Is it funny?
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Is it funny?

Scholar in residence Zach Mann looks at Jewish humor on Shabbat in Woodcliff Lake

Dr. Zach Mann
Dr. Zach Mann

So really, what’s so funny about Jews?

We’re the people of the book, it’s true, but often we also seem to be the people of the joke. The masters of stand-up. What is that?

Like so many other parts of Jewish culture and life, not only can we revel in the joke (or moan at it, or walk away backward from it, very slowly) — sort of humor lishma — but we also can study it; there is a huge amount of information to be gleaned from humor.

That’s where Dr. Zach Mann comes in.

Dr. Mann is a Jewish Theological Seminary-educated intellectual historian who has studied and taught Jewish humor and will teach it this weekend as scholar in residence at Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake. (See below.)

He plans to pose three questions over the course of three sessions — “But is it humor”? “But is it Jewish?” “But is it good for the Jews?” And he plans not to present a frontal lecture, but to lead a discussion on a subject on which many people are likely to have strong views.

“The first night, we’ll be looking at examples from biblical, rabbinic, and pre-modern literature of things that are definitely adjacent to humor — but do they count as what we think of as humor?” Dr. Mann said. “Are they funny now? Were they ever funny?

“In order to know if something was funny, we have to reconstruct the audience. There are things in the Bible that are close to humor — wordplay, irony, even satire. But is it humor?” It’s likely, he suggested, that the ideas, associations, and jokes that we think of as humor come from the modern period.

The second session will look at “what we tend to think of as Jewish humor — 20th century American Jewish comedians and comediennes,” he said. “We tend to associate humor with the art form of the joke, and mainly with stand-up. This talk will be a deep dive into that.

“We know that Jews are over-represented in American comedy,” he continued. “There was a Time magazine article in the 1980s that estimated that about 80 percent of the people working in American comedy at the time were Jews.

“As a historian, that jumps out at me. I’m trying to understand the underlying reasons for so many second-generation Jews contributing so much to American humor.” And yes, the big names that we associate with mid- to late 20th-century American humor — Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, everyone else who came from Sid Caesar’s Show of Shows, share that experience of being the children of immigrants, Dr. Mann said.

“And we will update that story,” he continued. “What about a comedian like Sarah Silverman? Does she come out of the tradition of American Jewish humor, or is she somewhat of a break with tradition? I also want to highlight the role of female comedians. The role of gender is interesting.

“There are important forerunners, like Phyllis Diller,” who was not Jewish, “but even more so someone like Belle Barth,” who was. “Belle Barth is not a household name, but she was a big name at the time, particularly in the Miami Beach scene.

“And she worked very blue. She really pushed the envelope of what a comedian — let alone a female comedian — could say. She was absolutely filthy — and she was absolutely hysterical.

“And then someone like Jerry Seinfeld, or Jon Stewart, or Sarah Silverman — the way they invoke their Jewishness openly. The way they’re influenced by it. Is that a tradition that they’re coming out of, or are they doing something different?

“The second session will examine the question of why so many American Jews were in the business of making Americans laugh,” he said.

In the third session, he will question whether “the association of Jews with comedy, with laughing at themselves and making other people laugh at them, is automatically good.

“For a lot of people, being funny is an essential part of their Jewish identity.”

Dr. Mann talked about the Harvard historian Ruth Wisse, whose 2013 book on the subject, “No Joke: Making Jewish Humor,” “raises the question ‘Can I stop laughing now?’

“She asks if the close association of Jews and humor is a good thing. Is it powerlessness? She sees Jews turning to comedy as an internalized anti-Semitism. It doesn’t feel good for her. She doesn’t feel that it can sustain a Jewish identity in the diaspora.

“We will evaluate that. We will ask ourselves if humor is a good thing, and if you can build an identity on it. We will ask if Jewish humor will fade the further away we get from the experience of immigration.”

Dr. Mann plans to mention “the major theoretical text on humor, which was written by an assimilated Viennese Jew by the name of Sigmund Freud,” he said. That would be “Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious.” “A huge chunk of the analysis in the book is of what he calls Jewish jokes,” he said. “It meant something different to Freud than it does to us; he is essentially sitting in Vienna looking at jokes that came out of an eastern European context, that maybe came to him in translation. Or maybe he indulged in Jewish jokes with his Jewish friends.

“But there is something so fascinating about the fact that the most influential way of looking at humor in general, and at Jewish humor in particular, is through the lens of Freud.

“Freud said that a joke is dependent on three things — the joke teller, the thing that the joke is about, and the audience. All three of these things have to align in just the right way in order for a joke to work.”

Now is a particularly good time to talk about Jewish humor, Dr. Mann added, because of “the runaway success of ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.’

“That show really has legs,” he said.

He is thrilled to be able to speak at Temple Emanuel because that’s where his in-laws, Drs. Rona and Arthur Weinberg, are active, and where his wife, Brii, grew up. Zach and Brii Mann live in a small Manhattan apartment, so “we love going there,” he said. “We call it our country house.” And he earned his doctoral degree at JTS’s graduate school at the same time as Emanuel’s rabbi, Loren Monosov, was studying for ordination there. “It really feels like a second home to me,” Dr. Mann said.

He does plan to start each talk by telling a joke, but he acknowledges the risk in that. “I will begin with the caveat that the very worst thing you can do to a joke is to explain it,” he said. “That’s the least funny thing you possibly could do.”


Who: Dr. Zach Mann

What: Will be scholar-in-residence

Where: At Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley, 87 Overlook Drive,
Woodcliff Lake

When: The Shabbat of February 22 to 23

More specifically: Friday at 8 p.m., “But Is It Humor? — The Torah and the Origins of Jewish Comedy.” During services at 9:30 a.m., “But Is It Jewish? Is there Such a Thing as Jewish Humor?” After lunch, “But Is It Good for the Jews? Evaluating Jewish Humor.”

For more information: tepv.org

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