David Solway is a poet, essayist and educator. The original version of this article appeared in C2C Journal.
“They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.” What is the essence of the Jewish joke? Things can always get worse.
“When I was a boy, the Dead Sea was only sick,” comedian George Burns was fond of saying. Or consider the Israeli paratrooper joke. “If the chute doesn’t open,” the newly enrolled soldier asks his training officer, “how long until I hit the ground?” To which the officer answers, “The rest of your life.” The tragic is rendered both comic and stoic.
In his 2018 book The Ideal of Culture, Joseph Epstein wondered what it was about the Jewish joke “that is notably, ineluctably Jewish?” Good question. Jewish humour is both a survival technique and a cultural semiotic. It is, writes Ruth Wisse in No Joke, “one of many possible responses to the anomalous experience of the Jews.” British-American novelist Henry James, in an 1896 letter to his friend A.C. Benson, called it the means to negotiate “the imagination of disaster.”
Although Israel was founded on May 14, 1948, its Diamond Jubilee was celebrated, according to the Hebrew calendar, on or near the fifth day of the month of Iyar, which fell this year on April 25/26. (In the Hebrew calendar, days begin in the evening.) There has been plenty of renewed discussion of the gifts this tiny modern country has bequeathed to the world. It’s a “start-up nation,” write Dan Senor and Saul Singer in the book of that title, with one of the highest numbers of new tech firms per capita. George Gilder’s The Israel Test has similarly made luminously clear the extent of Israel’s innovative genius from which the entire world has profited. Israel has produced more Nobel laureates than China and demonstrated excellence in the fields of science, technology, medicine, agriculture, and energy. Acclaim here is much-deserved. But what of the funny bone that lies at the heart of the Jewish tradition? That goes back much farther.
The use of the verb basar in the Book of Isaiah is often translated as “preach,” but carries with it the nuance of cheerfulness and glad tidings. Abraham’s haggling with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah has all the marks of an incipient comedy sketch, even if the capper went off script. The Israeli-inspired Comedy Central TV cartoon show, Drawn Together, features characters with names like Jew Producer, Foxxy Love, Toot Braunstein, Wooldoor Sockbat and Strawberry Shortcake, making astringent fun of many of the major currents and events of Jewish history. It is full of suffering and turmoil, yet remains an expression of both indomitable festivity and wry humility. “I do not know whether there are many other instances,” wrote Freud about Jewish humour in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, “of a people making fun to such a degree of its own character.”
Regarding the historical friction between Judaism and Christianity, there is a deep understanding in Judaism that Jesus was also a member of “the tribe” and should be embraced, not rejected. There are four things, the joke goes, that reveal that Jesus was a Jew. He lived at home until he was 30. He went into his Father’s business. He thought his mother was a virgin. And his mother treated him like God.
Perhaps the darkest of Jewish jokes, retold by Ms. Wisse, distinguishes between two kinds of German Jews, the pessimists who went to Palestine and the optimists who went to Auschwitz – indicating that Jewish life is always perilous, even in Israel. In light of Israel’s oft-disputed recognition and its precarious position in the world, every day in Israel might be celebrated as an anniversary day.
As McGill University history professor Gil Troy wrote for the Jerusalem Post, the Jubilee should “culminate in a big, brassy, schmaltzy celebration of Israel … At this critical moment, we must go big picture, transcending the complexities of the moment to showcase this great story of a broken, wandering, persecuted people finding their way by finding their way home.” The Jubilee can be said to resemble the traditional Purim spiel – joyful antics commemorating the survival of the Jews related in the Book of Esther, bringing merriment into a somber and violent world.
Jewish humour is a special case, a way of remaining solvent in a bear market. Like Noah, the Jew floats his stock in a situation in which everyone else would be in liquidation. And from this perspective, the Diamond Jubilee is, in its way, a joke upon the world, albeit a good-humoured one. They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.