“Inviting people to laugh with you while you are laughing at yourself is a good thing to do,” Carl Reiner said. “You may be a fool, but you’re the fool in charge.”
Carl Reiner was a comedy genius. We remember him for “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows”, and of course as straight man to Mel Brooks in “The 2000 Year Old Man.”
His passing reminds us of an era when perhaps 80 percent of leading comics were Jewish. The passing of a style of humor we might call earthy, clever, slapstick, and/or Jewish.
So what makes a joke Jewish? It must express a Jewish sensibility, and usually calls upon, according to Joseph Telushkin, those values and issues that matter to Jews: anti-Semitism, financial success, verbal aggression, assimilation, professional success, anxieties, creative logic and argumentation, family relationships, to name a few. Some Italian, Irish, Swedish, Welsh, and Russian collections of humor have Jewish flavors. We don’t have a monopoly. A good laugh is a good laugh in any culture.
Five years ago, when my wife, Celia, and I joined the synagogue in Sag Harbor, Temple Adas Israel, we formed a Jewish Humor Group that met regularly to tell jokes and to share potluck suppers and camaraderie. We had trouble defining what constitutes “Jewish humor,” but we had a helluva great time telling jokes. I became “the fool in charge,” and we laughed at ourselves and one another’s jokes. We formed lasting friendship bonds that transcend today’s Zoom.
You can enjoy Jewish humor without defining it. Here are plenty of examples:
A man from Israel visits New York in 1950, a time when not many Israelis could afford to travel. He meets a New Yorker who says, “I haven’t met any Israelis. Tell me, how are things in Israel?” The Israeli says, “Good!”
The New Yorker thinks this answer is too short. He says to the Israeli, “Can you tell me more? Add a few details? You know, elaborate?” The Israeli says, “Certainly!” He pauses to think a moment. Then he says, “Not good!”
I’ve told this joke many times — both to Jewish people and to non-Jewish people. The Jews think it’s funny. Others don’t get it. I’m not sure why, but I think it has something to do with Talmudic thinking. You know, “On the one hand, but on the other hand.” The Talmud often presents both sides, or even more than two sides, to any argument. Remember that three Jews will often have four opinions? (Why four? One of them is schizophrenic.)
Here are two poems by our friend the late great poet Harvey Shapiro that are unmistakably Jewish:
New York Notes
Caught on a side street
in heavy traffic, I said
to the cabbie, I should
have walked. He replied
I should have been a doctor.
When can I get on the 11:33
I ask the guy in the information booth
at the Atlantic Avenue Station.
When they open the doors, he says.
I am home among my people.
The Old Jew
Who would have thought
his taste for pickled herring
would outlast his taste for women.
Another example: Two guys are walking their dogs in Central Park. One has a German shepherd. The other a Chihuahua. The German shepherd owner says, “Let’s have lunch at Tavern on the Green.”
The Chihuahua owner says, “Hey. It’s not like in France. They don’t allow dogs in restaurants here.”
The German shepherd owner says, “Yes they do! Just watch me get in with my dog. Say what I say, and do what I do, and we’ll both get in with our dogs.”
So the German shepherd owner goes up to the maître d’ and says, “I’d like to have lunch here.”
“Sorry, sir. No dogs allowed.”
“But that’s a seeing-eye dog.”
So the maître d’ says, “Welcome. Please come right in!”
The Chihuahua owner follows the same script. And the maître d’ says, “Sir. Do you realize that you have a seeing-eye Chihuahua?”
And the Chihuahua owner shouts, “What? They gave me a Chihuahua?”
Behind every successful man stands a surprised mother-in-law.
“I have all the money I’ll ever need, if I die by 4 p.m. tomorrow.”
How about this? Woman on a plane to Hawaii says to the passenger next to her, “How do you pronounce the place we’re going to, HaWaii or HaVayi?”
The passenger says, “HaVayi!”
The woman says “Thank you.”
The passenger says, “You’re Velcome!”
A priest, a minister, and a rabbi walk into a bar, and the bartender says, “What is this? A joke?” (This is a meta-joke, a joke about jokes.)
A priest, a minister, and a rabbit walk into a bar. The rabbit says, “Wait a minute, I think I’m a typographical error.”
A grandmother takes her grandson to kindergarten for the first time. She says, “Bubbeleh. We’re going to school, Bubbeleh. It’s your first day, Bubbeleh. You’re going to love it, Bubbeleh. You’ll meet new friends, Bubbeleh. Here’s your sandwich, Bubbeleh. Let’s get dressed, Bubbeleh. Come on, Bubbeleh. Let’s not be late, Bubbeleh.”
She picks him up at school at the end of the day. She says, “Well, Bubbeleh. Did you like school? What did you learn today?”
The kid says, “I learned my name is not Bubbeleh!”
“The food here at the hotel is terrible — and such small portions!”
“I had a dream. I was having dinner with my father and mother. I made a terrible Freudian slip. I meant to say, ‘Please pass the salt.’ And instead, in the dream, I said, ‘You horrible parents. You ruined my entire childhood.’ ”
A fetus is a fetus until it gets out of medical school.
You should always be yourself, unless you’re a jerk. In that case, you should be someone else.
An American is riding in a taxi in Israel. The driver is a Russian immigrant. The American says, “How were conditions in Russia?”
The driver says, “I can’t complain.”
“You mean to say that even with all the food shortages there?”
The driver says, ”I can’t complain.” But the American goes on, “Even with all the history of anti-Semitism and persecution there?”
“I can’t complain.”
The American, frustrated, finally says, “Well, why come to Israel?”
The driver says, “Here, I can complain!”
We value those strong and unique friendship bonds formed in our Jewish Humor Group. Why do we value jokes and friends today, more than ever? Why does Jewish humor matter in our strange science-fiction-like era of quarantine, social isolation, elbow-bumps, lockdown, face masks, and Zoom relationships?
I can answer from personal experience, speaking as “the fool in charge.” Laughter! Camaraderie! Sharing good comedy of any origin or flavor with good friends!
Yes, Jewish humor matters. Did I mention the health benefits of laughter?
Stephen Rosen, a physicist and regular Star contributor, is co-founder, with his wife, Celia Paul, of the Jewish Humor Group at Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor, which will have an open mike Jewish Joke Fest free to everyone on July 23 at 7 p.m. on Zoom.