Holiday Fun For Everyone

If I may be as so bold as to just completely gank several paragraphs of a 1998 press release from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture annoucing the establishment of the Award in American Jewish Humor (I mean, why reinvent the wheel):

Viennese comedian Sigmund Freud once said that “there are no jokes.” He also noted that the tradition of self-deprecating Jewish humor was really a put-on, albeit a subconscious one: Only a people sure of its superiority could create a humor so mercilessly self-critical. Looks like the joke’s on the gentiles.

But seriously, folks. What is Jewish humor today? Has it changed dramatically in recent years? And what does it say about “Jewish culture?”

Despite Freud’s interpretation, Jewish humor has usually been viewed as a defense, both by Jews and non-Jews. On a physical level, as Woody Allen’s scrawny boyhood stories inform us, using your wits is preferable to using your fists. Make it look like you’re harmless by making a lot of jokes at your own expense, and maybe you’ll live another day. A deadpan joke from Allen’s film “Zelig” illuminates: “As a boy, Leonard Zelig is frequently bullied by the anti-Semites. His parents, who never take his part and blame him for everything, side with the anti-Semites.”

On a psychological level, as Sholom Aleichem’s comic-philosopher Tevye teaches, humor acts as a buffer between expectations and the cruelties of reality. In both cases, the texture of Jewish humor reflects the experience of being outsiders or the victim of persecution.

On the other hand, Jewish humor – especially in twentieth century America – is also a kind of offense (and sometimes even offensive), and represents an increasing Jewish confidence in America. Jews’ wholehearted embrace of and contribution to Vaudeville, stand-up comedy and radio and television entertainment underscores their exuberance in the possibilities of America – economic, social, cultural, linguistic. This combination of offense and defense, of hunkering down and striking out, [finds] perfect expression…

in Plotzlady Barbara Rushkoff’s riotous new book, Jewish Holiday Fun …For You!, a delightfully funny primer on the chagim for Jews and non-Jews alike, which has arrived just in time for the winter holiday season. In fact, if Rushkoff’s introduction is any indication, non-Jews may reap the most reward from the book, be it as a gift from a Jewish friend, or by way of giving Jewish readers a humorous perspective from which to relate the Jewish experience to non-Jews.

Growing up Jewish in a predominantly non-Jewish area wasn’t a big deal. Well, until Christmas. That’s when the neighborhood kids wanted to know what was up with the lame plastic lamp in our window. As I tried to juice up the story about the miracle of Hanukkah (which nobody was buying anyway), I was met with the same bottom line: “So, why don’t you guys have a tree?”

And no matter how many times I said “because we’re Jewish,” they didn’t really get it. Jews in my ‘hood were an enigma. We were thought of as peculiar people with strange holiday foods; people who have something against blinking Santas and electric reindeer.


Once I got my cranium around each holiday and uncovered the so-called mystifying roots, I wanted everyone to know the real deal. But instead of going around with a bible in my hand pointing out scripture, I decided to write a book.

And what a book: Over 100 beautifully designed full-color pages of honest and irreverent Jewish humor. The only setback? It’s Jewish. Responding to a write-up on boingboing yesterday, Rushkoff notes on her blog,

It made me feel really good to see someone write about the book and actually get it. Lots of folks don’t. Lots of folks think I wrote a religious book or a book that only Jews can relate to. I keep forgetting that we don’t live in a Jewish country, even though Jews abound everywhere. (You’re soaking in one!) It was like that when I did the zine [Plotzworld]. A Jew zine? People were baffled at the thought. Then they read it and saw that I wasn’t preaching but merely writing honestly about stuff like holidays, pop culture and my obsession with ReRun of What’s Happenin’?! Ain’t nothing scary there. And ain’t nothing scary in my book.

That is unless you’re terrified of pissing yourself with laughter. With material like a sendup of Highlights magazine’s “Goofus and Gallant” entitled “Doofus and Moishey”, a paper doll telling of the story of Ruth, and a circumcision coloring book, you’re certain to bust a gut no matter what preconceptions you come to it with.

And at a moderate $10, Holiday Fun is pretty much a steal, making it a great stocking stuffer for your favorite curious shaygetz, or Chanukah gift to any kheeb under 40 familiar with the, erm, “parlance of our times,” ie., the hip hop vernacluar. Kol hakavod, beyotch! Er, I mean, Barb.

One thought on “Holiday Fun For Everyone

  1. thanks for the props! i’m really proud of this book. it’s hard to do something “jewish” without turning people off — but what can i do? i am jewish so that’s the way it goes. i can only hope that people have an open mind — and like to laugh.

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