Did you hear the one about the Jewish girl who infiltrated the king’s harem and saved the Jewish people?
Okay, so the story of Esther isn’t exactly a joke.
It is, however, a comedy. And it’s the starting point for Dr. Jeremy Dauber’s new book, “Jewish Comedy: A Serious History.”
Professor Dauber grew up in Teaneck. He will speak about his book later this month in Englewood at Congregation Ahavath Torah (see box).
This new book grew out of his course on Jewish humor at Columbia University, where he is a professor of Yiddish.
Dr. Dauber places Esther as the starting place for Jewish comedy because even though there are early passages in the Bible that have elements of humor, “biblical humor before that is triumphant,” he said. “Jews conquer other nations. God rules.” Those laughs are unambiguously at the expense of the gentiles and their idols.
“The book of Esther is a different kind of humor,” Dr. Dauber said. “The Temple has been destroyed. The Jews are in diaspora, in a hard situation.”
Why is Jewish humor different from all other humor? Dr. Dauber identifies seven ways of pinning down its essence — and all of them apply to Esther.
“One approach says Jewish comedy is a response to anti-Semitism,” he said. “Another says that Jewish comedy is a kind of satirical comedy that is trying to take on and improve the affairs of the Jewish community. A third sees Jewish comedy as bookish and allusive, and a fourth describes it as the opposite, profane and provocative. Jewish comedy can be seen as metaphysical and dealing with God and the covenant — or it can reflect the folk and everyday Jewish life. Finally, it’s about the blurred and ambiguous nature of Jewishness itself.”
Dr. Dauber organized his book with a chapter for each one of these themes. Each chapter reaches back to the Bible — hello, Esther! — and forward through the Talmud and the Middle ages to Yiddish literature — hello, Sholem Aleichem, subject of Dr. Dauber’s previous book — and then on to America and finally to the 21st century realm of Twitter.
Along the way there is history, analysis, and fear not, plenty of jokes — and that’s even though actual jokes were a relatively late arrival to the Jewish literary canon. That’s in contrast to the Greeks, who wrote down their classical jokes. The Talmud, Dr. Dauber said, has the genre of smart alecks, scholars who take a discussion to such a level of absurdity that they are kicked out of the study hall. The medieval period offers books of fables and stories, “many of which are comic,” Dr. Dauber said.
Dr. Dauber’s own history of Jewish humor goes back to childhood.
“I grew up in a house where there was a lot of Jewish comedy, whether it was watching Mel Brooks and Woody Allen in the movies, or whether it was reading this book my dad had, ‘A Treasury of Jewish Folklore,’ that had all these wonderful Jewish jokes, or starting to read a little bit of Jewish comic literature,” he said.
“Only when I got to graduate school and started teaching did I see this could be something I could be interesting in teaching and writing about.”
Dr. Dauber grew up thinking that Jews were funny, but, he discovered, the equation of Jews and humor is a new phenomenon. “That’s the American experience,” he said.
“In Christian Europe, that was not the case. Jews were considered melancholy and sad.” Why? Largely because they hadn’t been saved by Jesus. “They missed the boat. Christians projected that onto the Jews.”
It is of course not news that Jews and Christians don’t see things the same way. It is, however, the basis for plenty of Jewish jokes, including one of Dr. Dauber’s favorites:
General Eisenhower is taken to see the grave of the unknown Jewish soldier. (“This dates the joke,” Dr. Dauber interjects.) He goes and sees a monument dedicated to “Hyman Goldfarb, furrier.”
General Eisenhower turns to his guide. “How is that an unknown soldier?” he asks. “It says right there, ‘Hyman Goldfarb, furrier!”
His Jewish guide replies: “As a furrier, he is famous. As a soldier, he is unknown.”