The Ever-Dying Art Of Jewish Humor
Tue, 04/24/2012
Editor And Publisher
Gary Rosenblatt
Gary Rosenblatt

OK, so there are these three guys in the hospital, and they’re very bad off, and the doctor is making the rounds. He goes over to the first patient, a Catholic, and explains that there’s nothing more he can do medically for him and asks him his last wish.

“I’d like to see a priest and make a confession,” the man says.

The doctor says fine, and moves on to the next patient, a Protestant. And when the doctor asks him his last wish, the poor guy says, “I’d like to see my family and say good-bye.”

So the doctor says OK, and comes over to the third patient, an elderly Jewish man.

“And what is your last wish?” the doctor asks.

“My last wish,” the old man whispers, “is to see another doctor.”

Funny? Well, according to some sophisticated research, the odds are you thought so — or at least there was a time when Jewish readers would have thought so. In a survey by Psychology Today, Jews among the 14,000 readers who sampled 30 jokes rated this classic joke higher than non-Jews.

But that was more than three decades ago, and it’s reasonable to wonder if things have changed. After all, the Golden Era of Jewish Comedy, marked by scores of Borscht Belt “tummlers” who went on to national fame, including Sid Caesar, Danny Kaye and Red Buttons, are gone or have faded from the scene. Who under 35 would remember Lou Goldstein, the Grossingers fixture who made “Simon Says” his own act? (“Simon says jump up…Come down.”) He died earlier this month at 90. And how could Generation Xers or Yers appreciate the nostalgic sadness over the recent fire that destroyed the former Browns Hotel, one of the last vestiges of the Catskill Resorts that spawned generations of comics?

Jewish humor has always been easier to enjoy than define. Bill Novak and Moshe Waldoks, in their classic “Big Book of Jewish Humor,” characterized the genre as “anti-authoritarian in tone, mocking pomposity, grandiosity and self-indulgence.” Our brand of ethnic humor is also known for a sense of superiority, with the little guy outsmarting everyone else, a kind of defense mechanism to ward off aggression and hostility.

But American Jews are far less insecure these days, with little to be worried about in terms of acceptance by the majority society. Once banned from Ivy League colleges, Jews now note with pride that most of those universities have, or in recent years have had, Jewish presidents.

So without all that angst is there still an audience for jokes about Jewish mothers (and mothers-in-law), rabbis and priests, food, doctors, elusive sex, unhappy spouses, getting old and dying?

Sam Hoffman and Eric Spiegelman can prove there is. After long enjoying his father’s stories and jokes, Hoffman, now in his mid-40s, got a group of 20 of his father’s friends and relatives to come to an abandoned storefront in his hometown of Highland Park, N.J., several years ago and tell some of their “good stories” in front of his camera. Spiegelman, a native of Los Angeles, did the same there. The result was a website called, simply, Old Jews Telling Jokes, which has had millions of page views. Then came a book (same name) two years ago, a DVD, and next week previews of an Off-Broadway play (same name) co-created by Peter Gethers and Daniel Okrent, and based on the website, will begin at the Westside Theater, reinventing classic jokes and adding a few songs.

Hoffman describes the jokes on the website as “time capsules, revealing the fears and anxieties and celebrating the joys of all aspects of life.” A lot more about the anxieties than the joys, from the ones I’ve heard, and definitely not for the prudish.

There’s something especially funny, though, about hearing a wide variety of everyday bubbes and zaides — all Jewish and over 60 — with a sprinkling of celebrities like former New York Mayor Ed Koch and former New York Times public editor Okrent, telling jokes that would make a stripper blush.

Hoffman says that about a quarter of the visitors to oldjewstellingjokes.com are under 35. “For them it’s comfort food,” he told New York magazine several years ago. “It’s a visit with Uncle Steve, who isn’t around anymore. And it channels an element of the culture that isn’t religion but still makes them feel connected.”

Max Weisberg, a 65-year-old insurance salesman in Phoenix, is one of the many gifted storytellers who appear on the site. He says his adult children think he’s funny but not his humor, and he worries about the generation gap.

“How do I translate to them ‘hock mir nisht kayn chynek’ [literally, Yiddish for ‘don’t knock me a tea kettle,’ but essentially, ‘don’t bother me’]?

“Jewish humor? I think it will disappear. But I hope not,” he says, adding, “All the guys that are dead I used to love.”

Al Kustanowitz, 72, of Fairlawn, N.J., is more optimistic. A 36-year-veteran of IBM, he now spends an average of an hour a day updating a popular website he launched from home in 2009, a labor of love called Jewish Humor Central (www.jewishhumorcentral.com), which features an entertaining mix of jokes, odd news items (“Gaza Zoo Adds Stuffed Animals”), music, new comedy videos and clips from classic routines.

As “blogger-in-chief,” he says he has written close to 800 blog posts, and admits “it’s getting harder to find clean material” to use on the site. (He includes a warning if a video has language “from the George Carlin list” of seven words you can never say on TV.)

Kustanowitz says his muse was his late wife, Shuly, who served as his “gentle censor.” Now he often runs material by his daughter, Esther, a prolific blogger and Jewish culture queen in her own right. (“The tree doesn’t fall far from the fruits,” Al jokes of his own talent.)

For some 25 years he published a family newsletter with funny news items around Purim time each year, noting that “you can’t make this stuff up.” Over time he sent it out to hundreds of family members and friends, but he abandoned the print edition now that his website has about 2,300 subscribers.

Besides, he says, “I started the blog because I couldn’t wait until Purim.”

Based on his success, Kustanowitz now offers a series of one-hour lectures. His talks include video clips and commentary, with more than two dozen topics to choose from.

“I don’t worry about theories” about Jewish humor and its sociological implications, he says.

“These jokes last forever.”

E-mail: Gary@jewishweek.org

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Myron Cohen was always my favorite. He worked most of his life in the garment industry; when he retired he, at the insistence of friends, visited a comedy club, and became an instant success. Unlike Belle Barth, his humor was soft and kind; his mind stayed far from the gutter.

As a new Cleveland-based airline pilot in the late ‘70s, I recognized him getting on our airplane early one morning. He had performed downtown the night before. I told the flight attendants who he was. The flight didn’t have many passengers on board; by the time we landed they had been huddled around and fussing over him for nearly two hours. After our arrival, he was the last to leave, and exited the airplane arm-in-arm with two of them - off for coffee and a Danish.

Not only will Jewish humor never die it will continue to grow so long as we are the minority of minorities. Remind me to tell you about the Scots Jew who wants to join St. Andrews Golf Club. Even though the Catskills have gone the way of the silent movies Israel, Boro Park, Williamsburg and Crown Heights keep on producing funny shtick and Jews keep producing comics.

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