Columbia professor comedically recounts history of Jewish humor
Jeremy Dauber, author of “Jewish Comedy: A Serious History,” employed six chronological quips to detail the cultural and historical evolution of Jews and Jewish comedy.
The irony of Jeremy Dauber’s performance is that in deciphering the intricacies of jokes, he was still funny.
With an audience of nearly 100 laughing along in Levy Hall at Rodef Shalom Congregation, the Columbia University professor, and author of “Jewish Comedy: A Serious History,” employed six chronological quips to detail the cultural and historical evolution of Jews and Jewish comedy.
“Comedy, especially great comedy, is rude, messy and offensive,” said Dauber at the onset of his Dec. 6 remarks. What comedy does is share “uncomfortable truths. These are the kinds of jokes I want to tell tonight.”
Thus, beginning with a bit about whistling herring nailed to a wall, Dauber launched into a disquisition covering questions of language, syntax and “smart aleck sensibility.” But more so than rhetoricizing vagaries, the academician — whose research requires binge watching seasons of “Seinfeld” — detailed comedic instances stemming from as early as centuries ago.
“In the Bible is the greatest Jewish joke ever told,” said Dauber, who then recounted not only an episode between the biblical judge Ehud and the Moabite king Eglon, but also the linguistic puns involved.
It was a surprising analysis that illuminates alternative portions of sacred writings, as “the comedy in the Bible isn’t the type of comedy we generally associate with Jewish comedy,” he said. “Nonetheless, nowhere better than the Book of Esther do we see the traditional reactionary Jewish sentiment of ‘just because you’ve killed us and disrupted everything, you think you’re in charge of us? Shmucks!’”
Throughout the 40-minute address, Daubert repeatedly invoked Mel Brooks’ material for further substantiation. The narrative approach eased the presenter’s progression into more modern periods, as the jests that began with biblical blasts morphed into humorous weavings of the Disputation of Barcelona, the firing squads in Eastern Europe and the poverty during the Great Depression.
Nowhere better than the Book of Esther do we see the traditional reactionary Jewish sentiment of ‘just because you’ve killed us and disrupted everything, you think you’re in charge of us? Shmucks!’
With each joke something new is revealed not only about its subject, but also about its audience, said Dauber, who added that the Diasporic people’s transformation throughout the generations is a process reflected in its humor.
“I never thought about Jewish comedy that way, going all the way back,” said Lynne Jacobson of Squirrel Hill, who, like fellow listeners, applauded the speaker’s style.
“There were themes and concepts and struggles” that he shared; it “wasn’t just punchlines,” said Rabbi Jeremy Markiz after the event.
Using five or six jokes to tell a story was a “very Jewish way of communicating,” added Matt Sandler of Friendship.
Dauber’s Rodef Shalom address was the second installment in a five-part congregational series titled, “A Conversation with the Author.” In partnering with the Jewish Book Council, the Shadyside congregation has joined more than 100 organizations nationwide in hosting such activities, explained Mayda Roth, Rodef Shalom’s development director.
Because of the diverse set of authors featured, the series should attract a range of interested parties, said Seth Glick, network coordinator.
Following a winter hiatus, “A Conversation with the Author” series continues at Rodef Shalom Congregation on March 21 at 7 p.m. with writer Ruby Namdar, who will discuss his 2017 novel, “The Ruined House.” Registration for the free event is available at rodefshalom.org/authors. PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz