In This Article Jewish Humor

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • The Uniqueness of Jewish Humor
  • Primary Sources: Jokes and Short Stories
  • The Blossoming of Modern Jewish Humor in Eastern Europe
  • The Comic Characters of Jewish Humor
  • Jewish Humor in Europe under Nazi Occupation
  • The Destiny of Jewish Humor

Jewish Studies Jewish Humor
by
Arie Sover
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0117

Introduction

Jewish humor is a vast field of Jewish studies that includes many aspects, including different periods, different types, different contents, and a variety of languages in different geographical locations. Research on Jewish humor began at the end of the 19th century. Since then, scholars have endeavored to answer several key questions: (1) is there a distinctive Jewish humor? Some argue that there is no compelling evidence that a unique Jewish humor does, in fact, exist. (2) How can one define Jewish humor? Some scholars suggest that Jewish humor was created by Jews, relates to Jewish culture, and is meant for Jews. (3) What are the origins of the modern Jewish humor? Accounts differ: some find its origins in the Enlightenment that began at the end of the 18th century and the emancipation of Jews that followed in western Europe. Others find the sources of Jewish humor in the Talmud and midrash literature and others who find them in the Bible. (4) Where was modern Jewish humor created? Most scholars argue that it started and first flourished in eastern Europe, the domicile of the majority of Jews until the Holocaust in the 20th century. (5) What are the reasons for the formation of Jewish humor? The broad answer shared by most researchers is that the unique Jewish experience based on two core components, Jewish history and literacy, serves as the foundation of modern Jewish humor. Jewish history is rife with particularly difficult experiences—expulsion of the Jews from their homeland, wandering from place to place for over two thousand years, humiliation by the host populations in Europe, life in ghettos, anti-Semitism, persecution, expulsion, and pogroms culminating in the Holocaust. In addition, the existence of a unique Jewish literacy, including Bible studies, the Midrash, and oral quibbling (“Pilpul”) were integral parts of Jewish culture and education. The conjunction of the two resulted in the creation of a unique Jewish humor. However, some researchers argue that there is no categorical evidence to support the fact that it is the Jewish experience that gave birth to Jewish humor. (6) When was Jewish humor defined as a cultural concept? Some scholars argue that it was so defined at the end of the 19th century. The majority of the Jewish people lived in three socio-geographic centers where the core of Jewish humor was created, developed, and flourished: eastern Europe from the 19th century until the Holocaust in the middle of the 20th century, the United States of America from the end of the 19th century to the present, and Israel from the 20th century to the present. The different shades of Jewish humor can be detected from each of the three areas. This study focuses on these three locations, although it is important to point out that Jewish humor flourished also in other Jewish centers, such as central Europe, western Europe, Russia, Latin America, and the Middle East. This article focuses on the important bibliographic sources that examine Jewish humor in all its variety, including the Bible, the Talmud, midrash, literature, jokes, caricatures, cinema, and theater, in an attempt to answer the aforementioned questions and many others. The works cited in the article are scholarly sources, except for a few books and anthologies of Jewish humor. In these cases they will be indicated as such.

General Overviews

Jewish humor has been studied from many aspects, including sociological, cultural, psychological, linguistic, and historical. Freud 2014 (originally published in 1905) examines the psychological aspect and structure of jokes. Even though Freud’s writing is not necessarily related to Jews, most of the jokes in the book are from the treasury of Jewish jokes. Freud was the first who ascribed to Jews the quality of self-deprecating humor; humor in which Jews laugh at their own attributes and shortcomings. After Freud, self-deprecating humor became an accepted concept published in many later studies. Davies 2010 disagrees with Freud’s argument that there are none who can laugh at themselves like the Jews by drawing to attention to the Scots, in particular, as well as other minorities, who also use self-deprecating humor. However, Davies adds that none of these groups display in their self-deprecating humor the depth, richness and scope of the self-deprecating humor of the Jews. Ben-Amos 1973 raises the idea that a unique “Jewish humor” is a myth, which was started by Freud and continued by many other researchers, but is without any scientific foundation. Following from Ben-Amos 1973, Oring 1983 is a challenging article, seeks to test whether scientific proof exists for the widely held belief among many researchers that there is such a thing as “Jewish humor.” (For more on this subject, see Oring 2010, cited under the Jewish Joke). Friedman and Friedman 2014 identifies the source of the birth of Jewish humor in the Jewish canon, namely, the Bible, Talmud, and midrash. According to the authors, these texts contain an abundance of wit and humor, such as irony, sarcasm, word play, funny characters, and humorous stories and situations. Stora-Sandor 1984 investigates the development of Jewish humor from the Bible to the 1980s. The volume focuses on an analysis of humorous literary texts written by some of the greatest Jewish writers, including Kafka and Woody Allen. Wisse 2013 examines different aspects of Jewish humor throughout history. The author identifies three central locations where Jewish humor flourished: eastern Europe, the United States, and Israel. The book includes examples from Jewish literature and popular culture. Wisse contends that the blossoming of Jewish humor in eastern Europe at the end of the 18th century and in the 19th century stemmed from the tensions that arose between three Jewish groups: Maskilim (the Enlightenment movement), Hassidim, and Mitnagdim (traditionalists).

