The blog of the Roaring Fork Valley (Reform) Jewish community
77 Meadowood Drive • Aspen, CO • 81611
Rabbi David Segal and Cantor Rollin Simmons

Friday, February 22, 2013

Redeeming Laughter

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
22 February 2013 • Parashat Tetzaveh • almost Purim

Redeeming Laughter

When you look closely, Purim is a dark holiday. The Book of Esther is a violent and bloody story, at least in the end -- the part that we tend to gloss over in purim spiels...

Haman and his sons get impaled on stakes. And the solution to the decree to slaughter the Jews is not simply to cancel the decree; rather it is to allow the Jews, by royal edict, to assemble and fight back against their assailants. And fight back the Jews do: in Shushan alone they kill 500 men on the first day; and then in the King’s provinces, another 75,000 people. 75,000! A day of impending doom became a day of preemptive victory (not unlike, perhaps, the 6-day War in 1967).

However true the Book of Esther is, it’s clear the authors knew the Torah well. The Mordechai vs. Haman rivalry is an echo of two other confrontations in the Torah: Israel vs. Amalek (Exod 17 & Deut 25); and and King Saul vs. Agag (I Sam 15), an ancestor of Haman. Esther is yet another retelling of what seems to be a cyclical story. An enemy arises to destroy the Jews seemingly in each generation. Haman’s reason for Jew-hatred is as irrational as the others who have arisen through the centuries. We needn’t look very far back in history, or very many miles away, to see this ancient story cycling again.

And yet, on Purim, we take this dark story -- the murderous anti-Semitism and the Jews’ bloody (if necessary) defense -- and we turn it into a farce! We play dress-up and eat cookies and spin little toy noisemakers to blot out Haman’s name. We stage musical numbers to tell the story through dance and humor.

In that bizarre celebration there is great wisdom about the value of humor. I’d like to suggest tonight that humor is sacred and even redemptive in two important ways.

The first has to do with how we deal with our enemies. When Mel Brooks turned his 1968 movie The Producers into a recent Broadway hit, there was pushback from some Jewish voices. As you may know, it's a story about two down-and-out guys (Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in the film; Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in the musical) who devise a scheme for quick money: they’ll oversell a guaranteed Broadway flop, which means they’ll keep the extra money when the show fails. After culling through stacks upon stacks of the worst scripts they can find, the hit the jackpot -- or so they think. They come across a little number by a German emigre (who happens to be a Nazi sympathizer) entitled: Springtime for Hitler. As I said, some Jews weren’t so receptive to this production, taking offense at the mixing of humor and the Holocaust.

In response, Mel Brooks said in a 2006 interview with Spiegel:
Of course it is impossible to take revenge for 6 million murdered Jews. But by using the medium of comedy, we can try to rob Hitler of his posthumous power and myths....
     We take away from him the holy seriousness that always surrounded him and protected him like a cordon....
     It is an inverted seizure of power. For many years Hitler was the most powerful man in the world and almost destroyed us. To posses this power and turn it against him -– it is simply alluring.
What goes for Hitler here goes for Jewish humor through the ages: humor is redemptive in that it can help us cope with persecution and horror, and it can cut our enemies down to size -- at least verbally.

Consider a few examples of this type of Jewish humor. First, from Russia about 130 years ago...
After the assassination of Tsar Alexander II of Russia, a government official in Ukraine menacingly addressed the local rabbi, "I suppose you know in full detail who was behind it."      "Oy," the rabbi replied, "I have no idea, but the government's conclusion will be the same as always: they will blame the Jews and the chimneysweeps."     "Why the chimneysweeps?" asked the befuddled official.     "Why the Jews?" responded the rabbi.
And another from Russia that needs some introduction, for this is a particularly dark joke, but it illustrates the theme of Jewish humor borne of deep pain, and I share it for that reason:
During the days of persecution and poverty of the Russian shtetls, one village had a rumor going around: a Christian girl was found murdered near their village. Fearing a pogrom, they gathered at the synagogue.     Suddenly, the rabbi came running up, and cried, "Great news, everyone! The murdered girl was Jewish!"
Next we turn to Nazi Germany:
Rabbi Altmann and his secretary were sitting in a coffeehouse in Berlin in 1935, as the Nazis were beginning their rise to power.  “Herr Altmann,” said his secretary, “I notice you're reading [the Nazi propaganda newspaper] Der Stürmer! I can't understand why. It's a Nazi libel sheet! Are you some kind of masochist, or, God forbid, a self-hating Jew?” “On the contrary, Frau Epstein,” replied the rabbi. “When I used to read theJewish papers, all I learned about were pogroms, riots in Palestine, and assimilation in America. But now that I read Der Stürmer, I see things differently: the Jews control all the banks, we dominate in the arts, and we're on the verge of taking over the entire world. It makes me feel so much better!”
And finally to the American South:

Down South during World War II, an army sergeant got a telephone call from a local woman. “We would love it,” she said, “if you could send five of your soldiers over from the base to our house for Thanksgiving dinner. We'd love to host them.”  “Certainly, ma'am,” replied the sergeant. “Oh, one thing... just make sure they aren't Jews, of course,” said the woman.  “Will do,” replied the sergeant.  So that Thanksgiving while the woman was baking and getting the table set, the doorbell rang. She opened her door and, to her surprise and horror, there were five Black soldiers standing on her doorstop.  “Oh, my!” she exclaimed. “I'm afraid there's been a terrible mistake!”  “No ma'am,” said one of the soldiers. “Sergeant Rosenberg never makes mistakes!” 
One caveat about this redemptive potential of humor, as powerful as it can be, is that it has limits. 

