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The tradition of humor in Judaism dates back to the Torah and the Midrash from the ancient Middle East, but generally refers to the more recent stream of verbal and often anecdotal humor of Ashkenazi Jews which took root in the United States over the last hundred years, including in secular Jewish culture. European Jewish humor in its early form developed in the Jewish community of the Holy Roman Empire, with theological satire becoming a traditional way of clandestinely opposing Christianization.
Modern Jewish humor emerged during the nineteenth century among German-speaking Jews of the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment), matured in the shtetls of the Russian Empire, and then flourished in twentieth-century America, arriving with the millions of Jews who emigrated from Eastern Europe between the 1880s and the early 1920s.
Beginning with vaudeville and continuing through radio, stand-up, film, and television, a disproportionately high percentage of American, British, German, and Russian comedians have been Jewish. Time estimated in 1978 that 80 percent of professional American comics were Jewish.
Jewish humor is diverse, though it most often favors wordplay, irony, and satire, while its themes are highly anti-authoritarian, mocking religious and secular life alike. Sigmund Freud considered Jewish humor unique in that its humor is primarily derived from mocking of the in-group (Jews) rather than the "other". However, rather than simply being self-deprecating, it also contains an element of self-praise.
Jewish humor is rooted in several traditions. Recent scholarship places the origins of Jewish humor in one of history's earliest recorded documents, the Hebrew Bible, as well as the Talmud. In particular, the intellectual and legal methods of the Talmud, which uses elaborate legal arguments and situations often seen as so absurd as to be humorous, in order to tease out the meaning of religious law.
Hillel Halkin in his essay about Jewish humor traces some roots of the Jewish self-deprecating humor to the medieval influence of Arabic traditions on the Hebrew literature by quoting a witticism from Yehuda Alharizi's Tahkemoni. A later Sephardic tradition centered on a Nasreddin-derived folk character known as Djohá.
A more recent one is an egalitarian tradition among the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe in which the powerful were often mocked subtly, rather than attacked overtly—as Saul Bellow once put it, "Oppressed people tend to be witty." Jesters known as badchens used to poke fun at prominent members of the community during weddings, creating a good-natured tradition of humor as a levelling device. Rabbi Moshe Waldoks, a scholar of Jewish humor, argued:
You have a lot of shtoch, or jab humor, which is usually meant to deflate pomposity or ego, and to deflate people who consider themselves high and mighty. But Jewish humor was also a device for self-criticism within the community, and I think that's where it really was the most powerful. The humorist, like the prophet, would basically take people to task for their failings. The humor of Eastern Europe especially was centered on defending the poor against the exploitation of the upper classes or other authority figures, so rabbis were made fun of, authority figures were made fun of and rich people were made fun of. It really served as a social catharsis.
After Jews began to migrate to America in large numbers, they, like other minority groups, found it difficult to gain mainstream acceptance and obtain upward mobility (as Lenny Bruce lampooned, "He was charming. ... They said, 'C'mon! Let's go watch the Jew be charming!'"). The newly-developing entertainment industry, combined with the Jewish humor tradition, provided a potential route for Jews to succeed. One of the first successful radio "sitcoms", The Goldbergs, featured a Jewish family. As radio and television matured, many of its most famous comedians, including Jack Benny, Sid Caesar, George Burns, Eddie Cantor, Jack Carter, Henny Youngman, Milton Berle, and Jerry Lewis were Jewish. The Jewish comedy tradition continues today, with Jewish humor much entwined with that of mainstream humor, as comedies like Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Woody Allen films indicate.
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As befits a community to which religion was so important, much humor centres on the relationship of Judaism to the individual Jew and the community.
Two Rabbis argued late into the night about the existence of God, and, using strong arguments from the scriptures, ended up indisputably disproving His existence. The next day, one Rabbi was surprised to see the other walking into the shul for morning services.
"I thought we had agreed there was no God," he said.
"Yes, what does that have to do with it?" replied the other.
The part left out is the fact that it was traditional to go to services, regardless of what one believed, and the rabbi was merely following that tradition. This is like the story of the boy who tells his rabbi he can't daven (pray), because he no longer believes in God. The rabbi merely tells him, "Yes God, no God: doesn't matter! Three times a day, you DAVEN!"
