Covid-19 and Jewish Humor
April, 15 2020
The Corona virus or COVID-19 gets no koved. Confronting this pandemic, Jewish humor, like the sun also rises. Israeli comedians advise us to stock up on matzoh because it has a long expiration cycle; it fills you up; best of all it leads to constipation, thereby reducing the need for toilet paper, already in short supply. Another quip as Passover is upon us, “Never mind the Purell, can CVS carry the blood of the lamb for Peysach? American comic Lenny Bruce once pontificated that tragedy plus time equals satire. In agreement, Israel comic Jonathan Barak goes further. “Since our people have suffered for 5,000 years, we can joke about everything because nothing good happens to us.”
“Anything goes into the humor mill. Right now!” The same article in The Times of Israel quotes Benji Lovett: “Can I enjoy COVID-19 on its own or do I need to see Covid-18 first?”
Israeli author David Grossman blesses humor as the best way to cope and to bypass this current calamity when God and science can’t work fast enough.
The Times of Israel cites other humor mavens including anthropologist Elliot Oring who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the humor of the Palmach, the vaunted Jewish army instrumental in the creation of a Jewish state. Oring was the first to note that Sabra humor is far more aggressive and violent than the humor derived from the shtetl that found a home in America. In this onslaught of the deadly virus, Oring expresses uncertainly whether current folklore offers a momentary sense of control or is merely an illusion. Conventional wisdom, he argues maybe conventional but devoid of wisdom.
Most Jewish comedians crave love and seek derech eretz (respect). Some like Mel Brooks and Woody Allen fear death. Because he feels vulnerable to hostile man, nature and God, Brooks as the 2000-year-old man wants to live forever. He affirms life with exhortation, “Let us not mimic death before our time comes. Let’s be wet and noisy.” To extend life, he urges us to eat a clove of garlic each night before we go to bed. When the Angel of Death knocks, one must go to the door, exhale and ask: “WHO’s THERE???”
Death inspired a young Woody Allen before he became trayf (unkosher) to write his best one liners, to wit:
• Death is an acquired trait
• Yea, I shall run through the valley of the shadow of death.
• I do not believe in an afterlife, although I am bringing a change of underwear.
• Also there is the fear that there is an afterlife but no one will know where it is being held.
• Death is one of the worst things that can happen to a Cosa Nostra member and many prefer simply to pay a fine.
Jokes are in our genes, perhaps derived from Genesis, serve as survival kits. Even during the Holocaust, Jews joked. Jewish residents in Warsaw during WW II compared their ghetto to Hollywood because of all the stars (yellow armbands) seen on the streets. In the concentration camps, nearly naked and extremely cold prisoners were summoned to stand at attention with the imminent arrival of Herr Hitler for inspection at noon. They waited as time passed, 1 PM, 2 PM, 3 PM and still no Hitler. One inmate wonders where he is. The other remarks: “No Hitler? I hope nothing happened to him.” Gallows humor to be sure; but it is stated with a sigh or krechtz, a shrug, and some hope.
In Nazi Germany, just before the Nuremberg Laws kicked in, a bearded Jewish man, walking on a Berlin street encountered the politzei (policeman) who shouted; “Swine!” Politely, the Jewish man tipped his hat and replied: “Schwartz!”
Similarly, a German bigot complained aloud to a Jewish woman this time.
The Jews are the source of our nation’s troubles.”
“Not so,” she replied, “It’s the bicycle riders.”
“Why the bicycle riders?”
She counters: “Why the Jews?”
In school, a teacher was lauding Hitler’s virtues.
She gushed: “He’s like a father to us. Is there anything, children, you would ask our father?”
“Yes,” a little Jewish boy replied, “Make me an orphan.”
These jokes reflect the importance of humor as our defense against an often-hostile world as well as a rebellion against misery. Much of Jewish humor is preoccupied with death, as a way of keeping the malech–hamoves (angel of death) at bay.
In my book, published in 2015, Kvetching and Shpritzing: Jewish Humor in American Popular Culture, I concluded that Jewish jokes constitute not only an effective defense but also a robust rebellion against oppressive conditions. With a kvetch and a shpritz, however brief, we achieve relief through both catharsis and therapy. In times of tsores (troubles) as science searches for answers beyond presidential platitudes, who could ask for anything more?