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Are Jewish Stereotypes Funny?

Are Jewish Stereotypes Funny?

Are Jewish stereotypes funny or just plain offensive?

by Marnie Macauley

Sheldon excitedly told his parents he fell in love and was getting married. "And ... just for fun, I'm going to bring over three women and you guess which one I'm going to marry." Mama and Papa agreed.

The next day he brought three beauties who sat on the sofa and chatted with Mama and Papa over a little cake. After they left, Sheldon challenged, "Okay, which one am I marrying?"

"The one in the middle with the red hair," they replied together instantly.

"Right ... but how did you know?" asked Sheldon, amazed.

"Her, we don't like."

Quick. Did you chuckle, laugh out loud, not laugh because it wasn't funny ... not laugh because it's a "typical-negative-stereotype-that's-offensive-to-the-Jewish-people?"

It's that last one – when lobbed at all "Jewishy" material (especially on a Jewish humor site) – that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up like a shaving brush.

To deny that "Jewish humor" exists, is like denying the Italians have a way with opera

Not long ago, I talked with two famous Jewish comics about Jewish humor. Both assumed "the basic" bewildered look. "Jewish humor? Is there such a thing? I don't know from this," they said, adding a little harumph. Odd, as each made a very nice living doing Jewish "shtick," assuming at times, a Yiddish accent while doing it. One even suggested there was no difference between Red Skelton and Jackie Mason. Twins separated at birth? I don't think so. Regardless of where each of us stand on "stereotypes," to deny that thousands of years of "Jewish humor" exists, is like denying the Italians have a way with opera, the French know from sauces, or happy Greeks break plates.

So why deny it? No doubt, they, too were quaking over the thought of being seen as stereotypical tummlers who spent their days chanting "Put your right foot in," at Grossinger's, circa 1960.

Before you "typical-negative-stereotype-that's-offensive-to-the-Jewish-people" holler, I agree. Some "jokes" that pass for Jewish humor are offensive. The old, "Why is a Jewish mother like a Rottweiler ...? ... Never lets go ... Bada Boom!" is not only offensive to Jews, it's offensive to funny people. Ditto for "Jewish Princess" two-liners. They're unkind, unintelligent, and unfunny. None of which resembles almost every Jew I know. (Oops! Again with the stereotyping.)

But when all funny references to our ethnicity lands on some lantspeople like radioactive fall-out, I think, "How sad." "Sad," when negative, unfair, and unbalanced stereotypes in the secular world have turned us away from claiming many of the magnificent, and yes, humorous characteristics we do share.

When a Judy Gold or Amy Borkowsky talks or writes about their Jewish mothers, when you watch Will and Grace, Seinfeld, Private Benjamin, The Way we Were, The First Wives Club, and yes, read my pieces on Jewlarious, these are informed, not by stereotypes, but by the truth of our experience. If that truth didn't resonate with enough of our readers or viewers, we'd be scoping degrees in Library Science.

So, in response, can we discuss a little?

American Jewish "Stereotypes"

The first major nationwide portrayal of Jews and Jewish life on radio, then television, was The Goldbergs, on the scene from the 1930's to the 1950's. A Yiddishe, I Remember Mama, there was Molly, the immigrant mama, her husband Jake, daughter Rosalie, son Sammy, and Uncle David. From their Bronx apartment, Molly, head out the window ("Yoo-hoo ... anybody?") shmoozed and fixed her family, and everyone in her orbit (Mrs. Bloom, and Seymour Fingerhood, for example) – in hysterical Yinglish, which became known as "Mollyisms."


"Vat's de matter, so late, Sammy? Let me look at your hands. Playing marbles, ha? A marble shooter you're gonna be? A beautiful business for a Jewish boy!"

"It's late, Jake, and time to expire." "Mr. Policeman, officer of the law, your honor, could you be so kindly if you would inform me of the location of where is 14th St.?"

