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The Ever-Dying Art Of Jewish Humor
The Jewish Week ^ | Tuesday, April 24, 2012 | Gary Rosenblatt

Posted on 05/12/2012 7:48:30 PM PDT by nickcarraway

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 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 (, 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.”

TOPICS: History; Humor
KEYWORDS: comedy; humor; jewish
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To: Vendome

I bet she got a Jeweler’s magnifier for Chanukah, early on.

The old joke (and oh so true statement). My wife was not Jewish but she became one by injection.

True joke from an old friend who shall not be named:

“I always wanted a pretty woman with big breasts and little feet, and I married just the opposite”.

He could tell more jokes per minute than any other man I ever knew, and many were true, like the time he bought a Mickey Mouse phone for his business office. When he tried to use it the first time, he blew the phone lines for the whole building.

Another true, yiddish story. A late friend of my parents was a member of Toastmasters General, with a booming voice and as darn good story teller. However, he was also a practical joker such as the time he ordered chicken soup in a fancy restaurant. He then pulled out a rubber chicken from his tuxedo, called the waiter over and asked him to take the soup back because the chicken tasted like rubber. OR

One night my parents and E/with wife, were watching the movie “The Robe” about a Christian priest who was being crowned a Cardinal. Just at the moment he was to receive his Cardinal’s hat, someone in the audience sneezed, to which E replied: “Gey gesunteheit” (Go in good health) in Yiddish.

Needless to say he broke up the movie scene and the audience.

That’ssss all folkkkkks!

21 posted on 05/12/2012 9:47:47 PM PDT by MadMax, the Grinning Reaper
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To: MadMax, the Grinning Reaper

Chevy Chase is Jewish? With a name like Cornelius Crane Chase? That’s about as WASPy as you can get.

22 posted on 05/12/2012 10:21:37 PM PDT by boop (I hate hippies and dopeheads. Just hate them. ...Ernest Borgnine)
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To: nickcarraway

It’s not just the Jewish/Yiddish humor that is fading - it’s really the broader base of ethnic humor of every extraction. One poster’s recollection of a Jewish guy in Phoenix reminded me of my great-uncle in Phoenix, a second-generation Irishman that was a wholesale liquor salesman. He had a total repertoire of “Pat and Mike” jokes (his two sons are named Pat and Mike) that he would launch into at the drop of a hat. Of course, as another poster noted, a big part of the joke is the accent and Uncle Johnny was raised by an Irish immigrant mother so the accent came naturally. Since I was raised in KS, I didn’t get much time with him but I really enjoyed the few times I was around him.

23 posted on 05/12/2012 10:31:07 PM PDT by T-Bird45 (It feels like the seventies, and it shouldn't.)
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To: boop

You are correct. Somebody put out another story about his real name and the city of Chevy Chase.

Lorraine Newman, anyone?

Gilda Radner - definitely. Loved that girl and miss her wacky and very visual humor.

24 posted on 05/12/2012 11:02:03 PM PDT by MadMax, the Grinning Reaper
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To: nickcarraway

It’s not the joke, it’s how it’s told. (cases in point - Jack Benny’s long “take”, Myron Cohen’s raised eye brow , George Burns’ perfectly timed puff on his cigar.)

Or as George said of Gracie: The difference between a comic and a comedian is that a comic says funny things. A comedian says things funny.

25 posted on 05/12/2012 11:38:58 PM PDT by llevrok (In today's world, environmentalists would find God out of compliance with the EPA)
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To: Yaelle

Southern accents dying off too amongst richer souther gen y and milleniums


I drive a lot.....i you tube all the old Jewish guys when i tire of talk radio or ole rock

Rickles first

I miss them

26 posted on 05/12/2012 11:53:23 PM PDT by wardaddy (I am a social conservative. My political party left me(again). They can go to hell in a bucket.)
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To: nickcarraway

As the SS were marching the villagers into the pit to meet their doom, Sol quietly whispers to his neighbor Jacob “Could be worse”. Jacob, incredulously, asks “How?”

Sol, softly explains, “Could be raining.”

27 posted on 05/13/2012 12:03:38 AM PDT by UnBubba
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To: mountn man
Why do Jewish men die before their wives?
Because they want to.
28 posted on 05/13/2012 12:06:07 AM PDT by Krankor
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To: nickcarraway
The only one I can think of is this one: A Rabbi and a Priest were sitting together on a airplane flight and during the trip they were half teasing each other about the benefits of each of their religions, knowing they were not going to convert the other. Then the plane developed trouble and crash landed, the Priest lived and crawled out of the wreckage but the Rabbi was not to be seen. Then, the Priest saw some debris move and out came the Rabbi. He stood up and dusted himself off and did the sign of the cross. The Priest was dumbfounded and said, Rabbi, I am so happy you changed to Catholicism. The Rabbi said, what you talking about??? The priest said , I saw you make the sign of the cross. The Rabbi said, No, no, no, I was just checking myself out....spectacles, testicles, watch and wallet!
29 posted on 05/13/2012 12:16:43 AM PDT by fish hawk (Religion: Man's attempt to gain salvation or the approbation of God by his own works)
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To: QBFimi
Myron Cohen was always my favorite. He worked most of his life in the garment industry

I remember a Myron Cohen joke that went something like this:

Two Jewish tailors who are old acquaintances run into each other.

JT1: "Hey, I just got back from Rome. I met the Pope."

JT2: "Oh really. What kind of man was he?"

JT1: 46 long.

30 posted on 05/13/2012 12:25:04 AM PDT by wideminded
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To: MadMax, the Grinning Reaper

And the last major wave that I can think of that had a major effect on humor was “Seinfeld”, the show about nothing. Three of the four leads were Jewish - Jerry Seinfeld, Jason Alexander and Julia L. Dreyfuss.

Kramer is Jewish too. And lots of the other characters too. Newman, and the older generation — the Seinfeld and costanza parents. Uncle Leo. They are all hilarious. On the one hand there was a lot of Jewish humor on the show. On the other hand the show was practically antiSemitic — probably something to do with Larry David who has a little self loathing thing going on.

31 posted on 05/13/2012 1:00:14 AM PDT by Yaelle
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To: wardaddy

“Rickles first”

Don Rickles has been around my whole life I guess, or at least as far back as I remember.

He never changes and I’ve really come to love the guy.

I watched him on David Letterman a while ago. I have really always despised Letterman but hubby likes him so sometimes we watch.

Letterman is such a bully but Rickles really ran all over the guy. He kept telling some story about years ago when I guess Letterman was just getting his start. Rickles kept talking about “I remember you carrying the luggage”. It was a pleasure to watch. I was LMAO.

Then I saw him on the wonderful show Jimmy Kimmel did in memorium of his Uncle Frank, Rickles knew him from back in the bad old days. He was actually very sweet.

32 posted on 05/13/2012 5:32:38 AM PDT by jocon307
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To: mountn man
A man goes to a Jewish doctor who gives him the bad news: "You've only six months to live". Then the doctor hands the patient the bill.

After looking at the bill, the patient says "My God! I can't pay that with only six months left to live!", to which the doctor replies "In that case, I'll give you a year".

33 posted on 05/13/2012 6:09:12 AM PDT by ex91B10 (We've tried the Soap Box,the Ballot Box and the Jury Box; one box left.)
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To: Yaelle
I have always lived in towns with significant Jewish populations (Massapequa, Forest hills, Great Neck) so I grew up hearing the jokes and the accents. Lots of times it was my job to provide the goyishe kup perspective to a conversation. I probably have more yiddish in my vocabulary than the average Jewish Gen Xer.

There's a new series on Starz, Magic City. It is about a Jewish hotel owner in Miami in 1959 dealing with jewish mobsters, staff, family and entertainers. ---- the writers must be kids --- Not a word of yiddish.

34 posted on 05/13/2012 6:47:37 AM PDT by wtc911 (Amigo - you've been had.)
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To: nickcarraway

I don’t recall where I got it, but many years ago I picked up “The Big Book of Jewish Humor”. The dry humor & logic was so wonderful that I read nothing else until it was read all the way through.

35 posted on 05/13/2012 9:46:35 AM PDT by Strider2
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To: wtc911

There’s a new series on Starz, Magic City. It is about a Jewish hotel owner in Miami in 1959 dealing with jewish mobsters, staff, family and entertainers. —— the writers must be kids -— Not a word of yiddish.

Well, that is just wrong. They should every one have Yiddish and ny accents - or European or Russian accents. They did even in the 1970s in Los Angeles.

36 posted on 05/13/2012 10:56:30 AM PDT by Yaelle
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To: dennisw; Cachelot; Nix 2; veronica; Catspaw; knighthawk; Alouette; Optimist; weikel; Lent; GregB; ..
Middle East and terrorism, occasional political and Jewish issues Ping List. High Volume

If you’d like to be on or off, please FR mail me.


37 posted on 05/14/2012 4:42:55 AM PDT by SJackson (As a black man, you know, Barack could get shot going to the gas station, M Obama)
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To: nickcarraway

38 posted on 05/14/2012 5:04:35 AM PDT by Liberty Valance (Keep a simple manner for a happy life :o)
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To: Liberty Valance
Carl Reiner & Mel Brooks 1959

39 posted on 05/14/2012 5:13:41 AM PDT by Liberty Valance (Keep a simple manner for a happy life :o)
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To: Ciexyz
Topo Gigio

My friend and I were just talking about good old Topo Gigio today, riding around with some young people who, of course, didn't have a clue.

40 posted on 05/21/2012 12:34:08 AM PDT by Bellflower (The LORD is Holy, separated from all sin, perfect, righteous, high and lifted up.)
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