Can You Teach Jewish Humor, And If So, Why Not?

It wasn’t my idea, I admit. A colleague of mine at UNC-Charlotte overheard me bemoaning the task of teaching our department’s Judaism course. Said colleague occasionally has to teach the general course on Christianity. He sympathized.

For one thing, he and I fully agree: There is no such thing as either Christianity or Judaism — not the way we are wont to believe, anyway — until about the fourth century CE. More about that later.

For another, no matter how you shake it, either topic is unwieldy, difficult, and a pedagogic pain. Do you teach festivals? Liturgy? Scriptures? Great thinkers? Which history do you emphasize? Whose?

“Why don’t you choose a particular theme?” Mr. Colleague suggested. “How about Jewish humor?”

“Mel Brooks,” I said.

“Woody Allen!” he added.

“Moshe Waldocks,” I rejoined happily.


“The co-editor of The Big Book of Jewish Humor,” I said. “Funny guy.”

“Ah,” Mr. Colleague said.

I was excited. I collected jokes to tell at the beginning of each class. I practiced them at home. I invited my students to tell Jewish jokes. I assigned Mel Brooks and Woody Allen, stories and films, and The Year of Living Biblically. I thought we’d have a blast.


It was awful. I’d tell a joke with perfect timing. My students stared at me uncomprehendingly. They did not understand why Mel Brooks made fun of Adolf Hitler. They did not understand jokes about blood libel or pogroms. Actually, most had never heard of a pogrom.

I’ve been wondering ever since about my failed attempt at finding an entertaining way to teach Judaism. I’ve mused while bemused. Why were they so lost, so unsure why the material was funny? After all, Annie Hall was a great hit. There just aren’t enough Jews in These United States of America to explain the profits Woody Allen has raked in over the years. In despair, I began wondering how my students would have reacted to a series of “why did the chicken cross the road” jokes. Maybe, I thought, they are so oppressed by our lousy economy and the debt they are racking up in pursuit of an education that there’s nothing they would find funny these days.

Segue – though not, actually.

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in my surgeon’s office, getting bad news. The lumps on my thyroid we’d been watching for more than a year had apparently demonstrated significant get up and go. One had grown by twenty-five percent. I had tried to avoid the knife, but it seemed pretty clear to my surgeon that my bumpy thyroid was going to have to go.

My surgeon is a Really Nice Guy who is, as locals say in Concord, North Carolina, “from around here.” He is tall, fit, and clean-cut. He is thoroughly pleasant, has a lovely and light southern accent, and is a wonderful listener.

He reminds me very much of an older version of Chip Hilton, the beautifully moral figure of the adolescent boy novels I read as a young girl. (I was a tomboy in my youth. I read all of my older brother’s Chip Hilton novels. Touchdown Pass, Fourth Down Showdown, Strike Three.)

“So,” I said, “how long will it take me to recover after you slit my throat?”

“Barbara!” he said.

“Sorry,” I said, “it’s my heritage talking.”

I thought it was funny. I doubt my surgeon agreed. Like my students, he looked at me with a mixture of shock and confusion.

How do I explain this to happy, white, and – let’s face it – mostly Christian Americans? Jews are schlepping around a lot of ugly history in which Jews were oppressed, suppressed, and repressed. These facts of our lives were, in many respects, the least of our worries in the old country.

One way to deal with persistent powerlessness is to devalue power. If I pretend the knife is a joke, I can conquer fear. If Mel Brooks can make fun of Hitler, he (and we) can understand how to live after the Shoah which decimated our people.

I needed to teach misery first, I decided. Then I could teach Jewish humor.

So this semester, my students are learning a lot about European Jewish history. Oppression, suppression, and repression figure in that history. Then they will read The Dance of Genghis Cohn, a novel in which a Jewish man is executed by a Nazi. The Jewish fellow, a third-rate comedian by the name of Cohn, becomes a dybbuk and merrily haunts his executioner. The Nazi learns, in the process, various Yiddish expressions, how to cook kosher meals, and how to observe Jewish holidays. It’s hilarious.

Jewish humor is, as Cohn says, a “way of screaming.”

