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  1. JEWISH HUMOR by Don L. F. Nilsen and Alleen Pace Nilsen

  2. Jewish Humor


  4. INTRODUCTION In 1978, psychologist Samuel Janus conducted a study which found that although Jews constituted only 3 percent of the U.S. population, 80 percent of the nation’s professional comedians were Jewish. (Altman 13) The percentage of comedians is less today not because there are fewer Jewish comedians, but because in response to ethnic and gender identity movements, many new comedians have come from groups that were previously under-represented.

  5. Jerry Lewis

  6. Seinfeld

  7. The Soup Nazi The Seinfeld show teases all things Jewish. Seinfeld says, “My parents didn’t want to move to Florida, but they turned sixty, and that’s the law.” Seinfeld says to George, “George, cheapness isn’t a yth sense.” On the Seinfeld Show there is a strict, hot-tempered owner of a soup kitchen who uses the phrase, “No soup for you!” He is referred to as “The Soup Nazi.”


  9. THE BORSCHT BELT • Belle Barth, Danny Kaye, and other Jewish comedians substituted Yiddish for English when they wanted to fool English-speaking censors with risque jokes. See the slide on “Yiddish” for examples.

  10. THE GOLDBERGS • Between 1929 and 1945 there was a popular Jewish radio program named “The Goldbergs.” The language of the show used Yiddish intonation, proverbs and sentence patterns like, “Better a crust of bread and enjoy it than a cake that gives you indigestion.”

  11. HONEY-COATED BARBS • Henry Spalding says that much Jewish humor is in the form of honey-coated barbs at the people and things Jews love the most. • Jews verbally attack their loved ones and their religion, but with the grandest sense of affection. • Their jokes are “a kiss with salt on the lips, but a kiss nevertheless.”

  12. HUMILITY AND PRIDE • Dolf Zillman says that Jewish humor exhibits two antithetical statures: disparagement and superiority. • This antithesis can be seen in the following joke: • The Israeli Knesset is lamenting all of the challenges that Israel faces.

  13. One member of the Knesset suggests that Israel go to war against the United States. • Other members say, “What?” “Such a war wouldn’t last 10 minutes.” • “I know. I know. But then we would be a conquered country and the Americans would send us aid. They would build roads and hospitals and send food and agricultural experts.” • “But,” said another member of the Knesset, “What if we win?”

  14. JEWISH STEREOTYPES • Jewish stereotypes include the shrewd businessman, the overbearing mother, the Jewish American Princess, and the persecuted Jew. • Arthur Naiman illustrates the stereotype of the overbearing Jewish mother with a story about a psychiatrist who tells a Jewish mother that her son has an Oedipus complex. • The mother responds, “Oedipus, schmoedipus, just so long as he loves his mother.”


  16. MARGINALIZATION • Because Jews have a history of marginalization they view life from “the edge.” • Therefore, Jews have come up with fresh and funny observations. • Because of their marginalization they have also been attracted to professions that are not in the mainstream; the theater, popular music, vaudeville, and entertainment are also marginalized.

  17. Earlier immigrant groups such as the Irish worked in burlesque and early radio and films, but Jews were more successful and made room for each other. • In many cases, show business became a family affair.

  18. Thus comedian Albert Brooks grew up in Hollywood as the son of the famous radio comedian Harry Einstein (better known as Parkyarkarkus) and was a successful stand-up comedian by the time he was 21. • Actor and producer Rob Reiner is the son of writer and producer Carl Reiner. • Marlo Thomas is the daughter of Danny Thomas, who although not Jewish told many Yiddish stories.

  19. MULTILINGUALISM • For generations, Jews have been multilingual, speaking Yiddish at home, Hebrew at the synagogue, and the language of the surrounding community at work.

  20. NEW YORKNESS • Joseph Boskin says that “Jews have wrought a distinctively hard-driving, spontaneous humor of concrete immediacy, one that bursts with retaliation.” • Its sarcastic rejoinders, rapid-fire jokes, and happy quips reflect the rhythms and pace of the city itself.

  21. PILPUL • In Jewish culture boys begin at age 4 to learn how to examine issues from all angles, to speculate and find contradictions, to shift back and forth between abstract and concrete thoughts, to ask all possible questions, to clarify various points, and to find subtle and simple answers to highly complex problems.