Two Rabbis were discussing their problems with squirrels in their synagogue attic. One Rabbi said, "We simply called an exterminator and we never saw the squirrels again." The other Rabbi said, "We just gave the squirrels a bar mitzvah, and we never saw them again."
Jews often mock their own negative stereotypes.
Question: How can you always spot a convert to Judaism?
Answer: That's easy. They're the only normal ones in the congregation.
Similarly, in the tradition of the legal arguments of the Talmud, one prominent type of Jewish humor involves clever, often legalistic, solutions to Talmudic problems, such as:
Q: Is one permitted to ride in an airplane on the Sabbath?
A: Yes, as long as your seat belt remains fastened. In this case, it is considered that you are not riding, you are wearing the plane.
Tales of the Rebbes
Three Hasidim are bragging about their Rebbes: "My rebbe is very powerful. He was walking once, and there was a big lake in his path. He waved his handkerchief, and there was lake on the right, lake on the left, but no lake in the middle." To which the second retorted, "That's nothing. My rebbe is even more powerful. He was walking once, and there was a huge mountain in his path. He waved his handkerchief, and there was mountain on the right, mountain on the left, but no mountain in the middle!" Said the third, "Ha! That is still nothing! My rebbe is the most powerful. He was walking once on Shabbos (Saturday, the holy day in Judaism, on which it is forbidden to handle money), and there was a wallet crammed full of cash in his path. He waved his handkerchief, and it was Shabbos on the right, Shabbos on the left, but not Shabbos in the middle!"
Caesar said to Joshua ben Hananiah "Why does the Sabbath dish have such a fragrant odor?" Joshua said "We have a certain spice called Shabbat (shevet), that we put in it. "Let me have some", he requested. Joshua replied, "For those who observe Shabbat, it works; for those who don't, it doesn't."— Shabbat 119a.
Eastern European Jewish humor
A number of traditions in Jewish humor date back to stories and anecdotes from the 19th century.
Jewish folklore makes fun of the Jewish residents of Chełm (Yiddish: כעלעם, Hebrew: חלם; often transcribed as Helm) in eastern Poland for their foolishness. These stories often center on the "wise" men and their silly decisions, similarly to the English Wise Men of Gotham or the German Schildbürger. The jokes were almost always about silly solutions to problems. Some of these solutions display "foolish wisdom" (reaching the correct answer by the wrong train of reasoning), while others are simply wrong.
Many of these stories have become well-known thanks to storytellers and writers such as Isaac Bashevis Singer, a Nobel Prize-winning Jewish writer in the Yiddish language, who wrote The Fools of Chełm and Their History (published in English translation in 1973), and the great Soviet Yiddish poet Ovsey Driz who wrote stories in verse. The latter achieved great popularity in the Soviet Union in Russian and Ukrainian translations, and were made into several animated films.
Other notable adaptations of folklore Chełm stories into the mainstream culture are the comedy Chelmer Chachomim ("The Wise Men of Chelm") by Aaron Zeitlin, The Heroes of Chelm (1942) by Shlomo Simon, published in English translation as The Wise Men of Helm (Solomon Simon, 1945) and More Wise Men of Helm (Solomon Simon, 1965), and the book Chelmer Chachomim by Y. Y. Trunk. The animated short film comedy Village of Idiots also recounts Chełm tales.
Allen Mandelbaum's "Chelmaxioms : The Maxims, Axioms, Maxioms of Chelm" (David R. Godine, 1978) treats the wise men less as fools than as an "echt Chelm" of true scholars who in their narrow specialized knowledge are nonetheless knowledgeable but lacking sense. The poetry of [Chelmaxioms] is supposedly the discovered lost manuscripts of the wise men of Chelm.
Here are a few examples of a Chełm tale:
It is said that after God made the world, he filled it with people. He sent off an angel with two sacks, one full of wisdom and one full of foolishness. The second sack was much heavier. So after a time it started to drag. Soon it got caught on a mountaintop and so all the foolishness spilled out and fell into Chełm.
One Jewish Chełm resident bought a fish on Friday in order to cook it for Sabbath. He put the live fish underneath his coat and the fish slapped his face with his tail. He went to the Chełm court to submit a charge and the court sentenced the fish to death by drowning.
