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February 19, 1988 - Image 65

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1988-02-19

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Jewish Humor: A Mixture
Of Thinking And Feeling

Finding the "bright side" in tragedy is
at the heart of Jewish humor says
Sarah Cohen, author of Jewish Wry.


Special to The Jewish News


arah Blacher Cohen
found out what makes
Jews funny because of
two unfunny things.
Appleton, Wisconsin, and
muscular nerve disability.
The first is where Cohen
grew up. The second is the
disease Cohen grew up with.
Because she was one of on-
ly a handful of Jews in her
Appleton, Wisconsin class,
and because she was the on-
ly anything with a muscular
disability, Cohen was not ex-
actly a candidate for Miss
Popularity. She was, however,
the leading candidate for be-
ing ridiculed.
Add to that the fact that
her parents were Orthodox
Jews who had come from
Minsk and who spoke Yid-
dish, and Cohen had the
choice of either being the butt
for or the teller of jokes.
She, like Jews in all times
and all places, chose the lat-
ter. "Jews have always used
humor as a social defense
mechanism, as a way to in-
gratiate ourselves in the Gen-
tile society around us. They
called me the 'white Jew'
because I told a lot of jokes.
It was my way to win friends
and influence people, to get
them to laugh with me and
not at me."
And that, she said, is how
it's always been. "Jews have
used humor to cut through
prejudice and win acceptance.
It's been our salvation, the
life preserver that's kept us
The development of Jewish
humor is one of the topics in
a new book edited by Cohen
called, 'Jewish Wry.' The book
contains 13 essays on Jewish
humor written by experts on
the subject.
In an interview, Cohen, a
professor of English at the
State University of New York
at Albany, says besides help-
ing to cope with the Gentiles,

Sarah Cohen, author of Jewish Wry.

humor has also given Jews a
way to deal with the unpleas-
antness around them.
"What has happened to us
has been far from funny, but
what we had to say about it
made us laugh and made
things more tolerable. Humor,
has been our own verbal
unique way, through the use
of irony, understatement and
exaggeration, to make the un-
funny funny."
Cohen, who because of her
disability can't stand and so
calls herself a sit-down stand-
up comedian, said Jewish
humor really began in 19th
century Eastern Europe
when pogroms from without
and poverty from within
made life anything but a bowl

of cherries.
"Jews would say, 'We're the
Chosen People but chosen for
what — to suffer?' They
would say, 'We're powerful in
interpreting ancient scholar-
ly texts, but powerless before
brainless peasants: There was
an incongruity between being
superior in intellect and in-
ferior in status. Humor,
through self-critical jokes,
proverbs and tales, gave back
a sense of power."
And so, Cohen said, jokes
arose such as the one about
the three Jews about to be
shot by a firing squad. The
captain asks the first Jew if
he wants a blindfold. "Yes,
sir," is his reply. He asks the
second Jew. "Yes, sir," is his

reply. He then asks the third.
"No," comes the defiant
answer, "I don't need your
lousy blindfold." Which
causes the second Jew to im-
mediately turn to the third in
panic and warn, "Shh, don't
make trouble."
When large-scale immigra-
tion from 1880 to 1920
brought Europe's Jews to
America, they brought their
shtetl humor with them, said
Cohen, making only minor
adjustments such as chang-
ing the schnorrer in jokes to
the moocher.
But as they struggled to
make it in this new land, the
subject of the humor
changed, focusing on the
pains of trying to assimilate
into the ways of America.
And so, Shlomo goes back
home to Europe to visit his
mother after living in
America for two years.
"Shlomo, why aren't you
wearing a beard?" his mother
asks. "Ma, there's no time to
grow a beard in America."
"Shlomo, do you keep
kosher?" "Ma, there's no time
in America." "Shlomo, do you
work on Shabbos?" "Ma, you
have to work on Shabbos in
America." The mother then
pauses. "ill me, Shlomo, are
you still circumcised?"
Jews were trying to fit in,
trying to be polite to their
Gentile neighbors while mut-
tering Yiddish curses under
their breath, said Cohen, and
their humor reflects the
"ordeal of civility, of having to
be gracious. In fact, there's a
theory that Freud's Id, which
he identifies as the part of us
that represses our sexual
desires was really the Yid,
which was the Jewish self the
new immigrant tried to keep
in check and undercover."
Jewish comedians of the
time, like Sophie Tucker and
Eddie Cantor, dealt with that
by making fun of their
ethnicity, emphasizing their
Jewish identity such as in
lUcker's song, "When are you
going to make it legal, Mr.
All of that changed in the
1930s and '40s with the rise
of fascism and Hitler. "Holly-
wood was afraid of being ac-
cused of dual allegiance, so
they de-ethnicized their
ethnic characters. Jewish
comics went along by secular-
izing their routines. They
were so successful that even
Jack Benny's stinginess was
seen not as a Jewish, but as
a Scottish trait."
With the 1950s and '60s;
said Cohen, "came a return to

Jewish entertainers identify-
ing as Jews as they became
aware of the losses suffered in
the Holocaust and so had a
desire to try and resurrect the
dead past. It was a time of
`Fiddler on the Roof,' and of
comics like Lenny Bruce and
Woody Allen who made their
Jewish identities paramount."
That trend continues today,
said Cohen, with comics like
Jackie Mason, who recently
won a lbny Award for his one-
man Broadway show, which
deals essentially with the dif-
ferences between Jews and
"Jewish houses are
museums, Gentile houses are
workshops," Mason says. "If
you ask a Gentile what his
son does, he'll tell you he's a
truck driver. A Jew will say
his son is a controller in the
trucking industry."
Cohen said she thinks the
fact that kind of humor is still
thriving is good, saying as
long as Jews see themselves
as outsiders trying to get in,
there will be Jewish humor as
we've known it. "It's not such
a great blessing to be so readi-
ly accepted in society. If we
jump completely into the
melting pot, we will be
deprived of our differences,
lose all our individuality?'
Cohen noted that there's no
danger of that in Israel, Jews
being in the majority. That
fact, she said, has made
Israeli humor a different kind
of Jewish humor, more mili-
tant, less self-effacing, not
concerned with social graces.
lb wit: A Gallup pollster
walks up to a Russian, a Pole,
an American and an Israeli
and says, "Excuse me, what's
our opinion of the meat shor-
tage?' lb which the Russian
replies, "What do you mean
opinion?" And the Pole asks,
"What do you mean meat?"
And the American asks,
"What do you mean shor-
tage?" And the Israeli asks,
"What do you mean excuse
Still Jews are Jews, in
Israel or out, which explains
the Israeli joke about the
thief who robbed an Israeli
bank. He got away with $100
in cash and $2,500 in pledges.
Wherever and whenever,
Cohen said, she thinks Jews
will always be funny because
"people have an aptitude for
things. Our heritage is to be
And as long as that's true,
she said, we'll make fun of
what it means to be Jewish.
"The purpose of humor is
to give us the feeling of being


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