Curb Your Liberalism
Liberal Jews aren't funny, not, at least, to Jews who know the jokes in their original form. I've never been able to watch more than thirty seconds of Seinfeld or Larry David, who put both feet in his mouth with this revolting bit of Saturday Night Live monologue:
“I’ve often wondered that if I grew up in Poland when Hitler came to power and I was sent to a concentration camp, would I still be checking out women? I think I would -- ‘Hey, Shlomo, did you see that one by Barracks Eight? I’ve had my eye on her for weeks. I’d like to go up and say something to her. Of course, the problem is there are no good opening lines in a concentration camp.'"
There are in fact some very funny Auschwitz jokes. One is told by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin in his excellent book on Jewish humor. In the 1960s, a Jew in Moscow is tramping home from his Metro stop on a winter night when a Zil limousine screeches around the corner. A back door opens and a large package is ejected. He approaches the package and sees that it is a man, beaten to a pulp. He looks closer, and recognizes the victim--it's Goldberg, whom he met in Auschwitz! "Goldberg," he says, "it's me, Levy, from Auschwitz." A beatific smile comes over Goldberg's face, and he sighs, "Ahhhh....Auschwitz!"
The point of the joke, of course, is that we survived Auschwitz. In the 1960s we didn't know if we would survive Communism. Jewish survival is the moral vantage point from which we can joke about the worst horrors. Larry David's "joke" is merely trivial, which is to say disgusting.
Or the one about the two Yeshiva students who sneak a peek at Nietzsche, who (in "The Birth of Tragedy") quotes the legend of Selenus, the teacher of Dionysus. Captured by King Midas, the demigod is forced to reveal the secret of all wisdom: Best of all is never to have been born, and second best is to die quickly. "You know, Nietzsche is right," says Moshe to Yankel. "Pain is so long, joy is so short, life is so hard, we're better off if we never had been born." Yankel replies, "But, Moshe, who has such luck? Not one in ten thousand." The absurdity of the joke arises from the the fact that love of life that is so embedded in Jewish sensibility that Nietzsche's nugget of Hellenistic nihilism is incomprehensible.
A favorite tells of the rabbinic court that is arguing over whether it is permissible to make coffee with a French press using pre-heated water on Shabbat, when cooking is forbidden. Three of the four rabbis rule in favor, but Rabbi Levine is the holdout. He exclaims, "I call on heaven to show me a sign that these rabbis are ignoramuses!" The sky darkens, lightning flashes, thunder peals, and a voice cries from heaven: "Levine is right!" The other rabbis say, "Now it's three to two."