Jewish humour

From Academic Kids

Jewish humour refers to a long tradition of humor in Judaism dating back to the Torah and the Midrash, but generally refers to the more recent stream of verbal, self-depreciating and often anecdotal humor originating in Eastern Europe and which took root in the United States over the last hundred years. Beginning with vaudeville, and continuing through radio, stand-up, and television, a disproportionate percentage of comedians have been Jewish, carrying on a distinctive tradition of humor that spans several thousand years.


The History of Jewish Humor

Jewish humor is rooted in at least two traditions. The first is the intellectual and legal methods of the Talmud, which uses elaborate legal arguments and situations so absurd as to be humorous in order to tease out the meaning of religious law. [1] ( The second is an egalitarian tradition among the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe in which the powerful were often mocked subtly, rather than attacked overtly -- as Saul Bellow once said that "oppressed people tend to be witty." Jesters known as badchens used to poke fun at prominent members of the community during weddings, creating a good-natured tradition of humor as a levelling device. Rabbi Moshe Waldoks, a scholar of Jewish humor, argued: "You have a lot of shtoch, or jab, humor, which is usually meant to deflate pomposity or ego, and to deflate people who consider themselves high and mighty. But Jewish humor was also a device for self-criticism within the community, and I think that’s where it really was the most powerful. The humorist, like the prophet, would basically take people to task for their failings. The humor of Eastern Europe especially was centered around defending the poor against the exploitation of the upper classes or other authority figures, so rabbis were made fun of, authority figures were made fun of and rich people were made fun of. It really served as a social catharsis.”[2] (

After Jews began to immigrate to America in large numbers, they, like other minority groups, found it difficult to find mainstream jobs. The newly developing entertainment industry, combined with the Jewish humor tradition, provided a potential route for Jews to succeed. One of the first successful radio "sitcoms" The Rise of the Goldbergs, featured a Jewish family. As radio matured, many of its most famous comedians, including Sid Caesar, George Burns, Henny Youngman and Milton Berle were Jewish. The Jewish comedy tradition continues today, with Jewish humor much entwined with that of mainstream humor, as comedies like Seinfeld indicate.

Types of Jewish Humor

Religious Humor

The lives of the early hasidim, while not funny in and of themselves, are rich in humourous incidents. The dealings between rabbis, tzaddikim, and peasants form a rich tapestry of lore.

Similarly, in the tradition of the legal arguments of the Talmud, one prominent type of Jewish humor involves witty solutions to problems, such as:

Q: Is one permitted to ride in an airplane on the Sabbath?
A: Yes, as long as your seat belt remains fastened. Then it is considered as if you are wearing the plane.

Eastern European Jewish Humor

A number of traditions in Jewish humor date back to stories and anecdotes from the 1800s.


One popular humorous tradition from Eastern Europe involved tales of the people of Chelm, a town full of very dumb people who had very silly answers to problems. Chelm tales were told by authors like Shalom Alechem and Isaac Beshivas Singer. A typical Chelm story might begin:

"It is said that after God made the world, he filled it with people.

He sent off an angel with two sacks, one full of wisdom and one full of foolishness. The second sack was of course much heavier. So after a time it started to drag. Soon it got caught on a mountaintop and so all the foolishness spilled out and fell into Chelm.

In Chelm, the Shammes used to go around waking everyone up for minyan in the morning. Every time it snowed, the people would complain that although the snow was beautiful, they could not see it in its pristine state because by the time they got up in the morning, the Shammes had already trekked through the snow to wake the men up for minyan. The townspeople decided that they had to find a way to let the Shammes wake everyone up for minyan without having him make tracks in the snow.
The people of Chelm hit on a solution. They got four men to volunteer to carry the Shammes around standing on a table every time there was fresh snow in the morning. That way, the Shammes could make his wake up calls, but he would not leave tracks in the snow...

Hershele Ostropoler

Also known as Hershel of Ostropol, this legendary funny man was a real person. Thought to have come from the Ukraine, he lived in the small village of Ostropol, working as shochet, a ritual slaughterer. According to legend he lost his job because of his constant joking, which offended the leaders of the village.

