Lecture Focuses on Jewish Jokes

At a talk on Jewish humor Wednesday, Visiting Lecturer on Jewish Studies Jordan D. Finkin said the cultural phenomenon of jokes is ingrained in the Jewish identity.

“Jews have no monopoly on jokes, nor on good jokes, yet there is a characterization of Jews as good joke tellers,” Finkin said at the talk in the Lamont Forum Room hosted by the Harvard Library Judaica Division and the Harvard University Center for Jewish Studies.

Finkin spoke about the cultural terrain occupied by jokes and their relationship to the discourse on Jewish identity, peppering his lecture with examples of jokes in Yiddish with English translations.

“Within the Jewish cultural system, humor is Jewish,” he said.

Finkin also talked about the linguistic aspect of Yiddish jokes. He said Yiddish is especially receptive to the Rabbinic tradition of debate, prompting the creation of strictly Jewish cultural jokes based on religious texts such as the Talmud.


He gave examples of popular Jewish joke formats, such as the use of competitive argumentation. “Jewish jokes play on the assumptions of the audience and manipulate those assumptions,” he said. “The joke-teller frustrates those assumptions of the audience.”

Finkin, who is the Cowley Lecturer in Post-Biblical Hebrew at Oxford University, published the book “A Rhetorical Conversation: Jewish Discourse in Modern Yiddish Literature.”

At the lecture, Finkin also spoke on the works of Immanuel Olsvanger and Sholem Aleichem, authors who aimed to present Jewish humor through the Yiddish language. The work of these men exemplify, Finkin said, the point he was trying to make about the nature of jokes. “Jokes can be simple as a common line, or as long as a performance,” he said.

He made a distinction between a Jewish cultural joke and a narrative story. “Stories involve Jewish discourse, but they tend to do so with a formal technique. Jokes also involve Jewish discourse, but as a part of the meaning,” he said. He explained two types of Yiddish jokes: the “Shaggy Dog”—building up to a single punchline—and the “Argument for multiple possibilities.”

Charles Berlin, the head bibliographer in Judaica at the Harvard College Library, introduced Finkin.

“Finkin’s lecture is a fascinating excursion into this area of Jewish culture,” Berlin said.


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