The fact that comedian Jackie Mason has begun talking about retiring only after nearly a half century in the business is a reminder of how conspicuously Jews have figured in modern comedy. A question also arises: What was a former rabbi doing in that showbiz job to begin with? Did Jackie think the comic was replacing the preacher? And why should Jewish-Americans, from Jack Benny to Jerry Seinfeld, have poured their soul into comedy the way African-Americans did into jazz?
Some Jews may use comedy as a means of reconciling their contradictory roles in history. According to the Hebrew Bible, the children of Israel agreed to be chosen by God of the universe as bearers of his civilizing law. Yet somehow the Jews’ exalting and exalted mission resulted in their being targeted by some of the world’s most determined aggressors””not once, but persistently, and with escalating intensity to the present day.
Since humor thrives on incongruity, it is perhaps no surprise that Jews should specialize in laughing at the fundamentally incongruous consequence of the divine promise….