In his subsequent wanderings throughout Ukraine, he became a familiar figure at restaurants and inns.

Eventually he settled down at the court of Rabbi Barukh of Mezbizh, grandson of the Baal Shem Tov. The rabbi was plagued by frequent depressions, and he served as a sort of court jester, mocking the rabbi and his cronies, to the delight of the common folk.

After his death he was remembered in a series of pamphlets recording his tales and witty remarks.

He was the subject of several epic poems, a novel, a comedy performed in 1930 by the Vilna Troupe, and a US TV programme in the 1950s. Two illustrated children's books, The Adventures of Hershel of Ostropol, and Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, have been published. Both books are by Eric Kimmel, and were illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. In 2002, a play entitled Hershele the Storyteller was performed in New York City.[3] (

Humor about Anti-Semitism

Much Jewish humor takes the form of self-depreciating comments on Jewish culture, acting as a shield against anti-semitic stereotypes by exploiting them first:

Rabbi Altmann and his secretary were sitting in a coffeehouse in Berlin in 1935. "Herr Altmann", said his secretary. "I notice you're reading Der Stürmer! I can't understand why. A Nazi libel sheet! Are you some kind of masochist, or, God forbid, a self-hating Jew?"
On the contrary, Frau Epstein. When I used to read the Jewish papers, all I learned about were pogroms, riots in Palestine, and assimilation in America. But now that I read Der Stürmer, I see so much more: that the Jews control all the banks, that we dominate in the arts, and that we're on the verge of taking over the entire world. You know – it makes me feel a whole lot better!

American Jewish Humor

The Role of Yiddish

Yiddish, the language of Eastern European Jews, has a sound well-suited to humor along with an ability to form new words in a way that facilitates jokes. Terms like shnook and shmendrek, shlemiel and shlemazel were exploited for their humorous sounds, as were new "Yinglish" terms like fancy-schmancy. Yiddish expressions -- such as ending sentences with questions -- became part of the verbal wordplay of Jewish comedians.

About Religion

One common strain of Jewish humor examines the role of religion in contemporary life, often gently mocking the religious hypocrite, for example:

A Reform Rabbi was so compulsive a golfer that once, on Yom Kippur, he left the house early and went out for a quick nine holes by himself. An angel who happened to be looking on immediately notified his superiors that a grievous sin was being committed on earth. On the sixth hole, G-d caused a mighty wind to take the ball directly from the tee to the cup for a miraculous and dramatic hole in one.
The angel was horrified. "Lord," he said, "you call this a punishment?!"
Sure," answered G-d with a smile. "Who can he tell?"

Or, more absurdly, from Woody Allen's "Without Feathers":

Rabbi Zwi Chaim Yisroel, an Orthodox scholar of the Torah and a man who developed whining to an art unheard of in the West, was unanimously hailed as the wisest man of the Renaissance by his fellow-Hebrews, who totaled a sixteenth of one per cent of the population. Once, while he was on his way to synagogue to celebrate the sacred Jewish holiday commemorating God's reneging on every promise, a woman stopped him and asked the following question: 'Rabbi, why are we not allowed to eat pork?'
'We're not?' the Rev said incredulously. 'Uh-oh.'

About Jews

Jewish humor continues to exploit stereotypes of Jews, both as a form of in-humor and as a defense. Jewish mothers, "cheapness," and other habits are all common subjects.

An old Jewish beggar was out on the street in New York City with his tin cup.
"Please sir," he pleaded to a passerby, "could you spare seventy three cents for a cup of coffee and some pie?"
The man asked, "Where do you get coffee and pie for seventy three cents in New York? It cost a minimum of a dollar!"
The beggar replied, "So who buys retail?"

Or, from David Bader's Haikus for Jews:

Is one Nobel Prize
so much to ask from a child
after all I've done?

Israeli Humor

Israeli humor features many of the same themes as Jewish humor elsewhere, making fun of the country and its habits, while containing a fair bit of gallows humor as well, as a joke from a 1950 Israeli joke book indicates:

An elderly man refuses to leave for the air raid shelter until he can find his dentures. His wife yells at him “what, you think they are dropping sandwiches?”

Famous Jewish Comedians

See the list of Jewish comedians.



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