Press-Republican

November 2, 2012

Insider illuminates Jewish humor

By ROBIN CAUDELL
Press-Republican

---- — PLATTSBURGH — Andrew Silow-Carroll examines “What’s So Funny? New Trends in Jewish Humor” at Sunday’s breakfast lecture hosted by Temple Beth Israel and its Men’s Club.

Silow-Carroll, editor in chief and CEO of the New Jersey Jewish News, is a popular lecturer on Jewish perspectives in journalism, humor, the arts and material culture.

Due to the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, P-R Staff Writer Robin Caudell emailed interview questions to Silow-Carroll, who lives with his wife and three children in Teaneck, N.J.

RC: Could you elaborate on the evolution of Jewish humor in the 20th century?

AS-C: For much of the 20th century, Jewish humor was unmistakably “ethnic,” as opposed to religious. Even Jewish comedians told jokes about Jewish ethnic stereotypes — for instance, Jews drive a hard bargain or Jewish mothers are smothering. In the 1950s, bandleader Mickey Katz (who is Joel Gray’s father) made a career out of recording parody songs that combined popular tunes with “Yiddish” lyrics, like “The Ballad of Duvid Crockett” (“the king of Delancy Street”). Allan Sherman did something similar in the 1960s, with songs like “Shine On, Harvey Bloom” (a takeoff on “Shine on Harvest Moon”). And when Lenny Bruce described the differences between Jews and gentiles (“Count Basie’s Jewish. Ray Charles is Jewish. Eddie Cantor’s goyish”), he wasn’t talking about religion — he was talking about ethnic sensibilities.

I like to argue that kind of “bagels and lox” humor is exhausted. You can still find a lot of folks trafficking in Jewish ethnic stereotypes — Adam Sandler and Jerry Seinfeld come to mind — but I see more and more comedians who are also familiar with Jewish religious differences. My favorite example is from an old episode of “The Simpsons” in which Bart and Lisa argue at length with a rabbi about the Talmud. It’s clear from the script whoever wrote that episode was comfortable with Jewish religious behavior — and felt the audience would “get it” also.

About 15 years ago, I entered a Jewish stand-up comedy contest, and almost all of my jokes were “insidery” Jewish jokes about synagogue life, religion, the differences between liberal and Orthodox Jews. They guy who beat me was an Orthodox Jew from Connecticut who also told those kind of jokes — except his were dirtier than mine.

RC: Who were and are the trendsetters of Jewish humor and their impact not only on the Jewish community but also the mainstream?

AS-C: Woody Allen is the center for gravity for the past 50 years. For most of America, he embodied a certain Jewish stereotype — physically weak, neurotic, hyper-intellectual, urban (specifically New York). And his Jewish humor was “ethnic” — there’s a scene in “Hannah and Her Sisters” in which he considers converting to Christianity and goes shopping for supplies. Jewish audiences roar with laughter when he pulls out a loaf of white bread and a jar of mayonnaise.

Larry David has picked up the baton from Woody even more so than his former partner Jerry Seinfeld. Some of the best known episodes of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” rely on much more current Jewish obsessions and foibles — the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Holocaust and Orthodox Judaism. Seinfeld barely touched these intensely Jewish themes.

I like a writer named David Bader — he’s not well-known, but he’s a written a few books that in addition to the ethnic stuff also include a lot of jokes that rely on a more-than-passing familiarity with Jewish religious behavior. Stuff from his book, “Haikus for Jews,” is often passed around on the Internet, without his byline. And the novelist and memoirist Shalom Auslander has written two funny, caustic books about his own harrowing religious upbringing and his Holocaust obsession.

RC: Although sometimes people may be laughing, can you talk about some serious themes embedded in Jewish humor?

AS-C: Sadly but inevitably, the “ethnic” Jewish community of my parents’ generation is on the wane. When my folks grew up in the early and mid-20th century, they lived in Jewish neighborhoods, attended “Jewish” public high schools, and often entered Jewish professions, since anti-Semitism was still a reality, and there were professions that were closed to them. They vacationed together in the “mountains.” (My parents had a cabin in a bungalow colony on Lake Champlain, near Ticonderoga. Every other person there was a Jewish schoolteacher or principal. Growing up, I found it exotic whenever I met a non-Jew.)

But as America became more accepting, distinctions between Jews and gentiles began to matter less and less. Today, in order to strengthen the Jewish community, you can’t rely on ethnicity — you have to make certain choices, which tend to be religious: Join a synagogue, send your kid to a Hebrew school or all-day Jewish school, be self-conscious in your Judaism. You see this in all sorts of ways, not just Jewish humor.

The result is that the Jewish community is getting “stronger” among the religious and fading among “ethnic” Jews, and Jewish humor is less relevant to the general population than it used to be.

Email Robin Caudell: rcaudell@pressrepublican.com

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IF YOU GO

 WHAT: "What's So Funny? New Trends in Jewish Humor" with Andrew Silow-Carroll.

 WHEN: 9 a.m. breakfast, 10 a.m. presentation, Sunday.

 WHERE: Temple Beth Israel, 1 Bowman St., Plattsburgh.

 ADMISSION: Free. 

RSVP: Call Jeanot Cao'ba at 563-3903 or email jeanotcbj@aol.com.