Linda Weiser Friedman on Jewish Humor
Date: July 6th, 2014

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Does God have a sense of humor?  Do jesters go to heaven?  Why are Jews so funny?  Who better to answer these questions than a statistician?!  On this episode, we warmly welcome Prof. Linda Weiser Friedman, a professor of statistics and computer information at the City University of New York, who co-authored God Laughed: Sources of Jewish Humor with her husband Hershey Friedman, a finance professor at CUNY.  While one might not normally associate business or statistics professors with laughter, this dynamic duo discuss their decades-long labor of love in compiling a large mound of Jewish jokes and other humorous stories and then using them to explore what it means to be Jewish, religious, and (ultimately) human.  (Bonus alliteration in today’s description comes free of charge.)

We start off with a bit of computer humor (?!) as a means of figuring out what humor really is and who it may appeal to at times.  Tony reveals a little-known secret of his past during this interchange.  Linda discusses the difficulty in getting publishers to take an academic book on humor seriously and this leads to all sorts of ruminations about the role of popular scholarship.  We then plunge headlong into an examination of Jewish humor with a tale of a Jewish grandmother on a beach and her relationship with God.  Indeed, prepare to be delighted throughout the conversation with some of Linda’s favorite pieces of comedy.

Prof. Friedman then lays out what Jewish humor is and why it is so unique.  She observes that few, if any, minority communities have such a rich tradition of using humor to describe and relate the history of their people, particularly when it comes to the often tragic history of persecution that has beset Jews.  Linda points out, much to Tony’s surprise, that there is even a tradition of “Holocaust humor” that might appear shocking to a non-Jews ears.  But as we come back later to in the discussion, none other than Mel Brooks in answering the critics of his film The Producers, laughter is how Jews can get back at Hitler.

Our attention then turns to sources of Jewish humor.  It may come as a surprise to some, but Jews were making jokes and being playful with words long before Jerry Seinfeld or Sid Caesar.  In fact, it dates back to the foundational documents of the Jewish faith.  To help our host Tony make sense of this all, Linda provides a quick summary of the terms Talmud, Torah, and Midrash, among others.  We then plunge headlong into some examples of humor that appear in the Talmud and Midrash, including interpretations of stories involving Abraham, Balaam, Jonah, Joseph, and even Job.  Linda points out that one of the key themes of Jewish humor found in these sources is humans arguing with God and God’s rhetorical and ironic questions posed to humans.  For example, God calls out to Adam in Genesis asking where Adam is, as if Adam would not know that God knew where he was all along.  These little observations made by Prof. Friedman really help to bring subtle new interpretations to Biblical passages that one might not have ever thought about.

We cover a number of other themes of Jewish humor including mocking of idolatry, hubris, the role of rabbis and education, and several other topics.  Tony’s complete lack of humor is on full display when Linda explains why the story of Rachel stealing Laban’s idols (Gen 31) is funny.  We continue with other ancient tales and more modern forms of humor.  The interview then concludes with some general reflections on how humor tends to be culturally specific, how it can cross ethnic and religious boundaries, and whether or not Jews joking about Jews can reinforce stereotypes of the community.  We venture some thoughts on political incorrectness and Linda discusses how Mel Brooks could make light of Hitler and the Nazi regime in his movie The Producers.  Linda finishes with her thoughts on what she learned from her study of comedy.  Recorded: June 24, 2014.

(Please note there is audio interference that was difficult to edit out at the 31-32 minute mark of the interview.)


Linda Weiser Friedman’s bio at City University of New York.

Hershey Friedman’s bio (co-author) at City University of New York.

God Laughed: Sources of Jewish Humor, by Hershey Friedman and Linda Weiser Friedman.

Laughter in Hell: The Use of Humor during the Holocaust, by Steve Lipman (mentioned in podcast).


Carmel Chiswick on the Economics of American Judaism.

Christopher Grenda on Religious Satire During the Enlightenment.

Ken Wald on the Puzzling Politics of American Jews.

Mark Koyama on the Economics of Jewish Expulsions.

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