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    Humour – Ask the Rabbi

    Q. How does “creative humour” fit into Jewish culture?

    A. Presumably the adjective “creative” has the same connotation as in the phrase “creative writing” or “creative art” and contrasts with imitative writing, art… or humour. In Jewish humour it is possible to re-work old material so skilfully that nobody knows the difference and one gets a reputation as a humourist. There is nothing wrong with this, as we know from stage and screen, where actors can take a role which others have mastered and re-work it to make it their own. The creative humourist is more spontaneous, laughing at a moment, or situation in a more or less unpredictable way.

    Jews, according to Nathan Ausubel, are virtuosi in the art of joke-making and joke-telling (“Treasury of Jewish Folklore”, page 264), because they have a “dual capacity for weeping and laughing at the same time”. Jews, says Ausubel, have had long experience at finding the serious side of life – as well as recognising “the foolishness and incongruities of the Human Comedy”. Sigmund Freud had a particular interest in Jewish humour and believed that the two qualities of a joke – that it makes us laugh and serves our ideological interest – are well satisfied by Jewish jokes. Theodor Reik, student and colleague, suggested two further marks of Jewish humour – the fact that it is “not merry”, and its “emotional intimacy”.

    Freud made a distinction between jokes that Jews tell about themselves, and jokes that gentiles tell about Jews. The second category, far from being Jewish humour, is “brutal buffoonery”, says Freud, because it is generally nasty and hostile; instead of being funny, it pokes fun and makes mischief. This is why Jews laugh at Jewish jokes when told “in club”, but get annoyed when outsiders try to tell jokes about Jews or Jewish ways.

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