'Jewish? You don't look funny!'

 

If it has to do with comedy, the odds are Jews are involved. Many of the greatest comedy writers, comic actors, and comedians have been-and still are-Jews. And that's just in the last century or so. Jewish humor actually goes back thousands of years.

No, Moses didn't do a stand-up routine to loosen up Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. Nor did Esther tell any Achashverosh jokes. But, believe it or not, humor can be found in many places in the Hebrew Bible, too.

Not only are Jews disproportionately funny, Jewish humor-although it originates in and is largely targeted to Jewish culture-also has a type of universal appeal. Take this exchange between two decidedly non-Jewish Army surgeons during the Korean War, from an episode of the multiple-Emmy-award-winning television series, M*A*S*H:

Maj. Charles Emerson Winchester III: Admit it! You said I was a superior surgeon...

Capt. Hawkeye Pierce: I said you were a superior sturgeon-you're the biggest lox in Korea.

You don't have to be Jewish to get that joke, but it doesn't hurt, either. Actually, most good "gastronomic Jews" would know that sturgeon and lox are completely unrelated fish-and would never put sturgeon on a bagel with cream cheese and a nice slice of tomato. But the Yiddish word "lox" is both universally recognized as fish, and a funny word. Besides, nobody ever went to the deli for a half-pound of "fillet of brined Nova Scotia salmon."


Humor serves a unique function in a culture, and in Jewish culture in particular. Yes, a good laugh is a good way to forget your immediate troubles for a while, but for an oppressed minority, it's also a kind of empowerment. Even the darkest hours of recent Jewish history spawned jokes, which allowed Jews in danger for their lives to get a momentary upper hand on their deadliest enemies through laughter.

While Jewish joking runs the gamut from snappy one-liners to elaborate stories, from family-friendly to risqué, its most recognizable feature is the witty use of language. From Groucho Marx ("I've had a lovely evening-but this isn't it") to the astute political observations of Jon Stewart, the humorous turn of a phrase is the hallmark of Jewish humor.

In a special four-session class, Rabbi David Kay will explore the history and nature of Jewish humor. "Jewish? You Don't Look Funny!-Jewish Humor from the Torah to Today" will meet Wednesday evenings, Nov. 18 and December 2, 9, and 16, at 7 p.m. at Congregation Ohev Shalom, 613 Concourse Parkway South, Maitland. This class is open to the public at no charge. RSVPs to 407-298-4650 or ClergyAsst@OhevShalom.org are requested but not required.


 

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