Men have often used humor to confront their fears, subvert cultural norms, and mischievously pull at the fringes of society. From Groucho Marx to Seth Rogen, Jewish men in particular have often relied on humor as a source of wisdom, release, bonding and tribal communication. Why do so many Jewish men populate the hallowed halls of legendary humorists? How do the Jewish American boys of today utilize humor in their every day lives? Do they hide their insecurities behind an “ironic curtain?” Do they allow a hidden part of themselves to emerge through a shared laugh?

This session will engage the boys in an exploration of the rich history of Jews and humor – examining classic Jewish texts, experiential activities, and yes, a few jokes along the way.


  • Boys will gain an understanding of the ways humor is used in contemporary culture
  • Boys will learn of the value humor has in Jewish tradition
  • Boys will explore the deeper reasons behind our use of humor, and what it communicates about, and to, us

Physical Activities

#1 Someone Else’s Shoes (humor as catalyst for empathy)

Have the boys form a circle, and ask each boy to take off their right shoe and throw it into the middle. Then everybody takes a random shoe from the pile and puts in on (whether it fits or not!). Now each boy must find the person who is wearing the matching shoe, and stand next to them so that their feet make a matched pair. Everyone should line up in this way so that there is one long chain of matching footwear!

#2 Go for the Oscar (humor as confrontation of death)

Have the boys take turns in pairs acting out an improv scenario (a day at the beach, a waiter taking an order, asking a boss for a raise, etc). In the middle of their scene, shout out, “Time to die!” at which point one of the two must act out a hilariously over-dramatic (but still narratively logical) death scene.

#3 Ha! (humor as contagious, bonding activity)

Everyone lies down, resting their head on another person’s stomach, thereby forming a chain of perpendicular angles. Tell the boys that the goal of the game is NOT to laugh. The 1st person says “Ha!”, then the 2nd person “Ha-ha!” the third “Ha-ha-hah!” and so on.  They can go back and forth up and down the chain a few times if necessary. Typically, this results in a breakdown of infectious laughter before long.

Cognitive Activities

#1 What is “Jewish Humor?”

Discuss the following quote. Do you think it applies to contemporary Jewish comics, like Andy Samberg, Jonah Hill, Judd Apatow, Jeff Ross? As a Jew, do you ever feel the need to either “draw a line” or “cross a line?” How about as a teenage boy?

What’s unique about Jewish humor? Jewish humor laughs in the face of authority. This dates back to the first recorded laughter in history, when Sarah laughs at the prophecy that she will finally become pregnant in her old age. Sarah’s laughter is like a small rebellion against God. She even names her son Isaac, which means, “Laughter!”  But Jewish humor can also be used to draw lines –  dividing the world into “us” (we who get the joke) and “them” (those who don’t). So, Jewish humor (1) crosses lines and (2) draws lines? Isn’t that a bit hypocritical? It is. And that’s part of the beauty of Jewish humor – it doesn’t have to make sense. Comedy doesn’t have to do anything except make people laugh—and often enough in Jewish history, a bit of laughter has given us comfort when nothing else could.     – Josh Lambert, What is Jewish Humor?

#2 What is “Men’s Humor?”

Discuss the following essay by Isaac Asimov. Do you agree with his premise? Is humor a way to express what we usually repress? Do men have this need in a different way than women?

Most of us, if we are male, have gathered in groups that happened to be exclusively masculine. On those occasions, it is extremely common to have conversation turn to an exchange of off-color jokes. Why should jokes of this sort be told at all? Why do even the most respectable and well-mannered men tell them and listen to others tell them? Is it really a mystery? Sex and elimination — the two basic staples of such jokes — are unmentionable in polite society and yet are always with us. What a relief it is, then – what sheer release of tension – to tell some story that involves the open admission that such things do exist. It might even be argued that the dirty joke is an important contributor to the mental health of males.

But don’t women suffer from the same social hypocrisy as men do? Aren’t women repressed even more than men, since women are supposed to be “ladylike” and “pure”? Of course! And it is my experience that women laugh as hard at dirty jokes as men do. Why, then, do men persist in believing that the presence of women will spoil their fun? Partly, I suppose, it is because they are victims of the myth of feminine purity, but partly it is because one of the components of the dirty joke is unabashed male chauvinism. Women are almost always the butts and victims of such jokes.

