Jews and humor seem to go together like peas and carrots, like peanut butter and jelly, like Burns and Allen. Perhaps it has always been that way, though (as I will discuss in the pages to come) I don’t think so.
Somewhere along the way, along their long and winding road, Jews got funny. Not just in an ontological sense, but in a way that was noticeable from the outside, and was a point of pride from the inside. So while this relationship did not appear suddenly, when Time magazine published its now-famous 1978 article “Behavior: Analyzing Jewish Comics,” which claimed, among other things, that 80 percent of the working comedians in America were Jewish (despite Jews being then 3 percent of the general population) it both came as a shock and confirmed something people had long suspected.
In the wake of that article “Jewish humor” became something people wanted to study, but that’s a tricky thing to do. First, what makes humor Jewish? Sigmund Freud asked this question back in 1905, and nearly a century later Rabbi Joseph Telushkin was still asking the same thing. Does a joke have to be by Jews and for Jews to qualify? This is Freud’s view. Telushkin, on the other hand, thought a qualifying joke just needs “Jewish sensibilities.” Both of these may are so broad, in different directions, that it begs the question as to whether the term “Jewish
humor” even means anything anymore? This book is not going to answer
that question. I remain unconvinced that any book can answer it with finality.
What this book is going to do, however, will bear on the question: it will chart the relationship between humor created by Jews, and Judaism. My reasons for approaching the question in this way are many, but primarily I see great value in zeroing in on the ways in which Jewish humorists have engaged Jewish practices and their own Jewishness. It tells us something (or perhaps it tells us many somethings) about the relationship between Jews and humor that goes deeper than the mere coincidence that a certain humorist was born into a certain family.
In order to make sense of this, this book will also focus on change over time. I isolate four sequential generations as classified by sociologists:
- The Silent Generation (b. 1925–45)
- The Baby Boom (b. 1946–65)
- Generation X (b. 1966–79)
- and Millennials (b. 1980–95)
Taking examples of humor from each generation that are about Jewish things, including rituals, texts, and Jewishness itself, I’ll track the way each generation’s
relationship to these Jewish elements changes. I hope that this methodology will illuminate some of the meaning behind the phrase “Jewish humor,” while simultaneously showing why it may be impossible to define in a stable way. If something is changing significantly every twenty years or so, no wonder we would have a hard time getting a handle on it. We have to zoom out far enough to recognize those changes are happening.
These generations are, at their core, useful fictions. There is some statistical truth to the increased birth rate after World War II that gave rise to the Baby Boom moniker, but why the Baby Boom is said to end in, say, 1965 when the birthrate had been declining since 1958 is mostly arbitrary. The generational conceit of the book may seem similarly arbitrary. An account of this kind could be chronological, or separated by media type. But there is an important story happening along the generational lines. Traditionally, sociologists and historians have classified American Jews into generational categories — based on distance from immigration — that cut across those used to describe the population as a whole. The humorists I identify as being part of the Silent Generation were mostly part of what has traditionally been called the second generation within American Jewish history.
I do not know if any of these humorists would have called themselves second generation, but I am nearly certain none of them would ever have identified as Silent Generation. That lack of a conscious connection to the generation into which sociologists categorized you started to change, however, with the Baby Boom generation and that change is part of the story. Some Baby Boomers may think of themselves as second or third generation Americans, but they also think of themselves as Baby Boomers, and if you ask many of them what generation they’re part of, if they have an answer it is likely the Baby Boom.
By the time you get to Generation X American Jews had lost any real sense of particularly Jewish generational difference. American Jewish members of Gen X, if asked their generation, will tell you they are Gen X. And moreover that began to matter to American Jews. The book chronicles evidence of a changing relationship between American Jews and their conception of Jewishness, and the move from identifying with internal Jewish generation to strongly identifying with American cultural generations is an important data point. If you mistakenly call an American Jew born in 1979 a Millennial she will likely correct you and in no uncertain terms remind you she is Gen X. This book argues that what we see from the way humorists engage with Jewish things in their humor is a shift from prioritizing Jewish peoplehood to protecting Judaism. In this case, the simultaneous shift from identifying in a communal Jewish way to a cross-cultural American way is not arbitrary at all; it is the heart of the issue.
