, “Jew Talkin’ To Me?”
The best Israeli jokes of the past weeks are the memes of the Iron Dome vs. Hamas rockets. Everything you need to know about Israeli humor you can find there. I think it’s really Jewish/Israeli to make fun of fucking rockets while they are flying over our heads. Here are two, but there are many more.
Right: Male orgasm, Left: Female orgasm
Right: Me explaining to guests directions on how to get from the (city) gate to my house. Left: Guests
Here’s another recent joke:
A policeman in Lod (where the riots were) is talking to a Jewish person.
Policeman: “Come with me to the precinct please.”
Jewish person: “Why?! Because I’m Jewish?!”
Policeman: “No, because I’m scared of walking alone.”
As Judaism changes, so have its comic stereotypes. In Israel, over the years, the Jewish stereotype, and the jokes as well, have blended with the Israeli stereotype. Comic-wise, the Israeli Jew is just an Israeli. Need proof? Go to a random Israeli stand-up show. You won’t hear Jewish jokes. But you’ll hear tons of “Israeli jokes.” We’re rude, loud, warm, we hate being suckers, think we know better, our wives control us, and we love free stuff. And yes, sometimes we like to complain, but no more than the average goy.
Yonatan Gruber is an Israeli stand-up comedian, screenwriter, improv actor and teacher.
A rabbi, a priest and a Baptist minister are talking about who is the best at what they do. Is it the priest, the minister or the rabbi? So, they decide to separately go into the woods and convert a bear. Whoever is the best at converting a bear is the best at what they do. So, a week later they meet and they ask the priest: “How did it go?” and he says: “It was fantastic! I read to him from the Bible, and Sunday morning he was in the front row of the church.” Then they say to the minister: “How did it go for you?” The minister says, “Fantastic! I found the bear in the woods, I gave him one of my sermons, I took him down to the lake and baptized him and Sunday morning he was in the front row of my church!” Then they look at the rabbi and he’s in a body cast from head to toe. So they say, “What happened to you?” He goes, “Well, I shouldn’t have started with circumcision.”
Picture this person in a full body cast.That’s funny in itself. He’s a poor schlep. And then you find out why. A joke is not a joke without a surprise ending.
I see this joke as saying Jews are willing to keep Judaism alive at all costs. For Jews, it’s not just about the words, it’s not just about speaking, it’s about physical action too. Our mitzvahs, for instance. You have to do things: help people, cook for a sick person and don’t forget circumcision!
This is not only a joke, it’s really a short story. Jews don’t just tell jokes. Like Sholem Aleichem or Isaac Bashevis Singer, we are storytellers. As we do with our history and the Oral Law, we pass our stories down through the generations.
Mark Schiff, a stand-up comedian, actor and writer, has had HBO and Showtime specials, appeared onMad About You and written for Roseanne.
A Jewish girl becomes president and says to her mother, “You’ve got to come to the inauguration, Mom.” The mother says, “All right, I’ll go, I’ll go. What am I going to wear? It’s so cold. Why did you have to become president? What kind of job is that? You’ll have nothing but tsuris.” But she goes to the inauguration, and as her daughter is being sworn in by the chief justice, the mother turns to the senator next to her and says, “You see that girl up there? Her brother’s a doctor.”
This joke embodies all the ambivalence of the Jewish mother herself. It plays on the familiar trope of the worrying, suffering, complaining Jewish mother, and throws in “my-son-the-doctor,” whom she reveres above all else. The mother’s pride in her son, especially because he has reached the apex of Jewish aspirations (a doctor!) blinds her to her daughter’s great achievement. After all, she is the president! While the daughter’s accomplishment reveals that this is a brand new world, the mother-son adoration suggests otherwise, presenting the useful lesson that despite shifting cultural norms, stereotypes endure and remain central to comedy. You see the juxtaposition of what’s new and what’s old, and it’s funny because it’s contradictory, and you laugh at it precisely because it is familiar. Here you have the Jewish daughter who’s president. How unusual is that? But you still have the Jewish mother.
I wrote a book on the Jewish mother quite a while ago, and when I went around and talked about it, people would respond as if the Jewish mother caricature still existed, even though the conditions that it describes were really from two generations ago. They don’t apply today. We have so many different kinds of mothers with different characteristics, but this caricature or the stereotype has endured. I think you can see why there are such things called stereotypes; they’re potent. They remain, despite changes in lifestyle, changes in culture, changes in gender roles.
