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By Micah Halpern

Thursday September 11, 2008


One of the best ways to evaluate a society is by examining the humor of that society.

Freud asserted that in every joke there is a kernel of truth. I would assert that there is much, much more than simply a kernel. There is profound expression in humor. Societies use humor as a way of calling out, of crying for help, of pleading for law and order, a way to save their victims from untenable situations. The twist is that the call, the cry and the plea are accompanied not by tears, but by laughter.

In many circumstances the joke, humor, is the only way to actually raise essential societal questions while also allowing people to live through a situation that should be viewed as crazy and out of the ordinary, but that has become their everyday norm.

Jewish jokes have set the standard for gentle but honest self-deprecation. Jewish jokes were also the first to tackle indelicate situations in a digestible way. The jokes, written by Jews and about Jews are a window into the pain and pathos of the Jewish people during specific times in history. Originally intended for Jewish audiences, the genre has now become familiar to all ethnic groups and is a staple of many comedic performances.

It's okay to laugh at a Jewish joke, even if you're not Jewish. It's acceptable. In many cases, it's expected. That is not the case in all societies.

The Jewish people have a heightened sense of humor. Jews have taken to expressing themselves through humor even in the most horrific of situations. Sometimes, that humor is used as a defense mechanism. Sometimes it is a release from the tensions of life, or of death, surrounding them.

This poignant and powerful tool called humor was even used to help navigate through the horrors of the Holocaust. In Nazi Germany the Jews were being murdered. There was no escape from the German death machine. And yet the period is replete with jokes about Hitler and his allies, about Poles, about Lithuanians and Germans and everyone else. There were jokes about the murderers, about the allies, about the collaborators and even about fellow Jews.

Even the movie Cabaret, a story about the sidebar atrocities perpetrated by German Nazis during the Holocaust, makes its point through humor. The cabaret inside the movie Cabaret is the vehicle for humor, the cabaret is the release valve, it is the time and place where one is not only permitted, but encouraged, to laugh.

Humor provides people a tool and the ability to critique even in the most oppressive societies, even in the Muslim world.

In most of the Muslim world there is no free press, there is no freedom of expression and there is no permission to offer critique. Muslims living in Muslim countries do not have the right to freely assemble or to publicly redress grievances. Freedoms considered essential by Americans and by most of the Western world do not exist in the Muslim world.

But humor does exist. Humor in the Muslim world is an underground movement. Jokes never have authors, they just have a life. It's safer that way, so when a joke really takes off no one knows where it came from and when it will stop. Internet joke listings and SMS cell phone messaging have propelled Muslim humor. There is even an Iranian joke that ends with Ahmadinejad receiving a joke about himself on his own cell phone and getting so angry that he purges the cell phone company's entire SMS bureau. That's funny. That's a joke that was written by and for Iranians, but made its way to the Western world.

Most of the Iranian jokes that have made their way through Iran portray Ahmadinejad as a buffoon. They are mostly about the Iranian leader and his interaction with Western society. There are, of course, a good number of Iranian jokes about George Bush.

Many of the jokes that pervade the Arab world in general deal with Ahmadinejad. They also deal with the previous henchmen and thugs aka former leaders of Arab Muslim countries, leaders who can no longer retaliate against the humor. By and large Arab leaders found jokes to be offensive and called them criminal acts against the state. They said jokes foment anti-state feelings. Saddam Hussein and Yasser Arafat fell into that category. So does Muammar Qadaffi, despite the new relationship between the United States and Libya. So do most of the monarchs and dictators still ruling the Middle East.

Humor is not just political commentary. It is a panacea that allows people in oppressed and in free societies to wake up in the morning and go to sleep at night. It allows us to laugh until we cry.

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4 June 2017 12:14 PM in Columns

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