In the course of 40 minutes, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin sought to tell 50 jokes.
Rightfully so, as he titled his lecture “The Fifty Best Jewish Jokes and What They Say about the Human Condition,” part of Week Six’s Interfaith Lecture Series, “The Spirituality of Humor,” Thursday in the Hall of Philosophy.
“Ethnic humor paints with very broad strokes,” said Telushkin, one of the 50 best speakers in the United States according to Talk magazine. “In ethnic humor, there are no individuals; there are only stereotypes, and those stereotypes can be dangerous.”
Sometimes, though, he said they can work. Telushkin doesn’t think a joke about a Jewish man walking into a bar, for example, would be funny — that stereotype is reserved for Irish people. Instead, Jews are known for being cheap and tricky.
“People who oppose all ethnic humor are conveying the impression that all ethnic and religious groups are exactly the same,” Telushkin said. “But in order to believe that they’re exactly the same, you have to believe that culture, religion and history have no impact on people.”
The biblical commandment to “honor thy father and mother,” Telushkin said, shows a strong religious emphasis on the parent-child relationship.
“Humor obviously isn’t interested in the good news. Humor’s interested in what happens when the relationship becomes too intense,” he said. “Three elderly Jewish women are sitting on a bench in Miami Beach, each bragging about how devoted her son is to her. The first one says, ‘My son is so devoted that for my birthday last year, he catered an affair for me down here in Miami, even gave me the money to fly my friends down from New York.’ The second one says, ‘My son is more devoted. For my birthday, he sent me on an expensive cruise all around the world. Everything was first class.’ The third woman says, ‘My son is more devoted than both of your sons – three times a week he goes to a therapist — $300 an hour he pays them — and what does he speak about the whole time? Me.’ ”
Family dynamics such as these can give words “specific connotations,” such as the term “successful” in English, which often signifies financial prosperity. In comparison, Telushkin referenced the Yiddish concept of naches, which signifies the gratification a parent gets from their child’s accomplishments.
“Two Jewish women haven’t seen each other in 20 years,” Telushkin said. “They run into each other in the street. One says, ‘By the way, how’s your daughter, Deborah, who got married to that lawyer?’ She said, ‘Well, they got divorced.’ ‘Oh, I’m sorry.’ ‘Well, she married a doctor.’ ‘Mazel tov.’ ‘Oh, they also got divorced.’ The first one’s now afraid to say anything; the other one says, ‘But she’s married now to a very successful architect.’ And the other one says, ‘so much naches from one daughter!’ ”
This stereotype of an occupational list approved by Jewish parents led into a quick one-liner from Telushkin.
“Mr. and Mrs. Marvin Rosenbloom are pleased to announce the birth of their son, Dr. Jonathan Rosenbloom,” he joked.
Other Jewish punchlines shine the spotlight on two denominations — Orthodox and Reform Judaism. By no means are the stereotypes perpetuated in them true, Telushkin said, but regardless, conservative Judaism gets the short end of the stick sometimes.
Thankfully, Telushkin was able to pull one Conservative line out of his repertoire.
Ethnic humor paints with very broad strokes,” Rabbi Joseph Telushkin said. “In ethnic humor, there are no individuals; there are only stereotypes, and those stereotypes can be dangerous.”
After fights in a conservative synagogue about the correct posture in which to recite the first verse of the Shema Yisrael, the new rabbi consults a 99-year-old man who was a founding member of the congregation 60 years prior. No one could agree whether sitting or standing was appropriate, so the rabbi deferred to the 99-year-old.
“ ‘I don’t care what the tradition was,’ the rabbi says. ‘Just tell them one or the other.’ ‘You know what goes on in shul every week?’ ” Telushkin continued. “ ‘The people who are standing yell at the people who are sitting, and the people who are sitting yell at the people who are standing.’ The old man goes, ‘That was the tradition.’ ”
A more formal tradition in Jewish life is that of tzedakah — the Hebrew word for “charity.” This term not only defines a “loving gift,” but also means a form of justice.
