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Jewish humour is the long tradition of humour in Judaism dating back to the Torah and the Midrash from the ancient Middle East, but generally refers to the more recent stream of verbal and often anecdotal humour of Ashkenazi Jewry which took root in the United States over the last hundred years, including in secular Jewish culture. European Jewish humor in its early form developed in the Jewish community of the Holy Roman Empire, with theological satire becoming a traditional way of clandestinely opposing Christianization. Modern Jewish humor emerged during the nineteenth century among German-speaking Jews of the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment), matured in the shtetls of the Russian Empire, and then flourished in twentieth-century America, arriving with the millions of Jews who emigrated from Eastern Europe between the 1880s and the early 1920s.
Beginning with vaudeville, and continuing through radio, stand-up comedy, film, and television, a disproportionately high percentage of American, German, and Russian comedians have been Jewish. A Psychology Today study estimates that 80% of American professional comics are Jews.
Jewish humor, while diverse, favors wordplay, irony, and satire, and its themes are highly anti-authoritarian, mocking religious and secular life alike. Sigmund Freud considered Jewish humor unique in that its humor is primarily derived from mocking of the in-group (Jews) rather than the "other". However rather than simply being self-deprecating it also contains a dialectical element of self-praise, which works in the opposite direction.
Jewish humour is rooted in several traditions. Recent scholarship places the origins of Jewish humor in one of history's earliest recorded documents, the Hebrew Bible, as well as the Talmud. In particular, the intellectual and legal methods of the Talmud, which uses elaborate legal arguments and situations often seen as so absurd as to be humorous, in order to tease out the meaning of religious law.
Hillel Halkin in his essay about Jewish humour traces some roots of the Jewish self-deprecating humour to the medieval influence of Arabic traditions on the Hebrew literature by quoting a witticism from Yehuda Alharizi's Tahkemoni.
A more recent one is an egalitarian tradition among the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe in which the powerful were often mocked subtly, rather than attacked overtly—as Saul Bellow once put it, "Oppressed people tend to be witty." Jesters known as badchens used to poke fun at prominent members of the community during weddings, creating a good-natured tradition of humour as a levelling device. Rabbi Moshe Waldoks, a scholar of Jewish humour, argued:
You have a lot of shtoch, or jab humor, which is usually meant to deflate pomposity or ego, and to deflate people who consider themselves high and mighty. But Jewish humor was also a device for self-criticism within the community, and I think that's where it really was the most powerful. The humorist, like the prophet, would basically take people to task for their failings. The humor of Eastern Europe especially was centered on defending the poor against the exploitation of the upper classes or other authority figures, so rabbis were made fun of, authority figures were made fun of and rich people were made fun of. It really served as a social catharsis.
After Jews began to immigrate to America in large numbers, they, like other minority groups, found it difficult to gain mainstream acceptance and obtain upward mobility (As Lenny Bruce lampooned, "He was charming... They said, 'C'mon! Let's go watch the Jew be charming!'"). The newly-developing entertainment industry, combined with the Jewish humour tradition, provided a potential route for Jews to succeed. One of the first successful radio "sitcoms," The Goldbergs, featured a Jewish family. As radio and television matured, many of its most famous comedians, including Jack Benny, Sid Caesar, George Burns, Eddie Cantor, Jack Carter, Henny Youngman and Milton Berle, were Jewish. The Jewish comedy tradition continues today, with Jewish humour much entwined with that of mainstream humour, as comedies like Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Woody Allen films indicate.
Types of Jewish humour
As befits a community to which religion was so important, much humour centres on the relationship of Judaism to the individual Jew and the community.
Two Rabbis argued late into the night about the existence of God, and, using strong arguments from the scriptures, ended up indisputably disproving His existence. The next day, one Rabbi was surprised to see the other walking into the Shul for morning services.
"I thought we had agreed there was no God," he said.
"Yes, what does that have to do with it?" replied the other.
The cognate to this is the part left out, the fact that it was traditional to go to services, regardless of what one believed, and the rabbi was merely following that tradition. This is like the story of the boy who tells his rabbi he can't daven (a traditional prayer ritual), because he no longer believes in God. The rabbi merely tells him, "Yes, God, no God: doesn't matter! Three times a day, you DAVEN!"
The American Jewish community has been lamenting the rate of assimilation and disappearance of their children as they grow into adults.
Two Rabbis were discussing their problems with squirrels in their synagogue attic. One Rabbi said, "We simply called an exterminator and we never saw the squirrels again." The other Rabbi said, "We just gave them all a bar mitzvah, and we never saw the squirrels again."
The rate of Jewish intermarriage is a serious problem. Scientists estimate that unless something can be done to stop intermarriage, in 100 years, the Jewish people will be reduced to a race of gorgeous blondes.
Jews often mock their own negative stereotypes.
Question: How can you always spot a convert to Judaism?
Answer: That's easy. He or she is the only normal one in the congregation.
Similarly, in the tradition of the legal arguments of the Talmud, one prominent type of Jewish humour involves clever, often legalistic, solutions to Talmudic problems, such as:
Q: Is one permitted to ride in an airplane on the Sabbath?
A: Yes, as long as your seat belt remains fastened. In this case, it is considered that you are not riding, you are wearing the plane.
Tales of the Rebbes
Three hasidim are bragging about their Rebbes: "My rebbe is very powerful. He was walking once, and there was a big lake in his path. He waved his handkerchief, and there was lake on the right, lake on the left, but no lake in the middle." To which the second retorted, "That's nothing. My rebbe is even more powerful. He was walking once, and there was a huge mountain in his path. He waved his handkerchief, and there was mountain on the right, mountain on the left, but no mountain in the middle!" Said the third, "Ha! That is still nothing! My rebbe is the most powerful. He was walking once on Shabbos (Saturday, the holy day in Judaism, on which it is forbidden to handle money), and there was a wallet crammed full of cash in his path. He waved his handkerchief, and it was Shabbos on the right, Shabbos on the left, but not Shabbos in the middle!"
Caesar said to Joshua ben Hananiah "Why does the Sabbath dish have such a fragrant odor?" Joshua said "We have a certain spice called Shabbat (shevet), that we put in it. "Let me have some", he requested. Joshua replied, "For those who observe Shabbat, it works; for those who don't, it doesn't."— Shabbat 119a.
Eastern European Jewish humour
A number of traditions in Jewish humour date back to stories and anecdotes from the 19th century.
One popular humorous tradition from Eastern Europe involved tales of the people of Chełm, a town reputed in these jokes to be inhabited by fools. The jokes were almost always centred on silly solutions to problems. Some of these solutions display "foolish wisdom" (reaching the correct answer by the wrong train of reasoning), while others are simply wrong.
Chełm tales were told by authors like Sholom Aleichem, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Solomon Simon. A typical Chełm story might begin, "It is said that after God made the world, he filled it with people. He sent off an angel with two sacks, one full of wisdom and one full of foolishness. The second sack was of course much heavier. So after a time it started to drag. Soon it got caught on a mountaintop and so all the foolishness spilled out and fell into Chełm." The short animated film Village of Idiots is based upon classic Chełm tales.
Here are a few examples of a Chełm tale:
In Chełm, the shammes used to go around waking everyone up for minyan (communal prayer) in the morning. Every time it snowed, the people would complain that, although the snow was beautiful, they could not see it in its pristine state because by the time they got up in the morning, the shammes had already trekked through the snow. The townspeople decided that they had to find a way to be woken up for minyan without having the shammes making tracks in the snow.
The people of Chełm hit on a solution: they got four volunteers to carry the shammes around on a table when there was fresh snow in the morning. That way, the shammes could make his wake up calls, but he would not leave tracks in the snow.
The town of Chełm decided to build a new synagogue. So, some strong, able-bodied men were sent to a mountaintop to gather heavy stones for the foundation. The men put the stones on their shoulders and trudged down the mountain to the town below. When they arrived, the town constable yelled, "Foolish men! You should have rolled the stones down the mountain!" The men agreed this was an excellent idea. So they turned around, and with the stones still on their shoulders, trudged back up the mountain, and rolled the stones back down again.
A young housewife living in the town of Chełm had a very strange occurrence. One morning, after buttering a piece of bread she accidentally dropped it on the floor. To her amazement, it fell buttered side up.
As everyone knows, whenever a buttered piece of bread is dropped on the floor, it always falls buttered side down; this is like a law of physics. But on this occasion it had fallen buttered side up, and this was a great mystery which had to be solved. So all the Rabbis and elders and wise men of Chełm were summoned together and they spent three days in the synagogue fasting and praying and debating this marvelous event among themselves. After those three days they returned to the young housewife with this answer:
"Madam, the problem is that you have buttered the wrong side of the bread."
The sexton of the synagogue decided to install a poor box so that the fortunate might share their wealth with the needy. On shabbes eve, he announced to the congregation that a new opportunity for mitzvoh was available. "But," one member complained, "it will be so easy for the goneffs (thieves) to steal from the box." The sexton thought long and hard that night, and announced the next day that he had found a solution. Pointing upward, he showed, the poor box was now suspended from a chain at the ceiling, high, high, high overhead. "But now how do we put money in the box?"
