Richard Raskin

Studies of Classic Jewish Jokes

Aarhus University Press, 1992 - ISBN 87 7288 409 6 - 264 pages, illustrated

This is the first book on Jewish humor in which individual jokes are singled out for comprehensive study.

An entire chapter is devoted to each of six major jokes, tracing its history and variants, and looking closely at the ways in which the comic behavior enacted in the punch-line can be interpreted.

Throughout the book, an attempt is made to demonstrate that one of the unique properties of classic Jewish jokes is their openness to radically different interpretive options (having nothing to do with wordplay or double entendre). This openness to alternate interpretations, which has never before been discussed in the literature on Jewish humor, is a property which gives classic Jewish jokes their special flavor, as they leave us wondering which of several possible attitudes we are expected to hold toward the comic figure.

An additional chapter is devoted to the ways in which Jewish jokes tend to evolve. No earlier study has dealt with these jokes in a developmental perspective, showing the pathways through which anti-Semitic anecdotes are sometimes transformed into authentic Jewish jokes, as well as the processes Jewish jokes undergo over the decades as their comic potential is unfolded in successive stages, and when they are transplanted from European to American soil.

The research for this book was carried out over a seven-year period at specialized libraries in New York, San Francisco, Paris, London, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Copenhagen, as well as at the Danish State and University Library in Aarhus, where hundreds of collections of Jewish jokes - published from about 1820 to the present, in English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Danish and transliterated Yiddish - were systematically combed for variants of the jokes singled out for study.

This a book that will appeal to the general reader, as well as to readers especially interested in Jewish culture, the psychology of humor, religion, ethnography and folklore.

Table of Contents


Introduction - A New Approach to the Study of Jewish Jokes 7


Chapter 1

Rabbinic Judgment 13

The History and Variants of the Joke 14

Three Interpretations of the Joke 17

Interpretive Properties of the Classic Jewish Joke 23

Publication History 33

Chapter 2

Man versus God in a Classic Jewish Joke 45

The History and Variants of the Joke 46

Competing Jewish Conceptions of Man's Relationship to God 50

Two Interpretations of the Joke 56

Publication History 61


Chapter 3

The Ten Commandments Joke and the Issue of Ethnic Self-Disparagement 71

The History and Variants of the Joke 72

The Issue of Ethnic Self-Disparagement 77

The Parodistic Triad 88

Publication History 95


Chapter 4

The Ultimate Jewish Mother Joke 101

The History and Variants of the Joke 102

Interpretive Options 108

A Final Note 112

Publication History 114


Chapter 5

The Original Function of Groucho Marx's Resignation Joke 121

Introduction 122

Annie Hall 123

The Friar's Club Incident 125

Quotation Record 130


Chapter 6

The Meaning of Life 131

The History and Variants of the Joke 132

Interpreting the Dying Rabbi Variant 150

Publication History 155


Chapter 7

On the Evolution of Jewish Jokes 167

From Non-Jewish to Jewish Joke 167

Improving the Joke 173

The Development of Parallel Variants 177

Conclusion 181

Supplementary Publication Histories 185

1. Another Doctor 186

2. Cardplayer 189

3. Dachshund 190

4. Dead Shames 201

5. Dying Merchant 203

6. Funny, You Don't Look Jewish 213

7. Job Announcement 217

8. Left-Handed Teacup 222

9. Live Under Water 230

10. Mother's Manoeuvre 233

11. Who's Counting? 235

12. Umbrella 238

Bibliography 241

Name Index 259

Acknowledgments 262

In Europe, Life Is Like a Glass of Tea can be ordered from:

Aarhus University Press
Langelandsgade 177
DK-8200 Aarhus N

phone + 45 89 42 53 70
fax + 45 89 42 53 80
at the price of 198 Danish crowns per copy.

In the U.S., Life Is Like a Glass of Tea can be ordered from:

The David Brown Book Company
P.O. Box 511
Oakville, CT 06779

phone + 1 (860) 945 9329
fax + 1 (860) 945 9468

For further information, contact Richard Raskin at the following e-mail address: