Rabbi Joseph Telushkin stood stocky, white bearded, bespectacled and altogether proud behind the lectern at the forefront (both literally and figuratively) of the magnificent, almost palatial grand hall of Temple Oheb Shalom, rimmed by emerald art deco portraitures depicting revered figures from Jewish history.
More than 500 well-dressed cognoscenti of the local Jewish community sat eager for the speech to come. Telushkin is, after all, one of the 50 best speakers in the United States according to Talk Magazine and bestselling author of more than 15 books including “Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion,” which remains the past two decades’ most widely selling book on the subject.
Some of his anecdotes revolve around personal encounters with such prominent statesmen as Joseph Lieberman.
The room was held in rapturous silence, each person at the 30 or so tables leaning forward.
“Three Jewish mothers were talking about their sons,” Telushkin quipped, “with one bragging, ‘My son, he loves me so much, he just bought me tickets for a cruise around the world!’ Another said, ‘That’s nothing. My son loves me so much he paid for a fully catered meal at a glorious dinner.’ The last chimed in cheerfully, ‘I have you both beat: My son pays a therapist $300 per hour … and all he talks about is me!’”
The joke resulted in an explosive eruption of raucous laughter from the audience, which was there to support the Jewish National Fund, a 115-year-old organization dedicated to fructifying needful expansion and emboldening in Israel. It was a perfect moment, if not necessarily an incongruous one.
Along with the procession of monumentally prestigious accolades he has received over the years, Telushkin is notable in the nascent scholarly field of comedy. His speech for the morning was in fact based largely on his 1998 book “Jewish Humor: What the Best Jewish Jokes Say About the Jews” and thoughtfully explored the intersectionality between the Jewish identity and humor through a kaleidoscopic prism of sobering probity.
Following his introductory remarks — the only part of the speech he smirkingly claimed would be “serious” — that included the New Yorker’s admiration for Baltimore, a place he’s visited many times, as well as the community’s high percentage of Jews active in the JNF’s goals, Telushkin “switched gears,” launching right into his first joke … about promising not to go beyond another two hours.
(A clever way to mollify some slight tension, met by resoundingly boisterous chuckles, in reference to some mumbled collective mutterings about the event having started a bit late.)
Being true to his word, so to speak, Telushkin immediately cut to the chase and focused on the brunt of his morning’s premise. He explained that so-called “ethnic humor” deals in broad strokes, stereotypes and clichés. A joke about a “drunken Irishman” or “cheap Jew” hold much more water, for example, than, say, “a drunken Jew” or “cheap Irishman.” Obviously, to suggest all Jews are cheap is as ridiculous as to imply Jews can’t or don’t get drunk, that all Irishmen are drinkers or can’t be cheap themselves.
The ridiculousness inherent to stereotypes of such humor is exactly what can make long-entrenched and oft-told jokes funny. To some.
As Telushkin suggested, it might be worth considering that those who take umbrage with this brand of humor may be taking the stereotypes they caricature a little too seriously, which brings into question these persons’ own embedded sensibilities about said unfortunate clichés.
“One Jew crossed another in the night and said, ‘I’m so sorry. I heard your business burned down last night.’ ‘Shh,’ said the other. ‘That’s tomorrow night.’”
After the uproarious laughter died down, Telushkin explained that it might be slightly easier to laugh at an old joke such as this one about Jews being avaricious “tricksters” if one comes into the conversation already understanding that, of course, this is not the case and thus the joke is mere lampooning.
Many groups of people like Jews have a long history of oppression. And telling these jokes is one way to deal with that. It’s something that can unite all those who have been marginalized at one time or another.
— Rabbi Joseph Telushkin
“People who abhor ethnic humor might be those who think all persons in each group are the same,” Telushkin said.
Certainly, such jokes can be used to discuss various seemingly established traits of, for argument’s sake, Jews: their ties to family (as showcased in the aforementioned jibe about the three Jewish mothers) or their propensity toward analysis (an element of the same joke).
This last dubious notion may be somewhat understandable, Telushkin said, due to the father of psychoanalysis — Sigmund Freud — being Jewish. According to Telushkin, Freud, in fact, was surrounded by so many like-minded Jews in his vocational circle that he made sure to request the appointment of the gentile Carl Jung as president of the International Psychoanalytic Society so that the burgeoning field of study would not be considered a “Jewish science” vulnerable to anti-Semitic criticism.
Humor, Telushkin continued, always takes the various extremes of situations and exaggerates them. That’s a critical component to its absurdity.
“A Jewish husband was told by his wife’s therapist that she has trust issues. ‘I know,’ said the husband. ‘I read about it in her diary.’”
There’s a patent absurdity in Telushkin’s gag that stretches to near tearing the rubbery extremes of stereotypes involving a paranoid Jewish husband who would go to the extent of reading his neurotic Jewish wife’s private diary.
All people laugh at and understand such narishkeit, was Telushkin’s overall point. It’s something that unifies not only Jews but all peoples, no matter their religion, race, gender, creed, class, ability.
“Many groups of people like Jews have a long history of oppression,” Telushkin told the JT shortly after his speech. “And telling these jokes is one way to deal with that. It’s something that can unite all those who have been marginalized at one time or another.”
“I think that in everything that [Telushkin] writes, we can learn so much about human behavior, and much of this unifies all of us,” JNF’s national campaign director, Diane Scar, told the JT.
“By revisiting the generalizations that we maybe grew up with,” Scar continued, “we can look at so many important issues through a different lens and see, yes, that we’re all so much more similar than different.”
“We [at the JNF] wanted this morning to be a time when attendees could feel that they were with a very, very scholarly gentleman like Rabbi Telushkin and also have an opportunity to sometimes laugh at themselves and expose some of the nuances that sometimes might be taboo to talk about,” Scar said.
“We knew he would do this in a professional manner and that people could go into the High Holidays not only focusing on their transgressions necessarily, but also the positive things they do. Especially our contingent who are doing good throughout the day and feel just really proud of the work that they’ve done.”
It’s no wonder then that Telushkin ended what was already a jovial colloquium with the reminder Hebrew might be the only language he knows of whose word for “charity” — tzedakah — is the same for “justice.”
Here again is the ultimate contradiction that lends itself to a kind of absurd humor in its formulation: In continually seeking a certain justice for the past, Jews may be seen as pessimistic while optimistically giving charity where needed in looking toward the future, leading to Jews being, in Telushkin’s final summation, “optimists with worried looks on our faces.”
Now that’s funny.