Jewish Humor and History in Europe, Russia, and America: From Sholem Aleichem to Seinfeld

History 103B.006

Fall 2006
Instructor (text): 
Day & Time: 
W 10-12
This course is also listed as 103D.008

Why are the Jews so funny? What is unique about Jewish humor? Why are so many comedians, satirical novelists, and film directors Jewish? In this course we will seek to answer these questions by tracing the history of Jewish humor in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. We will begin with the birth of Jewish humor in the Yiddish-speaking shtetls of nineteenth-century Eastern Europe, where Sholem Aleichem and other writers brought schlemiels, schlimazels, and schnorrers to life through their colorful stories. We will then track the evolution and migration of Jewish humor across the European continent and on to America, where the Jewish funnyman (and woman) have transformed the cultural landscape. During the twentieth century, a ";Yiddishization"; of popular humor took place in both the United States and the Soviet Union. Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, and Jerry Seinfeld have made American humor Jewish, and Jewish humor American. In the USSR the ";Jewish anecdote"; was used as a means to critique the shortcomings and absurdities of the Soviet system. We will compare the place of Jewish humor in these two very different societies through novels, movies, music, and stand up comedy.

It has often been said that humor has helped sustain the Jews as a people during times of suffering. We will look at how the Jews have used laughter as both a coping mechanism and an instrument of self-defense against pogroms, forced migrations, and even the Holocaust.

Ever since Freud, many scholars have attempted to analyze the uniqueness of Jewish humor. We will also read some of these sociologists, historians, and Rabbis who have sought to explain why the Jews were ";born to kvetch"; and why such kvetching has had so much resonance in Russia, Europe, and America in modern times.

Grades will be based on class participation, several short (1 page)responses to the readings, and 1 final research paper (12-15 pages). Students will also have the opportunity to lead some of the discussions themselves.

Jarod Tanny is originally from Montreal, Canada. He is studying Russian and Jewish history and his research interests include Jewish gangsters, humor, nationalism, Soviet jazz music, and national identities in the USSR. He is writing his dissertation on â€_ÄúThe myth of old Odessaâ€_ÄÃ_ in Russian and Jewish culture.