Jewish Journal

Commentary Magazine’s “Why Jews Laugh at Themselves”

by Ryan Torok

June 5, 2011 | 5:12 pm

Jewish comedian Jack Benny (1894-1974)

Over the weekend, I stumbled onto “Why Jews Laugh at Themselves,” an article written by Hillel Halkin that was published in Commentary Magazine in 2006. (Unless you purchase the article for $4.95, you can only read the abstract.)

In the Commentary article, Halkin, who has also translated Yiddish short stories by Shalem Aleichem (“Tevye the Dairyman and The Railroad Stories,” 1987), points to an old skit by Jack Benny that skillfully plays on Jewish stereotypes for laughs:

Benny is accosted by an armed mugger who threatens, “Your money or your life.” The comedian takes his time answering and, when prodded with a gun, protests: “I’m thinking. I’m thinking!”

Harkin says that Benny’s joke relies on two stereotypes about Jews: that Jews love money and that they “over-intellectualize.”

While steroetypes, as everyone knows, are often negative generalizations about groups or individuals, as a Jew I’m proud of our peoples’ tendency to over-intellectualize – which is Harkin’s point: that while self-deprecation is thought of being a primary characteristic of Jewish humor, real Jewish humor is both self-deprecating and self-praising.

“Are we not also forced to admire the person who refuses to be rushed even by a threat to his life,” Halkin says, of the Benny joke, “and insists on his right to rational reflection?”

“A stereotypical Jew,” Halkin says, “thinks before acting.”

Yes we do.


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Ryan Torok is a staff writer and community reporter at the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, where he has spent the past four years covering everything from social justice...

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