Again, it’s no mystery. Men are “tyrannized” by women from birth. The young boy is hounded unmercifully and continually by his mother, who is perpetually at him to do what he does not want to do, and not to do what he does want to do. The young man in love is constantly tantalized by the young woman he desires, and eventually, as married life settles down, the husband is hounded unmercifully and continually by his wife who is perpetually at him to do what he does not want to do. Naturally, the male gathering is the one place where he can escape from this unending, lifelong feminine domination, and where he can retaliate, in safety, by telling jokes in which women get what they deserve. Here again, such jokes may be essential to male mental health.
-Isaac Asimov, About Men: Male Humor, NYTimes, June 5, 1983

#3 Old Jews Telling Jokes

What are the following jokes about?

  • Fear of relationships

  • Fear of illness/death

[Note: the boys might find it cool that the teller of this joke, Daniel Okrent, is the inventor of Rotisserie Baseball!]

  • Cultural taboos

Jewish Texts

#1 Humor heals the world

Rabbi B’roka of Chaza’ah was wandering around the marketplace when the spirit of Elijah appeared to him. Said the rabbi: “Tell me, Elijah, is there anyone in this marketplace who will earn a place in the World to Come? Said Elijah: “Not a single one.” As they kept walking, they spotted two men in the distance. Said Elijah: “These two will make it in the World to Come.”  Rabbi B’roka asked them: “what is your work?” The two men answered, “We are clowns. We cheer people up. Also, when we see two people fighting, we step in and make fun of them until they make peace with each other.”                                 -Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 22a

#2 Humor brings deeper wisdom

Without silliness, there would be no wisdom in the world. Every person needs to experience some humor. Wisdom that comes from clowning is as special as light that comes from out of the darkness. For without darkness, light would serve no purpose. Rabbi Shim’on once said to Rabbi Abba: “Come and see! The greatest mysteries of the world are only explained through joking.
– Zohar, Volume 3, Folio 47b

#3 Humor creates a common bond

Two Jews pass a church with a sign promising $1,000 to all new converts. After much debate, one of the men decides to go for the money. An hour passes, then another and another as the friend waits outside. Finally the Jew comes out of the church and his friend eagerly asks, “So, did you get the money?” The first man glares back and says, “Is that all you people ever think about?”

#4 Self-deprecating humor

Ask: What does it mean when we laugh at ourselves? Are Jewish men too often portrayed as lacking in self-confidence?

Naomi (strong Israeli woman): “You are the most unhappy person I have ever known. You are like a baby…The way you disapprove of your life! Why do you do that? …You seem to take some special pleasure, some pride, in making yourself the butt of your own peculiar sense of humor. I don’t believe you actually want to improve your life. Everything you say is somehow always twisted, some way or another, to come out ‘funny.’ All day long the same thing. In some little way or other, everything is ironical, or self-deprecating…And you are a highly intelligent man – that is what makes it even more disagreeable. The contribution you could make! Such stupid self-deprecation! How disagreeable!”

Portnoy: “Oh, I don’t know,” I said, “self-deprecation is, after all, a classic form of Jewish humor.”

Naomi: “Not Jewish humor! No! Ghetto humor.”

…By dawn I had been made to understand that I was the epitome of what was most shameful in “the culture of the Diaspora.” Those centuries and centuries of homelessness had produced just such disagreeable men as myself – “frightened, defensive, self-deprecating,” unmanned and corrupted by life in the entire world. It was Diaspora Jews just like myself who had gone by the millions to the gas chambers without ever raising a hand against their persecutors, who did not know enough to defend their lives with their blood. The Diaspora! The very word made her furious.
-Philip Roth,  Portnoy’s Complaint


#1 That’s Not Funny

Have the boys write down on anonymous index cards topics that they think should never be joked about. Collect them and read them aloud to discuss. What makes a topic taboo?

#2 Self defense

Marc Maron: Why are we so afraid of joy?

Judd Apatow: That’s the question, and I’ve thought about it a lot. And I think it’s because we think that right behind joy is a knife that will cut our throat. And if we feel it, it’s almost like a laugh, and you’re chin goes up, and your throat is exposed. And if I laugh too loud, someone will slit my throat. And so, that’s the terror of joy. If I enjoy this as completely as I want to, it’s gonna hurt when it goes wrong. And the mistake is, it hurts already. Keeping shut down is what really hurts. And so it doesn’t actually make sense, and if you have to think about it all the time to know that’s what’s happening. Like I’m not actually enjoying this. And then you’re not present because you’re waiting for a punch. That’s how I feel like. I feel like I have my dukes up all day long, looking for someone who’s going to punch me, and here’s the thing: no one ever punches me.   -Interview, WTF Podcast

Ask: Are we the descendants of Isaac? Abraham’s son’s name means Laughter, and he, too, had his throat exposed to the knife! What are we afraid of, and is laughter the remedy or the symptom?

Concluding Ritual

Invite volunteers to tell their favorite joke, and see if you can create a blessing around the fear or value that it expresses!