Two Jews stood on the wharf in Odessa in the 1930’s. One held a ticket to New York in his hand. The second would board the ship for Palestine. Long and hard years in the shtetl of Eastern Europe left many scars, but also a great treasure in their suitcases: a formula for humor that would conquer the world.
Humor was not one of the salient characteristics of the Jewish people until the modern era (unless we consider the binding of Isaac to be the first practical joke in history). Nonetheless, life in the Diaspora (particularly in Eastern Europe) intensified the need for an uplifting experience, one that could provide the essential supplement to praying to God (who had severed the connection long ago) and serve as a type of Iron Dome to sustain morale between one pogrom and the next. Laughing in the face of death is a fundamental part of the DNA of Jewish humor. Please welcome Hershele and the Angel of Death: the greatest comic duo of all times.
In The Book of Jokes and Wit (1922), perhaps the first attempt to define the genre, the writerentertainer Alter Druyanov writes that “Jewish humor springs from existential distress … exilic, making fun of everyone, poor and rich … and even mocks God and criticizes belief and religion.”
Hershele of Ostropol was a jester at a Hasidic court in Wolyn, Ukraine in the late 18th century. A fictional character was built upon this historical figure, and dozens of jokes are attributed to him. He is an impoverished underdog who can hold his own when confronting the wealthy and powerful, a man who threatens to do what his father would do if he was not served dinner (go to sleep hungry). The character of Hershele echoes in countless comic characters in theater, cinema and television today, through the generosity of tens of Jewish geniuses who absorbed these stories in the original tongue.
The fantastic journey of Jewish humor from the shtetl to the Lower East Side in Manhattan, and then to Hollywood and from there to conquer the world – is in many ways the story of the 20th century. In an era in which the massive waves of immigration and the world wars placed the family of nations in a giant shaker and blended a crazy cultural cocktail – in a city that is the gateway to the new continent – the social classes were reshuffled and nearly everyone felt, somehow, like a minority. The emerging American society, in which a huge majority of immigrants looked up in envy at a thin layer of aristocracy, was in need of an anti-hero as a model to identify with. The Jew was the perfect candidate: physically inferior but intellectually outstanding (or at least with a pretty good ability to fake it); a downtrodden pauper, but someone with initiative and wits; frighteningly ugly but horny as all hell
Jewish children who were endowed with a sense of humor had a chance to survive life in the poor and violent neighborhoods, as well as a ticket out to vaudeville, burlesque theaters or hotels in which they performed in Yiddish. Starting in the 1940’s, the center of this activity was the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York, also known as the “Borsht Belt.” It was a favorite summer resort area for Jews (remember the film Dirty Dancing?) because other resorts were known as anti-Semitic. As Groucho Marx told it: “One time I came to the pool, and they told me that Jews are not allowed to enter. I told them: ‘I’m half Jewish, can I go in up to my knees?”
During the peak years, about one million people came every summer to over 500 “allyou-can-eat” hotels (the song Ochel Kadima Ochel [Food, Bring on the Food!] was composed there, but in Yiddish). Many performers made their debuts on the stage there: Woody Allen, Milton Berle, Mel Brooks, Lenny Bruce, Sid Caesar, Phyllis Diller, Buddy Hackett, Danny Kaye, Jerry Lewis, Jackie Mason, Carl Reiner, Don Rickles, Joan Rivers and others, who forged their comic personalities there. The style was rapid-fire, as befit the audience’s minimal attention and the clamor of a dining room full of Jews. The effective tool was a barrage of “one-liners,” usually characterized by merciless self-flagellation. This was the foundation of modern standup comedy, the laboratory in which the style was refined, with maiden performances of classics such as “Take my wife, please!” (Henny Youngman) and “My psychiatrist told me I was crazy, and I said I want a second opinion. He said okay, you’re ugly too.” (Rodney Dangerfield).
While most of the Jewish comedians who burst onto the scene in the mid-20th century changed their Jewish-sounding surnames to proper American stage names (Danny Kaye – Kaminsky, Jerry Lewis – Levitch, and Lenny Bruce – Schneider), the essence remained the same. Comedy was always at its best when it came from the bottom up, and the Jews were here for all of the minorities, for those who were rejected and for those who felt so. And, as it turns out, this includes most of the human race.
