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No Laughing Matter?

Rosh Hashanah Morning

Aspen Jewish Congregation

“Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the purely scientific mind.” E.B. White and his wife Katharine wrote that in 1941, and they were probably right. I should warn you that I’m about to kill a few frogs.

In the PEW survey of Jewish Americans from 2013, 42% of Jews said they consider “having a good sense of humor” essential to being Jewish. Scholars have dissected the question of Jews and humor. Ruth Wisse, professor of Hebrew and Yiddish Literature at Harvard, says that Jews and humor became linked only after the Enlightenment, and only in the West. The precariousness of emancipation and the persistence of antisemitism kept Jews on edge. In that context, humor showed Christians that Jews were harmless. Also, it gave powerless Jews a subversive victory over their persecutors.

Hillel Halkin, another Jewish scholar, traces the seeds of Jewish humor to a medieval practice of scriptural satire. In the Middle Ages, Jewish and Muslim writers parodied their respective holy texts, but the Jews did so far more irreverently. Halkin explains: the Quran promises its followers “glory and dominion, and medieval Islam, which…expanded all over the world, fulfilled this promise handsomely. The Bible promises Israel the same — and Jews in the Middle Ages were everywhere a small and often downtrodden minority.” The source of the Jews’ humor was that contradiction — between the idealized world of the Bible and the lived reality of the Jew. This gap has a long history — in the disconnect between being the Chosen People and a trodden-upon people, between God’s promise and Jewish historical experience. And contradiction is always ripe for comedy.

For Jews or any group, the jokes we tell are telling. In that spirit, I want to share a few jokes with you to see what they teach us about the Jewish experience of power, persecution, and privilege. In an age of contradiction, comedy can be the last best hiding place of the truth. So let’s dissect some frogs.

Morris and Herschel get into a heated argument and Morris challenges Herschel to a duel, which Herschel accepts. The next morning at dawn, Morris is waiting at the agreed location, pistol in hand. A half hour goes by, an hour, then two. Herschel is nowhere to be seen. Finally a messenger arrives and hands Morris a note from Herschel. It says: “Listen, Morris, if I’m late, go ahead and start shooting without me.”

The classic Jew would prefer to avoid the use of force. Maybe it’s because he was too often on the receiving end of it, or because the Western world disempowered him.

Morris and Herschel were traveling by horse-drawn cart to town when they had to stop because of a pile of heavy rocks blocking the road. They stood there surveying the scene when two gentiles pulled up next to them. The gentiles got out of their cart and started lifting the heavy rocks out of the path. Morris turned to Herschel and said, “Just like goyim, always with force.”

The self-deprecating humor makes fun of the impotent Jews while scoffing at the gentiles who can’t rely on their wits to get out of a jam. Ironically, the Jews get out of this one without using force — because they wait for the gentiles to do it for them.

Jewish ambivalence about power reached its absurd comic peak in a scene from Woody Allen’s film Manhattan. A group of socialites in tuxedoes and cocktail dresses stand around making small talk. Allen butts in, “Hey, has anybody read that Nazis are going to march in New Jersey? We should go down there, get some guys together, get some bricks and baseball bats, and really explain things to ‘em.” The classy man next to him says, “There is a devastating satirical piece on that on the op-ed page of the Times. It’s devastating.” Allen interrupts him: “A satirical piece in the Times is one thing, but bricks and baseball bats really gets right to the point.” A condescending woman chimes in, “Oh but really biting satire is always better than physical force.” Allen responds, “No, no, physical force is always better with Nazis. Cuz it’s hard to satirize a guy with shiny boots on.”

As a Jewish joke that spoofs the limits of Jewish joking, it’s perfect. Reliance on words over weapons is noble until it gets you killed. As the Jewish people settles into newfound power centers in both Israel and America, our attitudes toward the use of power need to mature. Though we still face threats, we are no longer helpless victims without the wherewithal to defend ourselves.

Cohen and Levy started a law firm, but in order to get clients, they called it Christian & Christian. People would call the office and ask to speak to Mr. Christian, and the receptionist would say, “Which Christian, Cohen or Levy?”

