November 26, 2010
Jewish humor’s variety
New books take comedic aim at most everything.
Nothing is sacrosanct in the humor-based books reviewed by the Independent this Chanukah. While not all of the wit works, these books – full of Jewish jokes, social satire and political commentary – are, for the most part, entertaining diversions.
Full of outright belly laughs, or at least loud groans, is Old Jews Telling Jokes: 5,000 Years of Funny Bits and Not-So-Kosher Laughs (Villard) by Sam Hoffman with Eric Spiegelman. The book is based on the Old Jews Telling Jokes website, so the content overlaps, but, for many of the people who would appreciate this type of humor, an old-fashioned book might be preferable. There is also a three-hour audiobook as another gift option. Whichever you choose, know that the humor is definitely aimed at a Jewish audience and, likely, an older audience, though many of the jokes will remind us of our bubbes and zaydes, as this is Borscht Belt humor to a tee, and some of it will sound familiar.
The book is organized into chapters, such as “The Jewish Mother,” “Coming to America,” “Food,” “Sex,” “Illness and Doctors” and “Death: The Last Laugh.” There are photos of and small biographies for most of the joke tellers. While the “comedians” are all more than 60 years old, they represent a wide range of professional and personal backgrounds. Some of the material is appropriate for any occasion, much of it is R-rated and more than a few jokes are very politically incorrect.
On the cleaner, shorter side, here are two examples of the humor you will find in Old Jews Telling Jokes. From Jeff Loewi: “Becky and Ethel are driving in Florida. Becky notices that Ethel has just run a red light but she decides to say nothing. Minutes later, Ethel runs another red light and Becky feels she must say something. ‘Ethel, do you realize you’ve just run two red lights?’ Ethels says, ‘I’m driving?’” And, from George Bisacca, on multi-tasking: “A 90-year-old guy gets married for the third time, to a younger woman. After the wedding celebration, they go up to the Hamptons to the cottage they have rented on the beach. As they snuggle up to each other, the young wife begins to get excited and she whispers in his ear, ‘Sweetie, let’s go upstairs and make love.’ He looks at her and replies, ‘I can’t do both.’” Badoomp boom.
More imaginative and complex, but also firmly rooted in ages-old Jewish humor, is Michael Wex’s The Frumkiss Family Business (Alfred A. Knopf Canada). The novel is centred around a well-known Yiddish writer, Elyokim Faktor, who immigrated to Toronto in the late 1940s and went on to become a beloved children’s entertainer for generations of Canadians, even though his “whole life was about getting under skins, driving others up a wall.”
We meet Faktor only after his death, at age 103. He made several tapes of his reminiscences, had a blog, etc., etc., and Wex creates one of the sleaziest characters ever in Faktor’s “official biographer,” Allan Milner, who hits pay dirt when he connects with Faktor.
“Milner’s career was a cavalcade of the unknown and the forgotten and, as the years went by and he learned more and more, he found less and less of either,” writes Wex. “Time was killing his career: he was running out of old guys. He had to find new lodes to mine, fresh sources to replace the ones that had died or dried up on him. He sifted through senior citizens’ homes, took trips from Toronto to obscure Brooklyn bars that featured old-fashioned music from Europe and were full of post-Soviet pensioners who still played it and liked it. Milner liked to say that the collapse of the Warsaw Pact was just about the best thing that had ever happened to him.”
A “serial collector of old guys,” Milner worms his way into Faktor’s life near its end. Then, while transcribing months’ worth of biographical material after Faktor’s death – and with the added motivation of trying to find something that will help him convince Faktor’s granddaughter, Vanessa, to have sex with him – Milner, “about 80 hours into Faktor’s self-memorializing,” makes a discovery that has enormous repercussions for more than one generation of Frumkiss. Milner really is a well-written villain; one whose every thought and action will make readers squirm.
Though at times vulgar, Wex has written a family saga that is intelligently funny, and not without its tender moments. Such moments also make their way into David Rakoff’s Half Empty (Doubleday Canada), even though his wit is also sharp enough to cut people and ideas down to size. Ostensibly, Half Empty is meant to show the benefits of being pessimistic but, while the first essay, “The Bleak Shall Inherit,” is certainly in that vein, the rest of the collection is mostly astute observation and educational, rather than completely cynical, though Rakoff does start sounding a little whiny if you try to read all of the essays in a few sittings – best to let the ideas percolate a bit in between readings.
