Is it funny to be Jewish? Is it Jewish to be funny?

Sept. 4, 2013Communal Tallits are laid in the lobby for visitors to the Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C. The … Continued

Sept. 4, 2013Communal Tallits are laid in the lobby for visitors to the Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C. The local Jewish community started celebrating Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, Wednesday at sundown.Nathaniel Grann / For The Washington Post

Sarah Silverman is no accident. Adam Sandler didn’t just happen. Woody Allen is no statistical anomaly. Five thousand seven hundred and seventy four years after creation, the Chosen People have expressed a choice: And they’ve chosen to be funny.

At least that’s what American Jews have told a Pew survey released Tuesday morning. According to the Heebish citizens of the Land of the Free, Moses parted the Red Sea to lead the Israelites from bondage to the promised land not so that they could eat bagels (food=14 percent) or pray (Jewish religious law=19 percent) but so they could have a good chuckle (having a good sense of humor=42 percent).

As a British Jew, I have to stand back and admire my American co-religionists, or perhaps in this post-religious age I should call them co-ethnics or just co-medians. They’ve dispensed with the green vegetables of wandering tradition and headed straight for 40 days and nights in the dessert: No more weeping with Job, they’re laughing at Balaam as he falls on his ass.

Of course, thinking you have a good sense of humor is no good unless others agree. Back home we were happy about a survey in which 45 percent of Brits thought that Britishness included having a great sense of humor, until we heard that another survey had found that 46 percent of foreigners visiting the country thought that British humor was terrible.

But even a cursory glance at American comedy over the years shows that the 2 percent of the population that identifies as Jew-ish has, if not punched above its weight, tickled beyond its size.

Massive popular acclaim has been showered on Larry David, Gilda Radner, Mel Brooks, the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, Sid Caesar, Henry Kissinger, Lenny Bruce and Jon Stewart to name but a few. Six millennia of avoiding getting beaten up on the playground have really sharpened our acts.

And don’t let anybody tell you that Kissinger isn’t funny — not stepping out of character and keeping up the Dr Strangelove accent (Peter Sellers, Jewish) for 70 adult years, genius.

As American Jews have worked hard to transition the community’s standing from “funny peculiar” (2000 years of European marginalization) to “funny ha-ha” (Ben Stiller) they have used every conceivable type of performance. From wise-cracking borscht belt stand-ups to wise-cracking anti-heroes, and from wise-cracking movie stars to wise-cracking television hosts, Jewish comics have run the hilarity gamut.

And it’s not just nurture that’s shaped the Jewish experience, our foundational scriptures have played their part, tooIsaac (or “
Yitzhak”), one of the three patriarchs, has a name that comes from the word for laughter and Isaac certainly laughed last as gave his elder son’s birthright to his younger twin brother, Jacob. Our favorite prince of Egypt also learned his lesson after his abortive first trip down the mountain. Second time around, repaired tablets in hand, Moses opened with a strong half-hour on Sinai. And, later on, the biblical judges were always good for a giggle; Samson famously brought the house down in Gaza.

Historically, too, it’s become obvious that if there’s one thing that the whole world can get together and enjoy, it’s laughing at the Jews. To watch Seth Rogen act like a putz, black can chortle with white, the lion can lie down with the lamb, and the rabbi (Jackie Mason=Jewish) can lie down with the antisemite. It’s hardly surprising that, with this kind of universal appeal, almost half the Jews of this free country have decided that humor is a constitutive element of their identity.

For millennia, Jews knew who they were because they would stand out ethnically, linguistically or religiously or because marauding Cossacks or fedayeen would cut them down yelling racial slurs. But now in multi-ethnic, multicultural America there’s no real way to know who you are. Whom you choose to identify with might just as well be who has the same sense of humor.

It seems as though today’s American Jews largely aspire to an identity that has the condition of “Seinfeld” (the show, not Jerry, the Web star of “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee”). Although it almost never mentions anything Jewish except in code (babka, rye bread) it’s funny, it’s quintessentially New York Jewish, but it is also famously about nothing.

And what about the other 58 percent who didn’t think a sense of humor is important?

Meh, what do they know.

Dan Friedman is the managing editor of the Jewish Daily Forward. He was the only writer for “Da Ali G Show” with a PhD in comparative literature from Yale University.

This post has been updated.


  • WmarkW

    Jews are good writers. You see that at bookstores, in screenplay credits and on editorial pages.

    Thank goodness the latter doesn’t need to “look like America,” or you’d have to fire half the Jews.

  • chi-town2

    Clearly Friedman makes the case that Jewish folks are the current stars of Abrahamic religion.

  • Rongoklunk

    If anybody knows that there is no God it’s the Jews. Especially the ones who survived the holocaust, or had relatives who died back then. Primo Levi survived Auschwitz and was proud that he never prayed. It would have been a terrible weakness to pray to this useless god who never ever showed up even in the most terrible moments when cruelty and injustice dominated every moment. It made an atheist of him, and of most other prisoners, How can one believe in a loving god when barbarism is everywhere all the time? If such a being exists he’s not worth bothering about.

  • WmarkW

    Makes me think of one of the brilliant lines in TV history.
    An amateur comedian friend of Jerry Seinfeld’s, has converted to Judaism.
    Seinfeld goes to talk with his ex-priest.

    Jerry: I wanted to talk to you about Dr. Whatley. I have a suspicion that he’s converted to Judaism just for the jokes.
    Father Curtis: And this offends you as a Jewish person?
    Jerry: No, it offends me as a comedian.

Read More Articles

Fundamentalist Arguments Against Fundamentalism

The all-or-nothing approach to the Bible used by skeptics and fundamentalists alike is flawed.

The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

How to Debate Christians: Five Ways to Behave and Ten Questions to Answer

Advice for atheists taking on Christian critics.

Heaven Hits the Big Screen

How “Heaven is for Real” went from being an unsellable idea to a bestselling book and the inspiration for a Hollywood movie.

This God’s For You: Jesus and the Good News of Beer

How Jesus partied with a purpose.

God’s Not Dead? Why the Good News Is Better than That

The resurrection of Jesus is not a matter of private faith — it’s a proclamation for the whole world.

Friend or Foe? Learning from Judas About Friendship with Jesus

We call Judas a betrayer. Jesus called him “friend.”

Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.

Hey Bart Ehrman, I’m Obsessed with Jesus, Too — But You’ve Got Him All Wrong

Why the debate over Jesus’ divinity matters.

Dear Evangelicals, Please Reconsider Your Fight Against Gay Rights

A journalist and longtime observer of American religious culture offers some advice to his evangelical friends.

How Passover Makes the Impossible Possible

When we place ourselves within the story, we can imagine new realities.

This Passover, We’re Standing at an Unparted Red Sea

We need to ask ourselves: What will be the future of the State of Israel — and what will it require of us?

Just As I Am

My childhood conversion to Christianity was only the first of many.

shutterstock_127731035 (1)
Are Single People the Lepers of Today’s Church?

In an age of rising singlehood, many churches are still focused on being family ministry centers.

Mysterious Tremors

People like me who have mystical experiences may be encountering some unknown Other. What can we learn about what that Other is?

Five Bible Verses You Need to Stop Misusing

That verse you keep quoting? It may not mean what you think it means.

What C.S. Lewis’ Marriage Can Tell Us About the Gay Marriage Controversy

Why “welcome and wanted” is a biblical response to gay and lesbian couples in evangelical churches.