What’s Funny? It All Depends

by Joel Chasnoff

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In the previous issue of CJ Magazine I shared a joke about an Israeli boy and his grandfather as they stroll through Tel Aviv. Walking along, the grandfather points out the tree he planted, the sky-scraper he helped build, the restaurant where he bussed tables, all as a young man. To which his grandson replies, “Saba, when you were young, were you an Arab?”

Several readers wrote to say they enjoyed the joke and what it says about the complexities of modern Israel.

A few found the joke offensive, either to Arabs, or to contemporary Israelis. (But, strangely, never to both.)

Some readers missed the point entirely. “This is a terrible joke which distorts the truth significantly,” one wrote. “Jews built Israel with blood, sweat and tears, and this joke shifts the focus to create the mis-perception that it was built basically with the labor of Arabs.”

To me, this was the point of the joke: that Israel’s pioneer spirit, so fundamental to the state’s founding, is no longer the same.

I share these reader comments not to call anyone out, but to demonstrate that jokes are both powerful and subjective, to the point where a good joke can say as much about the listener as it does about the teller and subject matter.

On that note, I share a joke first told to me by my late grandfather:

A priest walks into a barbershop and gets a haircut. When he’s finished the priest reaches for his wallet to pay, but the barber says, “No, no. You’re a man of God. It’s on the house.” The priest thanks him, and that afternoon he returns with a crucifix as a gift.

The next day a minister goes to the same barbershop and gets a haircut. When he tries to pay the barber says, “No, you’re a man of God. It’s free.” The minister thanks him and returns that afternoon with an Old Testament.

The next day a rabbi comes in and gets a haircut. When he reaches for his wallet the barber says, “No, no, you’re a man of God. It’s on the house.” The rabbi thanks him, and that afternoon he returns with another rabbi.

When I lecture on Jewish humor I make sure to include this barber joke, as a way to gauge the audience’s reaction. The joke always gets a laugh. But when I ask people what they think about the joke, the response is mixed.

Some find it uplifting: the joke demonstrates that Jews are clever, that we see deeply into an otherwise straightforward situation. The joke says something about Jewish optimism and our instinct for survival.

Others find the joke nothing but a regurgitation of the tired Jews-love-money stereotype: the minister and priest express gratitude but the Jew wants only a bargain.

Which view is correct?

It depends, on who’s telling, who’s listening, and even who’s nearby.

Told by your rabbi to the congregation, you’re likely to find the joke harmless. Told by your co-worker who’s not Jewish, chances are you’ll be taken aback.

And if you’re in a group that includes people who aren’t Jewish, it might not matter who’s telling the joke, you might cringe at the possible message the non-Jews will take away.

I find this idea fascinating: that the same exact words can mean incredibly different things, depending on who’s standing next to you.

It’s like that old expression, “You had to be there.” Except it also matters who you were there with.

As a comedian who performs onstage, I’m acutely aware of the subjectivity of jokes and what they say about the listener. In fact, I can learn more about a congregation and its quirks (and challenges) during a one-hour stand-up comedy performance than from a three-hour pre-show meeting with the congregation president. (Believe me, they’ve tried.)

For example: more than once it’s happened that I mentioned the word “cantor” during my act, only to discern a palpable change in mood throughout the room. It could be that they just fired the cantor… or decided not to renew his or her contract… or that, unbelievable as it sounds, the rabbi and cantor don’t get along.

Like any comedian worth his salt, I respond to this with a series of jokes about cantors, for what better way to confront the tension than head-on? I wouldn’t have dared try this earlier in my career, but I’ve since learned that people are grateful for the chance to laugh. (Especially the cantors… if they’re still there.)

For our next issue, I’d like you to send me a Jewish joke that you feel says some-thing about you, and what you think your response to this joke implies about who you are.
Write me at joel@joelchasnoff.com. I look forward to laughing with you.

Joel Chasnoff is a stand-up comedian and author. His family are members of the Pelham Jewish Center, Pelham Manor, NY.