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The Subversive Power of Jewish Humor

George Jochnowitz
February 2, 2016

by George Jochnowitz

Discussed in this essay: Kvetching and Shpritzing: Jewish Humor in American Popular Culture, by Joseph Dorinson, foreword by Joseph Boskin. McFarland & Company, Inc., 2015, 248 pages.

Jewish Currents comicsWHEN I FIRST saw the title of Joseph Dorinson’s book, I was a bit puzzled. I know that Yiddish kvetshn means “to squeeze” and can be used figuratively to mean “to complain.” Complaining goes well with humor. As for shpritsn, I only knew the meaning “to spray.” I looked it up in Uriel Weinreich’s Modern English-Yiddish Yiddish-English Dictionary, but all I found were synonyms: splash, sprinkle, spurt, squirt. Dorinson, however, explains it all: As a term of comedy, shpritzing means spitting all over your objects of scorn, “dogmas, institutions, celebrities, and enemies,” by bubbling up and spilling over like a shaken bottle of seltzer. And Jewish humor, adds Dorinson, “does not even spare God.”

Why, indeed, should God be spared getting wet? Dorinson cites Woody Allen as saying that “Jews celebrate Yom Kippur to honor a God who broke all of His promises to His people.” So true: After the Israelites left Egypt, they wandered in the desert for forty years. A generation died there and never saw the Promised Land. Eventually, the Israelites built an army and fought their way in — a process that took centuries.

“The Bible,” Dorinson writes, “is allegedly devoid of humor,” but his cautious use of “allegedly” indicates that he has doubts about this statement, as indeed he should. The Hebrew Bible is generally not funny, but there are some great and subtle wits at work in the text. When David flees to escape from King Saul, he is captured by the servants of King Achish of Gath. David then pretends to be insane, leading the king to ask this ironic question: “Have I need of mad men, that ye have brought this fellow to play the mad man in my presence?” (1 Samuel 21:15). After Job is struck with catastrophe after catastrophe, the comforters come to him and ask, “If we assay to commune with thee, wilt thou be grieved? But who can withhold himself from speaking?” (Job 4:2). And when the Prophet Isaiah speaks about the daughters of Zion, he describes the day when “my Lord will strip off the finery of the anklets, the fillets, and the crescents; of the eardrops, the bracelets, and the veils; the turbans, the armlets, and the sashes; of the talismans and theamultets; the signet rings and the nose rings; the festive robes, the mantles, and the shawls; the purses, the lace gowns, and the linen vests; and the kerchiefs and the capes” (Isaiah 3:18-23). This Rabelaisian list was clearly meant to be sarcastic.

DORINSON OBSERVES that humor “also serves as a deeply subversive force.” Perhaps the Biblical tradition of wrestling with God (Genesis 32:28) and arguing with God (Genesis 18:22-33) are connected with Jewish involvement in revolutionary movements. Certainly kvetching constitutes an attack on the status quo and therefore has subversive potential. He points especially to Broadway theater, in which Jews have been leading creators, as playing “an important role in heightening America’s awareness of social issues.” Among the plays he discusses is the musical Finian’s Rainbow, with words written by E.Y. (Yip) Harburg, whose original name was Isidore Hochberg, about whom we read, “Though tainted, painted, and red-listed, ‘Yip’ persevered, indeed prospered.” The fact that the play was about race and sharecroppers did not prevent it from running for 725 performances after it opened in 1947.

Like Yip Harburg, Jewish comedians were often bold about their views but timid about their names. Jack Benny was originally Benny Kubelsky. Woody Allen was Allan Stewart Konigsberg. Lenny Bruce was born Leonard Alfred Schneider. Was there a fear that being funny, which is what a comedian wants, would be confused with being scorned? We can laugh with people because they are funny; we can laugh at them because they are undignified. Jewish names are often viewed as lacking ‘class.’ Was there a subconscious need to avoid a lower-class name in order to separate laughter from scorn? Be that as it may, Jewish scientists, who have also loomed large in their fields of work, are unlikely to change their names. Nobody would have expected Albert Einstein to change his name, and he didn’t, yet everybody thought it natural for Kubelsky to become Benny — and so it went, as by 1970, according to Dorinson, “Jewish practitioners represented 80 percent of the top comedians in America.”

