Aside from leaning on our faith, knowledge and determination, we should also give ourselves permission to have some laughs.
I asked a friend of mine how he was holding up with all the scary things going on in the world these days. He said he has “good news and bad news.”
“How so?” I asked.
“The good news” he said, “is that I don’t have the coronavirus. The bad news is that my 401(k) is now a 201(k).”
I smiled and walked away and didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. But that’s exactly the kind of gallows humor we hear all the time during these worrisome times. We are officially in a global pandemic. We can wash our hands all day and do everything else we’re supposed to do, but the scary headlines just keep coming and coming, and we have no control over that.
But we can choose how we’re going to react to the constant news about the virus. We can decide whether to be dismissive or nonchalant about it (we all know people like that, right?) or we can fall into a deep, dark despair (I know those folks, too). Or we can work hard — extra hard for me, I confess — to get control of our attitude and do our best to calm our nerves. That would be a sensible and logical plan, although frankly I’m not sure it’s going so well for me.
I’m a news junkie, which is hardly the best medicine for calming one’s nerves these days. Let’s be honest, it’s just so damn easy to get frightened, and the 24/7 news cycle can drive a sane person crazy. But still, I, like so many others, pay close attention to the news. I have also over the years assembled a collection of quotes that I find meaningful, from the silly to the profound. One of them, from jazz artist Miles Davis, is eerily reminiscent of the reaction to this virus: “If you ain’t nervous, you ain’t paying attention.”
But I just have to stop paying such close attention. My religious friends — Jewish and Christian — try to calm me down by referring me to scriptures about dealing with anxiety. King Solomon wrote in Proverbs that “anxiety in the heart of a person causes dejection, but a good word will turn it into joy.” A couple of my Christian buddies, both Baptist pastors, instruct me that Isaiah offers a succinct guide for dealing with fear: “Do not be afraid, for I am with you always.”
Those passages, and many others, are beautiful and inspirational. I’m from Oak Park, so who am I to argue with King Solomon and Isaiah? But I’m also very much a child of modern Jewish culture, and the stereotype of the nervous, anxiety-ridden, nebbish-y Jew has been drilled into my head for as long as I can remember. Every time I wonder if I’m getting sick (like every day in the past several weeks), I can’t help but recall the words of that great Jewish sage, Woody Allen, who, although not possessing the wisdom of King Solomon, was nevertheless a lot funnier. “I’m not a hypochondriac,” Woody the Wise Man used to say, “I’m a Jew.”
The examples of Jews consumed with high-anxiety humor abound throughout American culture, from literature to film and especially among so many of the country’s greatest comedians. Jokes about Jews being nervous wrecks are legendary. (“I’m tired and thirsty,” says the Jew. “I must have diabetes.”) Lenny Bruce, Joan Rivers, Mel Brooks, Jackie Mason, Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David and countless others have indelibly etched this image into our psyches (it was Mel Brooks, after all, who gave us the classic film High Anxiety).
Woody Allen in Annie Hall tells us that life is separated between the “horrible” and the “miserable.” The horrible are the blind and deaf people and those with terrible diseases. The miserable are the rest of us, so we should be thankful if we’re only miserable. It’s a crazy and outrageous commentary about human life, yet it’s become a popular half-funny/half-serious way some Jews see the world. The best that our people can hope for, under this Woody-ism, is to be only miserable. How sad and yet strangely funny.
We can even find humor in the Holocaust. The award-winning 2017 documentary film The Last Laugh interviews survivors and comedians and looks at humor in and about the concentration camps. It’s irreverent, shocking and often hysterical. Who else but Jews could produce such a film?
So, I have to ask: Is there something deep within a modern Jewish soul that searches for meaning not just in our holy scriptures, but also even within the humorous corners of our cultural DNA? And if so, isn’t this the perfect time to tap into the wealth of that vast humor?
Our community has always amazed me in our ability to come together. I believe it’s our greatest strength. We’re a very big tent these days, filled with a massive, diverse spectrum of people who look, think and act differently, yet we all share an undeniable commonality. We are all the children of Abraham. We may disagree, debate and even dislike one another at times, but we also share many visceral values. We pray together, study together, dance together, cry together, laugh together.
The coronavirus virus pandemic of 2020 shall pass one day, just like all the countless crises humankind has faced since time immemorial. Meanwhile, during these dark days, I suggest that aside from only leaning on our faith, knowledge and determination, Jews should also give ourselves permission to sometimes draw on our vast humor, that other precious Jewish gift that always serves us well.
And, as we like to say about chicken soup, it couldn’t hurt either.