It Wasn’t Funny (On a Whole Semester of Jewish Humor)

A scene from Mel Brooks’ The Producers (one of many controversial ones…)

Many, many years ago I complained bitterly to a colleague that no matter how I taught our department’s course on Judaism, I was unhappy with my efforts.

If I focused on Jewish history, knowing full well that I was likely privileging the European experience at the expense of our Latin American, African, Middle Eastern, and Asian past, was the outcome intellectually corrupt? If I focused on rabbinic thinking, I asked, wasn’t I leaving students in the dark about how most modern American Jews lived? If I spent time teaching liturgy and festivals, was I going to end up operating at the level of Wikipedia, spending too much time explaining why Jews put horseradish and a lamb bone on a plate and then eat the first while letting the other sit in its juices?

“Well,” my colleague said, “have you ever thought about teaching the course just for fun? How about building the semester around the theme of Jewish humor?”

“Hahaha,” I said.

“No, really,” he insisted. “You could show Woody Allen films, find out how the students react to Mel Brooks, tell some Jewish jokes about Hitler…”

I laughed. Then I stopped laughing. Jewish humor is, after all, a thing. A serious thing.

He had convinced me. The students, I decided, could ask what could be learned about Jewish history, Jewish culture, and Jewish religious expression through the lens of humor.

I decided I was going to tell a Jewish joke at the opening of every class. We would spend the first ten minutes of each class dissecting the joke and the way it revealed something of Jewish history, practice, or ritual. I could use humor to tell important stories: We would explore, for example, the symbolic role of the Holocaust in American Jewish life and read up on the controversy that erupted over Mel Brooks’ comedy The Producers. We would look at the ways Jews had struggled to define what it meant to be Jewish and how to fit in (or not) into white, Christian-American culture. Then we would watch Woody Allen’s Annie Hall.

It would be rich, deep, and funny. Humor would help us learn.

At one point, I delivered a series of lectures about antisemitism in Europe. Among other things, my students learned about the blood libel myth – that Jews killed Christian children in order to use their blood for making matzah or curing various illnesses.

We had already explored the way humor could articulate actual conditions of oppression and discrimination. I thought it was a good time to illustrate. I told a joke set in an archetypal Jewish shtetl in Eastern Europe.

“A child had been found dead,” I began. “The Jews immediately locked themselves in the synagogue. They feared the worst. Would a mob come and attack them – even in the synagogue? Was the whole community doomed? Suddenly, someone banged on the doors. ‘Rabbi, rabbi!’ a voice called. ‘It’s Moyshe! Let me in!!’ The doors were opened and Moyshe practically fell into the synagogue. ‘I’ve run the whole way,’ he panted. ‘I have good news – the dead child was Jewish!’”

My students looked at me. They were very, very still.

I struggled through the semester. My students hardly ever laughed. I had to explain why the films were ironic (and funny), why the texts were acerbic, edgy (and funny), why anything about the course was funny. No one laughed at my jokes.

Towards the end I reported to my colleague. I told him that my jokes were falling flat, that the students did not understand why the films I showed were labeled comedies, and that it appeared that Jewish humor was boring them out of their minds.

He didn’t say one word. Not one.

He just laughed.

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