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Jewish Humor

One day, the special golden phone on the desk of the Orthodox
Israeli Chief Rabbi rings for the first time. Amazed, the Chief Rabbi
picks up the phone and asks in a halting voice, “Who is there?”
“This is God speaking. I have two very important messages to give
You. Would you like the good news or the bad news first?”
The Rabbi, after a quick blessing, responds, “O Holy One, if it
pleases you, please give me the good news first.”
God continues, “The good news is that all Jews will finally agree on
One form of Judaism, and they will unite in peace, harmony, and
mutual goodwill for ever and ever.”
The Rabbi answers, “Baruch Hashem (Blessed is God), this is the
Most wonderful news in Jewish History! What could possibly be the
Bad news?”
God says, “I’m calling from Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation.”
Is Jewish humor serious enough for a Bar Mitzvah? In Humanistic Judaism, we have the opportunity to choose our Bar or Bat Mitzvah presentations; some choose a Torah reading, and some choose a topic from the Jewish experience. Jewish humor is serious business. I’m not going to stand up here and just tell jokes the whole time. But a lot of these jokes are funny ways to explain Jewish history. American Jewish humor is an important part of American Jewish history and culture; part of our heritage that has connected us with the rest of the American community.
I enjoy Jewish humor a lot. I often find it relevant to current events and my own experience. The stories of the Torah supposedly took place thousands of years ago, but Jewish humor is still being created today. The world when Torah was written 2500 years ago was very different from today, but you can make a new Jewish joke at any minute.
Jewish humor began a long time before modern Jewish comedians. For example, the Purim Shpiel, a humorous retelling of the biblical story of Esther, started out as a joke in the Middle Ages, even though now it has become an important part of the celebration of Purim, including puppet shows and actual plays. Some people, including rabbis, banned certain versions of the Purim Shpiel because they felt it was making fun of our history, or even making fun of them for being too religious and too serious.
For much of Jewish humor, it is hard to imagine a very religious person enjoying. It can make fun of Jewish holidays, rabbis, and even God. Jewish humor is not intended specifically for less religious people, but as it has become more well known, it seems to me that sometimes it’s more funny for non-Jews and less religious Jews. On the other hand, sometimes to get the joke, you have to know something about being Jewish first.
A Rabbi, a cantor, and a synagogue president were driving to a seminar when they were kidnapped. The hijackers asked the
three of them to hand over all of their money and jewelry. When they replied that they hadn't any, the hijackers told them that
immediately after their last wishes were fulfilled, they would be killed.
"My last wish," began the Rabbi, “is to give a fascinating, complicated,long sermon that I have always wanted to give but I’ve never been allowed to finish."
"We will grant your wish," the hijackers replied.
"My last wish," said the cantor, "is to sing a beautiful, Yemenite style song, one of my own compositions lasting two hours. I have
never been allowed to sing it."
"We'll let you sing it," replied the hijackers.
"What is your last wish," the hijackers asked the shul president.
"Please, please shoot me now."
If you’ve never heard a rabbi give a long and complicated sermon, this just isn’t as funny. What makes Jewish humor Jewish? Is it just a Jewish person telling jokes? Jewish humor is not just humor about Jews. If it were, no one else would think it was funny or would get the jokes. For example, there are lots of jokes about Jews and Chinese food they probably did not tell in Eastern Europe.
Moishe was eating in a Chinese restaurant and was chatting to his Chinese waiter. Moishe commented upon what a wise people the
Chinese were.
"Yes," replied the waiter, "we're wise because our culture is 4,000 years old. But Jewish people are also very wise, are they not?"
Moishe replied, "Yes, we are. Our culture is 5,000 years old."
The waiter was surprised to hear this. "That can't be true," he replied,"where did your people eat for a thousand years?"
Jewish humor has to be relevant to other cultures for a wider audience to relate to it. It is mostly about Jews, but anyone can have a nagging mother who wants them to be a doctor. Jewish humor can also be about how we relate to other cultures, such as how we go to Chinese restaurants.  In many cases, Jewish humor has to relate not just to the Jewish experience, but the human experience in general. Lots of religions have boring religious leaders (of course, not MINE), many people have nagging mothers, and many people have faced discrimination.
As one piece of my research, I visited some websites that claim to present Jewish humor, including “Old Jews Telling Jokes” and “A Word in Your Eye.” Some of the jokes were a little funny, but the ones I found the funniest were based on Jewish stereotypes, particularly Jewish wives. Even if there were a disaster, according to the jokes, they would be complaining about getting blood on the carpet. However, in my experience, my mother and grandmother do NOT match this stereotype – you can ask my father for his perspective later.
Jewish humor also has to be Jewish in some way. You can’t just plug in Jewish names in any random joke and hope it sounds Jewish. To be defined as Jewish humor, it has to be about Judaism or Jewish people, not just Jewish names or New York City. Jewish humor is not limited to the Jewish religion, of course, just like being Jewish is not just about religion. It can be about Jewish experiences, Jewish history or Jewish personalities.
But Jewish humor appeals to more than just Jews because of how it relates to the human experience – maybe there’s a little “Jewish” in everyone, and that’s what we’re all laughing at. Jewish humor was one way to cope with the Jewish experience and the human experience. Many horrible things have happened to us. People have tried to wipe us out many times. But we can still laugh. As the old joke goes, “Jewish holidays all go something like this: ‘They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat.’”
Jewish humor is a way to connect with other people. Before Jewish humor became popular, we were secluded from the rest of society. After Jewish humor was brought to us by people such as Mel Brooks, Jackie Mason, and even Jerry Seinfeld, people wanted us to make them laugh, and still do.
Are there ethics in Jewish humor? Of course! Consider the difference between laughing with and laughing at. Imagine someone has fallen on the ground. If you are laughing with them, it means they laughed first, acknowledging how stupid they looked, and they are laughing with you at themselves. But if you are laughing at them, they did not laugh at all. You are probably just being mean to them, and even adding insult to injury if they were really hurt. Making fun of yourself is fine; making fun of others in pain is cruel.
Humanistic Judaism may be the denomination that finds Jewish humor the funniest – we are not concerned about poking holes in religious authorities, since they are people too. If everything followed a divine plan, as tradition promised, nothing would be funny. If god meant for you to fall on your tush, what’s funny about that? When we see bad things happen, we can cry, or get angry, or sometimes we can laugh together. Laughing is a way of coping with the difficult things that have happened to us. Laughter is also a way to share the experiences with others, which also makes you feel better.
In Sunday School and in regular school last year, we studied the Holocaust, a very important event in Jewish history. I was surprised to find Jewish humor even in such a terrible period. But when you think about it, humor helped make the prisoners feel part of a group, it made fun of their persecutors, and as with other tragedies, it helped them cope.
Maybe it was the language they were speaking. Hebrew is what the Torah was originally written in, and is more traditional and religious. Yiddish, on the other hand, is famous for its funny sayings and simply has more of a humorous connotation than Hebrew. Yiddish was the language of everyday life in Eastern Europe, and people like to laugh every day. Even in English, there’s no other word for chutzpah or shtik or, well, I ran out of clean examples. So I chose a Yiddish reading to celebrate my Bar Mitzvah. Even if the story is silly, the messages are important.
This story takes place near the famous city of Chelm, which is known for its quote “wisdom.” In this story, the rabbi of Chelm
goes missing. Local men go looking for him, and they find a body in a field. But the body has no head, so they are not sure whether
it’s the rabbi or not. No one can remember whether the rabbi actually HAD a head or not, so they figure if he didn’t have a head,
it was the rabbi after all. So they go to ask people who might know.
[Yiddish telling of joke]
Vershtayen? Everyone understand? For those who don’t, here is a translation.
So they went to ask the shammes, who had always served the rabbi. The shammes replied:,“To tell the truth, I am also not sure if he, peace be upon him, had a head or not. He was always wrapped in his talis [prayer shawl] and I could only see what appeared below the talis.”
So the Khelmites went to ask the bathhouse attendant. The attendant said, “In truth, almost every erev shabes [Sabbath eve] I washed the rabbi. He would, however, lie on the topmost bench, which is wrapped in thick steam, so I would see only his feet.
So the Khelmites went to the rebitsin [rabbi’s wife]. The rebitsin answered, “I know only that my husband, may he have a bright paradise, had a nose, because every erev shabes he would prepare snuff to snort. If he also had a head – this I do not know.”
And thus, until this very day, the Khelmites do not know whether their rabbi had a head or not.
What’s the lesson of the story? First, be careful of focusing on the little details and forgetting the important thing – the rabbi is missing, and they’re debating whether he had a head or not. Second, sometimes you need to quit while you’re ahead {pause}. If they were going to ignore the bigger problem of the missing rabbi, what’s the point of debate in the first place? This could be a criticism of people who are very focused on the little details of Jewish religion and Jewish law instead of the big picture of being a good person. And lastly, if you’re going to laugh at the Chelmites, you might as well laugh at yourself as well, because there’s a little bit of Chelm in all of us.
If my speech is about humor, what could I possibly do for my community service project? I worked for the Humor Cart. The Humor Cart visits children in Lutheran General Hospital and uses humor as a form of therapy. Humor usually puts people in a good mood, and takes their minds off of other things, like why they are in the hospital. It can be useful as a sort of distraction from all of your troubles and fears, so you can just sit back and laugh. It seems to make people a lot calmer, and especially happier. This community service project fit in well with my Bar Mitzvah topic because it was helping people through laughter. I even took up a collection of clean jokes to “donate” to the program.  It was like taking my topic, and giving the good parts away for everyone to share. Even if there is no commandment in the Torah that says, “Make them laugh,” it’s still a mitzvah, a good deed.
Becoming a Bar Mitzvah means a lot. It means I will be expected to be more responsible, such as doing more work and trying even harder in everything I do. I will also be, for the most part, an adult in the eyes of the Jewish community, also affecting my workload and effort. And my jokes will need to be more mature and more funny. But the first two changes are much more important. Even the training to become a Bar Mitzvah is making me more responsible. After all, I had to learn Hebrew AND a little Yiddish, write an entire speech, and remember to show up tonight. How ironic: I’m becoming more of an adult just by training to begin the process of becoming an adult. But I have to end with a joke:
A priest, a minister and a rabbi are complaining about their rodent problem. The priest says, “Well, we put mouse traps everywhere, but they didn’t work.”
Then the minister says, “Well, we tried using rat poison, but that didn’t kill them all.”
Then the rabbi says, “I found a foolproof plan that got rid of all of them. I just gave them Bar Mitzvahs and I never saw them again.”
Today, am I a man or am I a mouse? You’ll have to ask my rabbi in a few years.
Follow the links below to read other B Mitvah speeches.


Tue, May 30 2023 10 Sivan 5783