Believe it or not, I grew up in a Jewish family that didn’t tell jokes. There were puns and wordplay aplenty, but no jokes, Jewish or otherwise. I found the few that I read or heard elsewhere cringe-worthy, and I didn’t want anything to do with them. Later, when I dabbled in stand-up, I was on the fence about combining humor with “Jewish.” Jewish jokes, well, they just didn’t speak to me. All that has changed with this issue.
Focusing our Big Question on jokes turned out to be a meditation on Jewish religion, history and culture. On the surface, asking joke tellers, writers and scholars what their favorite Jewish joke is may seem like a Small Question. But jokes touch deep currents in Jewish life, or at least in large parts of it, with themes such as guilt, persecution, fear, anti-Semitism, inequality of the sexes, sex, porn, intelligence, superiority, mothers, mothers-in-law, priests, ministers, rabbis, marriage. And did I say sex?
Our quest opened my eyes to the miracle that is Jewish jokes. That’s because our Big Question is more than your average joke collection. It explores why a joke is funny and why it’s meaningful. The whys are what captivate me. Served up with whys, Jewish jokes open a window into Jewish behavior, indeed, human behavior. I can now hear the rhythms and reverberations of Jewish jokes in language in ways I didn’t before. I better appreciate that every joke, however long or short, is a story, and I can understand stories.
Served up with whys, Jewish jokes open a window into Jewish behavior, indeed, human behavior.
My personal favorites often have kernels of folk wisdom. Here’s an abbreviated version of a joke I recently happened upon in the Jewish Humor group on Facebook: A Jewish mother tells her future daughter-in-law the five secrets to a happy marriage. 1) You need a man who is hardworking and considerate and helps you around the house. 2) You need a man who makes you laugh. 3) You need a man who does not lie and whom you can count on. 4) You need a man who will spoil you with gifts. The fifth, says the future mother-in-law, is the most important of them all. “None of these four men can know about each other.” This joke is dated and one-gender-sided, but it still makes me laugh. Plus, it offers insight into relationships. Some of the jokes presented in this issue are far more provocative and grimace-inducing than this one, and most are for mature audiences only.
And despite our best efforts to interview people who are not typical, the jokes themselves mostly hail from the hugely influential and dominant strain of Ashkenazi Yiddish humor that long ago became one with American humor. But not all. Along with jokes told or written by the likes of Joan Rivers, Sarah Silverman and Jerry Seinfeld, there are Israeli jokes and Mexican jokes. There are ones from the Talmud and others that have recently come into being on Twitter.
Of course, we also include plenty of nourishing topical matter to partake of at your own speed, as you bask in the sunshine at the beach, finally mask-free. Our annual J. Zel Lurie investigative journalism story (Zel was the first editor of Hadassah Magazine and a legend in his time) is on Israel’s Supreme Court. This story has its origins in a conversation I had with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg shortly before her death. She was concerned about attacks on the Israeli Supreme Court and suggested that we take a look. Israel editor Eetta Prince-Gibson does just that, talking to people on both sides of the fierce debate raging over the Court, a debate similar to the one in the U.S. and deeply connected to it as well. Columnists Shmuel Rosner and Fania Oz-Salzberger weigh in on the recent Israel-Gaza flare-up, while Sarah Posner observes how mixed messages sent to white evangelical Christians are hindering vaccine compliance. Opinion editor Amy E. Schwartz gives a Jewish perspective on a decision to shut down the classics department at Howard University, a historic Black university in Washington, DC. In Literary Moment, Robert Siegel weighs in on a new book detailing the history of the Sackler family and its long fall from grace.
As usual, we step back into history to widen the angle. We publish an excerpt from a brilliant memoir by the late Allan Gerson.
Disclaimer: Allan was a dear friend with a huge presence, big laugh, restless curiosity, oversized intellect—a multitalented man—and I read his manuscript in its early stages. The moment when Allan discovered at age 12 that he was not who he thought he was and that he was living in the United States under a false name and with fake documents—was permanently imprinted in his psyche. It stayed with him as he prosecuted Nazi war criminals and filed suits against Lockerbie and 9/11 terrorists. In this issue, the past also intersects with the life of Jason K. Friedman, a previous winner of our Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Fiction Contest. In his compelling essay, “Searching for Solomon Cohen,” the saga begins when he and his husband buy a condo in the Solomon Cohen House in Savannah, Georgia, sight unseen, a purchase that leads to an unexpected personal connection.
We also explore the etymology and evolution of the word “schlep,” try to solve the mystery of a medieval Egyptian recipe called “meatballs cursed by Jews,” talk to our rabbis about whether there is such a thing as absolute evil, debate the morality of taxing the rich, chat with Mayim Bialik and discuss the future of Israel with outgoing Israeli President Reuven Rivlin.
There’s fiction too. Young Israeli writer Omer Friedlander’s “The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land” won first place in our 2020 Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction Contest. “This story resurrects the traditional diasporic-Jewish character of the Luftmensch, the ‘air person,’ whose entire existence and livelihood is suspended in the air,” writes 2020 contest judge Ruby Namdar, the author of The Ruined House. A celebratory literary evening is in the works. Meanwhile, submit your own story to the 2021 contest at momentmag.com/karma-fiction by June 30. If you prefer to submit short nonfiction, send an idea to momentmag.com/beshert.
In between issues, don’t forget to check out momentmag.com for more stories and upcoming MomentLive! events. When your eyes get tired, you can listen to audio versions of Moment stories. And now there is something new. Visit our new Moment Gallery, which expands the conversation through art at themomentgallery.com.
Have a great summer!