“The Jewish Joke: A Short History with Punchlines” by Devorah Baum— A Celebration

Baum, Devorah. “The Jewish Joke: A Short History with Punchlines”, Pegasus, 2018.

A Celebration

Amos Lassen

Devorah Baum’s “The Jewish Joke” is a fascinating and revealing celebration of the great Jewish Joke (excuse the redundancy). It includes stories from many comics and reveals the history, context and wider culture of Jewish joking. The joke has wandered with the Jewish people all over the world and it has been translated into many languages and finds a home in many different places yet it always remains a Jewish joke.

Have you ever thought about what makes a joke Jewish? I know that I had done so before I read this book. Jewish jokes have nothing to do with the liturgy or Jewish spirituality but it is always animated and it never seems to get old. This is one of the things Baum looks at here. We look at what sets Jewish jokes apart from other jokes, why they are important to Jewish identity and how they work. The nature of the Jewish joke ranges from self-deprecation to anti-Semitism, politics to sex, Devorah Baum looks at the history of Jewish joking and asks whether the Jewish joke has a future. 

She balances serious research with light-hearted humor and provides fascinating insight into this well-known and much loved cultural phenomenon. She looks at      the roles Jewish humor has played “as a response to oppression and as a way to mock hypocrisy about religious observance.” There is a lot of humor in the pages of this slim volume and I felt that I was smiling the entire time that I read.

This is not joke book but rather a psychological insight into Jewish life both in old Eastern Europe and Russia and life in any modern Jewish community in the United States. It is filled with genuinely very funny jokes as well as a look at what these jokes signify and how they are used. A sense of humor can be to confront what one finds offensive. including offensive jokes.

Baum attempts to get a hold on the slippery nature of the Jewish people and succeeds. As we read, we hear the jokes as if they are bring told to us. I love the Jewish slang that we have in the jokes and I especially enjoyed what she has to say about religion and that some Jews feel that God abandoned them ( historically) while others would like to measure a suit for God, at a very good price of course.

“The Jewish Joke” also celebrates the contribution of Jewish comedians to our world. We see how Jews make us laugh and we laugh as we read.

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