Joyce Antler is professor emerita of Jewish history and culture, and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Brandeis University. She is the author of You Never Call, You Never Write: A History of the Jewish Mother.
When you tell a peasant a joke, he laughs three times: once when you tell it, once when you explain it, and once when he understands it. When you tell a Polish nobleman a joke, he laughs twice: once when you tell it, and once when you explain it; but he never actually understands it. When you tell a Russian officer a joke, he only laughs once. He’ll never understand it, and if you try to explain it to him, he might put you in jail. When you tell a Jew a joke, he interrupts you to say that he’s already heard it, and, by the way, you’re telling it wrong.
This joke is very representative of the Jew’s place in society in the Pale of Settlement, the area of the Russian Empire to which the Jews were restricted during the 19th century. The position of the Jew is that he is a completely separate cultural entity. He speaks a different language, Yiddish, and he is a minority. He is surrounded by the peasantry but often works for the Polish nobles, so he is at their beck and call, even though the nobles don’t have any power anymore. Russian officers are the military administrators, so Jews have to heed their orders too.
This kind of joke was a way to make these three groups that the Jews typically had difficulties with look stupid. When you’re powerless, if you can make your enemy look stupid, that gives you some kind of power. That’s what the joke teller is doing. He is making fun of everyone, himself included. He’s oppressed by all three of these figures in different ways, but he comes out on top. Not only is he smart enough to get the joke, but the other Jew he is telling it to can tell it better. The next Jew is smarter than the one before—or at least he thinks so.
What I like about the punch line—when you tell a Jew a joke he interrupts you—is the concept of Jews talking to one another, interrupting one another, talking over each other. This is a Jewish conversational phenomenon linguists call cooperative overlapping. On the surface it seems rude, but it’s actually a method of engagement showing interest and appreciation for what the other person is saying, if in somewhat of an odd way. There’s a sense that there’s an informality between Jews, whether they know each other or not, that allows them to interrupt each other and tell each other straight out, “You’re telling this joke wrong.”
Eddy Portnoy is a writer and Yiddish historian. He is a senior researcher and exhibition curator at YIVO and the author of Bad Rabbi: And Other Strange but True Stories from the Yiddish Press.
I use this joke in my routine a lot, and you have to imagine that I’m talking like a Hasidic lady:
I met this couple and they were shanah rishonah [first year]. I turn to her and ask, “Wow, you guys look so happy, how long have you been together?” The girl turns to her husband and shyly answers, “Well, it feels like two days.” And me being married 25 years, I say, “Yeah, my marriage also feels like two days, Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av.”
Every person who’s been married for a long time can relate to this joke. When we see newlyweds, and how giggly and cute they are, we’re like, “Oh honey, just wait, it’s coming. Your day will come.”
Leah Forster, a comedian who grew up in an ultra-Orthodox community, performs around the world and on her popular
A priest, a minister and a rabbi are playing golf. It is the looooongest front nine holes they’ve ever played. Maybe three hours long. They go into the pro shop to complain, and the pro says, “Oh, didn’t you know? The foursome ahead of you are all blind.” The priest says, “Forgive me Father, for I know not whereof I speak.” The minister says, “Forgive me Father, there but for the grace of God go I.” And the rabbi says, “What? They couldn’t play at night?”
It’s a good joke because it combines a sense of self-awareness with feelings or thoughts that we experience but don’t acknowledge.
This joke is a story that involves something I love—golf. It also has my favorite structure, the three national or religious representatives. It’s a good joke because it combines a sense of self-awareness with feelings or thoughts that we experience but don’t acknowledge. Jerry Seinfeld is the master of that. Some might call it cynical. Or even selfish. But it isn’t. It never hurts anyone. Don Rickles was also a master of it. It sounds like it’s mean on the surface, but it actually unites people. And it usually contains wisdom.
Richard Kind is an actor and comedian best known for his roles in Mad About You, Spin City and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Early in his career he performed with The Second City in Chicago.
