My Dad recently introduced me to Jewish Zen with the following quip: “If there’s no self, whose arthritis is this?” So much Jewishness in one line: the uncanny ability to look a tragic situation in the face and laugh at it.
In 2009, the New York magazine lamented the impending death of a distinctively Jewish humor. Adam Kirsch summarized the article: “Life for the Jews, in America at least, has simply become too good for Jewish jokes to be needed any longer.” If Jewish humor is the release-valve that our culture has evolved to let out pent out pain and suffering, then, ironically, it is our communal pain and suffering that kept this distinctive brand of humor alive.
The theory needs some refining. If it were true that communal suffering is key to our distinctive sense of humor, then one would expect to find a flourishing of distinctively Jewish humor in Israel given the constant threats it faces. But Israeli comedy isn’t characterized by the neurotic, insecure and self-critical tropes that we associate with American and European Jewry. The characters of the classic Jewish jokes are exile-Jews. They don’t correspond at all to the macho reborn and newly empowered Jew of early Zionist mythology.
More Jewish Zen: “To Find the Buddha, look within. Deep inside you are ten thousand flowers. Each flower blossoms ten thousand times. You might want to see a specialist.” The stereotypical Israeli Jew has too much self-confidence to be sensitive to this typically Jewish sort of hypochondria.
The New York article agrees. The essential ingredients of Jewish humor are exile as well as pain. They argued that Larry David was able to get a fresh lease of life out of his brand of humor by moving from the New York setting of Seinfeld to the Los Angeles setting of Curb Your Enthusiasm; contrasting the Jew with “the health, youth, optimism, relaxation, and cheerfulness with which Hollywood proudly defines itself. He’s discovered a place where an American Jew can still find a way to feel like an exile. Just like the good old days!”
Of course, the end of Jewish humor would be a small price to pay for the end of Jewish pain and exile. But the story is more complicated still. It’s not the suffering that gives life to the humor; it’s the sensitivity to our historic suffering that does the job. It’s not being in political exile that gives life to our sense of humor; it’s rather the sense of the absurd, born from never feeling completely at home in our surroundings, whether or not we live in Israel, Brooklyn or Timbuktu.
If we’re losing that sensitivity – to the dimensions of our historic pain – and if we’re beginning to feel at home in this less than perfect world, then there really is something tragic to lament. A Jew should never feel at home. For that reason, God told the Jewish people before they entered the land of Israel, “the land is Mine; for ye are strangers and settlers with Me” (Leviticus 25:23). In the Diaspora the Jew is in exile. In his homeland, he cannot be at home, because his homeland belongs to God. A Jew who proudly feels at home is tone-deaf to the lesson of this verse.
Rabbi Moshe Isserles, warned us that if we’re going to light more than one Hanukkiah in our house, we should make sure to keep them far apart (O.H. 671:2). It was imperative for him that people should be able to look at the lights and see what night of Hanukkah it is. If all the Hannukiot are crowded together, you won’t be able to tell.
One could extend this line of reasoning: if a small room is lit with huge electric flood lights, then nobody could see if there were also Hanukkah candles in it. In order to appreciate the light, there needs to be some darkness. You can’t really understand the light of the Hanukkah story unless you appreciate the real spiritual darkness that threatened the Jews in the time of the Maccabees. You don’t need to have gone through that darkness yourself, God forbid, but you need to understand it; to be sensitive to it, otherwise, you can’t fully appreciate the light.
In order to appreciate Jewish humor, you don’t need to have been through Jewish pain, but you need to understand it; and, in some sense, it needs to be yours. Like the lights of Hanukkah, there’s no reason to think that Jewish humor will ever be snuffed out.
Dr. Samuel Lebens studies at Yeshivat Har Etzion, holds a PhD in metaphysics and logic from the University of London, and is the chair of the Association for the Philosophy of Judaism.