What Makes Jews So Funny

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A scene from 'A Night at the Opera,' starring the Marx brothers.
A scene from 'A Night at the Opera,' starring the Marx brothers. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Ayelett Shani
Ayelett Shani

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.

Prof. Arie Sover.Credit: 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?

So the Jews laughed at themselves. That was the gateway for acceptance

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.

Sigmund Freud is pictured in his working room in 1938. Credit: AP

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

In this November 4, 2015 file photo, Jerry Seinfeld performs at the David Lynch Foundation Benefit Concert at Carnegie Hall in New York.Credit: AP

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.

Groucho Marx, circa 1940s.Credit: Wikicommons

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'Credit: 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.

So Jewish humor rings a universal note.

Right. Jewish humor strips itself bare and says, “Here I am, do with me what you will. I admit that I am like this or that. What are you going to do now?”

But when you say “Jewish humor,” you actually mean Ashkenazi humor.

Right. From Eastern Europe. Jewish humor came from Jewish culture – the shtetl, the mother-in-law, the money-loving Jew, the mother who wants her son to be a lawyer.

Is there no Mizrahi humor, of Middle Eastern and North African Jews?

Jewish humor made its way to Israel – and changed. We are no longer weak, we are the majority not the minority

There is. But Jewish humor as a subject for research concept refers to Eastern Europe – Poland, Ukraine, Russia – where the majority of Jewish people resided. Sholem Aleichem, who wrote in Yiddish from within that culture, was the king of Jewish humor. From the end of the 19th century until the 1920s, around two million Jews immigrated to the United States, and most settled on the East Coast. That’s the second center of Jewish humor, the so-called “Borscht Belt.” Every weekend, the Jews went to the Catskills and enjoyed themselves at shows in hundreds of hotels and restaurants. Woody Allen, Jack Benny, Mel Brooks, Jackie Mason – that’s where they started out. A tremendous center of Jewish humor developed there and then spread across the country. The third focal point is Israel. Here it began during the period of the British Mandate, the Yishuv.

If so, what happened to Jewish humor in its metamorphosis to Israeli humor?

Jewish humor made its way to Israel – and changed. We are no longer weak, we are the majority not the minority. We have no need for the particular brand of self-deprecating humor that developed in the shtetl, in the Holocaust, in exile, in periods of persecution and misfortune.

‘Shadow of reality’

Is Israel humor fraught with [issues of] power and force?

'In Israel we do not laugh at ourselves, we laugh at others.' A poster for Israeli satire show 'Eretz Nehederet' (A Wonderful Country). Credit: M. Pini Siluk

Israeli humor laughs at the Other – that’s social humor in the political-social sense. As in every nation, humor has a social role: It frames what is permitted and what is forbidden. But in Israel we do not laugh at ourselves, we laugh at others. That is a vast difference. The other difference is that Israeli humor is less clever.

Less clever, or less sophisticated?

Both. Because we need to hide less. Jewish humor is allusive. Take, for example, a joke from Poland under Nazi rule. Four Jews meet in a café. One says, Oy, oy. The next says, Nu, nu. The third sighs. The fourth says, Maybe you’ll stop with the politics already? Allusive humor, under-the-table humor. In Israel the humor is on the table. And it’s also rife with sex.

Is that part of Israeli vulgarity?

Just this morning there was a report in the paper that the army is prohibiting crass messages to be printed on the T-shirts that are distributed to soldiers at the end of basic training. All those crude slogans and naked girls – that is not Jewish humor. Look for jokes about sex in Jewish humor – there are none. Jokes about drunks? Hardly any. Those are matters that are not well received in [Jewish] society.

The origin of that split is interesting: the 1940s’ Palmach [pre-state militia] humor of the Jews in Mandatory Israel versus the humor of the persecuted Jews in Europe.

The Jew in Europe is persecuted and is engaged in surviving, while the Jew here is engaged in growth and in building. Obviously the humor will be different.

What will typical jokes on both sides of the ocean look like?

In 1939, a Jew enters a travel agency and says, I want to buy a ticket. Where to, the agent asks. The Jew examines the globe on the agent’s desk, and the agent rules out every country he suggests: that country isn’t accepting any more Jews, this country requires a visa, there’s a 10-year waiting list to enter another country. Finally the Jew looks at the agent and says, “Excuse me, maybe you have a different globe?” Here we see the helplessness of the Jew who is trying to survive, and how humor lightens suffering.

And what’s happening here during the same era?

The opposite. The jokes and the humorous stories were created in this country’s land-settlement community, and as such reflect the collectivism, the establishment of the new Jewish society. They partake of group humor or are jokes about the Other, not self-deprecating humor. For example: Ahmed can throw a grenade 80 meters. One time he had to throw a grenade through the window of a house that was 50 meters away. So he backed up 30 meters and threw the grenade. The Jew telling that joke perceives himself as strong and smart, the Arab is presented as weak and dumb. The humor is blunt, unapologetic.

What other characteristics does Israeli humor have? Is it political?

Now we are being stabbed on the streets – and what do you think, that there are no jokes about that?

Yes. Israelis overall are political. Everyone here is a prime minister and we find that content in the humor, too. What this minister and that minister said is attacked. It’s part of Israeli agitation – an inability to accept things as self-evident.

What about life in the shadow of an ongoing security threat? How does that influence humor?

There is a lot of war humor, in order to assuage tension. Do you know how many jokes there are already about Operation Protective Edge in 2014? Now we are being stabbed on the streets – and what do you think, that there are no jokes about that? Everything passes through humor. It’s instant humor, an immediate response to threatening situations. It’s very Israeli.

Isn’t the era of political correctness emasculating humor?

It appears to be having an effect mainly on stand-up comics. It’s not affecting jokes or the way they are created, because a joke can’t be stopped, it will always breach the censorship barriers. There were plenty of jokes about Hitler and Stalin in Germany and the Soviet Union. And precisely because of the oppression. Humor allows you to express yourself when self-expression is forbidden. A joke leaves no traces – you tell it and it disappears. The Gestapo and the KGB had special files on people who told jokes like that. They questioned children about the jokes that Dad told at home and then arrested the parents. The Soviets thought that jokes could harm Stalin’s image. But that’s just the point: Humor does not forge or change reality. It is the shadow of reality.

At the rate we’re going, maybe there will be things here, too, that it will be forbidden to laugh at.

That really is scary. I hope we don’t get to a situation where certain jokes will be prohibited.