Can Yiddish Humor Topple the Tower of Babel?

Devorah Baum's The Jewish Joke reminds us of a distinct commonality.

The Jewish Joke: A Short History--with Punchlines
Devorah Baum
Pegasus Books
May 2018

Those who know the practice of Friends episodes being titled “The one where…” or “The one with…” will find themselves on familiar ground with The Jewish Joke: A Short History — with Punchlines, the one where every chapter is titled “How do you tell the difference between…” What is particularly intriguing about this is that Devorah Baum argues that everyone can find themselves at home with a Jewish joke. She’s practiced in this argument, as the author of previous book entitled Feeling Jewish: A Book for Just About Anyone (Yale University Press, 2017).

It’s remarkable that a book about feeling Jewish is a book for just about anyone, when Jewish people comprise less than one percent of the world’s population and less than two percent of the United States population. But it depends on who you ask. The question of who gets counted as Jewish has the makings of a Jewish joke: if you’re a practicing religious Jew, if you’re a secular Jew but identify culturally as Jewish, if you don’t necessarily identify as Jewish but have at least one Jewish parent. The definitions change, and the numbers change along with them.

While the percentage of Jewish people in the world is quite small, the percentage of comedians who are Jewish is significant. From the Marx Brothers or Sid Caesar to Lenny Bruce or Mel Brooks, from Billy Crystal or Adam Sandler to Sarah Silverman or Jason Segel, every generation of American media has an array of Jewish comedians who are beloved celebrities. This is a small portion of a lengthy list indicating that the Jewish joke transcends religion and culture, an argument that underlies Baum’s book.

Baum serves as interpreter and commentator throughout The Jewish Joke, occasionally offering first-person perspective. Yet she’s not an intrusive analyst. There’s an aspect of her writing that takes the style of the Jewish joke itself, leaving the determination of meaning with the reader, imparting the shrug that seems to accompany the punchline of many of the jokes she includes in the book.

There’s also the matter of whether the Jewish joke is offensive if the comedian is not Jewish. When Jerry Seinfeld pokes fun at his upbringing and his family, is it derogatory when goyim — the Yiddish term for those who are not Jewish — laugh? Baum recounts an episode of Seinfeld in which Jerry’s dentist tells a joke about matzoh balls that Jerry doesn’t find particularly funny. He asks, “Do you think you should be making jokes like that?” The upshot is that the converted dentist does not have the right to claim what Baum calls “the millennia of persecution to have a sense of humour like that.” She then asks, “But does Jerry really have the right to kvetch?… Jerry hasn’t personally suffered so much of that history of persecution.”

The Yiddish words sprinkled through The Jewish Joke, like kvetch and chutzpah, have enough mainstream usage to be familiar to readers who know little more Yiddish than that. She parenthetically defines those that may not be commonly known, like pointing out that a shiksa is a non-Jewish woman (and it’s often used derogatorily, so the gentler term “goya” might be applied), although there’s no reasonable way to convey the appropriate circumstance when someone might mention that a particular woman is a shiksa, and how that might be crucial to understanding a joke.


On one hand, the shiksa wife, on the other hand, the Jewish mother: an ideal context for the Jewish joke. Baum addresses the stereotype of the Jewish mother, devoting a chapter to both overbearing mother and fickle mother-in-law. Both are stereotypes that transcend Jewish culture. To revisit Seinfeld for a moment, it’s worth noting that the actors who played George Costanza’s parents — Jerry Stiller and Estelle Nussbaum Harris — are both Jewish comic actors. Some speculate that George’s mother may, in fact, be Jewish, making George part-Catholic, part Jewish. The audience may not have given this a second thought, since it was not a giant leap to transform the cadence and comedy of the Jewish family into an Italian-American family.

Baum follows her chapter on the long tradition of Jewish comedians and their unrelenting stereotypes of Jewish mothers with a chapter on female Jewish comedians and how their humor is different from their masculine counterparts. She notes that female comedians not only tell jokes about the experiences of women that men simply could not tell, they also use comedy to critique the male-dominated cultures in which they live. Baum’s writing shows this to be a rich subject that would easily lend itself to a separate, deeply enjoyable study.

Overall, the jokes Baum references and discusses are not about “the official text — the liturgy, the language and the law — but the subtext — the ghetto, street-smart survival instinct and adaptability.” One need not be Jewish, or familiar with Judaism as a religion or a set of cultural practices, to find the humor in these jokes. The street smarts that Baum refers to are one of the ways that Jewish jokes resonate so broadly. Even with their little bits of Yiddish and the particular cadence that follows, the jokes feel broadly applicable.

In a footnote for the chapter “How do you tell the difference between a tailor and a psychiatrist”, Baum writes: “According to the historian Yuri Slezkine, it’s their talent for adapting that rendered Jewish modern people avant la lettre: ‘Modernisation is about everyone becoming urban, mobile, literate, articulate, intellectually intricate, physically fastidious and occupationally flexible.’ (Not to mention witty.)” The Jewish joke, then, reflects the experiences of being an immigrant, being an outsider, and being a person in search of a voice. Small wonder that so many people can relate to a strain of humor borne out of a heritage and experience not their own, but one that universalizes those experiences by finding the common ground and common wit of the Jewish joke.

RATING 8 / 10