In Chełm, the shammes used to go around waking everyone up for minyan (communal prayer) in the morning. Every time it snowed, the people would complain that, although the snow was beautiful, they could not see it in its pristine state because by the time they got up in the morning, the shammes had already trekked through the snow. The townspeople decided that they had to find a way to be woken up for minyan without having the shammes making tracks in the snow.
The people of Chełm hit on a solution: they got four volunteers to carry the shammes around on a table when there was fresh snow in the morning. That way, the shammes could make his wake up calls, but he would not leave tracks in the snow.
The town of Chełm decided to build a new synagogue. So, some strong, able-bodied men were sent to a mountaintop to gather heavy stones for the foundation. The men put the stones on their shoulders and trudged down the mountain to the town below. When they arrived, the town constable yelled, "Foolish men! You should have rolled the stones down the mountain!" The men agreed this was an excellent idea. So they turned around, and with the stones still on their shoulders, trudged back up the mountain, and rolled the stones back down again.
A young housewife living in the town of Chełm had a very strange occurrence. One morning, after buttering a piece of bread she accidentally dropped it on the floor. To her amazement, it fell buttered side up. As everyone knows, whenever a buttered piece of bread is dropped on the floor, it always falls buttered side down; this is like a law of physics. But on this occasion it had fallen buttered side up, and this was a great mystery which had to be solved. So all the Rabbis and elders and wise men of Chełm were summoned together and they spent three days in the synagogue fasting and praying and debating this marvelous event among themselves. After those three days they returned to the young housewife with this answer: "Madam, the problem is that you have buttered the wrong side of the bread."
The sexton of the synagogue decided to install a poor box so that the fortunate might share their wealth with the needy. On shabbes eve, he announced to the congregation that a new opportunity for a mitzvoh was available. "But," one member complained, "it will be so easy for the goneffs (thieves) to steal from the box." The sexton thought long and hard that night, and announced the next day that he had found a solution. Pointing upward, he showed, the poor box was now suspended from a chain at the ceiling, high, high, high overhead. "But now how do we put money in the box?" The next week, the congregation saw the wonderful solution. A lovely circular stairway now ascended to the poor box making it easy to contribute.
Hershele Ostropoler, also known as Hershel of Ostropol, was a legendary prankster who was based on a historic figure. Thought to have come from Ukraine, he lived in the small village of Ostropol, working as shochet, a ritual slaughterer. According to legend he lost his job because of his constant joking, which offended the leaders of the village.
In his subsequent wanderings throughout Ukraine, he became a familiar figure at restaurants and inns.
Eventually he settled down at the court of Rabbi Boruch of Medzhybizh, grandson of the Baal Shem Tov. The rabbi was plagued by frequent depressions, and Hershele served as a sort of court jester, mocking the rabbi and his cronies, to the delight of the common folk.
After his death he was remembered in a series of pamphlets recording his tales and witty remarks.
He was the subject of several epic poems, a novel, a comedy performed in 1930 by the Vilna Troupe, and a U.S. television programme in the 1950s. Two illustrated children's books, The Adventures of Hershel of Ostropol, and Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, have been published. Both books were written by Eric Kimmel and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. In 2002, a play entitled Hershele the Storyteller was performed in New York City. He is also the protagonist in a new series of comics for children with the titles The Adventures of Hershele, Hershele Rescues the Captives, Hershele and the Treasure in Yerushalayim, Hershele makes the Grade, and Hershele Discovers America.
Humor about antisemitism
Rabbi Altmann and his secretary were sitting in a coffeehouse in Berlin in 1935. "Herr Altmann," said his secretary, "I notice you're reading Der Stürmer! I can't understand why. A Nazi libel sheet! Are you some kind of masochist, or, God forbid, a self-hating Jew?"
"On the contrary, Frau Epstein. When I used to read the Jewish papers, all I learned about were pogroms, riots in Palestine, and assimilation in America. But now that I read Der Stürmer, I see so much more: that the Jews control all the banks, that we dominate in the arts, and that we're on the verge of taking over the entire world. You know – it makes me feel a whole lot better!"