  • Ben-Amos, Dan. “The ‘Myth’ of Jewish Humor.” Western Folklore 32.2 (1973): 112–131.

    DOI: 10.2307/1498323E-mail Citation »

    Ben-Amos attempts to prove, contrary to the opinions of Freud and many others, that Jewish humor is a myth. He claims that scholars who have claimed the existence of a unique Jewish humor have not based their arguments on reliable sources. Ben-Amos negates the notion that Jewish humor passes from one generation to the next. He believes that Jewish humor is the result of specific socioeconomic factors.

  • Davies, Christie. The Mirth of Nations. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2010.

    E-mail Citation »

    A comparative analysis of jokes of several nations from an historical point of view and in the context in which they are told. With regard to Jewish humor (pp. 51–108), Davies denies arguments that Jewish self-deprecating humor is a result of oppression and anti-Semitism experienced by Jews. He maintains that other types of Jewish humor, not solely self-deprecating humor, are uniquely Jewish and are not found among other peoples.

  • Freud, Sigmund. Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. New York: Routledge, 2014.

    E-mail Citation »

    The first research of its type, Freud engages in the psychological motivation for the use of humor through an analysis of various types of jokes. Most of the jokes are taken from Jewish folklore. Freud states that Jewish jokes are stories created by Jews and aimed at Jewish characteristics. Freud was the first who ascribed to Jews the quality of self-deprecating humor. Originally published in German as Der Witz und seine Beziehung zum Unbewussten (Vienna: F. Deuticke, 1905).

  • Friedman, Hershey H., and Linda Weiser Friedman. God Laughed: Sources of Jewish Humor. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2014.

    E-mail Citation »

    The book focuses on the origins of Jewish humor, finding its sources in the Bible, Talmud, and (Midrash) midrash. The authors argue that satire irony and self-deprecating humor can be found in this canon in witty texts that reflect the way in which the Jews viewed the world. The authors suggest that the humor served as a means to cope with the adversities in life that Jews experienced throughout their history.

  • Oring, Elliott. “The People of the Joke: On the Conceptualization of a Jewish Humor.” Western Folklore 42.4 (1983): 261–271.

    DOI: 10.2307/1499501E-mail Citation »

    In this article, Oring argues that many scholars attribute to the “People of the Book” the title of “People of the Joke” as well. He claims that this view is not based on scientific evidence. Therefore, in this study, he searches for proof to support the concept of “Jewish humor.” The main questions raised in the article concern the concept, the characteristics, and the sociological aspects of Jewish humor.

  • Stora-Sandor, Judith. L’humour juif dans la littérature: De Job à Woody Allen. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1984.

    E-mail Citation »

    The author examines the development of Jewish humor from its biblical and Talmudic origins to the ghettos and shtetls of the 19th century and on to the 1980s. Her work focuses on an analysis of humorous literary texts written by some of the greatest Jewish writers, including Franz Kafka and Woody Allen. Stora-Sandor weaves a leitmotif that runs through the Jewish experience in treating the creative influences on Jewish humor.

  • Wisse, Ruth R. No Joke: Making Jewish Humor. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013.

    E-mail Citation »

    The author contends that the blossoming of Jewish humor in eastern Europe at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century was due to the tensions that arose between three Jewish groups: Maskilim, Hassidim, and Mitnagdim. The research identifies three central locations where Jewish humor has flourished: eastern Europe, the United States, and Israel. The book includes examples from Jewish literature and popular culture.

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