Book Review: Jewish humor

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

What exactly is Jewish humor? Most people know it when they hear it, even if they can’t describe how it differs from other styles of comedy. Three recent books serve to highlight a variety of this phenomenon: "Shtick Shift: Jewish Humor in the 21st Century" by Simcha Weinstein (Barricade) explores the meaning of contemporary Jewish comedy, while "Don’t Mind Me and Other Jewish Lies" by Esther Cohen with illustrations by Roz Chast (Hyperion) and "The All-Jewish Cartoon Collection (Strickly Kosher, Prepared Under Rabbinical Supervision)" by Mort Gerberg (Zeus Media and Publishing) feature examples of an older, gentler Jewish humor style.

The cover for "Don’t Mind Me and Other Jewish Lies."

Weinstein, who chairs the Religious Affairs Committee at the Pratt Institute and serves as a rabbi at Long Island College Hospital, discusses the changes in the nature of Jewish humor from the mid-1900s to contemporary times. He notes that, in the past, most Jewish humor was of the self-deprecating variety, used to protect Jews from oppression or bullying. Now, instead of pretending they aren’t Jewish, comics highlight their religious identity: "Jewish comedians of the 21st century don’t play down or apologize for their heritage. They offer fresh themes in Jewish humor: money, family, faith, politics and bigotry. Their humor may not be subtle, and it often exhibits a bitter, twisted edge. But at least it is honest, sometime brutally."

"Shtick Shift" analyzes comedians (including Sacha Baron Cohen, Jon Stewart and Sarah Silverman), TV shows ("Entourage" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" among others) and a wide variety of movies that feature Jewish characters and families. While Weinstein notes that the comedians and writers behind these efforts may be trying to debunk old stereotypes, their attempts aren’t always successful. In fact, the author criticizes some of their work and this is where his rabbinic colors shine through. In addition to being a history of Jewish comedy, "Shtick Shift" serves as a gentle lesson about Judaism. For example, in the chapter "Jewish Gold," Weinstein explains the nature of tzedakah and Jewish charitable giving. Readers may not notice when these subtle sermons begin, since Weinstein seamlessly segues between the two parts of his work. In fact, the author proves that humor can be the sugar that makes rabbinic medicine easy to swallow.

Unlike "Shtick Shift," which looks at contemporary humor, the humor in "Don’t Mind Me" and "The All-Jewish Cartoon Collection" is more reminiscent of that from the past century. Cohen writes of the "elliptical mysterious phrases" she recalls from her childhood, when people would say the opposite of what they really meant. For example, saying "Don’t bother" meant that "the listener should do something as soon as humanly possible." Fifty of Cohen’s favorite sayings are included in the book and illustrated by Chast. Many readers will recognize these sayings from their own life. For example, in my family, when you hear, "I just want a taste," you know half of your dessert will disappear.

Gerberg’s cartoons focus on a variety of Jewish themes and stereotypes. Some use Yiddish phrasing to make their point, a few contain biblical themes, while others find humor in religious (or non-religious) observance. I found the cartoons pleasant, if unexciting (they elicited a chuckle rather than a belly laugh), but others may find his style of humor more to their taste.