Or, on a similar note:
After the assassination of Tsar Alexander II of Russia, a government official in Ukraine menacingly addressed the local rabbi, "I suppose you know in full detail who was behind it."
"Ach," the rabbi replied, "I have no idea, but the government's conclusion will be the same as always: they will blame the Jews and the chimneysweeps."
"Why the chimneysweeps?" asked the befuddled official.
"Why the Jews?" responded the rabbi.
And another example, a direct slice of galgenhumor (gallows humor):
During the days of oppression and poverty of the Russian shtetls, one village had a rumor going around: a Christian girl was found murdered near their village. Fearing a pogrom, they gathered at the synagogue. Suddenly, the rabbi came running up, and cried, "Wonderful news! The murdered girl was Jewish!"
There is also humor originating in the United States, such as this joke:
During World War II, a sergeant stationed at Fort Benning gets a telephone call from a prejudiced woman.
"We would love it," she said, "if you could bring five of your soldiers over to our house for Thanksgiving dinner."
"Certainly, ma'am," replied the sergeant.
"Oh... just make sure they aren't Jews, of course," said the woman.
"Will do," replied the sergeant. So, that Thanksgiving, while the woman is baking, the doorbell rings. She opens her door and, to her horror, five black soldiers are standing in front of her.
"Oh, my!" she exclaimed. "I'm afraid there's been a terrible mistake!"
"No ma'am," said one of the soldiers. "Sergeant Rosenbloom never makes mistakes!"
This one combines accusations of the lack of patriotism, and avarice:
American Jewish humor
One common strain of Jewish humor examines the role of religion in contemporary life, often gently mocking the religious hypocrite. For example:
A Reform Rabbi was so compulsive a golfer that once, on Yom Kippur, he left the house early and went out for a quick nine holes by himself. An angel who happened to be looking on immediately notified his superiors that a grievous sin was being committed. On the sixth hole, God caused a mighty wind to take the ball directly from the tee to the cup – a miraculous shot.
The angel was horrified. "A hole in one!" he exclaimed, "You call this a punishment, Lord?!"
Answered God with a sly smile, "So who can he tell?"
An Orthodox, a Conservative, and a Reform rabbi are each asked whether one is supposed to say a beracha (blessing) over a lobster (non-kosher food, normally not eaten by religious Jews).
The Orthodox rabbi asks, "What is this...'lobster'...thing?" The Conservative rabbi doesn't know what to say, muttering about responsa. The Reform rabbi says, "What's a beracha?"
In particular, Reform Jews may be lampooned for their rejection of traditional Jewish beliefs. An example, from one of Woody Allen's early stand-up routines:
We were married by a Reform rabbi in Long Island. A very Reform rabbi. A Nazi.
Jokes have been made about the shifting of gender roles (in the more traditional Orthodox movement, women marry at a young age and have many children, while the more liberal Conservative and Reform movements make gender roles more egalitarian, even ordaining women as Rabbis). The Reconstructionist movement was the first to ordain homosexuals, all of which leads to this joke:
At an Orthodox wedding, the bride's mother is pregnant. At a Conservative wedding, the bride is pregnant. At a Reform wedding, the rabbi is pregnant. At a Reconstructionist wedding, the rabbi and her wife are both pregnant.
Often jokes revolve around the social practice of the Jewish religion:
A man is rescued from a desert island after 20 years. The news media, amazed at this feat of survival, ask him to show them his home.
"How did you survive? How did you keep sane?" they ask him, as he shows them around the small island.
"I had my faith. My faith as a Jew kept me strong. Come." He leads them to a small glen, where stands an opulent temple, made entirely from palm fronds, coconut shells and woven grass. The news cameras take pictures of everything – even a torah made from banana leaves and written in octopus ink. "This took me five years to complete."
"Amazing! And what did you do for the next fifteen years?"
"Come with me." He leads them around to the far side of the island. There, in a shady grove, is an even more beautiful temple. "This one took me twelve years to complete!"
"But sir" asks the reporter, "Why did you build two temples?"
"This is the temple I attend. That other place? Hah! I wouldn't set foot in that other temple if you PAID me!"
