A scene from 'A Night at the Opera,' starring the Marx brothers. Wikimedia Commons

What Makes Jews So Funny

A scholar of everything funny explains where Holocaust humor comes from, why Jews are at the forefront of American comedy and why Israeli humor just isn't as smart.

Talking to: Prof. Arie Sover, 64, lives in Shoham; professor of communications and humor studies at Ashkelon Academic College, founder of the Israeli Society for Humor Research. Where: A Tel Aviv café. When: Tuesday, 10 A.M.

Sounds like a somewhat eccentric field, the study of humor.

It’s always interested me. From the age of 5, I dreamed of becoming a clown. After I obtained a master’s degree in Israel on the subject of humor and laughter, I received a scholarship from the French government and attended the Ecole nationale de cirque, the National Circus School, in Paris. I learned how to be a clown and at the same time wrote my doctorate, about humor.

What do you learn in a circus school?

How to walk a tightrope, how to juggle, how to perform on a trapeze. Also how to erect the tent, take down the tent and clean the tent. You train for hours upon hours every day. After getting my Ph.D., I returned to Israel and taught film and theater at Tel Aviv University, while also performing on the stage and in shows. Humor swept me away. I am constantly deepening my examination of the subject. Humor is an existential matter; it’s not at all intended for entertainment or enjoyment. Humor is ultimately part of our defense mechanism.

As Freud already said.

Gali Eitan

Yes, because how does humor work at the cognitive level? Our brain is constantly scanning the surroundings and looking for the unusual. We’re in a café, and if a dish falls we’ll both look in that direction. The moment you become aware of the unusual, you ask yourself two questions: Is it dangerous for me? And, do I understand how it came about? If it’s not threatening to you and you understand how it happened, you will laugh. You will assuage the tension that was created as a result of experiencing an exceptional situation. We enjoy laughing because [when we do] anti-stress hormones are released in the body and cause a feeling of enjoyment. Humor is actually created to protect us.

What distinguishes Jewish humor, which is the subject of your research, from other types?

First of all, the foundation of Jewish humor is Jewish history. The Jews are a persecuted people who are constantly in flight and always dealing with survival. Humor is an amazing means of survival.

The Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl said about Holocaust humor, “An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.”

I come from a happy home of laughter and mischievousness, even though my father was a Holocaust survivor. We didn’t even know he was a survivor. No one talked about it. He always said, “Nothing happened in Romania.” He had one story that he told repeatedly. On the famous train-station ramps where the selection process took place – to the right for annihilation and to the left for a forced-labor camp – he instinctively lowered his pants, showed the colonel a protrusion he had on his stomach and said, “Excuse me, but my insides are outside.” The colonel got angry and told him to get out of his sight, and that’s how he was spared from death.

But he didn’t relate the context – that this was a “selection”?

No. From our point of view, it was a story of how he fooled someone. We didn’t know why he was telling the story. I found out everything only after his death. Do you know that all the Jews of Romania, men and women, were taken to forced-labor camps? Four months ago, I attended a conference in Romania and I told myself that I had to know what happened in the Holocaust in Romania – that it was time. I bought two books from Yad Vashem and read 1,400 pages in three days. I was stunned. It’s only then that I understood what my family had gone through – my mother, my father, my grandmother.

So you discovered your family’s story from books?

Yes. The details of these stories reach the level of what happened on every street. The Romanians had an extermination plan even before the Germans did. The Romanian government slaughtered Jews in the streets. They hanged them in abattoirs like cattle. There was also a war between Russia and Romania over territory, which ended in a defeat for the Romanians, so on the way home, in trains, the Romanian soldiers threw the Jewish soldiers who had fought alongside them off the train. In every village they passed through Jews were massacred. There were pogroms in the town where my father grew up; in the city where my mother grew up, children and women were murdered in the streets. In spite of all that, what amazing people my parents were. What a love of humanity they had! My father was filled with joie de vivre, he just devoured life.

The humor of the suffering and the oppressed helped him survive.

Yes. Jewish humor was humor of the minority within the majority. Humor never laughs at the majority. Those who want to be accepted by the majority laugh at themselves. So the Jews laughed at themselves. That was the gateway for acceptance by the hegemonic society. And there’s something else involved, of course: intelligence.

The Jewish genius.

Absolutely. And there is Jewish genius. Leading researchers of humor in the world agree that there is no other form of humor comparable to the wisdom and complexity of Jewish humor. The well-known British sociologist Christie Davies conducted a study of humor in central places in the world and its connection to Jewish humor. The claim was that the Jew always comes out as clever in jokes, that he’s not made fun of or humiliated. Davies argues that self-directed humor, of the kind that Jews display when they laugh at themselves, is a unique phenomenon. Only the Scots have a little of that trait. Freud also said that there is no other people that laughs at itself like the Jews. I believe this an expression of power. When you laugh at yourself, who can laugh at you?

Humor stripped bare


There’s no doubt that something like that is at work here. Otherwise, how can one explain the high proportion of Jews in the front ranks of comedians in the United States – from the Marx Brothers, Danny Kaye and Lenny Bruce down to Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, Sarah Silverman and all the others?

At the end of the 1970s, about 80 percent of the top comedians in the United States were Jews. It’s unbelievable. They exerted an untold influence on American culture.

Can it be said that American humor today is largely a product of Jewish humor?

Definitely. Woody Allen is influential? Seinfeld is influential? They are setting the tone. The Marx Brothers and after them Woody Allen shaped that culture.

Jewish humor also has that neurotic element, if we’re already talking about Woody Allen and Seinfeld.

You can go back further, to Groucho Marx. When did the Jews start to do well in the cinema? When the talkies were invented. That neurotic humor is the humor of the fleeing Jew – and it comes from the same place. The humor is intended to be used to cope with difficulties, persecution and the need to find an immediate solution to distress.

Can Woody Allen’s humor be categorized as archetypical Jewish humor?

Annie Hall

Definitely. It’s the humor of the little Jew who’s scared, who doesn’t exactly know how to have sex – but in any case, that’s a forbidden subject because he has to be a Torah scholar.

But it works outside the boundaries of the community. Why do Japanese viewers laugh at Woody Allen movies?

Because there’s a little person in each of us. With all our titles and roles, we are big cowards. We harbor the existential anxiety that maybe others will penetrate to the scared little child inside us and strip us of all the masks. Woody Allen himself removed all the masks at his own initiative.

M. Pini Siluk

So Jewish humor rings a universal note.

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