Perhaps it was not a coincidence that the name they bestowed upon their son, Isaac (Yitzchak in Hebrew), who would become one of the patriarchs, means “laughter.”
Even as Abraham and Sarah, the first Jews, retained their sense of humor, throughout history, the Jews have never lost their particular sense of humor, despite all the hardships of exile and the persecution they have endured.
Laughing at themselves often helped the Jews to survive and flourish. Humor does not become “Jewish” because it is about Jews. Nor, for that matter, are jokes considered “Jewish” because they were told or created by someone who happens to be Jewish.
And yet it is not hard to tell when a joke or funny story fits into this category. Jewish humor has different themes, but it always speaks to the existential condition of the Jewish people.
To a large extent, Jewish humor is the result of the 2,000-year Diaspora when the Jews lived without a “home” of their own. This perpetual exile was a source of both physical and emotional insecurity. While it is true there were shining moments in history such as the Golden Age in Spain, they often ended with a period of Jewish persecution. In Spain, the Golden Age came to an end in 1492, when the Jews were told to convert to Christianity or else promptly depart.
In the face of such misfortunes and calamities, Jewish humor evolved into an affirmation of life. Gaiety and laughter were necessary to offset harsh and despairing conditions. In a way, the laughter generated by their humor was therapeutic—it assuaged the pain of persecution, grief, and poverty.
Jewish humor is more than a confirmation of life, however. It is a defiant answer to the question of why and how to go on, in spite of the terrible things that can occur in life. How else, when confronted by a hostile world for thousands of years, could this small band of people so audaciously cling to their beliefs and to Torah?
Jewish humor is often incisive and succinct. A number of motifs are woven through it. Whatever the forms or themes, Jews have away of poking fun at themselves, as if saying to the world, “Hey, you can’t malign us, we’ll do it to ourselves!”
Jewish jokes also deal with the world in which the Jews live. And if the things they see aren’t to their liking, criticism is freely dispersed. Some Jewish humorists, like Lenny Bruce, became critics of the societies in which they lived. At other times, Jewish humor conveyed a message and even encouraged certain types of moral conduct. Humor also had a way of deflecting the trauma endured by anti-Semitism.
Jewish humor is so vast it deserves a book by itself. In fact, there are many such books available, and Web sites with Jewish humor abound. Jewish humor reflects myriad themes.
Some Jewish jokes focus on poverty, justice, and iconoclasm. These sorts of jokes remind Jews of the suffering of those who are less fortunate and of the mitzvah to give to the poor.
Other jokes even exemplify the audacity of the Jews, who have never refrained from questioning God. Can it be any wonder, then, that throughout the centuries, this race of iconoclasts has never winced from challenging all forms of authority when justice was at stake?
Seeing the glass as half full and looking on the bright side of things are other themes frequently found in Jewish humor. And, indeed, an optimistic disposition has always been important in surviving the trials and tribulations Jews faced.
Historically, Jews have frequently faced discrimination that sometimes made access to higher education and other opportunities difficult. In such cases, the general response was to work twice as hard. No wonder jokes about how to succeed in the world also abound in Jewish culture.
Sitting back, complaining, and merely hoping things would get easier is not how the Jews have made their way up the ranks of the societies in which they have lived. These sorts of jokes reflect the Jewish belief that everyone must work for whatever success they would like to achieve.
Jews also include humor that confronts the issues of anti-Semitism and survival in their repertoire of jokes. Such jokes demonstrate how utterly absurd anti-Semitism is, and how difficult it can be to convince those who harbor such ill will that their feelings are ludicrous. These types of jokes also demonstrate how Jews survived by their wits in societies where they had little else with which to defend themselves.
And the Jews did indeed survive. Over a span of four millennia, in hostile environs and under harsh conditions, subject to persecution and oppression, strengthened by their culture, shared history, and ethnic practices, the Jewish people have endured. They have also persisted because of shared beliefs, which, despite disparities and divergent opinions over the centuries, can nonetheless properly be called what we have come to know as Judaism.