When Life Gets Us Down, Jewish Gallows Humor Can Bring Us a Laugh

April 30, 2020Mark Levy

A famous comedian (though sources aren’t sure exactly which one!) once said that tragedy plus time equals comedy. I don’t believe tragedy is necessary for jokes to work, but comedy certainly can certainly lessen the pain of our tsuris (troubles). That’s why, when people ask how I can be so flip in the face of disaster, I can honestly say: I’m a Jew. It’s a learned survival skill.

Even in the darkest days of the ghettos and Nazi concentration camps, Jews didn’t lose their sense of humor. Here’s a classic bit of gallows humor, by way of example:

Two Jews are facing a firing squad.

One turns to the other and says, “You think they’ll let me have a last smoke?”

The other says, “Shut up. Do you want to get us in trouble?”

In the years following the Holocaust, it was enormously taboo to joke about that catastrophe in Jewish circles. There are some things you can’t joke about – or at least not right away.

It’s a lesson that Jewish comedian Gilbert Gottfried learned the hard way when he joked right after 9/11, “Everybody on the planes were screaming and praying, except the Jews, who kept asking the crew if they would still get frequent flyer miles.”

That’s a pretty loaded joke, and with antisemitic overtones, to boot, but that’s not what landed Gottfried in hot water. It was just too soon after almost 3,000 people perished in the terrorist attacks for audiences to take to any jokes about the tragedy.

Today, there’s nothing funny about the virus that’s killing people around the world, and anyone who jokes about it is looking for trouble – maybe even tempting fate. For a little dose of comic relief, then, here are a few of my favorite Jewish jokes from tsuris past:

  1. A rabbi is lost in the forest and sees a bear coming toward him. He begins praying, “Baruch atah Adonai…” (Blessed are You, God) – and the bear answers, “Ha-motzi lechem min ha-aretz,” “who brings forth bread from the earth.”
  2. Two Jews are sitting on a train in Nazi Germany; one is reading Der Sturmer, and the other is reading a Yiddish paper. The latter asks, “How can you read that antisemitic rag?”
    He answers: "When I read Der Sturmer, I hear about how rich and powerful Jews are, and when I read the Jewish papers, I read only about our tsuris!"    
  3. A group of partisans are plotting to assassinate Adolf Hitler. They draw straws to choose who will go to Germany to do the deed.

    Two older Jewish women get the short straws. They take a train to Munich and position themselves in an alley around the corner from where their spies have identified Hitler's route to lunch every day. 

    “This should be easy,” says one to the other. “Der Fuehrer comes this way every day at the noon. All we have to do is wait here.” Noon passes; no Hitler. 12:30 passes; no Hitler, another half hour and no sign of him.

    One of the women turns to the other and says, “He was supposed to be here an hour ago. I hope nothing happened to him!”
  4. One year, I decided to buy my mother-in-law a cemetery plot as a Hanukkah gift. The next year, I didn't buy her anything. When she asked me why, I said, "Well, you still haven't used the gift I bought you last year!" 
  5. A man collapses and is lying in the street barely conscious. Paramedics come and put a pillow under his head. One of them asks, “Are you comfortable?” He replies, “I make a decent living!”

For more on this topic, see "From the Borscht Belt to Broad City: Pushing the Limits of Comedy" by Wes Hopper. 

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