What makes Jews funny?

“The best comedy sheds light on our own condition,” entertainer Murray Horwitz says.
Photo by David Holzel

Poor fellow! Blind in one eye and myopic in the other, and too impoverished to afford spectacles. One day, searching through the garbage, he finds a pair of empty frames and puts them on.

“Why are you doing that?” says his friend.

The man shrugs. “It’s better than nothing.”

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It’s a joke by Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, and Murray Horwitz is telling it as he tries to explain what Jewish humor is and what makes Jews funny.

“Survival is the usual reason” given for the rise of Jewish humor, he tells the audience of 150 at the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia. Jews turned to humor to help make the bad times better.

“But there are other oppressed people. You don’t see any Armenian stand-up comedians.”

Horwitz, 69, has worn many hats in the entertainment world: circus clown, Tony award winner (“Ain’t Misbehavin’”) purveyor of a one-man Sholem Aleichem show and conceiver of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. Lately, he’s the host of the golden age of radio show “The Big Broadcast” on WAMU-FM.

Here, on Oct. 4, two days before the center was defaced with swastikas, Horwitz looked at how Jewish humor — or humor about Jews — can uplift, and how it can hate.

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The Hebrew verb to pray — l’hitpalel — is a reflexive word meaning to judge oneself, Horwitz says.

“The best comedy sheds light on our own condition. Comedy punches holes in stuffed shirts. Comedy can make us look at ourselves from a point of view from outside ourselves.”

Sholem Aleichem
Public domain

He tells the famous old story of the ship that comes to the desert island to rescue the two Jews stranded there. The two give their rescuers a tour. Up on a hill are three grass huts.

“What are those?” the captain asks.

“Those are our synagogues,” is the answer. “One he goes to, one I go to and one neither of us would be caught dead in.”

“I inherited my mother’s faith and my father’s distrust of organized religion,” Horwitz says, and launches into the slapstick comedy known as the Book of Jonah.

“What could be more humorous than a man fleeing Tarshish who gets swallowed by a big fish? It sounds like a cartoon, like a Max Fleischer animation from 1935.”

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In the 1970s, a man named Sig Altman was working on his master’s degree in popular culture, Horwitz says.

One night he was watching the “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson and the guest mentioned that he had looked something up in the Jewish encyclopedia.

The studio audience laughed.

“Why was that funny?” Horwitz says.

Altman, author of “The Comic Image of the Jew,” “found out that in the arts, any time Jews appeared, we were almost exclusively portrayed as the objects of laughter,” Horwitz explains. “To this day, if you use a Yiddish word — sechel — people will laugh. While if you used savoir faire, no one would laugh.

“It’s an insidious form of anti-Semitism promulgated by Jewish comedy writers,” he says. “It’s not OK.”

The popular vaudeville team of Joe Weber and Lew Fields dealt in the broad stereotypes common at the turn of the 20th century. Public domain

So is there any value in stereotypes? Depends on how you frame it. If you say all Jews are cheap, or all Irish are drunks, that’s hateful stereotyping. “But if you say that more people in Group A exhibit a behavior than in Group B, you might be on to something.

“Comedy has many functions: satire, parody, slapstick, puns. We need to understand what we are laughing at,” he says. “We need to laugh at people because of what they do, not who they are.”

There is a double standard and that’s OK, Horwitz says. “We can tell jokes among ourselves that we wouldn’t tell people outside the group,” because of how it makes Jews look or because the joke just wouldn’t resonate.

A grandmother and grandson are at the beach, when a giant wave washes up and sweeps the boy out to sea. The grandmother falls to her knees and prays to God, promising she will do anything, but please bring her grandson back to her.

Just then another giant wave washes in and the child is there, unharmed.

The grandmother looks to heaven. “He had a hat.”

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“Jewish humor is to American humor, as African American music is to American music,” Horwitz says. “Think about Jewish humor when you see it — is it really illuminating our own condition and the human condition?”

As the American Jewish experience has changed, so has the humor. In this generation, the Jewishness of the humor of “Seinfeld” is just winked at.

But around the turn of the 20th century, it was more rough and tumble. “Mike and Meyer were the first successful Jewish comedians,” Horwitz says. The popular vaudeville team, whose real names were Joe Weber and Lew Fields, dealt in the broad stereotypes common at the time.

“Don’t tell this one,” Horwitz says.

In one routine, Mike and Meyer are business partners who decide to take in a baseball game in the middle of the day. In the fourth inning, one suddenly says, “I left the safe open at the store.”
“What are you worried about?” says his partner. “We’re both here.”

Murray Horwitz will perform “An Evening of Sholom Aleichem,” 7 p.m., Oct. 21; Bender Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, 6125 Montrose Road, Rockville; $20-$24; for information, contact Debbie Sokobin, 301-348-3760 or [email protected].

[email protected]



Funny ha-ha

“There’s a list of social and psychological reasons” why Jews are funny, says Vienna resident Bonnie Kadin, as she waits for Murray Horwitz to begin speaking. “It’s a source of strength, and a way of standing up to those who are prejudiced against us.”

Adds her husband, Charles Kadin, “Even though we don’t face the hardships like we used to, it’s ingrained.”

“Jews are funny, at least in my family,” says Lisa Miller of Vienna. “My brother Sam always has a pun or a way of twisting a statement from the ordinary in a way to make you laugh.”

Jewish humor is an expression of optimism, says Lola Gruber of Reston. “They’re always talking about the worst things that could happen. Then it gets better.”

And Jewish humor is self-deprecating, according to Roberta Sherman of Herndon, who says she’s “married to a very funny person.”

“They make fun of themselves, their families,” Sherman says. “Jews used it as therapy, before they invented therapy.”

—David Holzel

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