You’ve Got To Be Kidding Me: Decoding Jewish Humor

Julian Keifetz
October 13, 2013

As you’ve probably gathered by now, comedy is something I’m passionate about. I like making people laugh because it makes me, and them, feel good. It feels really good when I tell a joke that kills! Likewise, when I hear comedians tell a brilliant joke, I feel deep respect for them and their craft.

I’ve often wondered where I got my love for comedy and my sense of humor. My dad is a very funny person – he knows how to make people laugh. The same can be said about my mother. Because I’m Jewish, I was inspired to look into what distinguishes Jewish humor from non-Jewish humor. Now, I’m going to take a look at a variety of Jewish jokes and discuss what makes them so “Jewish.”

A universal characteristic of humor, writes Ruth Wisse in her book, No Joke: Making Jewish Humor, is that “stereotypes are a regular feature of joking.” She adds: “jokes often characterize people by a single characteristic.” It’s in the playing up of stereotypes that good humor is found. Every ethnicity has its stereotypes. Some people are supposedly cheap. Some drink a lot. Others are dumb, and so on, and so on. Personally, I find stereotyping ignorant and judgmental, but when used humorously, ethnic stereotyping can be quite funny. Why? Because often you will see just how false and silly a stereotype is when you hear it in a joke.

Mindful that exaggerated stereotypes about Jews are at the heart of good Jewish jokes, I watched several comic routines, including some classics.
Now I’ll play an old Jewish Joke for you:

PLAY AUDIO: Old Jews Telling Jokes – Family

This is a Jewish joke because it plays off stereotypes about Jewish mothers. Specifically, how overprotective they are. She only calls Irving ‘bubbalah’ – an affectionate Yiddish term – and she does this so much that he doesn’t even know his actual name! This joke appeals to all ages because it’s not offensive – anyone can laugh at it. The overall message of the joke is that sometimes mothers, especially Jewish mothers, smother their children. The joke shows just how much Jewish mothers care about their children, and it makes this point without using inappropriate language.

Now I want to play a clip of Seinfeld doing standup:

PLAY AUDIO Seinfeld: Family

I like that this routine relates to children. I’m a child – well, I was…until today! The routine is clever because it covers the topic of growing up in a creative way. It appeals to all ages because it isn’t offensive and anyone can laugh at it.
Because Jerry Seinfeld is Jewish and he’s talking about his childhood, it can be viewed as Jewish comedy, but it’s also universal. The message is that kids will do anything for candy. I think it works for anyone, because it’s not just Jewish kids that will do anything for candy. Any kid would! The message is funny and most people would like it. This joke definitely doesn’t cross boundaries – it’s a clean joke.

Now I’m going to tell you a few jokes. This one relates to family and Jewish mothers:
Four Jewish women would get together each week to play cards.
After a while, the first said, with a sigh, “Oy.”
The second answered, similarly, “Oy vey.”
The third joined in, “Oy vey iz mir.”
And the fourth said, “I thought we agreed we wouldn’t talk about our children today.”

It goes without saying that the women in this joke love their children and they also love complaining, or to use the Yiddish, kvetching. Some of this can be explained by the fact that throughout history, Jews around the world have had plenty of reasons to lament. Just think about the Jews of Europe, who had to survive horrible persecution.

In this way, the thinking in our culture has been shaped by victimization. The women in the joke use Yiddish – and it highlights the link to the past—and the use of Yiddish bonds them together, just as being Jewish mothers bonds them too.

OK here’s another classic joke:

A Jew who converted to Christianity was called a ge-shmott. It was a rare and shocking occurrence.
It was a bitterly cold, snowy night, in a small town in Poland. An old Jew felt he was dying. His time had come.
He called to his wife, “Sarah, please, send someone to the priest. Tell him to come right away. Tell him I’m dying.”
His wife couldn’t believe her ears. “The priest?” she said in astonishment. “You must have a fever. You mean the rabbi.”
“No, I mean the priest,” snapped her husband.
“May God protect you,” said his wife, “are you secretly a geshmatt?
“No, no,” said her husband, “but why disturb a Rabbi on night like this?”

This joke works on two levels: it addresses religious observance and Jewish community. The man’s wife is aghast by the idea of a priest reading her husband his last rites. She is first and foremost a Jew, so it is inconceivable to call anyone other than a Rabbi to perform these rites. Meanwhile, her husband feels he should be showing the ultimate consideration for the Rabbi by not asking him to come to his home on such a bitterly cold night. Because he’s a Jew, the man feels such a strong kinship and sense of community for the Rabbi that he would rather bother a Priest than inconvenience his Rabbi.

The next few jokes poke fun at Jewish stereotypes about health. Woody Allen once said:
“The most beautiful words in the English language are not, ‘I love you,’ but ‘It’s benign.’”

Here’s one classic joke on this theme. As an added bonus, in addition to Jews, it takes shots at other cultures too. Here it goes:

Four Europeans go hiking together and get terribly lost.
First, they run out of food, then they run out of water:
“I’m so thirsty,” says the Englishman, “I must have tea.”
“I’m so thirsty,” says the Frenchman, “I must have wine.”
“I’m so thirsty,” says the German, “I must have beer.”
“I’m so thirsty,” says the Jew, “I must have diabetes.”

This joke is funny because each hiker reacts according to the stereotype most often associated with them. The Jew – of course! – thinks that his body is failing him and that diabetes is the reason he’s thirsty.

Now here’s another classic that touches on health and money:
A Jewish pedestrian gets hit by a car. The paramedic asks, “Are you comfortable?” The man replies, “I make a good living.”

This joke is funny because instead of worrying about his own health, he finds a way to brag about his income. This joke is Jewish because it pokes fun at the stereotype of Jews’ fixation on money and hypochondria, or the belief that Jews are always worried by the slightest sign of illness. That’s why this joke works on a deeper level: two stereotypes are played off one another. We might think this Jewish pedestrian will use the question as an opportunity to kvetch about his health. But he doesn’t! He uses it as an opportunity to make a statement about his job.

Here’s one last joke that touches on health:

“Doctor, I need your help!” complained Shlomo. “I talk to myself!”
“Do you suffer any pain?” asked the doctor.
“No.”
“In that case,” said the doctor, “go home and don’t worry. Millions of people talk to themselves.”
“But Doctor,” cried Shlomo, “you don’t know what a nudnik I am!”

Again, the emphasis is on worrying about health. And what’s more, it highlights this stereotype in a self-deprecating way. Self-deprecation is the act of belittling or undervaluing oneself – it is one of the hallmarks of Jewish comedy today.
Larry David, the co-creator of Seinfeld and the producer and star of Curb Your Enthusiasm, is a master of self-deprecation. Larry once said: “I don’t like to be out of my comfort zone, which is about a half an inch wide.”

Another favorite Larry David quote of mine touches on health. “I tolerate lactose like I tolerate people,” he said. Finally, this last quote from Larry David pokes at the stereotype that Jews are often unhappy. He once said: “Hey, I may loathe myself, but it has nothing to do with the fact that I’m Jewish.”

Overall, I think all the jokes I’ve shared are funny because they play off stereotypes – and in the process, they deflate the stereotypes. That’s what makes these jokes classic – and this is what is so great about comedy. As a humanistic Jew – comedy is one of the pillars of my religion. I hope you’ve enjoyed spending time in my unorthodox temple.