On the other hand, Gertrude Berg, who created and played the role of Molly Goldberg on a radio program called The Goldbergs about Jewish life in New York, did not change her name. Neither did actors on the Yiddish stage who eventually played roles on the radio, like Menashe Skulnik. If you are enacting a Jewish character, you may as well have a Jewish name. The Goldbergs was one of several programs about minorities, as Dorinson reminds readers. There was also Life with Luigi, about Italian-Americans, and I Remember Mama, about Norwegian-Americans. Peggy Wood, the star of that show, was not of Norwegian descent. The radio program Amos and Andy, about African-Americans, had white actors when it was on the radio, but needed to change its cast when it appeared on television.

For much of the 20th century, there were resort hotels in the Catskill Mountains that catered to predominantly Jewish guests. Many of these hotels regularly had entertainers, and many of the entertainers were comedians. A significant percentage of the well-known comedians discussed in Dorinson’s book began their careers in the Catskills. During the same period, there were comedy shows on the radio, and variety shows on television that featured comedians. The Texaco Star Theater, starring Milton Berle, known as “Mr. Television,” was enormously popular, as was Your Show of Shows, starring Sid Caesar, who was Jewish, and Imogene Coca, who was not. I watched the program regularly, which was broadcast live, and I never saw any indication that Sid Caesar was occasionally violent, so I was surprised to learn from Dorinson that once in the Catskills, when the comedian Jackie Michaels “flung tomatoes at Caesar, drenching his new white suit, he chased the offender into the audience, where gleeful onlookers thought it was part of the act.” Equally surprising was that Caesar “also developed a destructive dependency on alcohol.”

This is just one example of the many details about comedy stars and their careers discussed in Kvetching and Shpritzing. We learn about comedian after comedian, actor after actor, writer after writer — and since the book is about comedy, we read joke after joke. Dorinson is a scholar utterly devoted to the subject of the joke.

AS NOTED ABOVE, humor is a subversive force. This led to the persecution of some comedians who were viewed as dangerous during the era of McCarthyism. One of the victims was Philip Loeb, who was blacklisted and lost his job as Molly Goldberg’s husband on The Goldbergs. (There were also attempts at blacklisting coming from the left, as in a January 1949 article in Jewish Life, the predecessor of Jewish Currents, in which Sam Levenson, who had distanced himself from communist activity, was denounced by Louis Harap, a former editorial board member, “for being like a Nazi stormtrooper.”)

Writers can be humorous, but they are not generally thought of as comedians. Sholem Aleichem was called the Jewish Mark Twain. When Mark Twain heard this, he replied, “Please tell him that I am the American Sholem Aleichem.” Philip Roth, one of the greatest novelists of our time, is often humorous. He should have won the Nobel Prize in literature. Perhaps there were already too many Jewish Nobel winners, and Roth was excluded for reasons of affirmative action.

To err is human. Fortunately, in this age of computers, we can catch our errors and have them corrected with relative ease. In future copies of the book, we can do away with slip-ups like the misspelling of Yetta Zwerling’s surname on page 60, although it is correctly spelled elsewhere on the same page. Another case of a correct and an incorrect spelling is found on page 72, where Hans Christian Andersen is referred to twice. Michiko Kakutani’s name is misspelled on page 130. Senator Joseph McCarthy is mistakenly identified as representing the state of Washington on page 110, although he is correctly described as being from Wisconsin elsewhere. There are other small slip-ups, but they can all be changed quickly and easily so that they will not distract the reader from the scholarship that went into the book. We shouldn’t be given any reason to kvetch about this fascinating work of history, scholarship, and philosophy.

George Jochnowitz, professor emeritus of linguistics at the College of Staten Island, CUNY, is the author of The Blessed Human Race: Essays on Reconsideration.