Telushkin joked about a man named Goldstein who lives in Beverly Hills; Goldstein has never given a penny to the Jewish Federation. The federation eventually confronts him, claiming they know about his luxurious lifestyle: the Rolls Royce, the mansion, the estate in Palm Springs.
“Really,” the man answered, “and in checking into my background, did you find out about my mother who’s been sick now for three months, requiring nurses 24 hours a day, and it’s not covered by insurance — do you have any idea how much that costs? Did you find out about my uncle who’s been in a private mental sanitarium for 20 years, no insurance, do you have any idea how much that costs? Did you find out about my two sisters, each of whom are married to men who can’t hold down jobs, each of whom has two kids in private colleges, you know much that costs? And if I don’t give a penny to any of them, do you think I’m going to help you?”
Telushkin said it’s clear these punchlines were established by those “who felt weak and couldn’t confront” their weakness, Jewish people who wanted to break stereotypes. Even Sigmund Freud poked fun at himself.
One joke Telushkin told, which was set in the 1930s, emphasized more stereotypes created by anti-Semites. A Jewish man is traveling on a New York City subway, reading the Yiddish newspaper. Looking up, he sees his friend reading a local pro-Nazi newspaper. The man approaches his friend and asks how his friend can possibly read this piece of media.
“What do you read there in the Jewish newspaper?” the friend responds. “In America, there’s a depression going on and Jews are assimilating. In Palestine, there are riots going on and Jews are being killed. In Germany, they’ve taken away all of our rights. You sit there and you read the Jewish paper and you get depressed. I read the Nazi newspaper. We own all the banks, we control all the governments.”
In this same decade, Jews were often restricted from private institutions, so they would convert to another religion as a formality.
“A Jew wants to get into a country club,” Telushkin joked. “He can’t get in because he’s Jewish; he converts and applies for membership. They ask him, ‘What’s your name?’ He gives one of those pompous names like Hutchinson River Parkway III. ‘What do you do for a living?’ ‘I own a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. I also have an estate; I raise horses.’ Shoo-in for membership, one last question — ‘Sir, what is your religion?’ ‘My religion? Why, I am a goy.’ Because Jews, as a rule, weren’t converting to become Christians; they were converting to become a part of the majority.”
The Talmud, the primary rabbinical text, however, is one element of the Jewish lifestyle most Jews embrace. Telushkin described the Talmud through a short anecdote: A young Catholic boy and a young Jewish boy are best friends. One day, the Catholic father drags his son away from the Jewish home, declaring the two cannot play together any longer. When the Jewish father asks why, the Catholic father answers that the Jewish boy has started asking countless questions about their Christmas tree — why it’s a pine tree, how tall it has to be and how close it has to be to the window.
“That’s exactly what the Talmud always does,” Telushkin said. “It takes any law in the Bible and it asks how we carry it out.”
Jewish people tend to use another method of humor: absurdism. Telushkin told the following joke, about a priest in the middle of a sermon, to illustrate this.
“(The priest) said, ‘Every man in this parish must die one day,’ and he sees a man laughing, so he assumed the guy didn’t hear him,” Telushkin said. “So he looks right at the man, and he says, ‘I said, every man in this parish must die one day.’ The man is laughing. The priest says, ‘What are you laughing at?’ The man says, ‘I don’t come from this parish.’ ”
Nearing the end of his lecture, he threw in a few last quips — some of which he called “Jewish haikus.”
“Seven-foot Jews in the NBA slam-dunking / my alarm clock rings,” Telushkin joked.
The best Jewish jokes, he concluded, reflect on the human condition, able to be laughed at outside of the Jewish community.
“Jewish history, filled as it is with pogroms, expulsions (and) bad things, inclines Jews to be pessimists,” he said. “Judaism, in its insistence that the world is moving toward Messianic redemption, inclines Jews to be optimists. Hence, because of Jewish history, we’re pessimists, because of Judaism, optimists — we end up as optimists with worried looks on our faces.”