As with most ethnicities, jokes have often mocked Jewish accents—at times gently, and at others quite harshly. One of the kinder examples is:
One early winter morning, Rabbi Bloom was walking beside the canal when he saw a dog in the water, trying hard to stay afloat. It looked so sad and exhausted that Rabbi Bloom jumped in, and after a struggle, managed to bring it out alive.
A passer-by who saw this remarked, "That was very brave of you! You must love animals; are you a vet?"
Rabbi Bloom replied, "And vhat did you expect? Of course I'm a–vet! I'm a–freezing cold as vell!"
Jewish humor continues to exploit stereotypes of Jews, both as a sort of "in-joke", and as a form of self-defence. Jewish mothers, "cheapness"/frugality, kvetching, and other stereotyped habits are all common subjects. Frugality has been frequently singled out:
An old Jewish beggar was out on the street in New York City with his tin cup.
"Please, sir," he pleaded to a passerby, "could you spare seventy-three cents for a cup of coffee and some pie?"
The man asked, "Where do you get coffee and pie for seventy-three cents in New York? It costs at least a dollar!"
The beggar replied, "Who buys retail?"
A Catholic priest, a Reverend, and a Rabbi are discussing their income.
The Priest says: "I draw a circle on the ground, take the offering, and throw it up into the air. Any money that falls outside the circle is for the Lord, and the money that falls inside the circle is for me."
The Reverend says: "I do things almost the same, except the money that falls outside the circle is my salary, and the money that falls inside the circle is for the Lord."
The Rabbi says: "I do things quite different. I take the offering, throw it up into the air, and pray: "Lord take whatever You need, and feel free to send back the rest."
Did you hear they built the first Starbucks in Israel? There's a fork in the sugar bowl.
A Buddhist monk goes to a barber to have his head shaved. "What should I pay you?" the monk asks. "No price, for a holy man such as yourself," the barber replies. And what do you know, the next day the barber comes to open his shop, and finds on his doorstep a dozen gemstones.
Later that day, a priest comes in to have his hair cut. "What shall I pay you, my son?" "No price, for a man of the cloth such as yourself." And what do you know, the next day the barber comes to open his shop, and finds on his doorstep a dozen roses.
Later that day, Rabbi Finklestein comes in to get his payot trimmed. "What do you want I should pay you?" "Nothing, for a man of God such as yourself." And the next morning, what do you know? The barber finds on his doorstep – a dozen rabbis!
A Jewish man lies on his deathbed, surrounded by his children. "Ah," he says, "I can smell your mother's brisket – how I would love to taste it one last time before I die." So one of his sons hurries down to the kitchen, but he returns empty-handed.
"Sorry, papa. She says it's for the shiva (mourning period)."
Or, about traditional roles of men and women in Jewish families:
A boy comes home from school and tells his mother he got a part in the school play.
"That's wonderful!" says the mother, "Which part?"
"The part of a Jewish husband," says the boy, proudly.
Frowning, the mother says, "Go back and tell them you want a speaking role!"
A Jewish girl bemoans, "Finally, I meet a nice, rich Jewish boy! He's just like papa. He looks like him. He acts like him. Oy vey, mama hates him!"
Or, on parenting (from David Bader's Haikus for Jews):
Is one Nobel Prize
so much to ask from a child
after all I've done?
"Sarah, how's that boy of yours?"
"David? Ach, don't ask – he's living in Miami with a man named Miguel."
"I know – why couldn't he find a nice Jewish boy?"
Miriam and Sharon, long-time friends, are catching up on one another's lives by telephone.
"But that's enough about me," says Miriam. "I hear your son Isaac has a very successful neurology practice in Brooklyn!"
"Yes, yes," says Sharon. "I could kvell for days."
Continues Miriam, "And that's to say nothing of Reuven. Our first Jewish President of the United States... and he's your son!!"
"Ah yes," replies Sharon, disappointment creeping into her voice. "Reuven... the one who's not a doctor."
Or, on kvetching (complaining),
A Jewish man in a hospital tells the doctor he wants to be transferred to a different hospital.
The doctor says "What's wrong? Is it the food?"
"No, the food is fine. I can't kvetch."
"Is it the room?"
"No, the room is fine. I can't kvetch."
"Is it the staff?"
"No, everyone on the staff is fine. I can't kvetch."
"Then why do you want to be transferred?"
"I can't kvetch!"
An old Jewish man riding on a train begins to moan: "Oy, am I thirsty; oy, am I thirsty", to the annoyance of the other passengers. Finally, another passenger gets a cup of water from the drinking fountain and gives it to the old man, who thanks him profusely and gulps it down. Feeling satisfied, the other passenger sits down again, only to hear "Oy, was I thirsty; oy, was I thirsty".
"It contains virtually every important element of the Yiddish-speaking mind-set in easily accessible form: the constant tension between the Jewish and the non-Jewish; the faux naivete that allows the old man to pretend that he isn't disturbing anyone; the deflation of the other passenger's hopes, the disappointment of all his expectations after he has watered the Jew; and most importantly of all, the underlying assumption, the fundamental idea that kvetching—complaining—is not only a pastime, not only a response to adverse or imperfect circumstance, but a way of life that has nothing to do with the fulfillment or frustration of desire."
Many Jewish jokes involve a rabbi and a Christian clergyman, exploiting different interpretations of a shared environment. Often they start with something like "A rabbi and a priest..." and make fun of either the rabbi's interpretation of Christianity or (seeming) differences between Christian and Jewish interpretation of some areas.
A Catholic priest says to a rabbi, "It seems to me that, since the Creator made pork, He must have made it for some purpose. Therefore, it must be a sin not to use it, don't you think? So, will you finally eat some pork?"
The rabbi replies, "I will try some, Father – at your wedding."
A rabbi once asked his old friend, a priest, "Could you ever be promoted within your Church?"
The priest says, thoughtfully, "Well, I could become a bishop."
The rabbi persists, "And after that?"
With a pause for consideration, the priest replies, "Maybe I could be a cardinal, even."
After thinking for some time, the priest responds, "Someday I may even rise to be the Pope."
But the rabbi is still not satisfied. "And then?"
With an air of incredulity, the priest cries, "What more could I become? God Himself?"
The rabbi says quietly, "One of our boys made it."
A rabbi is on his deathbed, and a friend asks him if he has any last requests. The Rabbi asks his friend to find him a Catholic priest, so that he might convert.
Confused, his friend asks, "Rabbi, why? You have been a great teacher and leader of your followers, and you have led a good and honorable Jewish life. Why would you want to become a Catholic now, before you die?"
He says, "Eh, better one of them than one of us."
- (Note: This joke is also seen with an Irish Catholic replacing the Rabbi, and a Protestant minister replacing the Catholic priest.)
A rabbi, a minister, and a priest were playing poker when the police raided the game.
Turning to the priest, the lead police officer said, "Father Murphy, were you gambling?" Turning his eyes to heaven, the priest whispered, "Lord, forgive me for what I am about to do." To the police officer, he then said, "No, officer; I was not gambling." The officer then asked the minister, "Pastor Johnson, were you gambling?" Again, after an appeal to heaven, the minister replied, "No, officer; I was not gambling." Turning to the rabbi, the officer again asked, "Rabbi Goldstein, were you gambling?"
Shrugging his shoulders, the rabbi replied, "With whom?"
A minister told his friend Rabbi Goldman, "Last night, I dreamed of the Jewish Heaven. It was a slum, and it was overflowing with people – running, playing, talking, sitting – doing all sorts of things. But the dream, and the noise, was so terrific that I woke up."
The rabbi said, "Really? Last night, I dreamed of the Protestant Heaven. It was a nice, proper suburb, with neatly trimmed lawns, and houses all neatly lined up."
"And how did the people behave?" asked the minister.
A Catholic priest is called away by a family emergency one day, while on duty attending confession. Not wanting to leave the confessional unattended, he asks his friend, a rabbi from the synagogue across the street, if he can fill in for him.
The rabbi says he wouldn't know what to do, so the priest agrees to stay with him for a few minutes and show him the ropes.
They enter their half of the confessional together and soon enough, a woman enters and says, "Father forgive me, for I have sinned."
"What did you do?" asks the priest.
"I have committed adultery," she replies.
"How many times?" continues the priest.
"Do three Hail Marys, put $5 in the poor-box, and sin no more," finishes the priest.
