Every Shabbos morning, my rabbi gives a speech after the Torah reading. Without fail, he starts with a joke or two (or six), and incorporates something about the joke into his explanation of whatever he’s talking about that week – whether it’s the weekly Torah portion, or some major news story, or a holiday that’s coming up, or what-have-you. And it’s a great way to break the monotony that a lot of people feel – add a little English language, a bit of humor, something to help them understand what’s going on and to feel a bit more in-tune with the community.
I cannot count the number of times I’ve been to his house and crashed on his couch Shabbos afternoon. Invariably, there are a couple of joke books on the coffee table in the living room, usually with a bookmark at the place he pulled that morning’s icebreaker from. Half the time, they’re books I’ve either read or own myself, which means usually I’ve heard them all. And you know, everyone else has heard them too. It doesn’t make them any less fun to hear for the thousandth time (according to most of the congregation, but not according to my fiancée).
So what is it that keeps us coming back to the same old humor? And what makes a joke Jewish? Or does it have to be a joke at all – do longer humorous stories without snappy punchlines count as Jewish?
As far as I’m concerned, Jewish jokes don’t even have to feature Jews in them. A lovely example:
Two old men are sitting on a park bench trading riddles, as old men on park benches are wont to do. One says “All right, I’ve got one – what’s green, wet, hangs on a wall, and whistles?” The second man thinks and says “Hrm… I don’t know. What’s green, wet, hangs on a wall, and whistles?”
The first responds, “A herring!” ”But a herring isn’t green.” ”You could paint it green.” ”But a herring isn’t wet!” ”You’ve just painted it!” ”But it doesn’t hang on a wall, it comes in a barrel.” ”A lovely painting like that, you wouldn’t hang?”
The second says, “All right, I’ll give you all that. But a herring does NOT whistle!”
“Nu, so it doesn’t whistle.”
What makes this joke Jewish? It’s not that the old men are explicitly said to be Jewish, except for the last line where the riddler uses the Yiddish word for “eh, well, so what?” I say it’s the fact that you can picture these old men on a park bench, and if you think really hard, you can imagine that it’s someone you know. It’s the arguing (the favorite Jewish pastime). It’s the fact that herrings are inherently funny (more so than, say, a mahi-mahi). It’s the utter ridiculousness of the exchange, and the smugness of the riddler that the riddlee couldn’t figure out a simple (to him) riddle. And more so, it paints a lovely stereotype of a time when old Jewish men would just sit there and shmooze and pass the time by exchanging a little humor. It’s a funny joke about being funny and having fun. And that, to me, makes this a Jewish joke.
I’ll give you another classic example, starring another old Jewish man.
A strong man at the circus is on stage. He takes a large lemon and with all his might squeezes out every last drop into a measuring cup – almost a full cup of lemon juice. He then announces to the crowd, “If anyone here can squeeze even one more drop out of this lemon, I will give him a thousand dollars!”
From the back, a slender little old man pushes forward. He hobbles onto the stage, takes the lemon, and squeezes. To everyone’s amazement, a thin stream of juice pours out – another half-cup.
The strong man is dumbfounded. He gives him his prize and asks him, “Who are you, old man, that your ability to squeeze out every drop is so much stronger than mine?”
“Oh, I’m a fundraiser for the United Jewish Appeal.”
Classic. Again, you can picture the entire story happening before you, as though you were in the crowd at the circus yourself. It makes a great Jewish joke for a few reasons – it stars an underdog, adorable, little old Jewish guy; he overcomes severe adversity; and most of all he accepts it as entirely natural that UJA fundraisers are aggressive enough to squeeze the last drop out of anything. It makes lighthearted fun of one of the most well-respected American Jewish organizations there’s ever been, and adds a little tongue-in-cheek I’m-a-nuisance old-guy mentality. Makes me proud to be a Jew.
I’ll leave you with one more.
A young well-dressed professional-looking man boards a train and sits down across from a little old Jewish lady. The train begins to move, and the man opens up his copy of today’s Wall Street Journal. He doesn’t get very far into his article before the lady sighs loudly.
“Oy, am I thirsty!”
The man pays no attention for the moment – perhaps someone will get up and get her a drink.
“Oy, am I thirsty!”
She says it again. This man, being wise in the ways of the world, knows that things like this come in threes, and has no patience to wait for her to say it a third time. He folds his paper, sets it down, and walks over to the train’s water cooler. He takes a cup of water to the lady, whose eyes widen in delight. She gulps it down, looks up at him endearingly, and smiles. The man nods begrudgingly and sits down. He opens his paper, finds his article, and –
“Oy, was I thirsty!”