Class Seeks Essence of Jewish Jokes


In the beginning was the joke.

Tracing the origins of Jewish humor at UCLA on a recent Monday night, psychologist Benjamin Hulkower cited the first reference to laughter in the Bible. An already venerable Abraham tells his aged wife Sarah that they are to have a child. The result is Isaac, whose Hebrew name, Yitzak, is derived from the word for “to laugh.”

The Jews, a people whose very prophets had a sense of humor, have had a less than rollicking history, speakers noted at the first of four classes on Jewish humor offered by UCLA Extension.

“Let’s define Jewish humor as comedy wrought from tragedy,” said organizer and moderator Elinor Lenz. “We are going to look at a people whose historical experience has given them very little to laugh about.”


Why, then, has Jewish humor endured as a major cultural force? Lenz speculated that Jews share the wisdom of the French philosopher Beaumarchais, who wrote: “I force myself to laugh at everything for fear of being compelled to weep.”

“Above all, Jewish humor is the knowing, ironic laughter of the outsider,” said Lenz. Then she told the one about the woman who was sitting by a pool in Miami. “Why are you so pale?” the woman asked the man next to her.

“I’ve been in jail,” he said.

“For what?” she asked.

“Killing my wife,” he admitted.

“That means you’re single?”

Nursing a cold, comedian Steve Allen greeted the audience, “Good evening, ladies and Gentiles.”

Allen noted that American humor has come to be virtually synonymous with Jewish humor. All his favorite comics are Jewish, most notably Sid Caesar, said Allen, who is Irish.

“Irish humor is characterized by a certain poetry,” Allen said, “but Jewish humor is characterized by a philosophy.”