Monday, 29 January 2018

"The Jewish Joke" by DEVORAH BAUM (2017 Profile Books Hardback) - A Review by Mark Barry...



"...Shlemiels and Shiksas..."

Witty and wise and rather wonderful - "The Jewish Joke - An Essay With Examples (Less Essay, More Examples)" by DEVORAH BAUM was recommended to me by a reviewer I admire and trust - Sid Nuncious - and the dapper little English gent was bang on the money.

I bought the hardback for a tenner off Amazon - a wee thing about the size of an oversized iPhone 8. Published by Profile Books in 2017 – its 180+ pages come with 24 chapters of about five or six leaves each - thereby allowing you to dip into one or two installments of an evening for only a few minutes and come back the next night for more laughs and chucklesome insights.

Devorah has Chapter Titles like "How Do You Tell The Difference Between A Jewish Mother and a Jewish Mother-In-Law" or "How Do You Tell The Difference Between Morality and Neurosis?" - or the ever popular "How Do You Tell The Difference Between A Jew And A Parrot?"

What she does is set up an 'angle' in each of the discussions - she'll pepper the next with absolutely loads of very funny Jewish jokes (in italics) and then examine in brilliant minutiae exactly what's going on - morally, psychologically and even physically. There's that famous Jewish self-deprecation in the face of horrible odds - Two Jews are in a Nazi firing squad - the Squad Captain asks - any last requests - the first Jew shouts, "There's been a terrible mistake!" The second Jew says, "Moishe, don't make trouble..." Obsession with Religion - the Jews wander for 40 years in the desert in the Bible - why - because none of the men would ask for directions.

The book is full of these wickedly witty observations and half the joy here is the constant discovery that there’s more on the next few pages to come (you don't laugh at them - you laugh with them). She also tries hard to get a grip on the slippery nature of the Jewish people and succeeds without being preachy or pseudo-intellectual. And as you read the quotes and words – I like too how you can so ‘hear their voices’ coming off the pages – the funny peculiar way Jews deal with life in all its random messiness. So come the final chapters you’re chock-full of admiration at their genuine God-given funny bones combined with the sheer brass schnitzels and brain power it takes to stand up there behind some microphone in the dark and give people the joy of laughter.

The themes are well worn. Deborah has of course a field day with the Jewish Boy and his domineering scheming mother (even if she does love him or her) - the Jewish Father arguing with God or his friends (they're both schmucks in his eyes) - the braggadocio Jew going on about his huge business or love prowess when he probably has little of either. And in amongst the first-name mentions of characters like Moishe, Saul, Ira, Schmuley, Itzhik, Jerry the Dentist and Ismael the Doctor and their nosey neighbours the Goldsteins – there are of course doubting Gentiles, rowdy Synagogues and randy Rabbis. You get endless studying of the Torah, Hebrew and strict adherence to Yom Kippur, Yiddish and Kosher Food (God forbid there should be shell fish at the Mitzvah). There are Jewish slang phrases we’ve all heard in so many Woody Allen movies like Schnorrer, Schlemiel, Shiksa and Kvetching. Oy vey indeed Mrs. Rosenberg. And of course the big one - Religion – where she surmises that some Jews feel God abandoned them (especially historically) – while others would like to measure a suit for the rotund absentminded git (at a very good price of course).

If I was to be pedantic - you could add that some jokes are better than others and the formula begins to slow towards the final few chapters. But although she does forget to mention or quote some of my all-time favourites like Don Rickles, Mel Brooks and the frankly Godlike Billy Wilder (huge innovators in comedy) - many other famous Jewish comedians (old and new) are rightly name-checked and quoted - Jerry Seinfeld, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Amy Schumer, Sacha Baron-Cohen, David Baddiel, Lena Dunham (of Girls fame), Sarah Silverman, Rita Rudner, Joan Rivers, Cathy Ladman, Maureen Lipman, Jackie Mason and Groucho Marx - to name but a few.

After enjoying this you should make a beeline to a Comedy TV series I’ve been raving about for a while now. "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" is set in Fifties New York and is entirely Jewish in its humour - a very witty show about stand-up comedians and breaking free from emotional chains. It won two American Golden Globes in January 2018 for Best Comedy and for its lead actress – Rachel Brosnahan.

Why do Jewish Comedians have that lethal way with humour and jokes - is it history, hardship, necessity, talent, genius, drive? And how do they maintain a healthy self-deprecating humility that guides their generosity and humanity in the face of persecution and bigotry? I don't know. But in a roundabout way – "The Jewish Joke" celebrates their extraordinary contribution to our world. This wicked little book truly reveals how Jews make us laugh – even bellyache - to the point where there are tears rolling down your face. And isn’t that just the best...

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