Jewish humor, with its exaggerated truths and bittersweet memories, fills a visceral need deep within us all, and we’re a smart enough people to make sure we’re never farther than arm’s‑length away from a good, healthy dose. Every generation knows this. In my 1950s childhood living room, a tattered copy of the classic Nathan Ausubel Treasury held pride of place. It was pulled off the shelf to be read aloud on Friday nights. The Shabbat table, the Seder table, the rabbi’s weekly sermon, the movies, the theater and practically every other venue were opportunities for Jewish humor to rear its sly little head and play hide and seek with loftier topics of interest.
The gift of humor has helped us survive in a world often hostile and threatening. With it, we have the tools and the strength to face obstacles and challenges. It gives us a filter through which we can view life’s complexities with a laugh or sometimes just a wry smile as a substitute for tears and fears.
In 1985, William Novak and Moshe Waldoks gave a new generation a fresh look at Jewish humor and a new classic was born. The selections ran the gamut of the genre with jokes, stories, vignettes and cartoons all represented. While focusing primarily on an Eastern European Jewish sensibility, these selections conveyed a history and philosophy which is steeped in humor even when not transparently funny. This illuminates the Jewish experience and we recognize ourselves between the covers. On each page, we give a nod or a wave to our ancestors, families and friends.
Now comes a 25th anniversary edition, and just in time. The rising generation, too, needs all the wisdom this book has to offer. There is some new material added, as well as a new introduction. This introduction, while historical and literary in approach, is filled with the authors’ own brand of Jewish humor. These are two pretty funny guys and I’ll bet sitting around a table with them is great fun! They add illuminating sidebars and illustrations and give an excellent overview of the topic with a twinkle in their joint literary eye.
This compilation is folk literature at its best, and like all folk literature it comes alive when told orally with the appropriate inflections and body language (often including a shrug of the shoulder and a world-weary sigh). The book is a read-aloud gem and the stories positively beg to be told in a group setting; they jump off the page and roll joyfully onto the tongue. The Big Book of Jewish Humor is a must-own and belongs in every Jewish home. If the proverbial rabbi, minister and priest rowed their boat to your house, they’d tell you exactly the same.
Michal Hoschander Malen is the editor of Jewish Book Council’s young adult and children’s book reviews. She has lectured on a variety of topics relating to children and books and her greatest joy is reading to her grandchildren on both sides of the ocean. Michal lives in Great Neck, NY and Efrat, Israel.