My favorite Jewish joke is a seemingly throwaway line from the 2019 film Jojo Rabbit. And like any other joke, for me it really came down to timing. I first heard it while watching the movie on the plane-ride back from my grandfather’s funeral, and it cut through the sadness of the day to elicit the kind of belly laugh that only comes when you really need it. I think it made me laugh so hard because it reminded me of my Jewish grandfather’s wry and sardonic sense of humor, a product of the Mel Brooks generation that lived through World War II, and could deftly skewer both the evils and absurdity of supremacy and hate. In the movie, writer-director Taika Waititi, who is Maori and Russian Jewish, plays a satirical and imaginary version of Hitler living inside the head of a 10-year-old German boy named Jojo in the last months of the war.
The joke comes just after Jojo finds Elsa, a Jewish teenager whom his mother (a secret member of the resistance) has hidden inside his house, and is immediately confronted with everything he has been taught to hate and fear by Nazism. Astounded when Elsa disarms him of both his knife and his sense of Aryan pride, he conjures up his imaginary friend Adolf for comfort. Unable to admit that a Jew could have overpowered a German, Jojo chalks his defeat up to mythical Jewish mind control powers. Pacing toward the camera, Waititi as Hitler exclaims:
“Typical! And did you see how fast she moved? Like a little female Jewish Jesse Owens!”
The line isn’t in the film’s final script (which Waititi won a historic Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for writing) and was likely improvised, but it stuck with me for how quickly it cut to the deep insecurities of white supremacy merely by observing its fear and fixations. Growing up, my grandfather prepared his Black Jewish granddaughter for a world full of both anti-Semitism and racism with stories that exposed how easily the emptiness of white supremacy can be disproved on an even playing field. I especially loved the story of Jesse Owens, an African-American track star who won four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, snatching a propaganda coup from the hands of the Nazis, who hoped to use the events to demonstrate the supremacy of their Aryan ideal. That Owens is the first thing that Jojo’s imagined Führer thinks of when he has to describe something fast is a distillation of one of the themes of the film, that the oppressed hold power over the minds of those who would degrade us. And the line is even funnier coming out of the mouth of the exact kind of person Hitler would have abhorred most, a mixed-race Polynesian Jew. The joke, just like the Jewish humor my grandfather passed down, is both an art and a survival trait. It’s a reminder that when we laugh at the bigotry and hubris of those who would rob us of our power, we take some of that power back.
Rebecca Pierce is a Black Jewish filmmaker and writer based in San Francisco and a filmmaker-in-residence with the Jewish Film Institute. Her comedy writing has been produced for the stage and screen by the San Francisco sketch comedy theatre company Killing My Lobster.
A grandmother and her beloved grandson are at the beach. They’re playing near the shore. Suddenly a giant wave comes and sweeps the boy out to sea. The grandmother is beside herself with grief. She drops to her knees. She’s weeping and sobbing and implores God to return her little one. Lo and behold, another giant wave comes and deposits him back on the shore, unharmed. The grandmother embraces him and, overwhelmed with gratitude, thanks God over and over and over. Then she pauses, looks up and says to God, “But where’s his little hat?”
I have heard this joke in two ways. One where the grandmother, at the end, sort of shrewishly, accusingly yells at God: “He had a hat.” But I prefer the one where she’s more matter-of-fact. Not yelling or accusing. Just, like…asking. Because, you know, there was a hat involved. “Where’s his little hat?” I also like the addition of “little,” which to me makes it funnier. “Little hat” cracks me up for some reason.
The joke says something about the personal relationship that Jews feel with God. My mother used to look out the window of her car when she found a good parking space and say, “Thank you, God.” He is the Father, the Creator of all, the God of the Old Testament. In Judaism, there aren’t intermediaries such as saints and Jesus, and Mary, and then the Pope and all of that. There is God. But that doesn’t mean that when the little hat goes missing, you don’t notice it.
Roz Chast is a staff cartoonist for The New Yorker where since 1978, she has published more than 800 cartoons. Her latest book is Going into Town: A Love Letter to New York.
I used to date Gentile women and…I dated this girl, she’d just stare out the window all day long and I’d be like “What’s wrong?” and she’d be like, “You wouldn’t even understand if I told you.” What the fuck am I supposed to do with that? With my Jewish girlfriend I don’t have to guess what’s wrong. She comes in the room and she’s like “MY STOMACH HURTS!” And then we can move on from there.
I love this joke from Catholic comedian John Mulaney because it takes a stereotype about Jewish women that’s always been portrayed in a negative way and spins it into a positive. We tell you what’s going on! Who wants to play emotional charades? Life is too short!
Sometimes I’ll make fun of Jewish men for not being able to fix things and people get so sensitive. Jewish men have been making fun of Jewish women for decades for being naggy, but G-d forbid I say, “You know what, Moshe, I think it’s good you’re kosher. I don’t think you could crack a lobster with those lady hands,” and suddenly guess who’s banned in the Catskills? Me. I am. But like John Mulaney, I like this about Jewish men. Gender is a construct and masculinity is often toxic. It’s a compliment!
Jess Salomon is a Canadian comedian based in New York who has appeared on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. She performs as part of the comedy duo “The El-Salomon’s” with her wife Eman El-Husseini. Their special, Marriage of Convenience, is available on YouTube.
Sophie Tucker was one of the biggest vaudevillians of the 20th century. Until motion pictures eclipsed vaudeville as the dominant form of entertainment in the 1930s, that’s what people did during the day, during their lunch hour, at night. They went to the vaudeville shows. Tucker, whose family emigrated from Russia to Connecticut when she was an infant, became a huge headliner by the 19-teens. And people just loved her. The art of her humor wasn’t just telling the jokes, it was in the way she engaged the audience. She would sit on people’s laps. She got into people’s faces.
Her humor was also wrapped up in music, and her jokes are in the lyrics of her songs. One of her best and funniest songs was “Sophie Tucker for President,” which is all about what it would be like to have a woman for president. She sings:
Sophie Tucker for President / Your candidate for 1952 / On the day that I’m elected / All you gals who’ve been neglected / Will be furnished with a lover tried and true…And here is my platform: / When I’m elected I will see to it that we women get our rights / We’ll not only have better days but more enjoyable nights / We’ve been getting the old one-two from all of you politicians / When what we want is great affection and better lovin’ conditions…What you women need is a guy like Clark Gable to call on you every night at 9 / With a big long Kosher salami and a bottle of Manischewitz wine / He’ll take care of your welfare in a manner you’ll adore / And you can call your psychiatrist and tell him you don’t need him anymore…
The premise that the job of the president was to make sure that women are sexually satisfied and empowered is especially funny in the 1950s, the era of Eisenhower and the Kinsey Report. When Kinsey put out Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, everyone loved the report about men, but no one liked the one about women because it told them that, in fact, women liked to have sex. This was a time known for traditional gender norms and a real clampdown on talking about female sexuality. So “Sophie Tucker for President,” which was more a gag than a song, is very much the opposite of what was being put out in the 1950s in presidential campaigns. That made it very funny.
Lauren Sklaroff is a professor of history at the University of South Carolina and the author of Red Hot Mama: The Life of Sophie Tucker.
H. ALAN SCOTT
I saw my first porno recently. It was a Jewish porno film, one minute of sex and nine minutes of guilt.
Joan Rivers is my personal favorite Jewish comedian of all time, hands down (Judy Gold is my second favorite), and she doesn’t get enough respect. This joke she used to tell embodies her and Jewish humor. It is, I think, so perfect because it is so Jewish. It is based on self-deprecation—having a bit of a laugh at one’s own expense and not taking oneself too seriously. This is such a Jewish quality, even though a lot of times in conversations, Jews can take themselves very seriously. This characteristic taught me a lot as a comedian and writer.
Here’s another Rivers joke:
I was the only Jewish kid in a Catholic neighborhood. They all did Hail Marys, I did Hail Murrays.
That’s funny, too, but to me it’s not necessarily a great Jewish joke because it’s just a play on a bunch of Jewish people being named Murray. The porno guilt one is great and very Jewish because it’s so steeped in overthinking things.
In Jewish humor in general there’s a sense of being an outsider, which is perfect for stand-up and for comedians because we have to describe a slice of life that people in the audience aren’t familiar with. We have to have a different perspective.
In Jewish humor in general there’s a sense of being an outsider, which is perfect for stand-up and for comedians because we have to describe a slice of life that people in the audience aren’t familiar with. We have to have a different perspective. To me, that’s what makes Jewish comedians so great. That’s what makes gay comedians so great. And that’s what makes female comedians so great. They have different narratives from what we’re used to hearing.
H. Alan Scott, a comedian, is the subject of the documentary film Latter Day Jew, which follows his journey as a gay former Mormon who converted to Judaism as he prepares for his bar mitzvah. He cohosts the gay culture podcast “You’re Making It Worse” and the Golden Girls podcast “Out on the Lanai.” He’s also known for his drag alter ego Sadie Pines.
Israeli Jews are especially funny when interpreting their daily lives through Holocaust humor. My favorite is from Israeli Twitter, where someone wrote:
“I hear loud knocks on the door. It is either the Gestapo or the pizza delivery with the pizza I ordered.”
Twitter in Hebrew is a well-known space for cynics and gallows humor fans. When we grow up in Israel, we learn about the Holocaust from kindergarten. The Holocaust is all around. Holocaust awareness in Israel is unique, because we are a post-traumatic society. We are so afraid of a second Holocaust.
In such a society, Holocaust anxiety and Holocaust remembrance are much deeper than in any other place. Its memory runs in our DNA. This is why I believe that Jewish Israelis need Holocaust humor, satire and parody more than those of us in other places in the world. People need humor in order to survive their lives. We are the victims, and we laugh about ourselves.
Jokes about the Holocaust began during the Holocaust itself. In the ghettos, in the concentration camps, people used humor as a defense mechanism. This was their way to try to create a buffer between themselves and the horrible place and time. Jewish Israelis use Holocaust jokes to create a buffer between past and present.
Liat Steir-Livny is an associate professor in the Department of Culture at Sapir Academic College. Her books include Is It OK to Laugh About It?, which analyzes Holocaust humor in Israeli culture.
My mom used to work at the Holocaust Memorial in Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. She used to give a lot of group tours. One of the group members one day asked her, “What is the most devastating document you encountered in Yad Vashem?” She looked at him and said, “My paycheck.”
I love this joke because my mom wrote it. She is an Iranian Jew who ended up as a tour guide at Yad Vashem after marrying my dad, who is the son of a Holocuast survivor. This mix of histories in Israeli society allows us to laugh at everything that happens in our lives. It’s what I love about Israeli comedy. Like other groups, we Israelis and Jews have a tendency to make fun of ourselves. As a collective, we have experienced so many terrible things that we can joke about. And the more extreme the trauma, the greater the capacity for edgier and darker humor.
When I tell Holocaust jokes to non-Jewish audiences, they’re like, “Oh my God! She’s making fun of the Holocaust.” My generation grew up on Holocaust jokes. It’s a mechanism for coping with stories from the Holocaust. Holocaust humor is part of the resilience of the Jewish people. It’s part of the process of overcoming or dealing with trauma. This joke says that life goes on, that people will continue laughing and that there’s always something to laugh about. It says that life is a combination of sorrow and happiness, grief and overcoming.
It’s a huge question in comedy about who can make these kinds of jokes. I’m a Jewish brown woman so I can basically say whatever the fuck I want. But it would be awkward for a Christian white guy to tell a Holocaust joke, unless he is trashing the hell out of white Christianity for doing it to us. It all depends on the context of the joke. In a way, there’s room for anybody to make jokes about horrific traumatic events, but they have to find the right angle and acknowledge how they’re positioning themselves.
Noam Shuster-Eliassi is an Israeli comedian and fellow at the Harvard Divinity School. She performs around the globe in Hebrew, English and Arabic. Her comedy explores identity and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Years back on Larry King Live, Marlon Brando made the shocking statement that “Hollywood is run by Jews.” In response, outraged Jewish organizations made it snow in April.
To me, these jokes show a kind of fearlessness that can typify the Jewish outlook: No matter how bad, stupid or challenging the world is, it’s also fundamentally hilarious.
For me, what makes this a good joke is where it goes beyond the setup and punch line: It dares to lampoon a potentially offensive—and dangerous—notion that has been behind millennia of anti-Semitism, namely that “Jews control everything!!!” (Which, if we did, do you think I’d be wearing this moth-eaten cardigan?) To me, it shows a kind of fearlessness that can typify the Jewish outlook: No matter how bad, stupid or challenging the world is, it’s also fundamentally hilarious. Just look at Mel Brooks’s Springtime for Hitler for the ultimate example of this. It’s a Jewish survival mechanism, and after so much practice at survival, it’s one of the best. That, and knowing how to make a fire from navel lint and static electricity.
Steven Weber is a TV actor and comedian best known for his role as Brian Hackett on the sitcom Wings (1990-1997). He appeared in the Broadway production of The Producers.
A waiter at a kosher restaurant comes up to a family and asks, “Is anything okay?”
We’re a complaining people. Maybe it shows that we have a constant dissatisfaction with the world and we’re always trying to make it better. Striving to make things better is a very Jewish idea. Even the Torah is a doctrine of betterment and a blueprint for morality, especially if you think about the time during which it was given; there were so many immoral actions that were accepted as the norm. But then Judaism came along and said, “This is not how you should live your life.” They were dissatisfied. The Jewish people had just come out of slavery, so they did have a lot to grumble about. So really the foundation of Judaism is just us kvetching in the desert.
But great dissatisfaction is what makes great comedy. You never hear a joke where the punchline is, “Everything is great.” So these jokes about dissatisfaction don’t only ring true, they also follow the rules of comedy.
More specifically, I think this joke sums up the Jewish American experience. It wouldn’t land as well in Israel. Israeli humor focuses less on complaining and more on “getting on with it.” Jews in Israel have much more serious problems to face, and complaining about food is not relevant to their Jewish life. American Jews live a more privileged life, so we have the ability to start scrutinizing the little things.
Danny Lobell is a Los Angeles-based comedian, comic book creator and podcast host. He is the creator of Fair Enough, an autobiographical comic book series about the Jewish American experience.
A Jewish man goes sailing, but ends up shipwrecked on a desert island. Years later, he’s found, but the man’s rescuers want to know why he built a structure with a Star of David on it.
The man replies, “That’s the synagogue where I pray.”
They then inquire about a separate structure he’d built, also with a Star of David.
“Ah, that,” says the man, “is the synagogue I never set foot in.”
This one is funny because it shows that having squabbles is in the very DNA of being Jewish. Even Abraham and Moses spent much of the Torah arguing with God. And I think it’s important because this extreme “big-tentism”—from the very folks who started out in tents!—of embracing many different points of view is foundational to Jewish resilience and survival.
Rob Kutner, a TV comedy writer, has worked on such shows as The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
Shmuel noticed his friend Avrum underneath a streetlight, searching for something on the ground.
“What are you doing, Avrum?”
“I’ve lost my keys. Please help me look for them.”
A while passed with no success.
“Avrum, where exactly did you lose those keys?”
“I lost them in that alley over there.”
Shmuel was dumbfounded. “So why are we looking here!?”
Avrum looked over at his friend: “Because the light is better here!”
I don’t even know if everyone would call this a joke. It’s taken from the wise men in Chelm, a series of classic tales coming from old Yiddish culture. And the Chelm stories were not just meant to get laughs, they were supposed to teach something. They often reveal a truth or something philosophical. And the ironic part is that they’re not even wise men, they’re fools.
What makes this joke funny is fairly simple. Every joke is pretty much about misdirection—setting expectations and then turning them on their head. You don’t want the audience to see it coming. If the audience sees the joke coming, it’s not funny. There’s no surprise. I mean, the laughter should be a release. But, as they say, “trying to explain comedy is like dissecting a frog. In the end, it’s not funny and the frog is dead.”
On one level, this joke is silly. It’s nonsensical. But at the same time, Jewish jokes are often intellectual or deal with wordplay and logic, and this joke deals with logic. The person in the story is dumb, but the person who wrote the joke is smart. And you can trace that back to Talmudic thinking and arguing about “if X, then Y,” and if/then statements and logic. It’s a thinking man’s joke. That, in my opinion, is what really makes it Jewish.
Benji Lovitt, an American-born comedian, made aliyah to Israel in 2006.
Two old Jewish men are talking. One says to the other, “Every morning, like clockwork, I pee at 7:30.” The other one says, “That’s great!” The first one replies, “No, it isn’t. I don’t get out of bed till 9!”
If I had to explain why this joke is funny, it’s because the answer is unexpected—and of course, we have the image in our heads of the man wetting his bed.
This joke is an illustration of what becomes important to us later in life, our bodily functions, letting us know that we’re still alive—but just barely. Alive enough to pee, but not alive or spry enough to get out of bed before the event. It has an intimacy that belies an ethnic conversation. It wouldn’t be the same if two Anglo-Saxon men were talking.
Jackie Hoffman is an actress, singer and stand-up comedian known for her roles in The Garden State, A Dirty Shame and Feud. She is a veteran of Chicago’s The Second City improv comedy group.
Sadie and Betty are having lunch. Sadie asks Betty, “Do you know Mel Rubinstein?” Betty says, “I do. Why?” Sadie says, “He asked me on a date.” Betty says, “Let me tell you about Mel Rubinstein. We went on a date two weeks ago. He pulled up in a big Cadillac with two dozen roses. We went to the best show on Broadway, tickets fifth row center. Then we went to Sardi’s for dinner. Lobster, filet, champagne, caviar. He drove me home, and I said, ‘Do you want to come in for a cup of coffee?’ No sooner did we get inside, he ripped my dress off and had me right there on the floor, twice!”
“Oh my God,” Sadie says, “What should I do?”
“Wear a schmatta,” says Betty.
The joke probably dates to the 1950s, but to me it is classic Jewish humor—high self-recognition, pragmatism, just the right touch of Yiddish. And not too dirty!
Norman Ornstein is a political scientist and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the coauthor of It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism.
A very devout Jew, Saul, is always there for minyan, he never misses shul. One day he’s at temple, and he starts praying and says, “God, I never asked you for anything, but I would like to win the lottery.” And he comes back the next week and he says, “I never asked you for nothing, I helped build this synagogue. I do everything for the Jewish people. I don’t understand it. I asked you for one thing, just one thing, and you couldn’t make it happen.” He comes back the next week, and it’s the same thing. “What kind of God are you? I never ask for anything. One time, I just wanted to get one thing from you, God.” And the heavens open up, and there’s thunder and lightning, and God speaks and says, “Saul, help me out, buy a ticket.”
I think this joke is hilarious and also resonates for me on a deep level. I love this joke so much because when you pull back the lens, even though it’s very Jewish, the truth is, if you take every action you can, God is going to help you the rest of the way. You can’t say, “I never got booked on that show.” Well, did you call, did you ask, did you submit? I can’t tell you how many times people are resentful that something hasn’t happened in their life. Well, did you at least meet them halfway?
There’s a German, a Frenchman and a Jew and they’re lost in the desert. Finally, the Red Cross rescues them. And the German says, “I’m tired, I’m thirsty, I must have some beer.” The Frenchman says, “I’m tired, I’m thirsty, I must have some wine.” And the Jew says, “I’m tired, I’m thirsty, I must have diabetes.”
This joke is so much fun. Nobody sees it coming. Everyone thinks it’s going to be naughty because they think it’s making fun of other cultures, but it’s not. It’s funny because we’re constantly kvetching about our health. It’s the most important thing!
Cory Kahaney, grand finalist on NBC’s Last Comic Standing, has had specials on Comedy Central and HBO. She hosts The Ruthless Comedy Hour, a variety show for grownups.
My first memory of comedy is when my parents took me to see Joan Rivers; I must have been around ten. I grew up in Miami Beach, and she was playing at the El Dorado or Fontainebleau. It made such a huge impression on me because she was wearing a ball gown and she was on the stage alone. I had never seen someone take a stage like that.
What makes a joke funny, for me, is when it captures an essential truth in a way I hadn’t thought of. Like this one from Rivers:
“It was a Jewish porno film…one minute of sex and nine minutes of guilt.”
This joke is two things we know about: pornos (basically it’s just sex and more sex and then more sex) and being Jewish. If we’re Jewish—it’s a bit of a stereotype, but it’s also true—we know a lot about feeling guilty for things. When I was growing up I always felt guilty around the security guards of department stores. I never once shoplifted, but I was sure guilt radiated from me. It’s probably genetic! Anyway, Joan Rivers is pairing two things we have expectations of together in an unexpected way and coming up with a new thing: Jewish porno. It’s not something we’ve ever heard of, but when she combines two known things, we can picture it—and we have to laugh.
It’s also a tightly written joke. One can only imagine the work that went into the exact wording— shorter is always harder than longer. Oops, that sounds like a terrible porno joke!
