Matthew Gindin takes a pause in his talk, The History of Jewish Humour. (photo from Jewish Seniors Alliance)
On Nov. 24, the first session of the 2017-18 Empowerment Series started with a bang. Almost 80 people came out to launch the series’ season, which has the theme of Laughter and Music: Feeding the Soul. This first meeting was co-sponsored by Jewish Seniors Alliance and Sholem Aleichem Seniors of the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture, and it took place at the centre.
Featured speaker Matthew Gindin spoke on the topic The History of Jewish Humour. Gindin is a journalist, lecturer and teacher, and a regular writer for the Jewish Independent.
Gyda Chud, coordinator of Sholem Aleichem Seniors and vice-president of JSA, began the session by introducing JSA president Ken Levitt, who spoke briefly about JSA, and urged those who hadn’t yet joined, to become supporters and members.
Gindin began his talk by posing the questions, Why speak of Jewish humour; why do these words go so well together? He then proceeded to answer the question.
Jews have been over-represented in the comedy scene. At one time, they comprised 75% of the comics in America, while they were less than three percent of the population, he said.
Humour has a long tradition in Judaism dating back to biblical times. The name Yitzchak, Isaac, means “he will laugh,” explained Gindin. The prophet Elijah said that two jesters in the marketplace already had a place in the World to Come because they made people laugh. Reb Nachman of Bratzlav, the founder of the Chassidic movement, preached about the importance of happiness. Sigmund Freud also spoke of happiness and humour in his book Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious.
Jews are known for making fun of themselves, said Gindin. They have used humour as a means of preparing for things that could go wrong. It was a method of coping with the many negative experiences in their lives. He pointed out that this type of humour was mainly a product of Ashkenazi culture.
Gindin described several different types of humour. For example, jokes about assimilated Jews trying to fit into non-Jewish society, Chassidim telling jokes about themselves, Jewish folk humour, jokes told under Nazism and communism in order to relieve tension, and jokes about Israeli life. An example of folk humour can be found in Sholem Aleichem’s glossary of his stepmother’s curses. For example: “May you grow so rich that your wife’s second husband never has to work for a living.”
In the United States, Jewish humour became popular in theatres and comedy routines starting in the Borsht Belt, said Gindin. Much of this humour was self-deprecating. The comedians focused on such themes as Jewish-gentile differences, Jewish family dynamics, the stereotype of the Jewish mother, Jewish professions, the diminished role of the rabbi. An example is a joke about waiting for Moshiach (Messiah) – “at least it’s steady work.”
Gindin told many stories and had the audience in stitches. He then asked if there were questions or comments and if anyone had any good stories. The audience responded with many amusing jokes of their own.
Chud thanked Gindin and commented on how well he wove the theme of humour into its time and places and how well he explained how the words Jewish and humour went together. She then invited everyone for coffee and dessert.
The second session in this season’s Empowerment Series will take place on Jan. 24, in cooperation with Jewish Community Centre Seniors and will feature the film Broadway Musicals, A Jewish Legacy. This documentary, by Michael Kantor, narrated by Joel Grey, explores the unique role of Jewish composers and lyricists in the creation of the modern American musical.
There will be three more sessions on the Laughter and Music theme: March 21, with Temple Sholom seniors; April 17 with Beth Israel seniors, in conjunction with Jewish Family Services’ lunch program; and June 25, with Kehila Society in Richmond. For more information, visit jsalliance.org.
Shanie Levin, MSW, worked for many years in the field of child welfare. During that time, she was active in the union. As well, she participated in amateur dramatics. She has served on the board of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver and is presently on the executive of Jewish Seniors Alliance and a member of the editorial committee.