The next week, the congregation saw the wonderful solution. A lovely circular stairway now ascended to the poor box making it easy to contribute.
Hershele Ostropoler, also known as Hershel of Ostropol, was a legendary prankster who was based on a historic figure. Thought to have come from Ukraine, he lived in the small village of Ostropol, working as shochet, a ritual slaughterer. According to legend he lost his job because of his constant joking, which offended the leaders of the village.
In his subsequent wanderings throughout Ukraine, he became a familiar figure at restaurants and inns.
Eventually he settled down at the court of Rabbi Boruch of Medzhybizh, grandson of the Baal Shem Tov. The rabbi was plagued by frequent depressions, and Hershele served as a sort of court jester, mocking the rabbi and his cronies, to the delight of the common folk.
After his death he was remembered in a series of pamphlets recording his tales and witty remarks.
He was the subject of several epic poems, a novel, a comedy performed in 1930 by the Vilna Troupe, and a U.S. television programme in the 1950s. Two illustrated children's books, The Adventures of Hershel of Ostropol, and Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, have been published. Both books were written by Eric Kimmel and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. In 2002, a play entitled Hershele the Storyteller was performed in New York City.
Humour about antisemitism
Rabbi Altmann and his secretary were sitting in a coffeehouse in Berlin in 1935. "Herr Altmann," said his secretary, "I notice you're reading Der Stürmer! I can't understand why. A Nazi libel sheet! Are you some kind of masochist, or, God forbid, a self-hating Jew?"
"On the contrary, Frau Epstein. When I used to read the Jewish papers, all I learned about were pogroms, riots in Palestine, and assimilation in America. But now that I read Der Stürmer, I see so much more: that the Jews control all the banks, that we dominate in the arts, and that we're on the verge of taking over the entire world. You know – it makes me feel a whole lot better!"
Or, on a similar note:
After the assassination of Tsar Alexander II of Russia, a government official in Ukraine menacingly addressed the local rabbi, "I suppose you know in full detail who was behind it."
"Ach," the rabbi replied, "I have no idea, but the government's conclusion will be the same as always: they will blame the Jews and the chimneysweeps."
"Why the chimneysweeps?" asked the befuddled official.
"Why the Jews?" responded the rabbi.
And another example, a direct slice of galgenhumor (gallows humour):
During the days of oppression and poverty of the Russian shtetls, one village had a rumour going around: a Christian girl was found murdered near their village. Fearing a pogrom, they gathered at the synagogue. Suddenly, the rabbi came running up, and cried, "Wonderful news! The murdered girl was Jewish!"
There is also humour originating in the United States, such as this joke:
During World War II, a sergeant stationed at Fort Benning gets a telephone call from a woman.
"We would love it," she said, "if you could bring five of your soldiers over to our house for Thanksgiving dinner."
"Certainly, ma'am," replied the sergeant.
"Oh... just make sure they aren't Jews, of course," said the woman.
"Will do," replied the sergeant. So, that Thanksgiving, while the woman is baking, the doorbell rings. She opens her door and, to her horror, five black soldiers are standing in front of her.
"Oh, my!" she exclaimed. "I'm afraid there's been a terrible mistake!"
"No ma'am," said one of the soldiers. "Sergeant Rosenbloom never makes mistakes!"
This one combines accusations of the lack of patriotism, and avarice:
Post-Soviet Russia. Rabinovich calls the Pamyat headquarters: "Is it true that we Jews sold out Mother Russia?" "Damn right, you filthy kike!" "Oh good. Could you tell me where I might get my share?"
American Jewish humour
The role of Yiddish
Some Yiddish words may sound comical to an English speaker. Terms like shnook and shmendrik, shlemiel and shlimazel (often considered inherently funny words) were exploited for their humorous sounds, as were "Yinglish" shm-reduplication constructs, such as "fancy-schmancy". Yiddish constructions—such as ending sentences with questions—became part of the verbal word play of Jewish comedians.
One common strain of Jewish humour examines the role of religion in contemporary life, often gently mocking the religious hypocrite. For example:
A Reform Rabbi was so compulsive a golfer that once, on Yom Kippur, he left the house early and went out for a quick nine holes by himself. An angel who happened to be looking on immediately notified his superiors that a grievous sin was being committed. On the sixth hole, God caused a mighty wind to take the ball directly from the tee to the cup – a miraculous shot.
The angel was horrified. "A hole in one!" he exclaimed, "You call this a punishment, Lord?!"
Answered God with a sly smile, "So who can he tell?"
An Orthodox, a Conservative, and a Reform rabbi are each asked whether one is supposed to say a brokhe (blessing) over a lobster (non-kosher food, normally not eaten by religious Jews).
