When Robin Williams, arguably one of the greatest comedians died, some people gave him an interesting title: “honorary Jew.” Why the Jew label? Couldn’t he have been left as a brilliantly comedic non-Jew?
Well if you look back at most of the great comedians from the previous generation, they were predominantly Jewish. This is a group it seems some people badly wanted him to be part of. Here is a short list of some Jewish comedians, with their real names:
Jack Benny (Benjamin Kubelsky),
Mel Brooks (Melvyn Kaminsky),
Milton Berle (Mendel Berlinger),
Gene Wilder (Jerome Silberman),
Jackie Mason (Yaakov Moshe Maza),
Buddy Hackett (Leonard Hacker),
Jerry Lewis (Joseph Levitch),
Danny Kaye (Daniel Kaminski),
Victor Borge (Borge Rosenbaum),
Rodney Dangerfield (Jacob Cohen),
Joan Rivers (Joan Molinsky)
And my personal favorite
Tony Curtis (Bernie Schwartz)
Growing up I had a passion for jokes and stand-up comedy; I even performed once in a while. The fact that I became a rabbi instead of a stand-up comic tells you how good I was.
Why are Jews so funny? Is it a coincidence that nearly all the great entertainers of recent memory were of Jewish stock, or is something deeper going on?
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, one of my favorite commentators on the Torah, answered the question for me. He makes a short but remarkable statement which changed the way I looked at comedy and why so many Jews are comedians. The relationship between Jews and comedy actually goes back to our birth as a people.
When the Jewish people left Egypt they were pursued by Pharaoh and the Egyptian army who regretted letting them leave in the first place. Several days after leaving Egypt the Jewish people arrived at the Red Sea. Behind them were the Egyptian soldiers and in front of them was the sea. They were trapped.
The Torah describes the scene quite vividly, “…and when Pharaoh drew close, the children of Israel lifted up their eyes, and, behold, the Egyptians were marching after them; and they were very afraid; and the children of Israel cried out to God.” (Exodus 14:10-11)
You could have expected them to cry out to God, or to complain to Moses, but what they did after that was rather unexpected: “And they said to Moses: Were there no graves in Egypt, that you brought us to die here in the wilderness?”
What kind of statement is that? Of course there were graves in Egypt. Their own parents and grandparents had been buried there.
Rabbi Hirsch gives a short and fascinating explanation of this verse. He says, “This sharp and ironic statement was made at a time of the deepest anxiety and despair. This marks the sense of wit that is a characteristic trait of the clearheaded Jewish people.”
He’s telling us something remarkable: the Jewish people made a joke. They assumed that this was the end of the road. All bets were off. Hundreds of years of Jewish history were about to come to a gruesome and pitiful end. Instead of crying, they made a sarcastic comment. “Oh I see Moses, there wasn’t a grave in Egypt that you had to shlep us to die here instead!”
Comedy and humor have a purpose. The Jewish people have gone through thousands of years of Jewish history, and along the way we have seen and been part of some of the worst atrocities the world has known. We have survived beatings, torture, forced conversions, exiles, pogroms and holocausts. We needed something to help us survive those hardships. One of the abilities that God encoded into our spiritual DNA from our earliest beginnings as a people was the ability to laugh. The Jewish people used comedy as one of many survival tools. And God knows, we’ve needed it.
A few years ago Leo Zisman of blessed memory, a survivor of Birkenau, and his wife Myrna, accompanied a group of young professionals to Poland on a tour that I was leading. Leo gave us a detailed explanation of what living during the horrors of the Holocaust was like. He also had a terrific and mischievous sense of humor.
I asked him how he had the mental stamina to survive such an atrocious experience. He replied that many people would tell each other jokes and funny stories from the shtetl in order to escape the terrible reality they were faced with on a daily basis. Those moments of laughter lifted them out of their misery for a few moments every day.
I even saw a book for sale in the Majdanek gift shop (yes, even the camps have gift shops) entitled “Laughter in Hell” that cataloged many of the stories, plays and jokes that were told in the camps.
Medical research has shown the benefits a good laugh can have on your mind and body. Among other things laughter can lower blood pressure, reduce stress hormone levels, improve cardiac health and trigger the release of endorphins, the body’s natural pain killers.
The Talmud tells a story about the great sage Rabbi Beroka who one day met Elijah the prophet in the market place. Rabbi Beroka asked him, “Who in the market is worthy of achieving the next world?” Elijah pointed at two men and said they were ideal candidates. Rabbi Beroka was surprised as these two men did not fit the image of very righteous individuals. Intrigued, Rabbi Beroka approached them and asked, “What do you do for a living?”
They replied, “We are clowns and we tell jokes for a living. When we see people around us who are a bit down hearted we cheer them up with a joke and a few funny words.”
Using the power of humor to lift people’s spirits when they are down is worthy enough of assuring a place in heaven.