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Should I Laugh?

Come outside and sneak a joke with me.

by David Holzel

After three decades of collective sensitivity training, from "All You Need Is Love" in the 1960s to the more contemporary "To every accidental sexual double entendre there is a litigant," is it conceivable that we're still insensitive about anyone or anything?

Hal Dresner looked into his soul and answered "yes." A joke writer and humor teacher for years, Dresner recently vowed to drop from his repertoire any humor that could hurt. And so that no one should be confused about the kind of levity he was swearing off, he offered the following joke as an example:

Harry decides he's fed up with being a Jew. It's just too much trouble. Much nicer to be a Catholic. One day he leaves home, walks down to the nearby church and has himself converted by the priest. Simple as that. Next morning, Harry wakes up, puts on his tefillin and does his morning prayers as usual.

"What gives, Harry?" says his wife. "I thought you became a Catholic."

"Oy," Harry says, smacking his forehead with the palm of his hand. "Goyishe kop."

When I read this joke from Hal Dresner's letter, just before reacting with sorrow at this sweeping and unfair generalization of non-Jews as idiots — Goyishe kop literally means "gentile head" — I laughed. Out loud. For a long time. Then I read Hal's joke to some other people. And you know what? My delivery got better each time. (Need a fuller explanation of the joke?)

Well, it's funny. And I say this despite the fact that some of my best friends are gentiles. And none fits the generalization. Banish the joke, but the problem is still there. Humans need to laugh. So how do we laugh without it being at someone else's expense?

All of this reminded me of another joke. This one at our expense.

A Hebrew took his boy Ikey to the theater and went up in the gallery. The play was so exciting Ikey leaned over the railing and fell downstairs. His father got excited and hollered:

"Ikey, for God's sake, come back. It costs a dollar down dere."

Part of the after-dinner entertainment at a gathering of the Sons of the Confederate Fruit of Islam? Or maybe an excerpt from "The Lighter Side of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion." No, just a gem from "The New Hebrew Joke Book," a 64-page paperback the size of a man's wallet. If you found the term "Ikey," the clumsy use of dialect and the stereotype of Jewish avarice offensive, don't dial the ADL yet. "The New Hebrew Joke Book" came out in 1907, and its author and publisher was a Jew.

Just what was Irving Ottenheimer thinking when he laid his joke book — written under the nom de plume Irving Ott — before the American public? According to his grandson, Allan T. Hirsh Jr., old Irving Ott just wanted to satisfy the demands of the ethnic joke craze of the time.

I spoke to Mr. Hirsh a few years ago. He was 72 then, and president of Ottenheimer Publishers of Baltimore. Mr. Hirsh wasn't even born when Ottenheimer was churning out Italian, Dutch, Polish and "Hebrew" joke books. But he heard the stories of those days often enough.

"Woolworth's sold those books for 10 cents," he said. "They sold them by the carload."

Irving Ottenheimer and his brother and partner Moses used all the jokes they could find. The best source was the turn-of-the-century equivalent of the late-night talk show.

"My grandfather's secretary told me he used to take her to the burlesque show to get jokes," Mr. Hirsh said. "She took her pad to write and she wrote so much she never looked up."

The Hebrew joke book reinforces the image of the Jew as Shylock. But while Christians had projected that image onto Jews, by Irving Ottenheimer's time groups of Jews in America saw Shakespeare's Jew as a useful tool, explained Moshe Waldoks, co-editor of "The Big Book of Jewish Humor."

"This was 20 years into the period of mass immigration. A lot of Jews made these jokes as a way of distancing themselves [from the Jews they were making fun of] — like the JAP jokes of today."

American-born Jews wanted to dissociate themselves from the greenhorn immigrants with their tortured English. Jewish socialists "poked fun at people who cared more about money than social justice," Waldoks said.

If you laughed at the joke, don't feel bad. So did Waldoks when I told it to him.

"These jokes are not always bad jokes," he said. "You have to look at who's telling it, in what context it's being told, and for what purpose."

So Hal, this piece needs an ending. Got a good joke?

  Banish the joke, but the problem is still there. Humans need to laugh.

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Fuller explanation:

Don't be ashamed. No one's watching you read this.. Harry's just blaming his just-converted gentile brain for his stupid oversight, because a Jew would never make such a mistake. That's the joke. I never said humor like this would heal our world.

Since you asked for a joke to end your article, I'll tell you my all-time favorite. It speaks, I think, to the incredible philosophical ingenuity of the Jews.

Old man is having breakfast one morning when he drops his buttered toast on the floor. And, miracle of miracle, it lands buttered side up. He calls his rabbi and says, "Rabbi, I'm an old man. I've had breakfast maybe 25,000 times. Maybe a hundred times I've dropped my buttered toast on the floor and every time it's landed buttered side down, ruined. But this morning it landed buttered side up. Can you tell me why?"

The rabbi says the problem is too deep for him. He says he'll consult with the head rabbi and get back to the old man. Three days later, he calls. "To the problem you inquired about -- why after a hundred times of dropping your toast on the floor and every time it landed buttered side down and this time it landed buttered side up -- we believe this time you buttered the wrong side."


That reminds me of a joke we heard on one of the
"Prairie Home Companion" joke shows a few years back We've made a custom of reciting it at our seder each year:

Guy hands a blind man a piece of matzah. Blind man says, "Who wrote this crap?"

Kol tuv,

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