Shternshis: When Jewish humour divides us

Rachel Brosnahan in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Prime Video photo)

There was once a Jewish couple stranded on a desert island.  They weren’t the least bit worried. Why? They had recently pledged $36 to the UJA and they knew they would be found.

I recently returned from a conference in Minsk, where I gave a couple of talks on Jewish humour. The response to this joke was crickets. Humour needs context, and in most of the former Soviet Union, membership in most Jewish organizations are free, and many institutions compete for their audiences by offering highly subsidized programming to youth, elderly and everyone in between. It does not cost money to go to shul. The joke about phone solicitation was from another planet.

Still, considering that 38 per cent of Canadian Jews report that having a sense of humour is essential to their Jewish identity, I was confident that there could be some universal Jewish humour at the Regional Nahum Goldmann Fellowship and Limmud FSU seminar, held in Minsk, for a group of young Jewish leaders from the former Soviet Union.

I began with stories about my research on humour of the Soviet 1920s and 1930s, about how Russian Jews were learning Russian and forgetting Yiddish, experiencing living in cities versus smaller towns, and learning new cultural values, while savouring the old ones. There are so many gems in Yiddish humour from that period, ranging from the cynical, “nisht fun dem al khet iz der tukhes fet”, roughly translated as “not from reading prayers one gains weight,” to the bigoted, such as calling lumps in Cream of Wheat “shikselekh,” to the political “what is the difference between kolkhoz (a Soviet collective farm) and Kol Nidrei? The answer: “On Kol Nidrei, one fasts for one day, for kolkhoz, you fast all year.”

The real interest arose when I spoke about things that Canadian Jews find funny. For example, when the joke about the Jewish couple on a desert island fell on deaf ears, I had to explain about memberships to synagogues and tickets for the high holidays. Similarly, all of the jokes about Jewish moms seemed out of place (people who are stereotyped as overbearing, but never over-critical).

Similarly, they didn’t relate to the jokes about Jewish American princesses either – no one knew what this term meant, and they didn’t see these jokes as self-deprecating, but rather bluntly misogynistic and anti-Semitic (I had to agree on that one).

We spoke, quite a bit, in fact, about jokes by or about Jews that none of us find funny. For example, we discussed how one makes jokes about the Holocaust: we looked into the folklore of the Warsaw Ghetto as well as Yiddish jokes about Hitler created in Kazakhstan in the 1940s.

People felt comfortable talking about appropriateness of Israeli Holocaust jokes and films such as Life Is Beautiful. But when I reported that in the Soviet Union, during the war, a joke circulated that Jews served in the Tashkent Front (alleging to the anti-Semitic myth that Soviet Jews did not participate in the Red Army war effort, but instead survived the war in Central Asia, away from the battles), an uncomfortable silence filled the room. I asked them why, and one woman said: “Because it is just so untrue!” Everyone nodded. They were offended for their great-grandfathers and could not distance themselves enough to analyze the joke.

What jokes did they find funny? The ones from the Soviet period, like this one:

“Rabinowich, do you know how to play violin?”

“I don’t know, I have not tried it!”


Now that the holiday of Purim is here, it is commanded that we laugh at ourselves. Our ancestors who came up with this idea, I am sure, knew that a group of people that laughs at the same jokes becomes a community. But what do we do today, when political borders and hundreds of years of separate histories have divided Jewish people into groups that can laugh at each other, but not with each other? Can we still be a community? Let’s make a joke about it, and see how it goes!