'Some of the most profound Jewish comedy has a bite to it'

From Sholem Aleichem to ‘Broad City,’ scholar presents tradition of Jewish humor

Speaking at London’s Jewish Book Week on Sunday, Prof. Jeremy Dauber takes a serious look at a culture’s rich history of comedy

Prof. Jeremy Dauber, author of 'Jewish Comedy: A Serious History.' (Courtesy)
Prof. Jeremy Dauber, author of 'Jewish Comedy: A Serious History.' (Courtesy)

LONDON — Jewish comedy is serious business, says Jeremy Dauber in his scholarly book, “Jewish Comedy: A Serious History.” It is, he writes, a topic as vast as Jewish history itself.

Dauber is the Atran Professor of Yiddish Language, Literature and Culture at Columbia University and author of several books on Jewish literature — including a biography of Sholem Aleichem that was shortlisted for the National Jewish Book Award in 2013. He has been teaching the subject of Jewish humor for approximately 15 years.

Speaking on the phone from New York ahead of his March 11 appearance at Jewish Book Week in London, he explains that Jewish comedy has always been part of his life.

“I grew up in a Modern Orthodox Jewish household in New Jersey and I was surrounded by Jewish humor. I heard Jewish jokes at home, I read a lot of Sholem Aleichem, and Woody Allen and Mel Brooks were in the movie theaters at the time. It was really a natural subject of interest for me,” says Dauber.

When he became an academic, he realized that this interest was also a powerful way of thinking about the development of Jewish literature and Jewish history and culture more generally.

‘Jewish Comedy: A Serious History,’ by Jeremy Dauber. (Courtesy)

“The fact that students seemed to like the subject and audiences seemed to [enjoy] hearing about it was a bonus,” Dauber says.

Humor has been a part of Jewish identity from the days of the Bible, says Dauber, but he emphasizes that there is no one type of Jewish comedy.

“One of the things that I try and stress in the book is that Jewish comedy — the most expansive definition of it — is all sorts of things. Some of it can be gentle and loving and lyrical and warm,” says Dauber.

“But I think that some of the most profound Jewish comedy — which speaks to Jewish historical sensibilities, and conditions, and a sense of who we may think we are in the world — often does have a bite to it. And it has done from almost the very beginning, from the days of the Bible,” he says.

In his book, Dauber looks at the origins of Jewish comedy, its growth and role throughout Jewish history. He examines its different functions, such as acting in response to anti-Semitism or assimilation. The comedy, he says, can also be satirical, theological or simply vulgar.

One of the arguments that he raises is that much of Jewish comedy can be traced back to the book of Esther.

“It has some of the blackest jokes in Jewish history, which is that the salvation of the Jews does not depend on an interventionist God but a series of coincidences, suggested by the name of the holiday, Purim, which means lottery or chance. So, if you choose to look at it that way, it is a pretty biting joke,” says Dauber.

Famous Jewish insult comedian Don Rickles. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

According to Dauber, humor “absolutely” depends on the environment in which it is being performed. Writing humor for a movie for audiences to watch on a big screen, he says, is different from performing a play, such as a Purim spiel, which is devised for a small community setting.

“One of the wonderful things about humor and one of the reasons I’m attracted to it from a literary, scholarly perspective is that it’s so much about the relationship between the creative artist and their audience; an audience that is [affected] by certain cultural and environmental factors,” he says.

Dauber explores the enormous range of comedy from Talmudic rabbi jokes, Yiddish satire and Seinfeld to the works of comic masters Sholem Aleichem, Franz Kafka and Joan Rivers. But within Jewish comedic history, is there a golden age?

“I think there are probably a number of golden ages,” Dauber says, “but if one came for high, elusive wit, it’s hard to match medieval Spain and its poetry. For a straight, stand up joke-filled performance, it would be the Borscht Belt in the middle of 20th century America. And for a certain kind of literary, witty sensibility, it might be Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with its flourishing Yiddish literature.”

Dauber also highlights the significant dominance of men in the history of Jewish humor. He agrees that it has been difficult for women to break into the tradition.

“The structures of Jewish society — like the structures of every society — have been deeply biased against women participating in a lot of these creative endeavors,” Dauber explains.

The idea of women telling scholarly jokes in rabbinical academies was not a possibility, he says.

“It wasn’t impossible for women to headline clubs and have their own TV shows — you had people who did it — but the odds were so stacked against you,” says Dauber.

He recalls Elayne Boosler, one of the breakthrough female comics in the standup era in the US, who asked, “What’s the difference between a male comic and a female comic? About $10,000 a week.”

Does this attitude still resonate? “It does,” he says slowly, “But women such as Sarah Silverman, Amy Schumer, the cast of ‘Broad City’ and Rachel Bloom are getting [exposure].

Sarah Silverman: a leading Jewish female comedian. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP)

“The more successful they are, the more power they have to create their own networks. It should be that the general networks are open to them but, sadly, they are not nearly as much as they should be,” Dauber explains.

It was important to Dauber that these women be included in his book. By virtue of history, theirs may be a recent voice, he says, but no less significant.

Crucially, there’s the question of whether Jewish humor has to be produced by Jews. For Dauber, the answer is yes — with a caveat. Comedy is often a collaborative process and Jewish comedy is often created by Jews and non-Jews working together, he explains.

“Curb Your Enthusiasm” is not just Larry David telling the jokes, he points out.

Screen capture from video of comedian Larry David making jokes about picking up women in concentration camps during the Holocaust, November 4, 2017. (YouTube/netStuff)

“It’s a whole team of people — including the non-Jewish Cheryl Hines — people behind and in front of the camera. Writers’ rooms [mean] many different people have a hand in this kind of comedy,” Dauber says.

As far as whether it’s acceptable for a non-Jew to tell a Jewish joke, Dauber believes that this is a matter of ethic and intent.

“If someone is crafting a piece of Holocaust humor that is savagely satirizing fascism or the banality of a certain kind of Holocaust trivialization, we might not be so upset if we found out that the person whose name was authored on the joke was not a Jewish one,” says Dauber.

There should be caution, however, when such a joke comes in a social context, he says. “I think those are important distinctions.”

Regarding Israeli comedy, Dauber writes that Israeli political and cultural satire is imbued with Jewish identity and determination. But when it comes to the intersection of Israeli nationality and Jewish humor, Dauber says the lines are blurred.

“Is there a way of creating Israeli satire that isn’t Jewish satire?” he says.  “I’ll leave that question for the readers!”

Jeremy Dauber will speak at Jewish Book Week in London on Sunday March 11, 2018.

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