The Orthodox rabbi asks, "What is this...'lobster'...thing?" The Conservative rabbi doesn't know what to say, muttering about responsa. The Reform rabbi says, "What's a brokhe?"
In particular, Reform Jews may be lampooned for their rejection of traditional Jewish beliefs. An example, from one of Woody Allen's early stand-up routines:
We were married by a Reform rabbi in Long Island. A very Reform rabbi. A Nazi.
Jokes have been made about the shifting of gender roles (in the more traditional Orthodox movement, women marry at a young age and have many children, while the more liberal Conservative and Reform movements make gender roles more egalitarian, even ordaining women as Rabbis). The Reconstructionist movement was the first to ordain homosexuals, all of which leads to this joke:
At an Orthodox wedding, the bride's mother is pregnant. At a Conservative wedding, the bride is pregnant. At a Reform wedding, the rabbi is pregnant. At a Reconstructionist wedding, the rabbi and her wife are both pregnant.
Often jokes revolve around the social practice of the Jewish religion:
A man is rescued from a desert island after 20 years. The news media, amazed at this feat of survival, ask him to show them his home.
"How did you survive? How did you keep sane?" they ask him, as he shows them around the small island.
"I had my faith. My faith as a Jew kept me strong. Come." He leads them to a small glen, where stands an opulent temple, made entirely from palm fronds, coconut shells and woven grass. The news cameras take pictures of everything – even a torah made from banana leaves and written in octopus ink. "This took me five years to complete."
"Amazing! And what did you do for the next fifteen years?"
"Come with me." He leads them around to the far side of the island. There, in a shady grove, is an even more beautiful temple. "This one took me twelve years to complete!"
"But sir" asks the reporter, "Why did you build two temples?"
"This is the temple I attend. That other place? Hah! I wouldn't set foot in that other temple if you PAID me!"
As with most ethnicities, jokes have often mocked Jewish accents—at times gently, and at others quite harshly. One of the kinder examples is:
One early winter morning, Rabbi Bloom was walking beside the canal when he saw a dog in the water, trying hard to stay afloat. It looked so sad and exhausted that Rabbi Bloom jumped in, and after a struggle, managed to bring it out alive.
A passer-by who saw this remarked, "That was very brave of you! You must love animals; are you a vet?"
Rabbi Bloom replied, "And vhat did you expect? Of course I'm a–vet! I'm a–freezing cold as vell!"
Jewish humour continues to exploit stereotypes of Jews, both as a sort of "in-joke", and as a form of self-defence. Jewish mothers, "cheapness", hypochondria, and other stereotyped habits are all common subjects. Frugality has been frequently singled out:
An old Jewish beggar was out on the street in New York City with his tin cup.
"Please, sir," he pleaded to a passerby, "could you spare seventy-three cents for a cup of coffee and some pie?"
The man asked, "Where do you get coffee and pie for seventy-three cents in New York? It costs at least a dollar!"
The beggar replied, "So who buys retail?"
What did the waiter ask the group of dining Jewish mothers? "Pardon me ladies, but is ANYTHING all right?"
A Catholic priest, a Reverend, and a Rabbi are discussing their income.
The Priest says: "I draw a circle on the ground, take the offering, and throw it up into the air. Any money that falls outside the circle is for the Lord, and the money that falls inside the circle is for me."
The Reverend says: "I do things almost the same, except the money that falls outside the circle is my salary, and the money that falls inside the circle is for the Lord."
The Rabbi says: "I do things quite different. I take the offering, throw it up into the air, and pray: "Lord take whatever You need, and feel free to send back the rest."
A Catholic priest, a Reverend, and a Rabbi are discussing when life starts.
The Priest says: "Life begins at conception."
The Reverend says: "Life begins at birth."
The Rabbi says: "Life begins when the kids leave home"."
Did you hear they built the first Starbucks in Israel? There's a fork in the sugar bowl.
Q. What's a Jew's biggest dilemma? A. Free pork.
A Buddhist monk goes to a barber to have his head shaved. "What should I pay you?" the monk asks. "No price, for a holy man such as yourself," the barber replies. And what do you know, the next day the barber comes to open his shop, and finds on his doorstep a dozen gemstones.
That day, a priest comes in to have his hair cut. "What shall I pay you, my son?" "No price, for a man of the cloth such as yourself." And what do you know, the next day the barber comes to open his shop, and finds on his doorstep a dozen roses.
That day, Rabbi Finklestein comes in to get his payoss [sideburns] trimmed. "What do you want I should pay you?" "Nothing, for a man of God such as yourself." And the next morning, what do you know? The barber finds on his doorstep – a dozen rabbis!
