Dr. Jeremy Dauber shed light on rich tradition of Jewish comedy by presenting a historical analysis
“Look at Jewish history. Unrelieved lamenting would be intolerable. So, for every 10 Jews beating their breasts, God designated one to be crazy and amuse the breast-beaters. By the time I was five I knew I was that one…. You want to know where my comedy comes from? It comes from not being kissed by a girl until you’re 16. It comes from the feeling that, as a Jew and as a person, you don’t fit into the mainstream of American society. It comes from the realization that even though you’re better and smarter, you’ll never belong,” Mel Brooks said according to myjewishlearning.com. Brooks was addressing an age-old question about Jews and comedy. On April fourth Ursinus hosted a talk on this same subject.
“Jewish Comedy, A Serious History” was held in Musser Auditorium and saw a good turnout of students, parents, and faculty alike. The talk was given by Dr. Jeremy Dauber, who is the Atran Professor of Yiddish Language, Literature, and Culture at Columbia University. Dr. Dauber graduated from Harvard College in 1995 summa cum laude and did his doctoral work at Oxford on the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship. He prefaced his talk by saying that he would give the
“You didn’t have to be Jewish to enjoy its humor, it truly catered to all audiences. This is the kind of talk that you can really learn something from…and you’ll be laughing the whole time.” —Mark Shevitz Paren
audience the whole history of Jewish comedy from the Bible to Twitter in 40 minutes, with a series of 7 jokes.
Balancing comedy and informative commentary very equally and effectively, Dauber pondered the idea of what makes a joke or a piece of comedy Jewish. The names? Jewish Language? Some element of wittiness?
Without answering the question, he contemplated the qualities of Jewish comedians, whether these elements were good for comedy because they were about Jewishness or because they were just funny.
When speaking about the roots of comedy in Jewish culture, Dauber suggested that rather than being a way to cope with a harsh reality, it was a symptom of the “quietism” that plagued Jewish people throughout history. This quietism was something he made clear he felt needed to be changed.
This led Dauber to the topic of Jewish identity and what it means to be Jewish in a diasporic world. It’s certainly not an easy thing to navigate, but Dauber provided insight on the difficult topic.
In talking about modern Jewish comics, such as Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen, and Jerry Seinfeld, Dauber articulated the peculiar position they find themselves in. These modern Jewish comics have almost entirely departed from the traditional Jewish community of the last 2000 years in terms of their lifestyles and traditions. Yet they have stated they still feel very Jewish.
Ursinus students were impressed. Siam Owen, a junior, felt that, “incorporating these modern comedians into the talk allowed [him] to understand and relate better to the topic that was interesting but difficult at the same time.”
“Aside from learning some new jokes, I learned to reread what I know of Jewish history through the lens of Jewish humor. We often think of Jewish history as one filled with wandering, exile, and persecution.” —Dr. Alexandria Frisch Visiting Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies/Coordinator of Jewish Life
The talk concluded on this subject and a few questions were asked, capping off an overall enlightening, funny, and well delivered presentation. President Brock Blomberg was in attendance and felt that “it was hilarious.”
Mark Shevitz, a visiting parent who resides in Arizona, was also present and had the following to say about the talk, “You didn’t have to be Jewish to enjoy its humor, it truly catered to all audiences. This is the kind of talk that you can really learn something from…and you’ll be laughing the whole time.”
Dr. Alexandria Frisch, Visiting Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies/Coordinator of Jewish Life, was at the talk as well. “Aside from learning some new jokes (!), I learned to reread what I know of Jewish history through the lens of Jewish humor. We often think of Jewish history as one filled with wandering, exile, and persecution. My goal in bringing Dr. Dauber to Ursinus was to highlight a lighter and more joyful side of Jewish culture. Even if students don’t remember the nuances of his arguments, I hope they walked away having laughed a lot at an academic lecture and realizing that, yes, Jewish Studies can be fun,” said Dr. Frisch.