I am framing much of this priority shift in terms of whether or not the comedy of an era is treating Judaism as a Thing. “Thing,” in this context, is more than just a vague identifier. Using Bill Brown’s Thing theory, I use the word to mean something broken, abandoned, or no longer useful. In Brown’s terms the same object can be simultaneously a Thing and an object. A nonfunctional car, for example, is a Thing to the person who now needs a new car but may be a very useful object to the visual artist responsible for Carhenge.
In applying this theory to Judaism I am probing whether humorists present Judaism as something vital and useful or dead and dysfunctional. The relationship of immigrant Jews to their religion has been analyzed extensively (see Hasia Diner, Nathan Glazer, Jonathan Sarna, Jack Wertheimer, for example), but my argument is that the children and grandchildren of the turn-of-the-century immigrants, the members of the Silent Generation, began a process of Thingifying Judaism that their Baby Boomer children continued.
That in itself might not be a terribly interesting argument. What was the unexpected and therefore much more interesting finding is that Gen X pushed back against this Thingification and began to resacralize certain elements in their humor, while profaning others. The Thingification of Judaism seems to be extremely important in the Silent Generation, and disappears almost entirely by the twenty-first century. The full story of Millennial humor is yet to be written, as many of this generation are still building their careers, but we can nevertheless draw some conclusions as to whether they are continuing the trends begun by Gen X or changing the relationship between humor and Jewishness yet again.
The generations must exist in pairs, as well, because the humor with which young people grow up, and the popular media they consume that helps shape their sense of self, is what the previous generation has been producing. So there is always a trickle-down effect from one generation to the next. What this research shows, therefore, is that as these generations became more attached to their secular generational identity they also became more interested in normalizing Jewish ritual practice and individual Jewish identities.
Because I’m focusing on humor that has some social or religious target, most of what will be included in this study could be classified as satire. Not all humor is satiric, and not all satire is humorous, though the latter is closer to being true. My definition of satire aligns with that of Ziva Ben-Porat, who says satire is “a critical representation, always comic and often caricatural.” Freud argued that meaningful jokes must have a purpose (though the underlying impetus for joking may well be latent, or subconscious), and satiric humor clearly satisfies that requirement.
My operating definition of Jewish satire relies on that notion of purpose. Satire must be anchored in reality because it is the real world, or in this case real Judaism or Jews, that is being satirized. What constitutes “real,” however, is not so clear. Many of these satires are approaching a Judaism that is real only by virtue of its existing in the collective imagination, which may or may not be terribly related to the “really real” (to borrow from Laura Levitt) Judaism actually being practiced in America. All stereotypes come from some kernel of truth, but though recognizable they are also frequently to some degree false. Whether really real, or only a simulacrum of reality, the subject or target of the satire in this book is Jewish (or in many of the cases I am discussing, Judaism).
I should note, however, that although Jewish humor is a popular topic, the reality of the signifier is not universally accepted. Many people, including those who would know best, have claimed that Jewish humor is some sort of optical illusion. Mel Brooks, one of the cornerstones of American humor (Jewish or otherwise) once said, “You got it wrong. It’s not really Jewish comedy — there are traces of it, but it is really New York comedy, urban comedy, street-corner comedy. It’s not Jewish comedy — that’s from Vilna, that’s Poland.”
Brooks sees Jewish comedy as being something from “over there,” while “over here” the humor is not Jewish. In the same vein, American Studies scholar Allen Guttmann claims, “there really is no such thing as ‘Jewish humor’” because the Bible, “the greatest of Jewish books . . . is scarcely typified by elements of comedy.” Guttmann’s argument against the designation is, in part, that
if the term refers to some form of humor which has been characteristic of Jews from the time of Moses to the day of Moshe Dayan, then clearly the term has no referent at all. There is, on the other hand, a kind of humor which is common to the great Yiddish writers of the nineteenth century and to many Jewish-American authors in the twentieth century. This kind of humor is not, however, the result of Judaism as a religion and cannot be traced to the experience of Biblical Jews.
The first part of his argument is clearly hyperbole, because if something must be consistent from Moses to Moshe Dayan in order to be considered Jewish, then there is not, of course, a religion, culture, language, practice, or belief that could properly be called Jewish. More to the point is the end of his argument, in which he claims that this thing we are calling “Jewish humor” is not “the result of Judaism as a religion.” Although Guttmann does not define what he means by either “Judaism” or “religion,” the context of his larger essay indicates it is some sort of nexus of rituals, practices, life cycle events, and texts.
