Joke’s On Us

A joke about a boy and his grandfather gets at an uncomfortable truth about Israeli Jews today.

by Joel Chasnoff

This is the first in a regular column by comic Joel Chasnoff, who will dissect jokes and share his thoughts on why they are or are not funny, and what the jokes say about us. If you have a joke you’d like Joel to analyze, particularly one that says something poignant about the Jewish people, email it to joel@joelchasnoff.com. Include your own insights about why you find the joke meaningful. Finally, please note that Joel’s comments reflect his own views, not necessarily those of the CJ publishers.

An Israeli friend of mine recently told me this joke:

An Israeli boy and his Saba – grandfather – walk hand-in-hand through Tel Aviv. As they come to a park, the grandfather smiles, points to a tree, and says, “Nechdi – my grandson – do you see that tree? When I was young I planted that tree!”

They continue their walk through the park, and out to a busy street, when suddenly the grandfather points to a building and shouts, “Nechdi, Nechdi, do you see that building? When I was young I helped build that building!”

They walk down the sidewalk, past shops and cafes and a restaurant packed with customers, when the grandfather points excitedly and exclaims, “Nechdi, do you see this restaurant? When I was young I washed dishes in this restaurant!”

The boy turns to his grandfather and asks, “Saba, I have a question. When you were young, were you an Arab?”

I love this joke. Not because I find it uproariously funny (I don’t), but because it does what the best jokes do: it reveals an underlying truth about ourselves.

For as long as there’s been such a phenomenon as Jewish humor, it’s typically been we Jews who have gotten the last laugh. (Think of all those “priest-minister-rabbi” jokes where the rabbi oneups his peers.)

But now that we have a state of our own – and along with our state a government, and an army, and power – our role in jokes has changed, to the point where, sometimes, the joke is on us.

The Saba story is a perfect example. When the neched asks his grandfather, “When you were young, were you an Arab?” he’s merely pointing out an undeniable, albeit uncomfortable, fact: in modern Israel much of the menial, get-your-hands-dirty labor like construction and bussing tables is done not by Jews but by Palestinians, Israeli Arabs, and workers from overseas.

Is this a problem? Not necessarily. And by no means is this kind of economic situation unique to Israel. (Think migrant farm workers in America.)

However, such a scenario does reveal an uncomfortable truth, namely that in some ways Israel is losing touch with the pioneer ethos so crucial to the country’s founding. I would argue that Israel more than compensates for this loss by pioneering incredible gains in other areas, especially high tech. So it’s not that Israel is no longer a country of pioneers, but that they’re a different kind of pioneer.

In any case, it’s not an issue of good or bad. My point is simply that humor has the power to shed light on who we are and how we think, in a manner both swift and searing. Or, as I like to call it, “truth with bite.”

Joel Chasnoff is a stand-up comedian and author of The 188th Crybaby Brigade, about his service in the IDF. His family are members of the Pelham Jewish Center, Pelham Manor, NY.