Annabelle Gurwitch is an activist, humorist and actress best known for Dinner and a Movie. A New York Times bestselling author, her most recent book is You’re Leaving When? Adventures in Downward Mobility.
The thing to know about this joke before I start is that it is somewhat visual, so I’m going to have to just describe the visual parts to you.
There’s a guy and he is driving down a country road at night, doing his best to stay awake and be a safe driver. And all of a sudden, a cat appears out of nowhere. He hits the cat, feels terrible, gets out of the car. But there’s no way this cat is going to make it. So he looks around, and finds that there is one house nearby, and he thinks this must be the house where this cat lives. So he goes over, and he wants to do the right thing, knocks on the door. A woman answers. And he says, “I’m just so sorry to tell you this, but I think I just ran over your cat.” And the woman says, “Oh, no. Well, what did the cat look like?” And at this point, the guy and the joke teller make a face that is clearly that of a run-over cat. And the woman says, “No, I mean, before you ran it over.” At this point, the guy—and the joke teller—makes a motion that is like a cat running across the street with terrified eyes as it sees an oncoming car.
Let me explain the joke’s Jewishness: One aspect is its literalness—the literal thought process of this driver and the miscommunication between the driver and the woman who was the cat owner over what it means to say, “What did the cat look like?” To me, that seems like a very Jewish question. Going over all the different versions of, what does this actually mean? The other reason the joke feels Jewish to me, and what makes it funny to me, is that this person is really trying to do the right thing, even though he could have kept driving and not paid any attention to this. He decides that he has to do the right thing and talk to this person face-to-face and then gets it so completely wrong. That also feels Jewish, even though it’s definitely not a Jewish joke on the surface.
This joke juxtaposes this minor tragedy with something incredibly absurd and stupid, which I love. And whenever I tell it, I find that I want to make this driver into more and more of a good person. And I want the beginning of the joke to feel very serious, and then the ending to just feel so silly. I think for me that’s a reality of life, that these things go hand-in-hand. Life is a series of moments of tragedies enjoyed, and stupidity.
Allison Silverman is an Emmy and Peabody award-winning TV comedy writer and producer whose credits include Russian Doll, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, The Office and The Colbert Report.
I’m Black and Jewish which means I’m proud, but I feel guilty for it.
I used this joke in my solo show Fried Chicken and Latkes. It really encompasses the intersection of both my cultures and hits that right on the head.
Fried Chicken and Latkes is about growing up Black and Jewish in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and the stereotypes that existed then, because during that time that’s all there were—stereotypes. My Jewish grandmother was a stereotype. My Black grandmother who ran a brothel was a stereotype! It addresses racism and tries to bring together the cultures—Black and Jewish and Black and white— together.
Rain Pryor, daughter of comedian Richard Pryor, is a comedian and actor. Her award-winning solo show, Fried Chicken and Latkes, is based on her life and background.
A Jewish man moves in next door to Rockefeller. He decorates his house just as Rockefeller does. He does his garden exactly the way Rockefeller does. Buys the same car that Rockefeller does. And one day Rockefeller goes up to the Jewish man and he says, ‘You think you are as good as me, don’t you?’ And the Jewish guy says, ‘No, I think I’m better.’ Rockefeller says ‘Why?’ And the Jewish guy says, ‘Well, to start with, I don’t live next door to a Jew.’
I think that this is a typical Jewish joke in the sense that we are making fun of ourselves and of the situation that we always find ourselves in. It has bite because it acknowledges that’s the way people feel and says it first. A lot of Jewish humor is the little guy punching up. Tevye is leaving Anatevka and he’s making jokes while the place is smoldering. That’s part of our heritage. We have a mindset that there’s adversity. How are we going to deal with this? And I think that humor is what keeps us going. What other choice do we have? If you go through the history of comedy, whether it’s the Marx Brothers, George S. Kaufman, whether it’s Hollywood, TV or the Broadway stage, you see there was a penchant for this kind of humor. We’re the people of the book. We love words and know the power of words, and psychologically, that’s how we make do.
Alan Zweibel is a five-time Emmy Award and Tony Award-winning comedy writer. An original writer for Saturday Night Live, he is author of Laugh Lines: My Life Making Funny People Funnier and cowriter of the screenplay for the film Here Today, starring Billy Crystal and Tiffany Haddish.