"Give me a swallow, the glass."- "If it's nobody, I'll call back."


"You're breaking your father's heart."

Molly was a genuine American hit! The audience of Jews and non-Jews alike were laughing with, not at her, and few complained about the "typical-negative-stereotype-that's-offensive-to-the-Jewish-people" material that abounded throughout the show.

The answer to "How could this be?" is the key, I believe, in the Jewish humor vs. negative stereotype equation.

The brilliant Gertrude Berg (Molly) spoke for all first and second generation immigrants of every ethnicity. Jewish humor was a vehicle for common sense, wisdom, and compassion. America loved Molly – because Americans knew her, or someone like her. Whether they spoke Yinglish, Italiadish, or Eiredish, it was all Ameridish.

Whether they spoke Yinglish, Italiadish, or Eiredish, it was all Ameridish.

Her Jewish humor reflected the trials, hopes, and patriotism of many new post-war Americans. And made their journey, personal, amenable, and funny. Is there a better way to impart knowledge of the human condition? We saw that our special ancient gift of fearless, satirical, wise, and yes, sophisticated Jewish humor, was the kishkes, of most humor.

Rather than being afraid, ashamed, or hollering over the "typical-negative-stereotype-that's-offensive-to-the-Jewish-people," we Jews should be proud. Proud, because since Molly, we saw how, in the right hands, the truth of our ethnicity, could entertain, inform, and universally resonate.

If it didn't, a Sid Caesar, Joan Rivers, or Jackie Mason would be playing to an audience of 50 at the Flatbush Knights of Pythias, The Producers would be a hit -- at the local JCC, and Seinfeld – wouldn't be, altogether.

Part two: American Negative Jewish Stereotypes: Where Did They Come From? Or, My Son the Assimilator

Published: April 18, 2009

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Visitor Comments: 16

(15) Yak Fatzko, February 12, 2013 6:23 PM

You have neck hair like a shaving brush??!!

Really? Man, I didn't know there were any Jewish werewolves. These would come with their own sterotypes: "Of course silver and garlic don't work against me, I enjoy both.". "Sorry, can't bite anyone tonight, I'm having milchigs later", "I can't open the door for Shfoch Chamascha - it's always a full moon on seder night". "Sorry I'm late, I couldn't consume my victim right away - I had to soak and salt first."

(14) carolwarner, October 31, 2011 5:01 PM

i wish i was jewish

I was in Washington Dc and I saw a vendor selling kosher hotdogs. I asked fpr one and the guy said hey whats your accent? I said british. Well you know what i always say he replied. If you cant be yiddish be briddish.

(13) Jessice, January 17, 2011 7:37 PM

Jewish Stereotypes are simply meant for laughs

True as it may be that some stereotypes are offensive, I believe that most of them are created by jews themselves. They are made up for a good laugh during conversations. My theory is that everyone at one time or another has told a joke relating to who they were that contained a stereotype, but when they begin to be passed along by those of different ethnicities, people feel ofended. Though the argument that such offensive stereotypes shouldn't be spread, we have to think about the fact that ignorance and biggetry are not always the motives behind such comments. They are mostly made up for laughs and should be thought of lightly!

John O'Dwyer, November 1, 2011 4:52 PM

Very true to be sure

Ah sure, we Paddies know more than anyone about that.

(12) Leo Seligsohn, December 21, 2010 6:09 PM


Jewish or Goyish, it's all the same. I've never heard a joke -- ethnic or otherwise -- that didn't draw on the neediness of its characters. It works because it gives the listener a sense of superiority, even when it reflects his or her own foibles. Combined with the ego boost the best jokes also carry a feeling of warmth toward the person or situation portrayed. But it's the warmth that one feels for a puppy or a baby. The self-deprecating funny man (Woody Allen style) simply has the comic making him or herself the subject of his jokes. So I say long live Jewish humor along with other ethnic humor as long as the putdowns are hamishly warm..

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