Rabbi Telushkin comes to talk about Jewish jokes and what they say about the Jews
Was the shtetl a forerunner of Catskills on Broadway? Why are comedians so often Jewish? Why are Jews so often comedians? Why ask questions?
These are some of the questions Rabbi Joseph Telushkin likes to think about. And, he says, it’s possible to look far back into texts important to understanding Judaism and find examples of humor.
Telushkin can cite a few rabbis, one being referenced in the Talmud, who employed humor to make a point. The Talmudic leader was known for beginning his talks with a joke or startling statement because he wanted to get people’s attention.
“Jokes do get attention,” says Telushkin, who has written a book and developed talks on the essence of Jewish humor and the reason it garners so much universal appeal.
Telushkin, an Orthodox rabbi by training and author of Jewish Humor: What the Best Jewish Jokes Say About the Jews, brings his findings — and lots of jokes — to a Wednesday, Oct. 25, program sponsored by the Jewish National Fund. His topic will be “The Fifty Best Jewish Jokes and What They Say About the Jews.”
In the early years of Israel, when air travel to the United States was much more difficult, an official of the Israeli government came to visit. A large delegation of Jews went to greet him at the airport.
The man got out of the plane and someone asked him to describe the situation in Israel in one word. “Good,” the man answered. Somebody else in the crowd asked for an answer in two words, and the man said, “Not good.”
Telushkin explains that the irony represented in that vignette, which expresses the idea that neither answer always applies, uses humor to draw attention to the subject, loosely in the style of the Talmudic rabbi.
“Humor makes it hard to be overly abstract,” Telushkin says. “That’s what makes it very helpful. If you challenge an audience about certain things, people can get defensive; but if you do it with humor, you can get them laughing and nodding along.”
Telushkin, who has written almost 20 books and whose range of subjects stretches from the reality of religious values to the make-believe of his Rabbi Daniel Winter mysteries, has addressed many issues through previous Michigan speaking engagements. Talk magazine, published between 1999 and 2002, named him one of the 50 best speakers in the United States.
“I want to cover how Jewish humor really reflects on the human condition, and the disparity and irony of the human condition — the disparity of a perfect God and the imperfect world in which we live,” says the rabbi, a cousin of the late Rabbi Morris Adler of Congregation Shaarey Zedek.
“I think the sense of irony became very associated with the Jews and so did questioning, not taking the world immediately on face value [another element of Jewish comedy]. The very word ‘Israel,’ if you look in the 32nd chapter of Genesis, actually means to ‘wrestle with God’ based on when Jacob is given the name Israel after wrestling with an angel.”
Telushkin thanks his mother for bringing a sense of humor to his family. She was the joke teller.
“I grew up with a natural attraction to humor, and I think I had an aptitude for it,” says the rabbi, whose talk strictly focuses on jokes and not the jokesters who told them. “From the time I was very young, I had a humorous take on a lot of things, and people responded.
“I think some people are just naturally funny. I recently met a contemporary non-Jewish comic, Adam Corolla. I was sitting with him between segments of a radio show and I found that he was just as funny speaking one-on-one as he was on the show.
“I can laugh at myself and believe people who can’t [laugh at themselves] become insufferable. Part of the power of humor is when it’s spontaneous.”
When Telushkin appears before groups, he only includes a joke if he thinks it’s genuinely funny and reveals some truth.
“Years ago, as I started speaking on Jewish humor, I tried to get my hands on everything I could read about it,” he recalls. “Sometimes, I picked up a book on Jewish humor and realized it had nothing to do with Jewish humor. The author gave the characters Jewish names, but names don’t make the jokes Jewish.
“If culture, religion and history have an impact on a people, then certain traits will become more pronounced. The history of anti-Semitism is a factor in why Jews are thought of as a more nervous group.”
An example is given of a telegram sent by a Jewish person with that nervous characterization: “Letter to follow. Start worrying.”
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin will speak at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 25, at Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills. A dessert reception will follow the program. Although there is no admission fee, reservations must be made by going to JNF.org/Detroit. (248) 324-3080.