This weekend, Jeremy Dauber, now of Columbia University and Manhattan but before that of Teaneck, will be the scholar in residence at Congregation Gesher Shalom/JCC of Fort Lee.
Over Shabbat, he’ll talk about Jewish humor, Jewish terror, and Nachman of Bratslav.
Dr. Dauber is a professor of Yiddish and Jewish literature, and he runs Columbia’s Institute for Israel and Jewish studies. “It’s been fascinating,” he said. “I have been directing it for almost nine years now; we have 50 programs a year on all aspects of Jewish culture and on Israel. It’s a wonderful opportunity for me.”
Dr. Dauber’s first talk, set for Friday night, will be about the history of Jewish comedy. “It’s a history in five jokes,” he said. “I try to define Jewish humor — where it started, where it’s heading — and I try to give people a sense of whether there is some sense of continuity in Jewish humor, from its beginnings in the Bible.”
There’s humor in the Bible? Yes, certainly there is, Dr. Dauber said. “It’s in all sorts of places in the Bible. The most important place is in the book of Esther, which has the seeds for all sorts of different kinds of humor. There’s the uncertainty of theology, asking how Jewish faith can exist in the world where God’s covenant is not necessarily evident. There’s the popular humor of they tried to kill us, they didn’t, let’s eat. And then there is vulgar and scatological comedy in the book as well.
“In Genesis, there is all sorts of irony and reversal and hidden identity,” Dr. Dauber continued. No, he agreed, that’s not funny as in ha-ha funny, but “one of the most interesting things about looking at the humor of the past is that things that we don’t find to be ha-ha funny, they did find funny.
“We don’t even always know what genre some parts of the Bible are. A lot of scholars think that Jonah, which is read on Yom Kippur, the most solemn day of the year, is parody.
“Not everyone thinks that, and we don’t have firm evidence either way, of course,” he added. “A lot of the time, historians just have to take the best guess.
“Some things seem very clearly comic. In the book of Judges, Ehud defeats Eglon, the king of Moab, who is very fat, by stabbing him in the gut in the bathroom. People must have laughed. Today we say that a bunch of fat jokes might not be so funny, but that’s not saying it’s not designed for comedy.
“More recently, a lot of Yiddish plays had a comic-relief character who stutters. We say that isn’t very nice, making fun of stutterers, but we can say that it clearly was designed as a comic character.
“One of the interesting things is to find out how the story of Jewish comedy, like all other kinds of comedy, is not necessarily a comfortable story, but it is illuminating — and it is also often funny.”
Jewish humor also is shaped by the culture that surrounds it, he added, and by that culture’s idea of what is funny. “And the notion of what is funny is quite different in medieval Spain, say, where you are surrounded by Arabic poetry, or in Berlin at the time of the Enlightenment, when everyone wants continental satire, or in America in the mid-twentieth century, when everyone is trying to sound neurotic and smart.”
Some of the midcentury Jewish writers were so firmly in the center of American culture that they weren’t even particularly Jewish, he added. S.J. Perelman, for example, was a brilliant Jewish humorist “and he sometimes would use Yiddish phrases, but he was so much a New Yorker type that he becomes somewhat less of a Jewish figure. Whereas Woody Allen, who idolized Perelman, by virtue of being in a slightly different time put a different and more Jewish slant on somewhat Perelmanesque work.”
Dr. Dauber’s writing a book on Jewish humor, due out in the fall of 2017. “It’s a lot of fun to work on,” he said.
His d’var Torah will be “the history of Jewish storytelling,” and given its central placement in the service, it will be “less about comedy and a little more religiously oriented,” he said. “It’s about Nachman of Bratslav, and how he took non-Jewish stories and invested them with Jewish content, in order to do nothing less than heal the world.
“I will tell Nachman’s story and one or two of his stories, and talk about how he uses the whole idea of telling stories not only to achieve faith and to have feelings of repentance, but to achieve tikkun in the universe. To make the world a better place.”
After lunch, Dr. Dauber will talk about Jewish monsters. “One of the things I am interested in is Jewish humor, another is Jewish horror, and they are not totally dissimilar,” he said. “I will introduce people in some detail to some of the Jewish monsters, the dybbuk and the golem, and about gilgul” — reincarnation. “I will explain a little bit about where the monsters came from, and how they came to be so popular at the beginning of the modern period, and what that says about the Jewish need to create monsters and how they used them in ways that fit in their worldviews.”
Dr. Dauber will be at Gesher Shalom because of his eleventh grade English teacher, Janet Chertkoff. Dr. Dauber graduated first from Yavneh and then from Frisch. Ms. Chertkoff and her husband, Marvin, both are on the shul’s adult education committee, and the invitation came through them. “She was a phenomenal English teacher, who helped turn me into a student of literature,” Dr. Dauber said. “I am looking forward very much to seeing her again.”
Gesher Shalom is at 1449 Anderson Ave. in Fort Lee. For more information about Dr. Dauber’s talks, call the shul at (201) 947-1735 or go to geshershalom.org.