I just read the most inspirational article about Ms. Bel Kaufman, the new professor of “The History of Jewish Humor” at Hunter College in Manhattan. A natural comedienne, she introduces her class with a joke:
The Frenchman says: “I’m tired and thirsty. I must have a glass of wine.” The German says: “I’m tired and thirsty. I must have a beer.” The Jew says: “I’m tired and thirsty. I must have diabetes.”
Teaching the new course, Ms. Kaufman not only tells Jewish jokes; she analyzes them. “We were investigating why so many comedians are Jewish and so many Jewish jokes are so self-accusing,” she explains. “It goes back to immigration from the shtetl, from that poverty, and because the Jew was the object of so much opprobrium and hatred,” she said. “The jokes were a defense mechanism: [As if to say:] ‘We’re going to talk about ourselves in a more damaging way than you could.’ ”
The teacher of this class, author of the best-selling novel, Up the Down Staircase, and granddaughter of Sholem Aleichem, was raised on Jewish humor in shtetl life. On May 10th she celebrated her 100th birthday. Yom Huledet Same’ach! When asked how it felt starting a new job at age 100, Ms. Kaufman was unfazed: “It must have happened gradually, while I wasn’t looking,” … “I feel no different than I felt at 99, 98 or 97.” When asked about her second husband, who is ninety-four years old, Ms. Kaufman shrugs: “He likes older women.”
In the hands of this mature new teacher, who happens to be Sholem Aleichem’s granddaughter, the history of Jewish humor never had it so good.
May we all be blessed to learn, to laugh, and to love.
Rabbi Aviva Berg