How Jewish humor became the standard, by Stefan Kanfer.
Interviewed once on German television, the late Robin Williams was asked, “Why do you think there’s not so much comedy in Germany?”
“Did you ever think,” Williams snapped, “you killed off all the funny people?”
Leave it to a Gentile to summarize the Jewish experience in seven words.
Analysts have tried to track down the sources of Jewish humor, from the Middle Ages to Heinrich Heine to Kafka to Freud to the Ph.D. theses of contemporary academia. In his typical fashion, Mel Brooks cut to the chase: “If they’re laughing, how can they bludgeon you to death?”
Dauber notes that Hebraic and Yiddish comedy has always been pliable. Sometimes it took the form of mock submission: An iconic joke of the Czarist period involves “two Jews before a Russian firing squad, both offered blindfolds. One accepts, the other scornfully refuses. His friend urges him: “‘Shh . . . don’t make trouble.’”
Sometimes the humor presented the flip side of anti-Semitism. Two impoverished Jews see a sign in front of a church offering cash to anyone who converts to Christianity. The bolder one schemes to fake it, mumble the appropriate homage to Jesus, and buy dinner with the reward. Hours later, he emerges. “Did you get paid?” his friend demands. The scornful reply: “All you people think about is money.”