A Jewish man lies on his deathbed, surrounded by his children. "Ah," he says, "I can smell your mother's brisket – how I would love to taste it one last time before I die." So one of his sons hurries down to the kitchen, but he returns empty-handed.
"Sorry, papa. She says it's for the shiva."
Or, about traditional roles of men and women in Jewish families:
A boy comes home from school and tells his mother he got a part in the school play.
"That's wonderful!" says the mother, "Which part?"
"The part of a Jewish husband," says the boy, proudly.
Frowning, the mother says, "Go back and tell them you want a speaking role!"
A Jewish girl bemoans, "Finally, I meet a nice, rich Jewish boy! He's just like papa. He looks like him. He acts like him. Oy vey, mama hates him!"
After performing a marriage the Rabbi gave some advice to the newlyweds: "The first ten years are always the hardest," said the Rabbi.
"How many years have you been married?" They asked. "Ten years," the Rabbi replied.
Or, on parenting (from David Bader's Haikus for Jews):
Is one Nobel Prize
so much to ask from a child
after all I've done?
"Sarah, how's that boy of yours?"
"David? Ach, don't ask – he's living in Miami with a man named Miguel."
"I know – why couldn't he find a nice Jewish boy?"
A Frenchman, a German and a Jew walk into a bar. "I'm tired and thirsty," says the Frenchman. "I must have wine." "I'm tired and thirsty," says the German. "I must have beer." "I'm tired and thirsty," says the Jew. "I must have diabetes."
Or, on kvetching,
A Jewish man in a hospital tells the doctor he wants to be transferred to a different hospital.
The doctor says "What's wrong? Is it the food?"
"No, the food is fine. I can't kvetch."
"Is it the room?"
"No, the room is fine. I can't kvetch."
"Is it the staff?"
"No, everyone on the staff is fine. I can't kvetch."
"Then why do you want to be transferred?"
"I can't kvetch!"
An old Jewish man riding on a train begins to moan: "Oy, am I thirsty; oy, am I thirsty", to the annoyance of the other passengers. Finally, another passenger gets a cup of water from the drinking fountain and gives it to the old man, who thanks him profusely and gulps it down. Feeling satisfied, the other passenger sits down again, only to hear "Oy, was I thirsty; oy, was I thirsty".
"It contains virtually every important element of the Yiddish-speaking mind-set in easily accessible form: the constant tension between the Jewish and the non-Jewish; the faux naivete that allows the old man to pretend that he isn't disturbing anyone; the deflation of the other passenger's hopes, the disappointment of all his expectations after he has watered the Jew; and most importantly of all, the underlying assumption, the fundamental idea that kvetching—complaining—is not only a pastime, not only a response to adverse or imperfect circumstance, but a way of life that has nothing to do with the fulfillment or frustration of desire."
Many Jewish jokes involve a rabbi and a Christian clergyman, exploiting different interpretations of a shared environment. Often they start with something like "A rabbi and a priest..." and make fun of either the rabbi's interpretation of Christianity or (seeming) differences between Christian and Jewish interpretation of some areas.
A rabbi and a Catholic priest are having lunch in a restaurant. The priest's food arrives, a scrumptious-looking ham entrée.
The priest attacks his lunch, savouring every bite of the ham. Noticing the rabbi eyeing him, he asks, "So tell me, Rabbi Goldblum, have you ever had any pork before?"
The rabbi hesitates. "Well, it's not for me to say..."
The priest pushes on. "Oh, c'mon, Rabbi. We're both men of God here. We can tell each other our sins. Nothing to it."
"Umm... well, yes, as a matter of fact, I did have pork once."
Smugly the priest teases him, "And a fine meat it was, wasn't it? Heheh."
"Yeah, I'll say."
A few moments pass. The rabbi asks the priest: "Tell me Father, have you ever had sex with a woman before?"
"Why of course... well, before I took holy orders, that is."
The rabbi smirks, "Better than pork, eh?"
Or, much more succinctly,
A Catholic priest says to a rabbi, "It seems to me that, since the Creator made pork, He must have made it for some purpose. Therefore, it must be a sin not to use it, don't you think? So, will you finally eat some pork?"
The rabbi replies, "I will try some, Father – at your wedding."
A few more examples:
A rabbi once asked his old friend, a priest, "Could you ever be promoted within your Church?"
The priest says, thoughtfully, "Well, I could become a bishop."
The rabbi persists, "And after that?"
With a pause for consideration, the priest replies, "Maybe I could be a cardinal, even."
After thinking for some time, the priest responds, "Someday I may even rise to be the Pope."
But the rabbi is still not satisfied. "And then?"
With an air of incredulity, the priest cries, "What more could I become? God Himself?"