Or coping. Or understanding.

This time, around, I hope my students will get it.

Here’s why. Maybe if we all got it, future generations of Jews will happily content themselves with lighter forms of humor.

And they’ll want to know, too: Why did the chicken cross the road?


9 Replies to “Can You Teach Jewish Humor, And If So, Why Not?”

  1. I rather imagine that, in part, your humor may require an . . . ahem . . . older generation. I tend to get Jewish humor–I definitely get Woody, and Mel Brooks (but I never read The Big Book of Jewish Humor), But I do get it, think it’s mostly very funny, as often humor is the only escape from the awful. Maybe it’s because I’m 77, remember the war, the Holocaust, even the pogroms, and angst-ridden New Yorkers (that would be Woody) even though I was too young to actually experience most of them. I assume being from Brooklyn and Manhattan helps–Jewish humor and New York seem to go together like lox and bagels. But mainly I think its age. I think a lot about the fact that our grandkids and often our kids just don’t understand stuff that I think is important. Every time we attend the Charlotte Symphony, I look around for the kids, because mainly I see grey heads. So too with Jewish humor. Maybe there needs to be a separate course in a) humor 101, what constitutes humor and why comedians can make fun of horrible stuff; and b) humor 102 – 110, ethnic humor.

  2. I certainly agree with Cohn’s idea that laughter can be a way of screaming. And I wonder if there’s a deeper reason why the nuance of Jewish humor (and particularly that element of it) is escaping the majority of your students. It would seem to me (as mentioned above) that it probably has at least something to do with age. And if not age, at least experience. If humor is the only escape (or the only way to move forward with some happy-looking piece of who we are), then yeah, we’ll take it.

  3. I tend to agree with Artful about the age being a big probelm for today’s youth. That is why I think it so important that this generation and future generations never foreget the Holocaust, the pogroms and what it was and what they were. I was looking for the book THE LAST OF THE JUST for my grandson to read, but I could not find it at Amazon as a a new book or used one. Sad, very sad. Will this generation and future ones understand any ethnic or other kinds of humor? Their introdution to history at all is pretty slim unless they take specialized courses in history.

    1. Barbara,
      I think maybe you have tapped into something even more important than you realized with your insights on humor and your attempts to pass them on. Humor really is our way of coping with awful stuff–see Jon Stewart & Co. And humor is so closely tied to a culture and a time. Continue your efforts. Maybe you need some small group sessions in humor 101.

  4. I think you are all pointing our a valuable fact of our lives — this generation has not, in the main, carried the kind of experience that makes dark humor — the kind that is a way of screaming — easy for them to comprehend.

    We’ll see how they handle The Dance of Genghis Cohn — I promise to let you all know!

  5. I guess that’s somewhat like teaching “world history.” Do what? How do you teach the history of the world in 9 months? The only way to dice it down to size is pick a theme and follow that thread as it winds its way through the years. Humor would be a very fine thread to follow. All those puns and anagrams and such in Hebrew Bible. And as laughter is the other side of crying, it is definitely more socially acceptable to reveal truths through humor than constant weeping. Besides, constant weeping will just make one dehydrated and nobody pays attention to a shriveled up and sniveled up person of whatever persuasion. So soldier forth, Funny One, to enlighten the younger masses who have been fed a steady diet of physical pratfalls and scatological yuckiness. Their intellects need enlightening and eyes opened. But watch the joking with docs; they take themselves VERY seriously.

  6. VDear Barbara:
    I would like to comment about your doctor visit.
    Have you had or discussed biopsy of your thyroid nodules prior to surgery?
    Currently many doctors are using Afirma molecular testing on the biopsy specimen, to evaluate cancer risk when the sample seems doubtful.
    BTW, the urban dictionary defines thyroid nodule in middle aged female as “madam’s apple”.

  7. Just so everyone knows I haven’t rushed into this — the thyroid nodules have been watched for almost two years and I even tried an experimental method to see of they could be “disappeared.” Biopsies have not proven anything either way, so after a rather serious amount of growth in recent months, we are taking it all out.

    Many thanks, and I will be back!

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