The cultural revolution of the late 1960’s and the 1970’s pushed the real life heroes off center stage, giving way to anti-heroes who reflected and confirmed the existential miserableness of each one of us. Philip Roth in literature, Woody Allen and Mel Brooks in film, and Neil Simon in theater proved that everyone in the world has a little Jew in his heart. (Incidentally, Allen, Brooks and Simon collaborated in their early careers as skit writers for the Sid Caesar show in the 1950’s.)
As the decades passed, the Jews settled into the top socio-economic decile of the United States and became part of the cultural mainstream. Jewish humor became synonymous with all-American humor. In the 1980’s, the Jews represented 5% of the U.S. population and 85% of the professional comedians (according to a study by Time magazine). Or as Jay Leno apologized in his opening monologue of the Tonight Show after a string of lame jokes: “It’s Yom Kippur, they don’t work today…”
The Jews in Hollywood today still produce slick entertainment, and possess expertise (and connections) that pass from generation to generation. But it is hard to dismiss the feeling that these things come from a comfortable and satiated place. Jewish humor tries to preserve the tradition, but struggles with the natural desire to assimilate and free itself from the burdens of the past. The struggle reached its climax in the series that summed up the sitcom era, in which Jerry Seinfeld is portrayed as a pampered and completely regular American who is fighting to free himself from his parents’ clutches and from the neurotic character of “the Jew” George, cast in the image of his co-writer Larry David. Jerry may have won, but Larry is the one who survives, which might prove that in the selfobsessed version too, there is no substitute for the Jewish character and his familiar problems: an emasculating self-awareness and feelings of inferiority (Ben Stiller), a profound feeling of foreignness everywhere (Sasha BaronCohen) mixed with a sense of superiority and of being “God’s chosen” that makes it legitimate to preach morality to the entire world (Jon Stewart). Generally speaking, however, in the absence of an “existential threat,” it seems that the geniuses of Jewish comedy in America are focusing on what Louie C.K. (who is one-quarter Jewish) calls “problems of the First World,” and Seinfeld – “a show about nothing.”
Now is the time to return to the wharf in Odessa. The Jew who chose the boat to Jaffa was the adventurer, bold and imbued with nationalist feelings. A half hour after setting sail, he tossed Hershele into the waters of the Black Sea and, together with him, all of the sharp-witted Yiddish culture that was so central to humor. Feelings of inferiority and a sense of being an underdog? Gone. We came to the Land of Israel to build and be built by it. Let’s see someone dare to try and stop us. Israeli humor was, from the first moment, the humor of those who are the lords of the land. It was rooted in the tall tales around the campfires of the Palmach. It was irreverent and rowdy humor, defiant, a bit crass, very macho. Some see it as charming. Over time, it became a type of barracks (“reservists”) humor and repugnant in the eyes of the guardians of political correctness.
During the 1950’s and the 1960’s in the young State of Israel, Jewish humor was defeated without a fight by a sabra-style chumminess. Shimon Dzigan and Israel Schumacher, the superstars of European Jewry, who survived the Holocaust with the help of wonderful gallows humor, were ostracized in Tel Aviv and their performances were halted by the police because shows in Yiddish were illegal. Dahn Ben-Amotz (born Moshe Tehilimzeigger), Uri Zohar (Djadek) and Haim Hefer (Feiner), who Hebraized their “exilic” names, set the tone. Unlike their uncles in New York, who gave up the name but not the essence, here any Diaspora-like trait was a stigma.
The only one who succeeded in Hebraizing the principles of classic Jewish humor was Ephraim Kishon, who placed his heroes at the bottom rung of the developing Israeli bureaucracy. Despite his enormous popular success, he always felt the cold shoulder of the dominant clique from the Hammam Club in Jaffa, and he spent the last years of his life in Europe.
The classic Jewish hero, the underdog who captivated the entire world with his charms, enjoyed a local renaissance of sorts only in the 1960’s and the 1970’s, and from a surprising direction. Like their distant brethren in America of the 1940’s, the first generation of immigrants from Middle Eastern countries experienced the feeling of the spurned minority, knocking on the door of the “in”crowd. Although the members of the Hagashash Hahiver [The Pale Tracker] troupe were a fully accepted part of the cultural elite (such as the IDF musical ensembles, Hatarnegolim [The Roosters] band) and enjoyed collaboration with the top writers and directors (Nissim Aloni, Shaike Ophir, Yossi Banai and Kishon himself), the secret of their success was in the experience they reflected and expressed for those living in the poor neighborhoods and in the periphery. (No one called it “the periphery” then. In fact, no one called it anything.) And in every character they portrayed, there was the practical wisdom and street smarts of the underdog. It is no wonder that they were originally accused of excessive folksiness, as were the “bourekas” films that followed and became canonized many years later.
