Humor

How Jewish Humor Saved Jews

Fanny Brice, born Fania Borach at the turn of the century in New York, was an institution of 20th century entertainment. The musical “Funny Girl”, originally starring Barbra Streisand, tells the story of Brice’s rise to fame through vaudeville halls and later Broadway, winning the hearts of its audience with his absurd, crude and often raunchy humor. Brice used comedy and her explicitly Jewish disposition to set her apart from other stars of the time and thus was immortalized in the Jewish canon as a pop culture icon.

I had the opportunity to see the revival of “Funny Girl” last week, which now features Beanie Feldstein of “Ladybird” and “Booksmart”, and Jane Lynch, known to most for her role in “Glee “. Critics felt lukewarm (at best) about this production, and I can’t argue with most of their reviews. If the production were to be judged simply on quality, viewers would come away disappointed. It’s more like a community theater revamp of an age-old classic that may have been doomed, scoring nearly zero Tony nominations, because the person who made “Funny Girl” a smash hit, Barbra Streisand , was not on stage.

However, I was able to learn lessons from “Funny Girl” that transcend the critical success of the production. The first is the vivid Jewishness of Brice’s story, expressed by the Yiddish idioms sprinkled throughout the show and the historical throwback to when American Jews burst from the Yiddish theater scene into the mainstream. And like most Jews who watch this production, I left with a sense of innate familiarity with a figure like Brice. When Brice is praised for connecting with fans so strongly, she attributes her success to the word “heimishe– meaning “comforting” and “like home”. It simply means that Jews have a knack for entertaining as deep as our love for being entertained.

We’re all over the world of laughter, and it seems like it’s always been that way. In 1978, Time Magazine proclaimed that eighty percent of American comedians were Jewish.

“Funny Girl” reminded me of how many Jews in my life work in comedy. Two of my closest friends in New York are both aspiring comedians and comedy writers, along with my sister, who performs in Chicago, and a handful of friends and acquaintances from my childhood who bounce from various open mic nights in search of name recognition. I then thought about the impact of Jews on comedy in general, from giants like Joan Rivers, Mel Brooks and Larry David, to contemporary idols like Sarah Silverman and Alex Edelman, not to mention TV shows like “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “Seinfeld,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and “Broad City.” We’re all over the world of laughter, and it seems like it’s always been that way. In 1978, Time Magazine proclaimed that eighty percent of American comedians were Jewish.And even today, if you find yourself at an open-mic night anywhere in New York, you’ll notice that the room is practically overflowing with curly hair and Magen David necklaces.

Many have attempted to understand the Jewish proclivity for humor and our own specific comic dialect. Sigmund Freud hypothesized, and his hypothesis has stuck, that Jewish humor is a defense mechanism against an often threatening world. By laughing, especially at ourselves, we lessen the pain the outside world has in store for us. Many clinical psychologists agree that humor is a miracle cure for trauma. This theory is supported by perhaps one of my favorite Jewish jokes:

“A high-ranking general approaches a policeman one day and tells him to round up all the Jews and all the cyclists, to which the policeman replies, ‘Why the cyclists?'”

Professor Ruth Wisse goes further in her book “No Joke: Making Jewish Humor”. She writes, “Stand-up comedy is all about the nerves.” It is “a battle between the aggressor and the victims with the spirit as a weapon and laughter as a reward. Different from price fights which pit people against each other in the presence of paying spectators, comedy pits the fighter against paying customers, with silence as the killer and outburst of laughter as the victory.

Perhaps the influx of Jews into comedy lies in our history, but not in the self-defensive way proposed by Freud. Rather, as Wisse suggests, it reflects our cultural custom of bonding with each other not through militancy and aggression, but by being together and learning to live with each other. For two thousand years we have been denied the right to raise our own armed forces and protect ourselves. At the same time, we would much rather study Torah and feast on Friday nights than teach our children to be warriors. The recipe leads to people who deeply rely on socialization for their comfort. Of course, talents for storytelling, music and comedy would develop naturally.

It is true that half of the world’s Jewish population was raised in a climate quite different from the American Jewish experience. In Israel, children are sent to the army, the threat of war is perpetual and the founders of Zionism did well to pedestalize masculinity and stoicism in their new society. In other words, the actual conflict, not the conflict that ends “in a burst of laughter,” as Wisse notes, is embedded in the fabric of Israel’s Jewish culture. While American Jews make friendship bracelets around campfires, Israeli Jews learn to use a gun. Therefore, while I love Israelis, I can admit that American Jews are on average funnier than our counterparts. Tel Aviv may boast eclectic bars and beautiful beaches, but its comedy scene pales in comparison to those in New York or Los Angeles, which are largely made up of Jews.

Jewish humor is heimishe, New York-esque and Americana all at the same time. It reflects both our own Jewish perspective, the culture of a city of eight million people and the tastes of an entire country.

Jewish humor is heimishe, New York-esque and Americana all at the same time. It reflects both our own Jewish perspective, the culture of a city of eight million people and the tastes of an entire country. When I was in Israel this summer, an overwhelming number of locals responded with “Oh! Like Seinfeld! when I told them I was from New York, revealing the straight line that crosses America, American Jews and humor in the foreign imagination. The boss of this phenomenon is Fanny Brice.

The ghost of Fanny Brice persists among all young Jews who aspire to be comedians. She haunts every seedy club in Brooklyn where I’ve met new friends, work contacts, and potential dates. She blesses every performance that challenges stereotypes of Jewish mothers. At the beginning of “Funny Girl”, Brice asks: “Who is an American beauty rose? With a nice American nose? At a pivotal time for Jews in America, she connected our intimate culture to the public appetite, without censorship or dilution of identity, resulting in immeasurable success. Many have dared to follow in his footsteps, a tradition delightfully typical of the American Jewish experience.


Blake Flayton is new media director and columnist for the Jewish Journal.