Being Jewish is a complex thing. I mean, there’s the self-described Jewish people, both the 70% of us in diaspora and the remainder in Israel. As a nation, of course, we comprise most of the citizens of Israel, often thought of as “the Jewish state.” Then there’s Judaism which, like Christianity, comes in a multitude of varieties. At its most strict and prescriptive, there’s Orthodoxy. Then there’s a spectrum of versions, from Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist to the youngest and most diverse form, Jewish Renewal. Finally, there’s the Semitic race, which includes both Jews and Arabs, along with other, smaller groups. So, are we Jews a people, a nation, a religion, a race? At its most universal, we are a people and part of a race. A minority of us comprise a majority of a nation. And in terms of religion, perhaps only half of us are members of a Jewish congregation. The other half, perhaps more, are ethnically Jewish but not religious. Take me. I’m an ethnic Jew, the third generation in America, but as for my religion, I’m Episcopalian. But what unites us all, I believe, is our Jewish culture, and a big part of that is Jewish humor, that capacity to laugh at ourselves and others despite the dozens of nations that have tried to destroy us over the 4,000 years of our existence as a people...
You’ll never have heard of these Borscht-Belt entertainers: David Kaminsky, Aaron Chwatt, Philip Feldman, Pinky Perlmut, Moishe Miller, Jerome Levitch, Bernie Schwartz, Milton Berlinger, or Murray Janofsky. But once they took on more mainstream names, they became nationally, even internationally known: Danny Kaye, Red Buttons, Phil Foster, Jan Peerce, Robert Merrill, Jerry Lewis, Tony Curtis, Milton Berle, and Jan Murray. To this list we could add more recent Jewish comics like Groucho Marks, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Joan Rivers, Sid Caesar, Totie Fields, Jackie Mason, Alan King, Mike Nichols, and Elaine May. My own favorite was not a public figure, however, but a personal friend, the late Dr. Victor Margolin of Chicago. He was a treasure house of Jewish humor. One of his many jokes was about an old Jewish man rescued after years alone on a deserted island. To get this joke you have to know that we Jews are very particular about things, especially our religion. Anyway, his rescuer asks the man about the three hand-made buildings on the island. The latter replies, “One is mine house, another is mine temple where I prayed for you to come get me, and the third—Oy!—the third is the temple I would never set foot into!” Or consider this clever little joke I shared at my friend’s memorial service: A Reform Jewish Temple moved in next door to a Quaker Meeting house, and now some of my best Jews are Friends! To sum it all up, we Jews have survived by keeping ourselves and our Gentile friends laughing. Obviously, it has not always worked. But despite everything, we are still here. The joke thus far has been on our enemies. Thank God!