  22. This way of thinking, in which endless argumentation, sometimes for its own sake, that could lead anywhere is called “pilpul” and it is highly valued. • Besides being good practice for Talmudic scholars, pilpul correlates with the intellectual processes of creating successful humor, including the practice of answering a question with a question, piling one question after another or asking rhetorical questions: • “What do I look like? A dictionary?”

  23. THE PURIM • During the annual Purim, there is rejoicing over the hanging of the wicked Haman on the gallows he had prepared for the execution of Persian Jews. • To this day, Jewish children are given hand-held greggars or noise makers to drown out the name of Haman as the story of Esther is recited.

  24. YIDDISH • Richar Fein’s experiences were typical: • “Yiddish was in my bones, but hidden from my tongue. I did not know Yiddish as a language, but I felt reared in its resonance, pitch, and tone. I recognized a few words uttered in isolation, grasped nothing of its structure, but felt washed in its rhythms. Although I could not speak Yiddish, it was not a foreign language. I never possessed it, but sensed it possessing me.” • (Fein 317)

  25. Bobehla: “little grandmother” term of endearment • Chutzpah: gall or incredible nerve • Ganeff: a thief or mischievous prankster • Kibitz: kidding around • Mishmash: flagrant disorder or confusion • Nebish: a loser or sad sack • Nosh: a snack • Schmaltz: “chicken fat” sentimentality • Schmear: bribing or greasing the palm • Schmooz: a heartfelt visit • Shlemiel: clumsy or inept person • Shlep: carrying things (including oneself) in an undignified way • Shlimazl: fall guy or luckless oaf • Shnorrer: a beggar

  26. In The Joys of Yiddish, Leo Rosten says that Yiddish syntax also enters the English Language: • “Get lost.” • “You should live so long!” • “Who needs it?” • “He should excuse the expression.” • “It shouldn’t happen to a dog.” • “On him it looks good.” • Other Yiddish patterns include “virus schmirus,” and “a real no-goodnik.”

  27. ELAINE BOOSLER • Elaine Boosler gives a new twist to an old Jewish stereotype when she jokes: • “My brother’s gay. My parents don’t mind as long as he marries a doctor.”

  28. MEL BROOKS • In Mel Brooks’ The Producers there is a play within the play called “Springtime for Hitler.” • Dozens of dancers, singers, actors and pantomimists of every race and shape audition for the role of Hitler. • The show’s opening production number culminates in the formation of a slowly turning swastika and in the pillars at the back of the set being lowered to a horizontal position and transformed into canons.

  29. MEL BROOKS AND CARL REINER • After seeing a bizarre interview on TV, Reiner turned to Brooks and said, • “I understand you were actually at the scene of the Crucifixion.” Brooks responded, • “Ooooooh, boy!” and then continued in character saying that yes, he had known Christ. • “He was a thin lad, always wore sandals. Came into the store but never bought anything.”

  30. THE MARX BROTHERS • The Marx Brothers were named Chico, Harpo, Gummo, Zeppo, and Groucho. • Harpo had a number of demented faces and magical sight gags. • Groucho had his zany singing and dancing and his punchy one-liners. • Zeppo played the straight man to Groucho. • Chico had his amusing piano playing, his outrageous Italian accent, and his bad puns.

  31. As immigrants come to the United States there are various stages that they go through to become “Americanized.” • Harpo is not able to speak English. He is in the first stage. • Chico’s English is very poor, and he is always confused by English. He is in the second stage. • Zeppo’s English is like general American. He has no accent. • Groucho uses the English of Brooklyn. Not only has he become Americanized, he has also become “Brooklynized.”

  32. Jewish Jokes:

  33. HENNY YOUNGMAN • Henny Youngman had a rat-a-tat syle of humor that reflects the frustrations of urban life: • “Fellow walks up to me and says, ‘You see a cop around here?’ I say, ‘No,’ and he says, ‘Stick ‘em up!’”

  34. Some Great Yiddish Words • fancy-schmancy • kvetch • maven • mazel tov • shnorrer • tanz • Oy Vey!