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Jewish Mothers, Take a Joke

Rabbi Grossman has spoken like a true Jewish mother. Her moral finger-wagging at those who crack a few jokes is either obvious or prudishly naive about human nature. Yes, Jewish mother jokes can be insensitive and downright hurtful. But they also can be, at times, acutely accurate.

To use Rabbi Grossman’s line of thinking: How many Jewish mothers does it take to change a lightbulb? Jewish mother replies: “It’s ok i’ll just sit here alone in the dark.” Of course not all Jewish mothers are such martyrs, but I sure know a few who would qualify. What makes a joke step over the line from being a positive form of social critique to a weapon wielded by the hands of cruel bigots, is something no one has ever figured out. But just because Jewish mother jokes have the potential to be hurtful and false does not mean that the whole genre of humor should be morally outlawed.


I am somewhat surprised at Rabbi Grossman’s remarks about Jewish mother humor given what she herself wrote in an earlier post about Sasha Baron Cohen’s movie,”Borat”. Religious people are always accused of not being able to take a joke. Yes, I love Jewish mothers and I vehemently object to Don Imus’ racist harangue, but humor is something enormously subjective and there are no strict and straight borderlines for what constitutes good humor.

Humor shows how ironic life can be. Even amidst something as painful and as sensitive as 9/11 or the Holocaust (as Roberto Benigni’s demonstrated with his tragicomedy “Life Is Beautiful”), there is room for laughter. Someone who can’t laugh a little at themselves is missing out on a very serious part of what it means to be human.

Read the Full Debate: Is Jewish Mother Humor Harmless or Harmful?

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posted May 22, 2007 at 6:40 pm

“What makes a joke step over the line from being a positive form of social critique to a weapon wielded by the hands of cruel bigots, is something no one has ever figured out.” Maybe it’s the intent of the joke (or the teller)? I think Jewish Mother jokes are mostly told lovingly. Don Imus’s comments were disparaging and mean.

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posted May 22, 2007 at 8:33 pm

Here’s another example of an “acutely accurate” Jewish mother joke. Susan Lieberman stands on the White House lawn taking the oath of office to become President of the United States. Her mother, seated in the audience, turns to the man next to her, a prominent senator, and asks, “Do you see that woman up there with her hand on the Bible who’s about to become the first female president?” “Yes,” replies the Senator. “Her brother’s a doctor,” Mrs. Lieberman says, glowing with pride.

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