Humor has been a central part of Jewish identity since biblical times, according to Jeremy Dauber, professor of Yiddish language, literature, and culture in the Department of Germanic Languages at Columbia University. His book, Jewish Comedy: A Serious History, (W.W. Norton, Oct.), analyzes the wide range of Jewish humor—from jokes developed in response to anti-Semitism, to vulgar ones.
Why is it important to analyze Jewish comedy?
If you want to understand the history of a group, its culture, its sensibility, understanding what makes it laugh is as valuable and meaningful a way as any other, and, in many ways, more than most. It gets to a group’s self-understandings, its anxieties, its pressure points, its dreams: what makes it tick. Exactly how you get from a rabbi joke to those understandings, though, is not always obvious or straightforward; and that’s where the analysis comes in. Of course, that kind of analysis runs the risk of ruining the joke, rendering it unfunny, but you can’t have everything.
What role does comedy play in Jewish history?
A lot of different roles—one of the arguments I make is that there are a number of different types of Jewish comedy, and many of them do different things. So some kinds are responses to persecution, perhaps encouraging resilience, or resistance, while others are satirical jabs at internal Jewish political or social movements, advocating for—or opposing—reform. Some comedy is theological, looking at the relationship Jews have with their God and their religion; and some is mundane and vulgar, because Jews are as interested in these things as anyone else. These strands, and others, all weave together as part of the greater story.
How did your upbringing affect your view of Jewish humor?
There’s no question that I came to this topic personally. I grew up in a Jewish household where Jewish comedy—Jewish jokes, comic stories, books by authors like Sholem Aleichem and Philip Roth—were just part of the air we breathed. In some ways, I think that helped me consider the possibility that Jewish humor wasn’t about any one thing. It’s just a part of all sorts of aspects of our lives. We could have mordant jokes about anti-Semitism at the dinner table side by side with silly jokes and puns related to Jewish holidays; and neither of them felt any more or less natural than the other.
What do you hope readers will learn from your book?
That Jewish comedy is vast and variegated; that it’s serious business, reflecting and reflecting on many of the most important features of Jewish history, culture, life, and theology; that it spans centuries and continents; and that it has something to say to contemporary Jewish identity—and American identity, too, given how prominent Jewish humor has been in the history of American comedy—from the Marx Brothers and Jack Benny, to Jon Stewart and Amy Schumer. I also hope they’ll be introduced to at least a few great works of comedic literature or remarkable performers and practitioners that they’ve never heard of before. And I hope they’ll be entertained along the way—entertainment and education aren’t always mutually exclusive.