Jewish humor in serious times

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin speaks on Jewish humor in Northern Virginia. Photo courtesy of Jewish National Fund.

Toward the end of Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s talk on Jewish humor Sunday, the best-selling author told a joke about the Jewish outlook on the world:

“One day, a man says, ‘You know what? I’m an optimist.’ Another says, ‘If you’re an optimist, why are you so worried?’ He says, ‘You think it’s easy being an optimist?’”

The punchline got raucous laughter from the audience.

“That joke summarizes the key note of so much Jewish humor,” Teulshkin told an audience of 350 at the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia. “Judaism has the insistence that the world is moving toward redemption. It’s optimistic. Jewish history, filled as it is with expulsions and discrimination, is pessimistic.”

Part lecture, part stand-up routine, Telushkin’s appearance at the Jewish National Fund’s Breakfast for Israel fundraiser included the requisite jokes about overbearing mothers, stereotypically Jewish professions like medicine and law, and, of course, anxiety.

These are anxious times, and the breakfast was served with discussions of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and last month’s recent deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va.

“Given how many horrific things are going on in the world right now, having somebody to really give us a laugh and teach us, turns out to have been the most appropriate kind of programming we could’ve done,” said Howard Hogan, a co-chair of the event.

JNF Communications Writer Daniel Peri said in an email the organization does not disclose fundraising numbers.

Telushkin, author of “Jewish Humor” and “Jewish Literacy,” explained why certain comedic stereotypes exist about Jews and how important humor has been for a people who’ve often found themselves marginalized and powerless. His comedy straddled the line between exploring the roots of Jewish stereotypes and trading in them.

“Ethnic humor, as many of you know, is controversial,” he said. “Because it paints in very broad strokes. In ethnic humor, there are no individuals, there are only groups. … But if you believe that culture, religion and history have an impact on people, then obviously some traits are going to be more pronounced among some groups than among others.”

Telushkin opened with a lesson on the role of family in Jewish and Christian scripture, and closed with an anecdote about his own family. He had recently helped his son and daughter-in-law move into the same two-family house he’d grown up in in Brooklyn, N.Y. Unpacking old boxes in the basement, they found an antique blue JNF charity box. He held it up to show the audience, whose members responded with applause.

“He’s a great storyteller,” said Cherri Harris of Falls Church. “Being able to laugh is a vital component and a spiritually important thing. Whatever outlook you have, being able to laugh is important, no matter what kind of humor it is.”

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