Doktoyrim Heysn Lakhn (Doctors Prescribe Laughter) - On Jewish Humor

Highlights from the Collection

Humor has long been considered a staple of Jewish culture. Why is that? And what characterizes Jewish humor?

Here are some perspectives on what makes Jewish humor specifically Jewish and the role comedy has played in Jewish people’s sense of the world and of their own history. And avade (of course), what would a feature on Jewish humor be without some Yiddish jokes and memories of great Yiddish comedians and authors?

We hope you’ll enjoy—for as the classic Yiddish saying goes, doktoyrim heysn lakhn (doctors prescribe laughter)!

How to Define Jewish Comedy?

In this clip (in Yiddish with English subtitles), Yiddish speaker and Montreal native Hyman Batalion—father of Eli Batalion of YidLife Crisis and Judy Batalion, author of the recently released The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos—shares some jokes and reflects on the universality of Jewish humor. He describes the difficulty of defining what makes Jewish comedy intrinsically Jewish but ultimately suggests that it has to do with unexpected, ironic twists of reasoning, saying “Es iz a fardrey. Es iz kimat normal—ob’ s’iz nisht normal. (It’s a twist. It’s almost normal, and then—it’s not.)”

My Grandfather’s Best Joke

In this highlight (in Yiddish with English subtitles), comedian, actor, and singer Fyvush Finkel, z"l, shares his religiously observant grandfather’s reaction to Fyvush acting in Yiddish plays on Shabbos and reflects on his grandfather’s sense of humor, saying, “Mayn neshome hob ikh genimen fin mayn zeyde. (My soul takes after my grandfather’s).” He then shares his favorite of his grandfather’s jokes, about a man looking for a minyan.

Teaching Jewish Humor

Helen Kurzban, Brooklyn-born native Yiddish speaker and former administrator in the New York City public schools, explains how she taught Jewish humor and analyzes what defines “Jewish humor” and differentiates it from other forms of humor employed by Jewish comedians. She uses the examples of Jackie Mason, Jerry Seinfeld, and Borscht Belt comedians to explain one of the quintessential traits of Jewish humor, which is the ability to make fun of oneself and of one’s situation.

Finding Humor in Grief

Echoing Helen Kurzban’s reflections on what defines Jewish humor, Bel and Sherwin Kaufman, z"l, grandchildren of Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, explain the way Jewish writers use humor to navigate hardship and grief. They discuss their grandfather’s writing and their respective creative works, and Bel describes how, like her grandfather, her own writing is about “making humor out of tragedy.”

Growing Up With Borscht Belt Comedians and Other Yiddish Actors

Minna Barrett, psychology professor and granddaughter of Yiddish actor David Baratz, shares her childhood memories of Borscht Belt comedians spending time with her family. She describes how everyone would take turns sharing jokes and comedic routines and reflects on how their humor helped shape her identity.

Memories of the Comedic Duo Dzigan and Schumacher

In this interview excerpt (in Yiddish with English subtitles), Menashe Rotberg, a Holocaust survivor from Lodz, Poland, now living in Israel, recalls the time he saw the Yiddish comedic team Dzigan and Schumacher perform. He shares his favorite one-liner that he remembers from their act, which poked fun at academia.