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VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2006
Number 64
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Jewish Humor and Jewish Faith

The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America
by Lawrence J. Epstein
New York: Public Affairs.

A Review Essay by Matthew B. Schwartz

American Jewish comedians carried on to the stage certain characteristics of Jewish life: the social conscience and self-criticism, the sense of precise wording and multiple meanings and levels of literary interpretation that came of generations of intense Talmud debate, an inflection that stemmed from Yiddish speech and from the Talmudic sing-song melody, the bon mot or vitz that characterized traditional study of the weekly Torah portion in pre-war Europe. The Hasidic masters well understood the value of humor and cherished the wit of a Hershele Ostropoler. It is told of R. Simcha Bunim of Pzyschche that he once saw a man far out in the waters of the Baltic flailing his arms in panic and in danger of drowning. Realizing that he could never reach the man in time to save him, the rebbe tried laughter, shouting out to the man, “Give my regards to the leviathan.” The man began to laugh, regained his composure and was able to hold out until help arrived.

Even the great tradition of parables and stories that fill Jewish literature from the Bible through the Talmud and Midrash and the Medieval works may well play their role in modern Jewish-American comedy. One also notices that diaries of residents of the Warsaw Ghetto (Chaim Shapiro, Emanuel Ringelblum and Shimon Huberbund) all tell of witticisms and jokes that made the rounds even during the most dreadful times.

Yet there is a great tradition of comedy that stems from Classical Greece as well — the plays of Aristophanes and Menander’s sitcoms of a century later. Satyr plays by the great tragedians were presented on the stage in Periclean Athens along with the hard tragedies of Orestes and Oedipus. Plautus, Terence and Martial were great comic writers in Rome.

From which tradition do the American-Jewish comedians draw their life force? Indeed, it is probably from both, although the very idea of a stage performance is fully Greek and fully un-Jewish. The Talmud several times warns its readers to stay away from batei teatraot and batei kirkosaot (theaters and arenas). Greek entertainment, especially theater, often expressed the world of myth, and ancient Jews never developed the idea of theater whether tragic or comic and used instead very different formats for expressing humor. There are two ancient stories — one Greek and one rabbinic that stand as foundation stories for the roots of what laughter and comedy may actually have meant in these two great literatures. Hesiod tells that Zeus sought revenge against Prometheus who had stolen fire from Mount Olympus and brought it secretly to mankind enabling them to live. Zeus sought revenge by giving men a wonderful gift, which they would love to their utter ruin. The very thought of this hostile scheme made Zeus laugh loudly, (“Works and Days,” l. 77) perhaps the first recorded laugh in Greek literature. The gift, of course, turned out to be a beautiful but deceitful woman — Pandora, with her famous box from which came all the world’s troubles.

The Talmud (Bava Metzia, 49) also tells a story of God laughing. The rabbis were debating whether or not a certain type of oven was ritually clean. R. Eliezer called on heavenly signs to support his opinion. “If I am right, then let this tree move 400 cubits,” and it did. Several further signs demanded by R. Eliezer were also fulfilled. Finally R. Joshua arose and declared that the “Torah is not in heaven,” i.e. the Law is no longer decided on the strength of heavenly manifestations. The power of legal decision is in the hands of human sages, not of God. We can readily imagine that any Greek who spoke to Zeus in that way would have been speedily destroyed by the god’s thunderbolt. In the Talmud’s story, however, God watched the debate, laughed and said, “My children have overcome me.” God’s smile is not an expression of hostility or vengefulness as was Zeus’s. It was an expression of joy and love that people were coming into their own even though, in a sense, it meant some sharing of His divine power.

Now as to Lawrence Epstein’s book. The Haunted Smile is a history of the Jewish comedians of the United States from 1890 to the present, and it is a good read. People “of a certain age” will call to mind the evenings when they quit playing outside early so as not to miss Uncle Milty’s hour or the quick wit of Groucho Marx on “You Bet Your Life.” And if these same people have never gotten used to Seinfeld, they will learn something about him. There are Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce, and the long-lasting George Burns and a special chapter on comediennes. Although the book is not primarily anecdotal, there are some good jokes and stories and some cute tidbits of information. Most Jewish readers could probably guess what Time estimated in 1979 — that 80 percent of professional comedians in the U.S. were Jewish. The same readers will be interested to learn that George Jessel was once batboy for the New York Giants. Harpo Marx once offered $50,000 to the parents of a very cute little girl to adopt her. The parents, of course, turned down the offer. The little girl, not yet famous, was Shirley Temple. Mr. Kubelsky, Jack Benny’s father, was very perturbed to see his actor son playing the role of a Nazi in a movie. However, after it was explained to him that the movie was satirizing Nazis, he watched it 46 times.

Other sorts of information: when Milton Berle opened his famous TV show in 1948, his guests were Pearl Bailey and Senor Wences (remember him?), a popular ventriloquist. Sergeant Bilko, played by Phil Silvers, derived his name from major league first baseman Steve Bilko, with the name having also the connotation of bilking someone. Eddie Cantor’s radio show was cancelled in 1939 after he publicly attacked Father Coughlin as “playing footsie with the Nazis.” Cantor was out of work for a year until Jack Benny intervened with the advertisers to reinstate him. In 1948 during the Israeli War for Independence, Cantor held a meeting in his house to raise money. Benny sent in a blank check, which was ultimately filled in for $25,000. The Marx brothers got their start in comedy rather serendipitously. At first a musical act, the brothers were performing in Nagadoches when the audience left the theater to watch a wild mule. When the audience returned, an angry Groucho began to lambaste them. Thinking it was part of the act, the audience laughed uproariously.

Epstein raises the idea many times that comedy is not actually as funny deep down as it seems to be on the surface. The Jewish comedian, he says, is haunted by the Jewish past and by anti-Semitism — thus the “haunted smile.” Comedians deal too with their own personal anxiety-ridden lives. Epstein often uses words like anxiety, tension, struggle, anger or hostility to describe the thought world behind Jewish comedians. Laughter can express a sense of powerlessness or survivor’s guilt. The comedian may seek control over an alien audience. Freud is cited as connecting Jewish humor to a release of nervous energy, to an expression of sexual desire or to self-ridicule. A 1975 study by Samuel Janus found that comedians are frequently haunted by early lives characterized by suffering, isolation and feelings of deprivation. Humor gives a form of protest against their lives, their families, their pain. Janus administered I.Q. tests to a number of comedians and found the average score to be 138 with some soaring above 160. Also 80 percent had been through some form of psychotherapy. However, other studies have argued quite a different view — that comedians tended to have many responsibilities as children, and they learned to use humor to help handle younger siblings.

Yet, in all this, Epstein seems to have neglected the sort of Jewish humor that the Talmudic story expresses — not hostility but warmth and caring and the smile of God, which lavishes love and encouragement on human beings, or the rabbi of Pzyschche’s witticism, which likewise gives strength and support to a fellow human in crisis. Such humor is not prompted by anxiety or hostility. It is an expression of humanity and wisdom. Classical Jewish humor shares certain features with every other type of humor. But in its highest manifestations, it expresses faith and confidence in a loving God.

Matthew B. Schwartz is a professor in the history department at Wayne State University and a contributing editor.

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