When Jokes Are Not Funny

Sermon given November 20, 1998, by Rabbi Barry H. Block
In my opinion, the most important newspaper columnist in America is Judith Martin, also known as “Miss Manners.” You may be surprised to learn that Miss Manners is a commentator on modern American religion. She frequently excoriates those clergy who turn religious ceremonies, even funerals, into amateur comedy hours.

From time to time, though, the rabbi may appropriately begin a sermon with a cute story or joke. Hopefully, the rabbi does not mistake himself for a comedian, so he quickly moves on to more serious matters. Nevertheless, the occasional interjection of an amusing anecdote can be an effective antidote to sermonic tedium. Jokes, assuming they are tasteful and appropriately applied, can be funny, and even helpful to making the point of the sermon.

In a Jewish setting, humor may be particularly apropos. Jews have long been known for our humor. Serious academic discourses have been written on the origins and characteristics of Jewish humor. As author Harry Golden reflects, “Humor has been so much a part of Jewish culture that any kind of activity at all is indispensable without it.”

Many have observed that Jewish comedy arises out of our history of misery. As Golden notes, “The more desperate the problem, the more humor is directed to describe it.” Sometimes, our people’s predicament has been so sad, so tragic, that the only way to keep from crying is to laugh. So it is with a well-known joke from Fiddler on the Roof. A student asks the rabbi if there is a blessing for the czar, the cruel Russian ruler ultimately responsible for terrible persecution of our people. The rabbi replies in the affirmative, as he offers this benediction: “May God bless and keep the czar . . . far away from us!”

Yes, we Jews have developed our own humor over the centuries. At the same time, though, we have been the butt of other people’s jokes. Two weeks ago, at our annual Confirmation Retreat, our high school students told me that they occasionally hear Jewish jokes that make them uncomfortable. Some of the students, though, differentiated between two types of jokes they had heard. One kind, clearly anti-Semitic and almost unfathomable, cruelly and distastefully makes fun of our martyrs of the Holocaust. Other jokes, though, make light of the false stereotype that all Jews are wealthy misers. All of the students agreed that the Holocaust-related jokes are utterly unacceptable. At the same time, some argued that we should just laugh at the other Jewish jokes. Failing to do so, we may be accused of humorlessness, or worse, of taking ourselves too seriously, unable to laugh at ourselves.

The origin of our students’ attitudes may be identified easily. Many of the comedians they see and hear on television constantly make fun of their own ethnic groups or others. African American comedians joke about their community, we are told; why shouldn’t we? Indeed, scores of well-known Jewish comedians do just that.

Not long ago, comedian Margaret Cho told National Public Radio listeners that much of “her humor is related to her experiences as a Korean-American, including experiences of prejudice, which in her stand-up routines she is able to transform into something funny and, she hopes, educational.” Cho is laughing, it would seem, to keep from crying about unfair attitudes toward Korean-Americans. Doing so before millions of viewers of other ethnic groups, perhaps she can make a dent in that prejudice.

Unfortunately, too many Jewish comedians, and too many comedians of numerous other groups, do not educate their audiences. To the contrary, they perpetuate harmful stereotypes, and sometimes even create new ones. These comics are not funny. There are self-hating Jews, just as there are self-hating members of many other groups. Sadly, some of them are popular comedians. Often, the origin of their jokes is even more sinister than self-hatred.

About ten years ago, a successful campaign combated the stereotype of the so-called “Jewish American Princess.” This major international effort was led, in part, by a product of our congregation, Sherry Matusoff Merfish, now of Houston, together with a noted sociologist at Syracuse University. Scholarly research indicated that “Jewish American Princess” jokes, though funny to many, are rooted in hatred toward women and suspicion of Jews in general. In fact, careful reading of these jokes shows them to be closely related to classical European anti-Semitic diatribes. Though many of the tellers of these jokes might have been innocent, the jokes’ origins were not. Thankfully, the well-meaning joke-tellers were educated, and the term “Jewish American Princess” is much less heard today.

Unfortunately, though, grossly inappropriate jokes about other groups of people continue to be widely heard. My colleague, Rabbi Myra Soifer, has suggested an interesting response to jokes about the disabled, African-Americans, homosexuals, or other groups of which she is not a member. If she is told a racist joke, for example, she responds, with a straight, white face, “I guess you didn’t know that I’m Black.” Rabbi Soifer uses humor to educate the joke-teller about the inappropriateness of the joke. The person telling the racist joke may not be a racist. One who repeats a joke a the expense of Mexican-Americans may not hate Hispanics. The sender of the e-mail joke circulating about women may not be a misogynist. By telling these jokes, though, they are not spreading joy; they are not sharing a smile; they are not brining levity to a world too serious. Instead, they are the sometimes-unwitting purveyors of hatred.

Jews know only too well about hatred, how it spreads, and its deadly effects. We know that, before we were sent to the gas chambers, we were herded into ghettos. Before we were herded into ghettos, we were made second-class citizens. Before we were made second-class citizens, we were branded with yellow stars. Before we were branded with yellow stars, we were the targets of hateful propaganda. And before we were targeted with propaganda, we were the butt of cruel anti-Semitic jokes: jokes that degraded us, jokes that suggested we were different from our fellow human beings, jokes that separated us from society and ultimately made us ready prey for destruction.

Today, in America, we may identify a similar connection between jokes and hatred, between hatred and death. Thank God, we see these phenomena on a scale infinitely smaller than we experienced in World War II Europe. But to hear these hateful jokes, and witness their deadly consequences in America, on any scale at all, is shocking.

One may laugh at African-Americans, and claim that it’s only a joke. How to explain, then, that too many Americans hear these jokes and understand that hatred of Blacks is acceptable? We should not have been surprised by that barbaric lynching in East Texas.

Kids make fun each other, throwing around the term “gay” as an epithet. Little wonder that jokes told at the expense of homosexuals are popular among those who hate gay men and lesbians. Are the joke-tellers not partially responsible for the death of Matthew Shephard, beaten and left for dead for the crime of his sexual preference?

Men joke about women. Most of us laugh, but others interpret the joke as a statement that women are laughable, so their pain is unimportant. The statistics of spousal abuse, of men who murder their wives, should teach us not to laugh.

Our ancient rabbis were very wise. They taught us that to diminish the dignity of another person is equivalent to spilling that person’s blood. Perhaps their point was this: When we degrade our fellow human beings, even in a misguided attempt to be funny, we suggest that they are less than fully human, and their lives are less valuable than ours. Lives made worthless through humor may seem to be expendable. The butts of jokes may be marked for death.

When we tell other people that their jokes aren’t funny, that their humor is dangerous, we may seem stodgy, ill-humored, even self-righteous. May our stodginess protect the dignity of others. May our lack of a sense of humor elevate humanity. May our so-called self-righteousness save lives. Then, may we laugh with the angels.