Half Empty is divided into 10 chapters and each deals with a radically different topic, beginning with a commentary on the dot.com craze and its overblown optimism which, of course, comes crashing down, and ending with a very personal account of Rakoff’s experience with cancer. In the middle, he covers everything from his anxiety-ridden childhood (and adulthood) to a rabbi that eats pork and shellfish to the ludicrous premise of the musical Rent; making fun of it all, but also finding some meaning or lesson in everything.
For example, in his rant about Rent, Rakoff writes: “Here is what the characters do in Rent to show us that they are creative: nothing. They do nothing. The ‘songwriter’ spends 14 seconds noodling on his guitar, sampling Puccini. The ‘filmmaker’ shoots a lot of Super 8 footage of people he knows, which makes him about as much of an artist as everybody’s dad.... A few of the dramatis personae have jobs, but this only makes them laughably contemptible corporate stooges. There is one character who actually works at her art, a newly minted lesbian performance artist named Maureen, whose ambition is portrayed as being as unseemly, rapacious and untrustworthy as her elastic Kinsey placement.... She should stop with these constant careerist attempts at being ‘interesting.’ In addition to being unattractive, they’re unnecessary. An artist is something you are, not something you do.” Rakoff then goes on, of course, to convincingly argue that the opposite is true: “... without the work, there is nothing.”
Another inaccurately titled book is How to Make Peace in the Middle East in Six Months or Less: Without Leaving Your Apartment (Free Press) by Gregory Levey. Just as Rakoff doesn’t really look at life from a half-empty perspective, Levey doesn’t actually remain in his apartment, nor does he (SPOILER ALERT) make peace in the Middle East. Instead, he travels extensively, speaks to many people – mainly experts, some not – to gain insight into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Levey himself is not a neophyte on this topic. He was a speechwriter for former Israeli prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert – about which he writes in Shut Up, I’m Talking: And Other Diplomacy Lessons I Learned in the Israeli Government – and has since returned to Canada; he is currently on the faculty of Ryerson University in Toronto. So, in the Author’s Note, he writes, “In looking over this book, it occurs to me that even if I intended to take a bird’s-eye look at the Middle East situation, I have inevitably approached it from the point of view of someone who is North American, who is of my generation [30-ish], who is secular and who is Jewish. In other words, from my own perspective.
“But, with a conflict so dense and complicated, I think that’s all any of us can hope to do.” And, perhaps exactly because the conflict is so complicated, Levey keeps the tone light throughout, as he interviews White House officials, politicians, journalists, fundraisers and others, including Stephen Walt, co-author of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, former Mossad spy Michael Ross, and people from the Jewish Defence League and J-Street – a wide swath of opinions, to say the least. He also tries his hand at a piece of software called PeaceMaker.
“Invented by Asi Burak, a former captain in Israeli military intelligence,” writes Levey, “it was designed to simulate the Middle East conflict and educate people on the difficulties and nuances involved in Middle East diplomacy. That sounded like a noble goal to me, since people always had black and white views of what was a very complex situation.”
Given the choice of being either the Israeli prime minister or the Palestinian president, Levey chooses the former, simply because it’s the side he “understood better.” The first incident he encounters in the game is a suicide bombing in Jerusalem, which kills many Israelis, so Levey responds “in a moderate way,” launching a small operation against a terrorist leader in Gaza, rather than a full-scale intrusion, and increasing spending on Palestinian infrastructure. The Palestinian president calls his “goodwill ‘condescending,’” and Levey’s defence minister says something offensive as a reply. Levey’s approval rating drops because he is “perceived as being soft on the Palestinian militants” and, despite continuing construction on the security barrier, he doesn’t do so on popular geographical boundaries. “There were riots in Gaza and the West Bank.... Grasping at straws, I sent a joint Jewish-Arab orchestra to Europe to demonstrate cultural cooperation,” writes Levey. “Almost immediately, they came back of their own volition, saying that, given the current circumstances, it was inappropriate.” When the Third Intifada starts soon thereafter, “Game over.”
The simulations and Levey’s numerous interviews prove just how laughingly wrong are all those North Americans who believe “that if they were just given six months and the authority, they could solve the Middle East conflict once and for all.” So, while not the funniest book – and however annoying Levey’s quest for PeaceMaker boxer shorts is – How to Make Peace is worth reading, for that fact alone.