Defining terms is the perpetual rabbit hole down which most academic discussions eventually fall, but Guttmann’s definition of religion seems largely practical, and that works for my purposes as well. In this book I define “religion” as something that involves both beliefs and practices, and Judaism will be considered a religion using that definition. I prefer to use a definition of religion that sits somewhere between the classic functional reductionists (Durkheim, Freud) and the cultural anthropologists (Geertz, Evans-Pritchard).
Religion has a role in social and cultural development, but I don’t think that is all to which we should properly reduce religion. My intention is not to limit what constitutes either religion or Judaism, but to have a stable understanding of the terms that is true to the way satirists and critics alike are using them. Although I disagree with the way Guttmann defines Judaism for his purpose of discrediting the concept of Jewish humor, he does highlight the difficulty that arises from the arbitrariness of labels. The separation of “Jewish” and “American” in the identity marker “Jewish-American” is a tenuous thing; both must exist in close to equal measure to make the label work.
Ken Koltun-Fromm asks: “In what sense is material Jewish identity in America a specifically Jewish or American expression?” and Shaul Magid asks a similar series of questions: “How much ‘America’ is in American Judaism? How much ‘Jewishness’ is in America? How much has ‘Jewishness’ changed in contemporary America? And how much has America changed?” They are both circling around the same problem, which is trying to sort out what makes American Jewish identity distinct from, say, European Jewish identity or Israeli Jewish identity. That question is significant to a book like this one, as it is American Jewish humor under the microscope here, and I argue that in humor studies it is vital not to conflate comedy from different language families, cultural settings, or national identities.
So for us to be able to identify Jewish satire separate from the shared American immigration experience of many cultures we have to isolate the aspects of it that could not exist without Judaism. American and Jewish identities have often battled in the lives of American Jews. Norman Leer once wrote, “America’s home-made moral system of rational pragmatism does battle with a weaker, but more ancient and durable adversary, traditional Judaism.”
American Jews have spent generations trying to bring these two adversaries to a peaceful resolution. The push-pull between the Jewish and the American is, in many ways, what lies at the heart of this project, and while I am presenting things in terms of how different generations of Jews relate to Judaism, it could just as easily be read as a study of the effects of Americanization. What I will not call it, however, is a study in American Jewish assimilation, because I strongly resist the idea that what we are seeing is anything as simple as assimilation. American Jews have not become American Protestants, regardless of how many elements of American Protestantism have worked their way into Jewish life and practice.
American Judaism today may not look like American Judaism 150 years ago, but it has not disappeared and I therefore refuse to see this as a story of assimilation. Resistance is not, it turns out, futile. In the following introductory pages I’ll look at how Jewish satire and American Judaism have interacted over the last half a century. Most of the current scholarship on Jewish humor has failed to address this interaction, and much current scholarship on Jewish humor has, in fact, gone
in the wrong direction entirely. My argument is this: World War II was the watershed event that drew a generational line in the sand for American Jewish humorists. Clearly, World War II changed many things for many people, perhaps none more so as a group than Jews.
Deborah Dash Moore has written extensively about American Jewish identity during and after the war, and she said, “the mobilization of the United States for war catapulted American Jews into a radically different world from the one they had known. As the world of home receded, their identities shifted from ‘New Yorker’ to ‘American.’ American Jewishness developed legs.” Primarily this shift had to do with the breakdown of the ethnic enclave-type neighborhood, and American Jews buying into the melting pot of the American Dream.
This happened in the decades following the war, as culturally and communally it took time for the full impact of the Nazi genocide to settle over American Jews, many of whom had little direct connection with the war or its victims. Zachary Braiterman argued that the post-Holocaust thought of the 1960s formed “a new theological discourse in which the memory of Auschwitz and the State of Israel virtually displace God and Torah.” The core touchstones of Jewish identity shifted in the 1960s. This influenced the humor of American Jews. Judaism in the postwar years was largely in transition. The late 1940s and especially the 1950s witnessed the great Jewish migration to what sociologists call the “area of third settlement” — the suburbs.
Some of these previously closed communities were allowing Jews and other minorities to buy in for the first time, but in many cases these were brand new neighborhoods and subdivisions, built to capitalize on the postwar increase in American wealth as well as the baby boom. The impact of this social mobility on American Judaism was that it began to resemble what Will Herberg calls “the original moderate Reform program,” even Holocaust, post-Israel world they began to rely more on the idea of “peoplehood.” “What resulted,” Herberg writes, “was substantially similar to moderate Reform, but since it had not come about through direct Reform influence, but rather through the continuing pressure of the American environment, it was not recognized as having any relation to the older Reform idea.”