This joke was funnier in its day, but it's dated now. There’s no need anymore to change an ethnic-sounding name. That’s not to say that antisemitism is gone — look no further than the forces of white supremacy awakened during this election season and to global jihad. But it’s noteworthy that both of our major party nominees for president have Jewish grandchildren. The majority of Americans reject antisemitism, and no industry or institution is closed to Jews. It’s a far cry from the days when Groucho Marx and his non-Jewish wife were banned from a country club, and Groucho wrote a letter asking if their half-Jewish son could go into the swimming pool up to his waist.

Mrs. Jones called the army base near her house, as she did every year, in the fall. She liked to invite soldiers over for Thanksgiving dinner so they could enjoy a home-cooked meal while stationed far from their families. The sergeant on the line thanked her for her hospitality and asked her how many soldiers she could welcome. She said, “Up to five would be fine. And one more thing. Please don’t send me any Jews.” After a pause, the sergeant said, “No problem.”

Thanksgiving Day came around. While Mrs. Jones was finishing her preparations, the doorbell rang. “That must be the soldiers!” she said. She opened the door to find five uniformed black men on her doorstep. Her face tightened and she said, “There must be some mistake.” One of the soldiers spoke: “No, ma’am, Sergeant Rosenberg never makes mistakes.”

I have always loved this joke, but recently I realized how timely and eye-opening it really is. The Jewish sergeant occupies an in-between social stratum — lower than the gentiles but above African Americans. This evolved over time, as Eastern European immigrants assimilated into white society in the 20th century. Now we straddle two worlds, living with the scars of persecution and the privileges of whiteness. This joke may help explain many Jews' ambivalence in today's racially charged society. As one Jewish activist put it: “Do I really want to dive deep into my family history and investigate that the fact that we have money comes from this weird stew of running from anti-Semitism and also gaining white privilege?” We Jews could be powerful allies in healing racial tension in our country, but we have to be honest about prejudice and privilege.

And we have to correct a common assumption among American Jews. Namely, not all Jews are white. This past May, the first ever Jews of Color National Convening met in New York. One participant described the emotional gathering as a place where (for example) Iranian, Iraqi, Mexican, African-American, and Arab Jews could show up for the first time as their full selves. They don’t want to be invisible to the rest of us. They want to chip away “at the myth that Jewish is synonymous with Ashkenazi.” They want to be known not as “they” — as I’ve been saying — but as “we.” We Jews have work to do, in building relationships with our neighbors and our fellow Jews of every race and class. With privilege comes responsibility.

An American Jewish couple decides to travel to Europe for their 50th anniversary. They go to Poland and take a day to tour Auschwitz. The morning of the tour, they get into a huge fight, and they won’t even talk to each other. During the whole tour, it’s the cold shoulder. They get back on the bus at the end of the day, and the husband sighs and says, “Ok, I was wrong, I'm sorry.” The wife glares at him. “Oh, now you’re sorry, now that you ruined Auschwitz for me?”

If this joke is funny, the humor comes from the yawning gap between the unspeakable enormity of the Shoah and the bickering of an old married couple. The absurdity of that disconnect is jarring but real. In two generations, we’ve gone from Jews who endured the Shoah to Jews who take advantage of every opportunity in the Land of the Free. (We’re celebrating Rosh Hashanah in Aspen, for goodness sake!) Today we worry less about whether it’s safe for our grandchildren to be Jewish than whether they will bother to be Jewish.

We Jews are obsessed with Jewish continuity, but our reality today is defined by dramatic discontinuity. From persecution to privilege, from weakness to power, from the ashes of the Shoah to Israeli sovereignty and American prosperity. It’s enough to give us collective whiplash. We need to get our bearings, and humor can help us do that. Jokes have a way of pointing out the truth hiding in plain sight.

But once we get our bearings, we may have to put joking aside, at least long enough to rediscover what Judaism actually stands for. A Jewish identity based only on humor or suffering is not built to last. Fortunately, we are the heirs to an ancient wisdom tradition that can transform our lives and the world. But a Torah that simply sits on the shelf may as well be just another book. Prayer, study, social justice, holidays, life cycles, Israel, Hebrew, family gatherings, and community — these are some of the ways we begin to make Judaism matter, to make it real and lasting.

Two thousand years ago, a sarcastic know-it-all asked Rabbi Hillel to explain the whole Torah while standing on one foot. It sounds like the setup for a joke. But the punchline is not what you’d expect. Hillel responded, “What is hateful to you, do not do to another. The rest is commentary. Go and study” (Shabbat 31a). If we fail to take his advice, then the joke is on us.

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