The woman leaves and not long after a man enters and says, "Father forgive me, for I have sinned."
"What did you do?"
"I have committed adultery."
"How many times?"
"Do three Hail Marys, put $5 in the poor-box, and sin no more." The man leaves.
The rabbi tells the priest he thinks he's got it figured out now, so the priest leaves, and the rabbi waits until another woman enters the confessional, who says, "Father forgive me, for I have sinned."
"What did you do," asks the rabbi.
"I have committed adultery," she replies.
"How many times?"
"I tell you what," says the rabbi. "Go do it one more time and come back. We got a special this week, three for $5!"
Jewish humor in the Soviet Union
See Russian jokes in general, or more specifically Rabinovich jokes, Russian Jewish jokes, Russian political jokes; also History of the Jews in Russia and the Soviet Union.
Q: Rabinovich, what is a fortune?
A: A fortune is to live in our Socialist motherland.
Q: And what's a misfortune?
A: A misfortune is to have such a "fortune".
Or, in the last years of the Soviet Union:
Q: Comrade Lev, why now, just when things are getting better for your people, are you applying for an exit visa to make aliyah to Israel?
A: Well, comrade, there are two reasons. One is that my next-door neighbor is Pamyat and he tells me that after they get rid of you communists, they are coming next after the Jews.
Q: But they will never get rid of us communists!
A: I know, I know, of course you are right! And that's the other reason.
An old Jewish man was finally allowed to leave the Soviet Union, to emigrate to Israel. When he was searched at the Moscow airport, the customs official found a bust of Lenin.
Customs: What is that?
Old man: What is that? What is that?! Don't say "What is that?" say "Who is that?" That is Lenin! The genius who thought up this worker's paradise!
The official laughed and let the old man through.
The old man arrived at Tel Aviv airport, where an Israeli customs official found the bust of Lenin.
Customs: What is that?
Old man: What is that? What is that?! Don't say "What is that?" say "Who is that?" That is Lenin! The sonofabitch! I will put him on display in my toilet for all the years he prevented an old man from coming home.
The official laughed and let him through.
When he arrived at his family's house in Jerusalem, his grandson saw him unpack the bust.
Grandson: Who is that?
Old man: Who is that? Who is that?! Don't say "Who is that?" say "What is that?" That, my child, is eight pounds of gold!
Israeli humor featured many of the same themes as Jewish humor elsewhere, making fun of the country and its habits, while containing a fair bit of gallows humor as well, as a joke from a 1950 Israeli joke book indicates:
An elderly man refuses to leave for the air raid shelter until he can find his dentures. His wife yells at him, "What, you think they are dropping sandwiches?"
Israelis' view of themselves:
A man dies and comes up to the heavenly court to be judged. An angel informs him that he has to serve some time in hell, but not to worry, he can choose between three different hells: French hell, American hell and Israeli hell. Asks the man: "What's the difference?" Answers the angel: "Well, in French hell, everyone spends the day walking along the boulevards and feasting in bistros. Then, at midnight, everyone is placed in the most boiling-hot water until morning." The man: "Oy, sounds terrible." The angel: "It is." The man: "So what's American hell?" The angel: "Well, in American hell, everyone spends the day watching movies and eating fast-food. Then, at midnight, everyone is placed in the most boiling-hot water until morning." The man: "Oy, sounds terrible." The angel: "It is." The man: "So what's Israeli hell?" The angel: "Well, in Israeli hell, you live on a kibbutz: you wake up at dawn to work all day in the fields, at lunch you get some bread and cheese. Then, at midnight, everyone is placed in the most-boiling hot water until morning." The man: "That sounds horrible, why would anyone want Israeli hell?"
The angel: "'Midnight' isn't exactly midnight...the water isn't exactly hot...we could probably work out some sort of deal and maybe get you a schnitzel..."
Role of Yiddish
Some Yiddish words may sound comical to an English speaker. Terms like shnook and shmendrik, shlemiel and shlimazel (often considered inherently funny words) were exploited for their humorous sounds, as were "Yinglish" shm-reduplication constructs, such as "fancy-schmancy". Yiddish constructions—such as ending sentences with questions—became part of the verbal word play of Jewish comedians.
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