The rabbi says quietly, "One of our boys made it."
A rabbi is on his deathbed, and a friend asks him if he has any last requests. The Rabbi asks his friend to find him a Catholic priest, so that he might convert.
Confused, his friend asks, "Rabbi, why? You have been a great teacher and leader of your followers, and you have led a good and honorable Jewish life. Why would you want to become a Catholic now, before you die?"
He says, "Eh, better one of them than one of us."
- (Note: This joke is also seen with an Irish Catholic replacing the Rabbi, and a Protestant minister replacing the Catholic priest.)
A rabbi, a minister, and a priest were playing poker when the police raided the game.
Turning to the priest, the lead police officer said, "Father Murphy, were you gambling?" Turning his eyes to heaven, the priest whispered, "L*rd, forgive me for what I am about to do." To the police officer, he then said, "No, officer; I was not gambling." The officer then asked the minister, "Pastor Johnson, were you gambling?" Again, after an appeal to heaven, the minister replied, "No, officer; I was not gambling." Turning to the rabbi, the officer again asked, "Rabbi Goldstein, were you gambling?" Shrugging his shoulders, the rabbi replied, "With whom?"
A minister told his friend Rabbi Goldman, "Last night, I dreamed of the Jewish Heaven. It was a slum, and it was overflowing with people – running, playing, talking, sitting – doing all sorts of things. But the dream, and the noise, was so terrific that I woke up."
The rabbi said, "Really? Last night, I dreamed of the Protestant Heaven. It was a nice, proper suburb, with neatly trimmed lawns, and houses all neatly lined up."
"And how did the people behave?" asked the minister.
A Catholic priest is called away by a family emergency one day, while on duty attending confession. Not wanting to leave the confessional unattended, he asks his friend, a rabbi from the synagogue across the street, if he can fill in for him.
The rabbi says he wouldn't know what to do, so the priest agrees to stay with him for a few minutes and show him the ropes.
They enter their half of the confessional together and soon enough, a woman enters and says, "Father forgive me, for I have sinned."
"What did you do?" asks the priest.
"I have committed adultery," she replies.
"How many times?" continues the priest.
"Do three Hail Marys, put $5 in the poor-box, and sin no more," finishes the priest.
The woman leaves and not long after a man enters and says, "Father forgive me, for I have sinned."
"What did you do?"
"I have committed adultery."
"How many times?"
"Do three Hail Marys, put $5 in the poor-box, and sin no more." The man leaves.
The rabbi tells the priest he thinks he's got it figured out now, so the priest leaves, and the rabbi waits until another woman enters the confessional, who says, "Father forgive me, for I have sinned."
"What did you do," asks the rabbi.
"I have committed adultery," she replies.
"How many times?"
"I tell you what," says the rabbi. "Go do it one more time and come back. We got a special this week, three for $5!"
And finally, possibly the most gigantic clash of religions:
One Pope, in the Dark Ages, decreed that all Jews had to leave Rome. The Jews did not want to leave, and so the Pope challenged them to a disputation to prove that they could remain. No one, however, wanted the responsibility... until the synagogue sexton, Moishe, volunteered.
As there was nobody else who wanted to go, Moishe was given the task. But because he knew only Hebrew, a silent debate was agreed. The day of the debate came, and they went to St. Peter's Square to sort out the decision. First the Pope waved his hand around his head. Moishe pointed firmly at the ground.
The Pope, in some surprise, held up three fingers. In response, Moishe gave him the middle finger.
The crowd started to complain, but the Pope thoughtfully waved them to be quiet. He took out a bottle of wine and a wafer, holding them up. Moishe took out an apple, and held it up.
The Pope, to the people’s surprise, said, "I concede. This man is too good. The Jews can stay."
Later, the Pope was asked what the debate had meant. He explained, "First, I showed him the Heavens, to show that God is everywhere. He pointed at the ground to signify that God is right here with us. I showed him three fingers, for the Trinity. He reminded me that there is One God common to both our religions. I showed him wine and a wafer, for God's forgiveness. With an apple, he showed me original sin. The man was a master of silent debate."
In the Jewish corner, Moishe had the same question put to him, and answered, "It was all nonsense, really. First, he told me that this whole town would be free of Jews. I told him, Go to Hell! We’re staying right here! Then, he told me we had three days to get out. I told him just what I thought of that proposal." An older woman asked, "But what about the part at the end?" "That?" said Moishe with a shrug, "Then we had lunch!"
Moishe and Solly are passing a Catholic Church and see a sign that reads "Convert to Catholicism, $50 Cash."
Moishe turns to his friend Solly and says, "Hey, I'm going to try it." He enters the church and returns a few minutes later.
