Make ’em laugh! The story of Jewish jokes
Gerald Isaaman reviews an analysis of a unique brand of humour
25 May, 2018 — By Gerald Isaaman
As Groucho Marx said: ‘These are my principles! If you don’t like them, I have others.’
WITH the world awash with troubles and Brexit blues still haunting us, now, surely, is the time for a giggle, for laughter to wipe away our growing worries and concerns for the future.
And what better than a book on Jewish jokes to make us grin, the more so since anti-semitism is itself part of today’s tumult, not only in the UK but in France, Germany and the Middle East, as widespread as the Jewish joke has itself become universal.
So now is the time to turn to Dr Devorah Baum’s excellent collection of essays on a subject that she declares to be as old as Abraham, which has “wandered over the world, learned various languages and performed in front of some pretty hostile crowds”.
Jewish jokes are indeed an essential antidote to today’s social media, blamed by Dr Baum – lecturer in English literature at Southampton University – for the explosion of anti-semitism, which she describes as “a kind of echo chamber, the bubble people are now in that seems so destructive of human connection”.
But, equally, as the Hampstead comedian David Baddiel, one of many known names quoted in Jewish Jokes, including Sigmund Freud, who spent his last days in Hampstead after escaping from the Nazis in his native Austria, her book is “funny, clever and, at times, heart-breaking, in other words, Jewish.”
Inevitably, there is also the opportunity to hear 43-year-old Dr Baum talk on the hilarious subject at the Jewish Museum, in Camden Town, when she will be in conversation on May 31 with Peter Pomerantsev, the Soviet-born British journalist, author and TV producer.
“I really feel Jewish jokes came out of an experience of impossibility in the modern world where there was a need for a language that could somehow express the awfulness of the Jewish condition, the impossibility of answering the Jewish questions forever being asked,” Dr Baum told me.
“They became a kind of language for being able to narrate the impossibility of their experience, which has become so marginal, so traumatised. Whenever things get tough, the jokes are there as weapons with which to fight back. And they have such longevity.”
While her grandparents came from Poland – some family members perished in the Holocaust – her parents were born in England and Wales respectively and members of Richmond United Synagogue.
However, growing up in West London Dr Baum, one of only a few Jewish pupils at school, was highly sensitive, as well as proud, of her own difference, but also cultivated “a kind of paranoia and anxiety,” a subject she dealt with in detail in an earlier book entitled Feeling Jewish – A Book For Just About Anyone.
Her research for Jewish Jokes was extensive. Apart from Jewish joke books, she watched comedy shows, delved into Jewish humour, asked friends to tell her their favourite jokes, the majority of which are anonymous. In the end she chose the ones she enjoyed for her book, excluding obscene ones.
“I liked the challenge of what was basically a book about my favourite Jewish jokes with a commentary running through it,” says Dr Baum.
It has a truly Jewish flavour but it is also about humour in general. The chance to laugh is what we all need just now.”
• The Jewish Joke. By Devorah Baum. Profile Books, £9.99
• Devorah Baum shares the history of the Jewish joke in conversation with Peter Pomerantsev on May 31 at the Jewish Museum, 7-8pm. Raymond Burton House, 129-131 Albert Street, NW1 7NB, 020 7284 7384
From The Jewish Joke
• I’m very proud of my gold pocket watch. My grandfather, on his deathbed, sold it to me!
• Upon leaving a kosher restaurant, one Chinese diner says to another: ‘The problem with Jewish food is that two days later you’re hungry again.’
• Most men are secretly still mad at their mothers for throwing away their comic books. They would be valuable now.
• My mother always said don’t marry for money. Divorce for money!
• There is this very pious Jew named Goldberg who always dreamed of winning the lottery. Every Sabbath, he’d go to synagogue and pray, ‘God I have been such a pious Jew all my life. What would be so bad if I won the lottery?’ But the lottery kept coming and Goldberg, despite all his prayers didn’t win, until one Sabbath he wailed to the heavens, ‘God, what do I have to do to win the lottery?’ And the heavens parted and the voice of God came down: ‘Goldberg, meet me halfway. At least buy a ticket!’