RALEIGH On a lark, I drove to Temple Beth Or on Creedmoor Road this week and took a seat in classroom K, where a pair of Groucho Marx glasses sat waiting on a folder full of lecture materials.
This visual aid, with its oversized nose, stood as the central prop in a four-week series titled “Jews and Humor: a 5000-year-old Love Story,” which promised to make even the Old Testament seem funny.
Not five minutes in, the Bible jokes flew straight out of Exodus:
So Moses comes down from Mount Sinai, shrugs and tells the Israelites, “I’ve got good news and bad news.
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The good news? I got him down to 10.
The bad news? Adultery is still out.
This class given by the Raleigh-Cary Jewish Community Center, now in its second week, is regrettably full. So I’ll have to give the highlights as a non-Jewish guest and tell you to watch for new ones down the road.
But I give thanks for the opportunity to probe the roots of the comedians I’ve loved since I heard Mel Blanc announce rabbit season. Janis Zaremba, a Jewish educator for more than 35 years, switched on a clip from a Mel Brooks movie and summed up the reasoning behind this particular class: “This is what we need right now.”
Jewish humor, like much of the world’s best comedy, is born of strife. In our class, we followed it through exile and centuries of prejudice. Consider Tevye and the Jews from “Fiddler on the Roof,” handed an eviction notice by the Tsar.
Q: Is there a proper blessing for the tsar?
A: A blessing for the Tsar? Of course. May god bless and keep the tsar ... far away from us!
It turns out that humor – especially the self-deprecating variety – is the greatest defense mechanism. We students flipped through our class materials to this passage from Sigmund Freud:
“I do not know whether there are any other instances of a people making fun to such a degree of its own character.”
As we traded jokes, we talked about the line between harmless jibes and hurtful slurs, about proper reverence for ancient texts and treating grave matters with levity, and we basically decided that much depends on who is telling what joke to whom, and when. The same caution would apply if the class were to explore Scandinavian humor, though as the great-grandson of Norwegian immigrants, I will never take umbrage at a Viking joke. But context is everything with ethnic humor. My ancestors might have had a rough go in the Pennsylvania coal mines, but nothing on the order of a pogrom.
In the class, Zaremba made a tri-fold board of Jewish humorists dating to Sarah, who laughed in Genesis at the idea of having a child while stricken with age. Zaremba had each of us pick a favorite face from her board, most of them far more modern than Sarah: Woody Allen, Madeline Kahn, Jon Stewart, Jack Benny ...
I chose Walter Matthau.
As a kid, my favorite movie hands-down was “The Bad News Bears,” which featured Matthau as the Coors-guzzling coach who offers this immortal pep talk to a down-hearted little-leaguer: “Listen, Lupus, you didn’t come into this life just to sit around on a dugout bench, did you? Now get your ass out there and do the best you can.”
I didn’t know he was Jewish then, and it certainly wouldn’t have mattered. But I think maybe I appreciate it a little more as an adult, knowing his kinship with so many other funny people.
This sort of material is a minefield, and if I’ve offended, please know that it is unintentional. In the words of another splendid Jewish comic, Henny Youngman:
Take a joke. Please.