To that point, Woody Allen is an insightful commentator. In a scene in his film Manhattan, he’s at a fancy cocktail party with a number of upper crust men and women -- presumably Jewish -- and the following scene unfolds:

“Has anyone read that Nazis are marching in NJ?!? We should go down there, you know, get some guys together, get some bricks and baseball bats, and really...explain things to ‘em.”
     A tuxedoed man, drink in hand, responds: “There was this devastating satirical piece on that on the op-ed page of the Times. It is devastating.”
     Allen interrupts: “A satirical piece in the times is one thing, but bricks and baseball bats really gets right to the point.”
     Then a woman, dressed to the nines, jumps in: “Ah, but really biting satire is always better than physical force.”
     Allen again: “Come on, physical force is always better with Nazis. It’s hard to satirize a guy with...shiny boots.”

Sometimes, he seems to be warning, persecution demands a response; sometimes, unfortunately, the use of force is required. Jokes can help us cope with anti-Semitism, and they may help us diminish our enemies' psychological power over us, but we can’t always simply hide behind humorous words.

*     *     *

We turn now to the second kind of redemptive humor -- making fun of ourselves. Here’s how Sigmund Freud explained it:
The occurrence of self-criticism as a determinant may explain how it is that a number of the most apt jokes...have grown upon the soil of Jewish popular life. They are stories created by Jews and directed against Jewish characteristics....     The Jewish jokes which originate from Jews...know their real faults as well as the connection between them and their good qualities, and the share which the subject has in the person found fault with...     Incidentally, I do not know whether there are many other instances of a people making fun to such a degree of its own character.
(Sigmund Freud, Jokes and their Relation to the Unsconscious)
I see a number of nodding heads... Yes, we Jews seem to have a talent or at least a habit of poking fun at ourselves. Consider these examples...

On the theme of Jews as cheap:
A Jewish man lies on his deathbed, surrounded by his children. "Ah," he says, "I can smell your mother's brisket — how I would love to taste it one last time before I die. Go downstairs and ask your mother to make a plate for me."
     So one of his sons hurries down to the kitchen, but he returns empty-handed.     "Sorry, dad,” he says. “Mom says it's for after the funeral."
On the theme of Jews as complainers: 
A Jewish man in St. Andrew’s Medical Center tells the doctor he wants to be transferred to Beth Israel hospital. After he’s transferred, the doctor at Beth Israel asks, "What was wrong at St. Andrew’s? Was it the food?"     "No, the food was fine. I couldn’t complain."     "Was it the room?"     "No, the room was comfortable. I couldn't complain."     "Was it the staff?"     "No, the staff was lovely. I couldn't complain."     "Then why did you want to be transferred here?"     "Here, I can complain!"
And even though I don't like Jewish mother jokes, I like this one...
Q. How many Jewish mothers does it take to change a light bulb? A. (Sigh) Don't bother, I'll sit in the dark.
Here's one about the Jewish denominations in America:
A man goes to an Orthodox, a Conservative, and a Reform rabbi to ask whether he should say a b'rachah over a lobster.  The Orthodox rabbi doesn't know what a "lobster" is. The Conservative rabbi doesn't know what to say - he gets all confused. The Reform rabbi says, "What's a b'rachah?"
And one about Israeli drivers:
A Rabbi dies and goes up to the gates of heaven. Before he's let in, the angel in charge has to consult with God for a long period of time if he deserves a place in heaven. As the Rabbi is waiting, an Israeli bus driver approaches the gates of heaven. Without a second thought, the angel who was consulting with God let the bus driver through.     The Rabbi points at the bus driver and yells, "Hey! How come he gets in so quickly? He's a simple bus driver, while I'm a Rabbi!"     The angel explains, "Dear Rabbi, you don't understand. When you would give your sermon during the prayer services, your whole congregation would fall asleep. When this bus driver drove towards Tel Aviv, all his passengers would be at the edge of their seats praying to God!"
The most extreme example of this type of humor happened a few years ago. In the last decade, there have been a number of incidents of violence or threats of violence in response to cartoons satirizing Mohammed and Muslims. And about six years ago, an Iranian newspaper sponsored a “Holocaust Cartoon competition” to reward the best Anti-Semitic and Holocaust-denying comics.

Two Israelis responded in a way that I felt exemplified the power of Jewish self-deprecating humor. They sponsored an Israeli Anti-Semitic Cartoon contest, saying:
We’ll show the world we can do the best, sharpest, most offensive Jew hating cartoons ever published! No Iranian will beat us on our home turf!
So yes, I think Freud was right. There’s something embedded in our culture, or maybe in the collective memory of our people, that gets expressed in this perennial self-mockery. I think there is great strength in this. Exposing our faults makes them easier to name and therefore easier to face.

But it's more than that. A friend of mine once dated an Iranian woman, who knew little of Judaism. She decided to go to shul to explore it, and what day does she choose -- but Purim! So there’s this Iranian woman standing in the back when they tell of the Jews killing 75,000 Persians -- well, you can imagine how she felt.

And therein lies the most profound role that humor can play: it can help us re-imagine, reinterpret, and reform those violent tendencies within our texts and within ourselves that we would rather not let speak for us or guide our action in the world.

All of this to say... You really don’t want to miss our Purim spiel tomorrow night. Come and laugh with us -- at ourselves and at our foes -- and celebrate this community with joy and gratitude. And let’s also remember that the two-part redemptive blessing of humor -- directed inward and directed outward -- has the power to renew us in our role as a light unto the nations, and bring us closer to redeeming the world.


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