"So, did you convert? What was it like?" Solly eagerly asks.
"It was nothing", says Moishe, "I walked in, a priest sprinkled holy water on me, and said 'you're a Catholic.'"
"Wow," says Solly, "and did you get the $50?"
Replies Moishe, "is that all you people think about?"
However, current events, situations, traditions, and cultural factors which are unique to the country make it hard to understand the joke for someone who is not aware of the events being referred to.
Jewish humour in the Soviet Union
In the Stalinist police state, it was not uncommon to get purged not only for telling a casual joke, but even for not reporting it to the authorities. See Russian joke in general, or more specifically Rabinovich jokes, Russian Jewish jokes, Russian political jokes; also History of the Jews in Russia and the Soviet Union.
Q: Rabinovich, what is a fortune?
A: A fortune is to live in our Socialist motherland.
Q: And what's a misfortune?
A: A misfortune is to have such a fortune.
An old Armenian is on his deathbed: "My children, remember to defend the Jews."
"Because if they are gone, we will be next."
An old Jewish man is picked up by the Stalinist police and brought in for questioning:
Or, in the last years of the Soviet Union:
Q: Comrade Lev, why now, just when things are getting better for your people, are you applying for an exit visa to make aliyah to Israel?
A: Well, comrade, there are two reasons. One is that my next-door neighbor is Pamyat and he tells me that after they get rid of you communists, they are coming next after the Jews.
Q: But they will never get rid of us communists!
A: I know, I know, of course you are right! And that's the other reason.
An old Jewish man was finally allowed to leave the Soviet Union, to emigrate to Israel. When he was searched at the Moscow airport, the customs official found a bust of Lenin.
Customs: What is that?
Old man: What is that? What is that?! Don't say "What is that?" say "Who is that?" That is Lenin! The genius who thought up this worker's paradise!
The official laughed and let the old man through.
The old man arrived at Tel Aviv airport, where an Israeli customs official found the bust of Lenin.
Customs: What is that?
Old man: What is that? What is that?! Don't say "What is that?" say "Who is that?" That is Lenin! The sonofabitch! I will put him on display in my toilet for all the years he prevented an old man from coming home.
The official laughed and let him through.
When he arrived at his family's house in Jerusalem, his grandson saw him unpack the bust.
Grandson: Who is that?
Old man: Who is that? Who is that?! Don't say "Who is that?" say "What is that?" That, my child, is eight pounds of gold!
Israeli humour featured many of the same themes as Jewish humour elsewhere, making fun of the country and its habits, while containing a fair bit of gallows humour as well, as a joke from a 1950 Israeli joke book indicates:
An elderly man refuses to leave for the air raid shelter until he can find his dentures. His wife yells at him, "What, you think they are dropping sandwiches?"
Israelis' view of themselves:
An Israeli, a Brit, a Russian, a Vietnamese, and an American are sitting in a restaurant. A reporter comes by and asks, "Excuse me, but can I get your opinion on the recent grain shortage in the third world?"
The Brit asks: "What's a 'shortage'?"
The Vietnamese asks: "What's 'grain'?"
The Russian asks: "What's an 'opinion'?"
The American asks: "What's the third world?"
The Israeli asks: "What's 'excuse me'?"
- (As a note, this is not strictly an Israeli joke; the Israeli can be replaced by other stereotypically rude or overbearing people—for example, New Yorkers—or those used to being treated as second-rate citizens, with little effect on the joke.)
Finally, in a clash of Rabbinical humour and Israeli humour:
A Rabbi dies and goes up to the gates of heaven. Before he's let in, the angel in charge has to consult with God for a long period of time if he deserves a place in heaven. As the Rabbi is waiting, an Israeli bus driver approaches the gates of heaven. Without a second thought, the angel who was consulting with God let the bus driver through. The Rabbi points at the bus driver and yells, "Hey! How come he gets in so quickly? He's a simple bus driver, while I'm a Rabbi!" The angel explains, "Dear Rabbi, you don't understand. When you would be giving your sermon during the prayer services, your whole congregation would fall asleep. When this bus driver drove towards Tel Aviv, all his passengers would be at the edge of their seats praying to God!"
- While numbers are inevitably fuzzy, Paul Chance, reviewing Lawrence Epstein's The Haunted Smile: The Story Of Jewish Comedians In America (Psychology Today, Jan-Feb, 2002) wrote "While Jews make up only about 3 percent of the U.S. population, 80 percent of professional comics are Jewish." Accessed online 25 March 2007. Comedian Mark Schiff, reviewing the same book on Jewlarious.com, writes "Most of the comedians that made us all laugh in the 1950s, '60s and '70s were Jewish." Similarly, Drew Friedman (author of Old Jewish Comedians), in a March 22, 2007 interview on Fridays with Mr. Media: "Somebody said, 'You could do an Old Protestant Comedian book,' and I said, 'Well, that would be a pamphlet, wouldn’t it?'"
