One of the most distinct characteristics of American Jewish culture is the
strong sense of humor, often self-deprecating if not ironic or even
mordant, that seems omnipresent wherever Jewish-Americans gather. This
humor is also evident in American literature and mass media. Jewish
ethnic humor has become a concept in itself, especially in the "Borscht
Belt" of the lower Catskill Mountains, countless editions of "Jewish mother jokebooks," or its
personification by generations of Jewish-American stand-up comedians.
Time Magazine reported in 1978 (02 Oct, Analyzing Jewish
Comics) that while less than 3% of the U.S. population is Jewish,
nearly 80% of U.S. comedians are Jewish. Among the better-known names are
the Marx Brothers, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Mel Brooks, Lenny Bruce,
Jerry Lewis, Jonathan Winters, Billy Crystal, Joan Rivers, Rodney
Dangerfield and Jerry Seinfeld, to mention only a few.
Often the humor pokes fun at stereotypically Jewish foods, names,
religious practices or other cultural markers. Examples can be heard in
"Matzah number 5" takeoff by "Louis Bagel" and his group (MP3),
with its references to toasted bagels and lox, corned beef on rye, chopped
liver, knishes, gefilte fish, whitefish and herring, matzah bread,
yarmukes, Hanukkah, Bar Mitzvahs, "Ester and Stan" moving to Miami and
such like, in addition to dropping in the odd
Yiddish loan word.
These further examples are from Haikus for Jews (For You, A
Little Wisdom), © David M. Bader (Harmony Books [a division of
Random House publishers], 201 East 50th Street, New York, 1999).
In the ice sculpture|
reflected bar-mitzvah guests
nosh on chopped liver.
The same kimono
the top geishas are wearing
got it at Loehmann's.
after putzhead is placed on
a triple-word score.
Seven-foot Jews in
the NBA slam-dunking
my alarm clock rings.
amazing escape from his
real name, Erich Weiss.
BLT on toast |
the rabbi takes his first bite,
then the lightning bolt.
Our youngest daughter,
our most precious jewel. Hence,
the name Tiffany.
Testing the warm milk
on her wrist, she beams nice, but
her son is forty.
I know your name used to be
My nature journal
today, saw some trees and birds.
I should know the names?
Further information on American Jewish humor may be found in (among other
works) Lawrence J. Epstein's The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish
Comedians in America (New York: Public Affairs, 2001) and
Shawn Levy's King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis (New
York: St. Martin's Press, 1997).