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Jewish Humor: From Desert to Shtetl and Beyond

In 1976, comedian Larry Wilde founded National Humor Month to spread awareness about how laughter “can improve health, boost morale, increase communication skills and enrich the quality of one’s life.” In a month known for producing freak spring snowstorms from the Midwest to the Northeast, and for rattling nerves ‘til April 15th, we think that a focus on humor is a fantastic idea!

In fact, Jewish humor has a long history. Abraham and Sarah laughed when they found out they were having a child in their older years, so they named him Isaac, which means “laugh.” In the Talmud, there is a story of Rabbi Beroka, who was with Elijah the prophet in a market when he asked him if anyone there would be destined for heaven. Elijah referred him to two brothers, so Rabbi Beroka questioned them about their work. The brothers replied that they made sad people laugh and used humor to make peace between two people who quarreled. Further, according to MyJewishLearning.com, there is actually one reference to G-d laughing in the Talmud. Therefore, the Talmud teaches us that humor is an important value, one worthy enough of our Creator, and of entrance into the next world.

Humor was so important to our history that in 19th-century Eastern European shtetls (small towns comprised of mainly Jews), it was essential for there to be badchonim (jesters). These entertainers shared jokes before weddings and other social gatherings, similar to the way comedians warm up crowds before headliners, live sitcom tapings and other events today. For a laugh, shtetl residents also shared stories of the “wise men from Chelm,” referenced in our April Fool’s Day blog.

Fast forward to the darkest days of our history, during the Holocaust — not a laughing matter, and yet, there is enough evidence of Jews using humor in the concentration camps as a survival mechanism that there has been a book published about it. This phenomenon is also touched upon in the award-winning film Life is Beautiful.

If you think about it, it makes sense that the Jewish people have used humor to cope. We’ve long suffered. First, we were slaves. Then we wandered in the desert with only matzah to eat. It’s easy to imagine a Jerry Seinfeld character with sunken cheeks, a loin cloth and a long beard asking, “Where can a guy get a bagel around here?” We’ve survived plagues, wars, pogroms, anti-Semitism, extermination and more. Without humor, we may not have survived. Laughter calmed our nerves and eased our tension during the most stressful of times. So, of course we love a good guffaw. And, for many, it’s become synonymous with our culture. According to a 2013 Pew study, 40% of American Jews consider a sense of humor a vital part of their Jewish identity.

Perhaps that’s why there are so many Jewish comedians. From Mel Brooks to Woody Allen to Billy Crystal, Gilda Radner and hundreds more, the Jewish people are a funny bunch — and we look forward to profiling some of the best of the best later this month!

Until then, we’ll leave you with this joke from Henny Youngman: “A Jewish woman had two chickens. One got sick, so the woman made chicken soup out of the other one to help the sick one get well.” Sounds about right!

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