- Encyclopedia of Humor Studies (page 552)
- Hershey H. Friedman and Linda Weiser Friedman, God Laughed: Sources of Jewish Humor, NJ: Transaction Publishers 2014.
- Hershey H. Friedman, Ph.D. (2004). "Talmudic Humor and the Establishment of Legal Principles: Strange Questions, Impossible Scenarios, and Legalistic Brainteasers". Thalia: Studies in Literary Humor. 21 (1). fn1. Archived from the original on Aug 27, 2013.
- "Why Jews Laugh at Themselves", an essay by Hillel Halkin, Commentary Magazine, Vol 121, April 2006, No 4, pp. 47-54
- Jeff Berkwits (Aug 2004). "What's with Jewish comedy?". San Diego Jewish Journal. Archived from the original on May 11, 2008.
- Itzik Nakhmen Gottesman (2003). Defining the Yiddish nation: the Jewish folklorists of Poland. Wayne State University Press. pp. 13, 49, 64–65. ISBN 978-0-8143-2669-5. Retrieved 29 September 2011.
- "Hershele the Storyteller". Archived from the original on October 27, 2009.
- Leo Rosten, The Joys of Yinglish
- Wex, Michael (August 25, 2005). Born To Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All Its Moods. St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-30741-1.
- http://www.wqbe.com/fun-stuff/jokes/gambling-joke. Missing or empty
- San Diego Jewish Chronicle on Jewish Humour
- Funny People - A Film About Jewish Humour
- Harry Liechter's Jewish Humour site
- Novak, William & Waldoks, Moshe Big Book of Jewish Humour, originally published by Harper Perennial (1981) ISBN 0-06-090917-X.
- The Jewish jokes of a word in your eye
- Jewish Jokes Comedy Comics and Humor at Oy Vey
- Further reading
- Jay Allen (1990). 500 Great Jewish Jokes. Signet. ISBN 0-451-16585-3.
- Morey Amsterdam (1959). Keep Laughing. Citadel.
- Elliot Beier (1968). Wit and Wisdon of Israel. Peter Pauper.
- Noah BenShea (1993). Great Jewish Quotes. Ballantine Books. ISBN 0-345-38345-1.
- Arthur Berger (1997). The Genius of the Jewish Joke. Jason Aronson. ISBN 1-56821-997-0.
- Milton Berle (1996). More of the Best of Milton Berle's Private Joke File. Castle Books. ISBN 0-7858-0719-5.
- Milton Berle (1945). Out of my Trunk. Bantam.
- Sam Hoffman (2010). Old Jews Telling Jokes. Villard.
- David Minkoff (2006). Oy! The Ultimate Book of Jewish Jokes. Thomas Dunne Books. ISBN 0-312-37434-8.
- David Minkoff (2008). Oy! The Great Jewish Joke Book. JR Books. ISBN 978-1-906217-62-4.
- Elliot Oring (1984). The Jokes of Sigmund Freud. Univ. of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 0-8122-7910-7.
- Richard Raskin (1992). Life Is Like a Glass of Tea. Studies of Classic Jewish Jokes. Aarhus University Press. ISBN 87-7288-409-6.
- Sandor Schuman (2012). Adirondack Mendel's Aufruf: Welcome to Chelm's Pond. ISBN 978-0-9886285-0-2.
- Joseph Telushkin (1998). Jewish Humour: What the Best Jewish Jokes Say About the Jews. Harper Paperbacks. ISBN 0-688-16351-3.
- Simcha Weinstein (2008). Shtick Shift: Jewish Humor in the 21st Century. Barricade Books. ISBN 1-56980-352-8.
- Ruth R. Wisse (2013). No Joke: Making Jewish Humor. Princeton Univ. Press. ISBN 978-0-691-14946-2.
- Ralph Woods (1969). The Joy of Jewish Humour. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-671-10355-5.
- Avraham Druyanov (1969, Tel Aviv). "Sefer Habdikhah ve-hakhidud," 3 vols. ("The book of jokes and witticisms." - in Hebrew).
- "THE SMILE OF ISAAC" a 52 min. documentary film directed by Stephan Rabinovitch (english version) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jesIaFmFNTQ
- "On Jewish Humour" a discourse in English by "the Jewish Philosopher", C. Israel Lutsky. Yiddish Radio Project (one of their few English-language recordings). 7-minute RealAudio recording.
- , Slate, June 13, 2007
- Modern Jewish Humor