Do Jewish Jokes Have to Be about Jews to Be Funny?

January 11, 2017 | Joseph Epstein

Reviewing two recent joke anthologies, Joseph Epstein reflects on some of the idiosyncrasies of Jewish humor:

William Novak’s Die Laughing: Killer Jokes for Newly Old Folks [is] a collection of jokes about aging and about being older generally. . . . In 1981 Novak had produced, along with Moshe Waldoks, a collection called The Big Book of Jewish Humor. The jokes in Die Laughing have, perhaps out of fear of redundancy with his earlier book, been de-judaized, some to less than good effect. The punchline of the joke about the fanatical golfer who returns home late from his regular golf date because his partner and dearest friend died on the golf course early in the round is a case in point. In his explanation to his wife for his tardiness in returning home, he explains that for several holes after his friend’s death “it was hit the ball, drag Bob, hit the ball, drag Bob.” The joke is much improved if Bob is named, as in the version in which I originally heard the joke, Irving. Novak tells the joke about the parsimonious widow who, learning that the charge for newspaper obituaries is by the word, instructs the man on the obit desk to print “O’Malley is dead. Boat for sale.” The joke is better, though, in the Jewish version, as “Schwartz dead. Cadillac for sale,” and is even one word shorter, thereby saving Mrs. Schwartz a few bucks.

Of course, not only Jewish jokes are about Jews; anti-Semitic jokes are, too:

Pervasive though political correctness has become, it, like affirmative action, does not apply to the Jews or to Jewish jokes. Anti-Semitic jokes abound, not a few told by Jews. All play off Jewish stereotypes, some milder than others. The four reasons we know Jesus was Jewish, for example, are that he lived at home till he was past thirty, he went into his father’s business, he thought his mother was a virgin, and she (his mother) treated him as if he were God. Fairly harmless. But then there are the world’s four shortest books: Irish Haute Cuisine, Great Stand-Up German Comics, Famous Italian Naval Victories, and—oops!—Jewish Business Ethics.

What we need is not more anti-Semitic jokes, but more jokes about anti-Semites.

Epstein knows some good examples of these as well.

Read more on Jewish Review of Books: