November 9th, 2017

Spengler on Jewish humor

Spengler uses the abominable and extremely unfunny joke of Larry David on Saturday Night Live recently as a springboard for a discussion of the special qualities of Jewish humor—the kind of Jewish humor that is funny, and is characteristically Jewish: “All characteristically Jewish humor has a profoundly religious foundation: It stems from the absurdity of the encounter of finite humanity with infinite divinity.”

I especially enjoyed this one, which I’d never heard before I read his piece:

During the Days of Awe before the Day of Repentance, Yom Kippur, the rabbi is meditating in the synagogue. He prays, “Lord, what is man, that thou takest knowledge of him! Or the son of man, that thou makest account of him! Man is like to vanity: his days are as a shadow that passeth away. Lord, I am as nothing in thy sight.” The cantor is moved, and he also prays, “Lord, what is man, that thou takest knowledge of him! Man is like to vanity: his days are as a shadow that passeth away. Lord, I am as nothing in thy sight.” And the janitor hears, and he is moved, and he starts to pray: “Lord, what is man, that thou makest account of him! Man is like to vanity: his days are as a shadow that passeth away. Lord, I am as nothing in thy sight.” The cantor nudges the rabbi and says, “Look who thinks he’s nothing in the sight of God!”

I told an old Jewish joke at the end of this post:

In the olden days, pharmacies often had soda counters, too. An elderly woman walked into that kind of pharmacy and goes up to the pharmacist, and asks (best done with a Yiddish accent), “Do you do test the pee here?” The pharmacist answers (best done with a generic American accent), “Yes, we do urine analysis.” Then she asks, “And do you test the spit, too?” He answers, nodding, “Yes, we do sputum analysis.” Then she asks, “And how about the kaka? Do you test that, too?” He nods and solemnly says, “Yes, we do fecal analysis.”

She says, “Okay, then—vash your hands and make me a chocolate malt.”

I’m not one of those people with a huge storehouse of set jokes in my head. I know maybe five, and I can tell maybe one of them effectively. But I’ve heard plenty, Jewish and otherwise, and I disagree that “all characteristically Jewish humor has a profoundly religious foundation.” I see the joke I just related as characteristically Jewish, and it seems to me it has little to no religious foundation, as do many of the jokes I can think of. Some of them have to do with foolish people. Some have to do with self-deprecation. This one has to do with the joys of complaining:

A tall man,6’3”, somewhat overweight, is attempting to get comfortable in the small space of an upper-birth Pullman Sleeper on a train between Chicago and New York. He turns on his right side, then on his left, then on his stomach, then on his back. He plumps his pillow. Finally, the clackety-clack of the tracks begins to put him to sleep when from the other end of the sleeper car he hears a female voice: “Oy, am I thirsty! Oy, am I thirsty!” Over and over, at regular but all-too-short intervals, the voice calls out, “Oy, am I thirsty! Oy, am I thirsty!”

The man, realizing that sleep will be impossible if this woman’s thirst isn’t slaked, climbs out of his sleeper, puts on his bathrobe, and walks to the end of the car, where there is a water cooler and paper cups, one of which he fills. Following the sound of the voice—“Oy, am I thirsty! Oy, am I thirsty!”—he walks to the other end of the car and knocks gently. An older woman pulls back the drape that encloses her sleeper.

“Excuse me, Madame,” the man says, “I couldn’t help overhear that you were thirsty, and I thought perhaps this cup of water might help.”

“You, sir,” the woman says, “are a real gentleman. Thank you so much.” She takes the cup, and closes the drape.

The man climbs back into his own sleeper. Once again he struggles to find a comfortable position, turning and twisting every which way. Once again he plumps his pillow. Once again the rhythmic clacking of the tracks works its hypnotic spell and he is about to fall asleep when he hears the same voice call out: “Oy, was I thirsty! Oy, was I thirsty!”

