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It’s not too soon for humor in a post-Oct. 7 world, scholars say

Ahead of a new YIVO course on Jewish humor, scholars say that there is a long history of Jewish humor as resistance and coping mechanism.

Milton Berle with an unnamed woman at Grossinger's Country Club in the Catskills in 1954. Credit: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.
Milton Berle with an unnamed woman at Grossinger's Country Club in the Catskills in 1954. Credit: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

Theodor Adorno, the German philosopher of Jewish descent, famously called poetry after Auschwitz “barbaric.” Experts told JNS that there’s still room for humor in a post-Oct. 7 world.

The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research planned to debut its online, self-paced, 13-hour course titled, “Is anything okay? The history of Jews and comedy in America” in November. On Oct. 9, the institute’s staff met to discuss the course and decided to postpone it.

“We looked at each other and said, ‘We can’t launch this.’ It’s just not appropriate,” Eddy Portnoy, YIVO’s senior academic advisor and director of exhibitions, told JNS.

More than four months later and with Purim—the holiday that most embodies absurdity and levity—approaching, the YIVO course is set to debut on March 21.

It’s not too soon after Oct. 7 for humor, according to Ezra Cappell, professor of Jewish studies and English at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, who has lectured and published on Jewish humor.

“There’s this notion that humor is a way of understanding. It’s also a way of fighting back,” Cappell, who is not involved in the YIVO course, told JNS. “In that sense, I don’t know about it being too soon. When I teach humor, I use it as a form of protest, a way of keeping your dignity.”

There has been “quite a bit of humor” that has sought to “make sense of the horrors of Auschwitz and Jewish history,” according to Cappell, the grandson of Holocaust survivors and whose grandfather shared with him some of the humorous things that helped him get through life in a concentration camp.

“I have no doubt that Oct. 7, despite the recent difficulties and the horror that we went through, is still going to do the same, as a means of coping and understanding,” he said.

Rodney Dangerfield
Rodney Dangerfield. “No Respect.” Credit: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

“What is holy? What is not? They were making jokes in the Warsaw Ghetto,” Cappell added. “I think that humor is so interwoven in the Jewish experience of making sense of the world and of survival.”

‘We haven’t changed’

“Moments of violence and discrimination” punctuate Jewish history, according to Ben Kaplan, director of education at YIVO.

“We want to be able to tell this history in a way that people understand how to contextualize how Jews have responded to this throughout the centuries,” Kaplan told JNS.

The forthcoming course, which will unveil new, free content weekly and be archived for later binge-style watching, focuses largely on Jewish influence and impact on the development of the U.S. comedy industry.

Participants, who need to register in advance, will receive a mix of short video lectures from scholars and academics, interviews, oral histories and personal reflections from Jewish comedians, writers, producers and entertainment-industry insiders. 

The course will address the Borscht Belt, the Catskills getaway where New York Jews flocked when other vacation spots were off-limits. That area would become a legendary home to Jewish comedy, birthing the careers of countless entertainers.

But as one YIVO lesson imparts, the original farmhouses where Jews stayed provided no hired entertainment, as typical resorts did. So, Jews came up with their own.

Enlisting well-known comedians, including Paul Reiser (of “Mad About You”), Lewis Black and Marc Maron (of an eponymous podcast), the course draws on YIVO’s vast archives, including documents, sound recordings and photos.

The course will address Mendele Mocher Sforim (1835-1917), known as the grandfather of Yiddish literature, and his musings on Jews. One of the writer’s earliest stories, which delves into the informality of Jews meeting each other for the first time, will be part of the course, Portnoy told JNS.

New Hebrew Jokes by the Best Jokers
“New Hebrew Jokes by the Best Jokers.” Credit: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

“They ask personal questions, and they also constantly touch each other’s clothing,” Portnoy said, paraphrasing the writer’s reflections. “They rub the clothing between their fingers, and they ask how much it costs.”

Portnoy hadn’t realized that comedies like “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” made similar observations about unsolicited touching of clothing more than a century later.

He said that’s “one of the weird little details” in the course. “To be able to connect Jewish culture from Mendele Mocher Sforim to Jerry Seinfeld—it spans a great distance.”

“It seems like Jews haven’t really changed at all,” he added.

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