The Big Book of Jew­ish Humor: 25th Anniver­sary Edition

William Novak; Moshe Wal­doks, eds.
  • Review
By – May 21, 2012

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. A for­mer librar­i­an, she has lec­tured on top­ics relat­ing to lit­er­a­cy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.

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