I know a much longer and more elaborate version of that joke, one I think is superior. But it can only be told really successfully orally, because it relies in part on accents for its humor. In this version, instead of one man trying to sleep in another berth on the train and hearing the complaining woman, it involves a group of men playing poker in an adjacent club car. They hear the woman moaning about being thirsty (Brooklyn accent: “Oy, am I thoisty!). The joke-teller is supposed to draw it out much longer; they hear her over and over in an ever-escalating wail, from a soft moan to finally a really annoying yell (the joke teller must demonstrate this), over a period of a half-hour or so. Finally, one of the guys takes the cigar out of his mouth and yells back, “Lady, I’ll get you a drink if you just SHUT UP!” and he gets her the drink of water. She thanks him. A half-hour passes peacefully. And then they hear the low moan, “Oy, VAS I thoisty!”

This became a running joke between me and my husband and our son. Whenever something (mildly) unpleasant happened, and we were thinking back on it and about to say something about it, it was fun to preface it with “Oy, vas I thoisty!”

The Commentary challenge was to connect the joke with some Talmudic wisdom. I don’t know what it would be, but perhaps something to do with remembering Biblical travails so that we don’t forget our deliverance by God?

Sure enough, when I looked up the winning response, that was the gist of it. Along with another very funny joke:

Three rabbis, meeting over lunch, are discussing problems in their respective synagogues: gossip, fundraising, the fees for guest speakers.

“Excuse me, gentlemen,” one of the rabbis interjects, “I hope you won’t think this too trivial, but our synagogue has of late had an infestation of mice, which has been very disturbing, especially for our female congregants.”

The eyes of the other two rabbis light up, and each admits that his own synagogue has had the same problem. One asks the first rabbi what he has done about it.

“I arranged through our shammes to set more than 75 mouse traps throughout the synagogue. But it didn’t work out. The traps would sometimes go off during services, which was most distracting. The net result was that we caught four mice and still have the problem.”

“I called in Orkin, the exterminators,” says the second rabbi. “They caught a dozen or so mice and charged us $1,100. But we, too, still have mice in the synagogue. Most unpleasant.”

“Gentlemen,” announces the third rabbi, “I don’t mean to brag, but I was able completely to solve the mice problem in our synagogue, and at minimal cost.”

The first two rabbis eagerly ask how.

“Very simple,” the third rabbi says. “What I did was buy a 25-pound wheel of Chilton cheese, which I set on the bima. Lo, in no time at all, 243 mice appeared. I bar–mitzvahed them all, and, gentlemen, they never returned.”

If you don’t get that one, I’ll explain (although explaining a joke does not generally enhance it; you either get it or you don’t). For many American Jews, they take religious instruction until their Bar or Bat Mitzvahs and never again return to the synagogue.

24 Responses to “Spengler on Jewish humor”

  1. Daniel in Brookline Says:

    That last one was new to me. I like it! Many thanks, Neo.

  2. jvermeer Says:

    I recently read a book by an Israeli about Israeli society. The author included a number of jokes:
    How can you tell whether you’re at an Orthodox, Conservative or Reform wedding? (I adapted this for my Mormon wife to Mormon, Catholic and Episcopalian). Answer: if the mother of the bride is pregnant, it’s Orthodox, if the bride is pregnant it’s Conservative and if the rabbi is pregnant, it’s Reform.
    A Jewish man was stranded on a desert island. After ten years he’s rescued. One sailor notices three small huts in addition to the stranded man’s hut. “What are those?” he asks. “The first one is the synagogue where I pray each week. The other two are the synagogues I’m boycotting.”

  3. Frog Says:

    As a college freshman I spent Thanksgiving at my Jewish roommate’s home nearby, since I had no funds to go home.
    His grandmother walked around muttering in Yiddish about the goy in the house. When I told my host Yiddish and German (I understood the latter) had much in common, he told his grandmother, and she was publicly mute the rest of my 4 day stay there.

  4. Tuvea Says:

    Thank you all so very much!

    I may not be Jewish but the humor expressed in those jokes is … devine.

  5. Ann Says:

    I’ll probably never understand what it is that makes Jewish humor the best. Part of it is an irony that results from a basically tragic view of life, but there’s also simply spot-on, one-liner cleverness, like in this one in the Goldman piece:

    There are plenty of jokes about Jews that could be told as easily about Greeks, Armenians, overseas Chinese, or other minorities who found an economic niche in trading. For example: The teacher asks 5-year-old Kostas/Tigran/Moishe, “How much is two plus two?” The kid responds, “Is that buying or selling?”

  6. Amadeus 48 Says:

    I have always loved the “thoisty” joke, too, but I took a specific moral from it: when you set out to fix a problem, be sure you fix the problem. The lady was thirsty, but that wasn’t really the problem.
    Though a member of the goyim, I have never heard a Jewish joke (as told by a Jew, anyway) that didn’t have a great life lesson at its heart.

  7. Richard Saunders Says:

    There are so many, it’s impossible even to begin to tell them all. But some of my favorites are the ones told by Jews in the old Soviet Union. For example:

    Ivan and Alexi are walking home from work and they see a long line in front of a butcher shop. Naturally, they join the line. After a half an hour, a policeman comes out the door and announces: There’s not enough meat for everyone. All Jews must leave!” So all the Jews leave the line. Ivan and Alexi are not Jews, so they stay in the line. An hour goes by and the policeman comes out again and announces:” There’s not enough meat. All those not in the Communist Party must leave!” More people leave the line. Ivan and Alexi are both Party members, so they stay in the line. Another hour goes by and the policeman comes out again. “There’s not enough meat. All those who don’t work in government or Party offices must leave!” But Ivan and Alexi both work for the government, so they stay. Another half hour goes by, and the policeman comes out again. “All the meat has been sold. Everybody must leave!”

    As Ivan and Alexi trudge wearily away, Ivan says to Alexi, “Didn’t I tell you? The Jews always get the best treatment!”

  8. miklos000rosza Says:

    Q: How many potatoes does it take to kill an Irishman?

    A: None.

  9. Mac Says:

    I got that last one instantly. It could be a Catholic joke, with confirmation substituted for bar-mitzvah. I’d be surprised if it hasn’t been used that way, actually.

  10. OlderandWheezier Says:

    Ever read The Joys of Yiddish by Leo Rosten?

  11. FunkyPhD Says:

    Seeking to raise its status in the international community, Israel commits massive resources to fielding a men’s rowing team good enough to win a gold medal in the next Olympics, four years hence. After choosing the fittest 9 men in the country and training incessantly, they go to the World Championship, but finish last. More intensive training follows, but at the next World Championship the Israeli team comes in second to last. After another dismal showing at the next World Championship, it’s decided that they need some outside help, so Moishe is sent to train for three months with the Harvard Crew. Upon his return, Moishe excitedly tells the Israeli team, “Fellas, I figured out what we’ve been doing wrong. Everybody rows, and only one guy yells!”

  12. Stephen Ippolito Says:

    Frog makes a poignant point.

    His anecdote reminds me of a scene I’ve always liked in Annie Hall – except that it plays out in reverse, with the jewish sweetheart attending Easter dinner at the home of Annie’s WASP family.

    Still, it works that way as humour under Woody Allen’s deft hand:

    I’ve always found self-deprecating humour to be extremely attractive. It’s very effective in films and very alluring as a personal trait when I meet it in people.

  13. Paul R Says:


    Ditto what Mac says about the last one…the same is true of Catholics. They go thru their confirmation, usually age 12 or 13, and are never seen again

    It’s a big problem in Judaism and Christianity. Not knocking the joke…it is funny…I guess because it’s so true

    from a religious standpoint, our kids are only developing on a superficial level…naturally, it’s unappealing, and as soon as they can bolt they do…gotta find a better way…

  14. AesopFan Says:

    Many years ago I had a book called “How to Be a Jewish Mother.” It was full of … sage…advice. Sadly, the only story that has stuck with me is this one:
    The Jewish mother buys her son two shirts for his birthday. He thanks her profusely, then immediately goes to his room and puts one of them on. When he comes out, she says (in the voice that only Jewish mothers have perfected), “What’s the matter, you didn’t like the other one?”

  15. parker Says:

    I know exactly one Jew who I think is far from being orthodox, but he is a funny fellow. I understood the jokes. No translation required. Ironic, wry, and hammy humor is universal.

  16. neo-neocon Says:

    Richard Saunders:

    That’s a great one.

  17. Caedmon Says:

    Ha! We have the mice one in the Church of England, except with bats and baptism. For us there’s the further twist that bats are a protected species here.

  18. mezzrow Says:

    Two retired widowers in Boca, Dovid and Moshe, became great friends and took their daily walk together every morning. One day, while passing a Catholic church, for the first time in memory, the sign out front said, “Convert today for $50,000.00.”

    They continued walking when Moshe says, “I think I’ll go back and check out that offer.” Dovid says, “You don’t want to do that. Besides, it’s probably a lie anyway.” Moshe says, “What’s the harm? You know me better than that. I’ll be back in a couple minutes. Just walk around the block until I come out.”

    Two hours later Dovid runs into Moshe as he walks out of the church. Smiling, Dovid expeditiously asks, “So Moshe, did they give you the money?”

    Moshe replies, “You people. Is that all you think about?”

  19. Ralph Kinney Bennett Says:

    Man crossing the street in the heart of the Garment District gets hit by a truck. He’s lying there flat on his back in the middle of the street. A passerby rushes over, folds his coat and places it under the man’s head. “Are you comfortable?” He asks. The stricken man weakly manages a deprecatory gesture with upraised palm “I make a living.”

  20. Ymar Sakar Says:

    High IQ jokes inherited from the previous generation’s blessings.

    It’s like the last one I heard about how the Tribe of Judah automatically knows more about Judaism because they’ve spent their life as a Jew.

    It’s almost correct, but then there’s the fall that requires some perception to see.

  21. om Says:

    ba bump. If you have to explain it, it isn’t a joke.

  22. Ymar Sakar Says:

    I remember a martial artist that couldn’t explain a technique in a way that a student could comprehend and emulate. So instead, he just said “do what I do”, since many athletic prodigies can copy techniques just by watching and emulating.

    When the student fails because he isn’t an athletic prodigy, the teacher may have thought that one shouldn’t have to explain a technique if they can do it.

    That is sometimes covering up an important point amongst humans. Those that are interested in increasing their own skills, are not interested in teaching anybody else. They do not desire to transfer abilities, so to them it doesn’t matter whether they can explain it or not. The human that has to rely on others, can no longer rely on their own personal prowess to succeed, because their success is now tied to their family and students: the community.

    In the frontier, the high level marksmen was valued as hunter and protector, but what was even more valued was the marksman that could teach other kids how to become a better marksman.

    Skills that are not passed down in one generation, dies in that generation.

    People often quote an authority: brevity, the soul of wit.

    I constructed an original counter: Apathy, the soul of brevity

  23. DNW Says:

    Mezzrow and Bennett: great jokes.

    Had a Jewish boss (Purdue grad) for a time when I was more or less just starting out, and he was only a few years older than me. He had a small fund of hilarious “Jewish American Princess” jokes he would tell. I didn’t even know there was such a thing originally – despite having studied at least some Jewish cultural and intellectual history in college in a class taught by a locally prominent rabbi – but once he explained it, the jokes made sense.

    But uh … as the reference article noted, they cannot be told in mixed company.

    As I recall, as a small child, there were more Jewish cultural references on old TV shows/reruns than there are now. I can almost picture black and white comedy shows with people saying supposedly humorous things in exaggerated dialect. Eh, maybe I dreamed it …

  24. Ben David Says:

    This thread – which includes some of my favorites – provides more stress release than a dance post but is a bit more, uh, earthy.

    There are gentile Jewish jokes. I always thought Somerset Maugham’s story “The Verger” had the rhythm and existential twist of a Jewish joke.

    And the famous New Yorker magazine cartoons capture a bit of it as well. That’s the only part of the magazine’s website worth reading.

    Jewish jokes often retain the lost ability to say something in a way that the adults understand, but not the children. Somehow even dirty jokes are less coarse in the Jewish idiom.

    Totally lost on today’s “full frontal” generation.

    (Yes that is an intro for a dirty joke… sorry, all the good clean ones are already posted…)

    Back to the Day of Atonement – the day of judgement when every mitzvah (good deed) is weighed against one’s transgressions.

    On the way to synagogue, Moishe looks back at the year, and can’t think of anything he should repent. Nothing!

    He approaches a stern, well turned out matron and asks “Are you married?”

    “Yes I am”

    “Well then, let’s go… I need something to repent for.”

    Later Moishe is straightening his necktie. The lady rolls over and says “oh mister you don’t know what a mitzvah you just did…”

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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