The multisyllabic Hebrew that disrupted the dizzying pace of punch lines delivered in Yiddish was upgraded to a new “Gashash” language. But if we look under the hood of some of the famous skits that turned Hagashash Hahiver into the most successful brand of Israeli humor of all times, we will find that skits such as “The Mail Box,” “The Car Mechanic’s Shop,” “Offside Story” and “Cassius Clay vs. Halfon” were first written as short stories by Kishon. “The Painters” skit was originally written in Yiddish by Yosef Heyblum and it is doubtful whether we would know it today if not for the revised version staged by Hagashash Hahiver. A skit such as “Shabbat Shalom,” which wreaks havoc with verses from the Bible, settles accounts with God. It consciously echoes Shalom Aleichem’s Tevye the Milkman (“Adam and Eve? I thought Eve and the Spies, Eve from Jericho, Eve and the Seven Dwarfs”) and makes a hero of the man who evades going to the synagogue (“I’ll go next week. If I wake up, I’ll go”), echoing Tevye’s relationship with biblical verses, which he bent and distorted according to his desires.
The classic “Jewish experience” flashes momentarily in Israel – between the arrival and acclimation of one group of new immigrants and the arrival of the next group, as Uri Zohar and Arik Einstein so aptly identified in their skit on the arrival of new immigrants in the film “Lool” [Chicken Coop]. It is no coincidence that this skit marked the peak of their comic work, which was usually characterized by sophomoric humor and nonsense.
So, Hershele managed to narrowly survive the voyage to Palestine. But the Angel of Death, his trusty partner in the comic duo, traveled first class. Only after the Yom Kippur War was Israel ready to develop a “Jewish” sense of skepticism and self-criticism. Unlike Yiddish satire, which pointed an accusatory finger toward God, the arrows of Hanoch Levin, the cast of the Nikui Rosh [Head Clearing] satirical troupe and their successors were directed toward the politicians in Jerusalem (though some of these politicians clearly see themselves as earthly emissaries of God on high).
But relying on the Angel of Death as a sole partner turned out to be somewhat problematic as the years went by. A sober examination of the state of Jewish humor in the 66-year-old country provides a pretty good reflection of everything that went wrong here. The Israelis of the third millennium are the lords of the land, but are not ready to part with their sense of victimhood. We maintain the largest military force of our people’s history, yet insist on continually fostering the shadow of “the existential threat.” The prime minister lectures at the UN on Auschwitz and the minister of education instills the Holocaust complex, starting as early as kindergarten. Of course, this only provides more fodder for humor. We have always known how to laugh in death’s face, so we nurture the threats and become addicted to laughter. It seems that we laugh here about everything, all the time. Laughter of all sorts: satirical laughter, escapist laughter, witty laughter, infantile laughter. On television, in advertisements, on Facebook, on Twitter, on reality shows, in sports, in newspaper headlines, and now also in cinema – just let us laugh.
As someone who works in satire, I sometimes think that Israelis have developed a pretty good ability to filter the laughter and remain resistant to what is reflected in the mirror it provides. When I have the occasion to host American colleagues who work in this field, they are surprised to discover that skits about bereavement, the Holocaust and death are on the basic menu of successful prime time satire shows like Eretz Nehederet [Wonderful Country] and Matzav Haumah [State of the Nation]. When I explain that these programs are considered mainstream and tame, it becomes immediately clear that there are many differences in the way Israelis and the rest of the world consume their humor. The fear that creeps into the heart is that an increase in dosage makes it somewhat duller, as in every addiction. Perhaps that is why the index of happiness here soars when the objective indexes become more dire – as peace seems to recede into the distance, as bi-nationalism strikes roots, as the cost of living climbs and as inequality sets new records. What is so surprising? After all, we have become addicted to the most successful medicine in history; the formula is registered in our name. But have we turned this tool for coping with reality into another means of fleeing from it?