So while Conservative Judaism may have become the dominant congregational choice, American Jews across national and demographic lines began to adopt aspects of the old Reform model, focusing on the idea of communal identity as a unifying force and downplaying the role of organized religion. The antiestablishment counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s continued to value communal identity over ideology. Religion (including Judaism) was seen as flawed, outdated, or corrupt and therefore needed to be lampooned and shown to be ridiculous whenever possible.
Jewish peoplehood (meaning Jews as a corporate concept), however, had survived so much for so long, and was important, valuable, and worth protecting. The movers and shakers of the counterculture were largely
members of the Baby Boom generation. America went through an intense political and social upheaval, and Judaism was changing in response to those external forces as well as to corresponding internal shifts.
The Silent Generation were the young Jews Mordecai Kaplan profiled in Judaism as a Civilization, the ones who felt their Jewish identity was “the real tragedy of their lives.” In light of these responses, Kaplan championed the notion that the cultural or national identity of Judaism needed to be protected above the religious forms, an approach that aligns with that taken by Silent Generation and Baby Boom comedians. Nathan Glazer pointed out in American Judaism that, “in the years between 1920 and 1940, the areas of second settlement [such as the Upper West Side of New York City] contained the greatest number of American Jews, and
it was in this zone of American Jewish life that the pattern of the future was being developed. The future, it then seemed, would see the rapid dissolution of the Jewish religion.”
The handwriting on the wall seemed to portend the transition from Judaism as a religion to Judaism as a civilization, and the young Jews who grew up in that period very much absorbed that mentality. They produced at least two decades’ worth of humor that reduced Judaism to an empty set of rituals or beliefs. In other
words, they Thingified it.
Gen X and Millennials therefore inherited an America where, especially for Jews to the left of Orthodoxy, attending the opening of a new Woody Allen movie was an act of communal significance at least as religiously real as a jcc Purim carnival. It was a way to get together with other Jews and celebrate one of your coreligionist heroes.17 It has become a well-known story in the study of Jewish humor that in 1996 a Manhattan day school affiliated with the Conservative movement asked their students to name their Jewish heroes. The results were, in order: Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, Howard Stern, God.18 The line between religion and culture becomes increasingly blurry when religion itself seems to be a cultural object. But all of that is public sentiment, the destruction of which allows comedians, especially satiric ones, to thrive. This becomes a game of follow the leader, where humorists create a vision of Jewishness, but as soon as some portion of the masses accept it the humorists flip the script again, always pushing in whatever direction places them opposite complacency.
This book moves through this shifting landscape generation by generation, paying particular attention to humor that engages with Jewishness in some specific way. That means there are beloved examples of “Jewish humor” I will be overlooking. The entirety of Mel Brooks’s career, for example. Most of the great Borscht Belt comedians. Norman Lear. Albert Brooks. All brilliant, and funny, but humorists who rarely if ever speak about Judaism in their comedy. Which is not to say that they are not still speaking a secret language, or that The Producers is not funnier if you are Jewish. Maybe they are, and maybe it is. But part of the story I am telling here is about an approach to Jewishness that is recognizable to many (if not most) non-Jews.
It is also important to note that generational boundaries are just as fictitious as geographic ones. These generations are defined in hindsight, looking backward at social and cultural shifts that cause certain people to have a similar outlook — but
the borders are admittedly porous. The line between the Silent Generation and the Baby Boom is perhaps the sharpest, as whether you were born before or after World War II is a significant cultural divide. But where the Baby Boom ends and Gen X begins, and even more significantly where Gen X ends and Millennials begin, is not at all clear. So while I will use a comedian’s birthdate as a first order organizational tool, if the details of their career push them into a different group I may go against the sociologists.
The Coen brothers are solidly Baby Boomers, but their later films (such as A Serious Man) embody Gen X trends. And Moshe Kasher is technically Gen X by a few months, but in terms of his career and outlook he fits much more closely with Millennials. One could argue that I am fudging the data to fit my conclusions, but I see it as looking at the trends first, and then assigning them to the comedians exhibiting them. And it so happens that those assignments align quite closely to these generations as defined. There are always exceptions, and where those occur
I use their exceptionality to think through why they resemble one thing and not another.