By Dan Tadmor
Museum of the Jewish People Celebrates the Diversity of Jewish Humor
A Jewish grandmother is giving directions to her grown grandson who is coming to visit. She says, “With your elbow, push button 15T, and I’ll buzz you in. Get in the elevator, and with your elbow hit 15. When you get out, I’m on the left. Hit my doorbell with your elbow.”
“Bubbie, that sounds easy, but why am I hitting all these buttons with my elbow?” the grandson asks.
His grandmother replies, “You’re coming empty-handed?”
Jokes like this one – and by Jewish comedy greats like the Marx Brothers, Jerry Seinfeld, and Sarah Silverman – are a much-loved part of Jewish heritage, as Jewish as bagels or kugel. Indeed, Sigmund Freud once remarked, “I do not know whether there are many other instances of a people making fun to such a degree of its own character.”
“Let There Be Laughter,” an original exhibition currently on view at the Museum of the Jewish People, Beit Hatfutsot, is a one-of-a-kind exploration of why Jews take their jokes so seriously. A minority living in diaspora for centuries, our ability to laugh at ourselves and our circumstances, even during the most difficult of times, has long been amongst our strongest survival strategies.
“Let There Be Laughter,” which opened on March 29, 2018 and has already hosted over 52,000 visitors, takes a comprehensive look at Jews and their jokes, celebrating the diversity and vitality of Jewish humor and exploring how elements of Jewish comedy have remained constant across time, place, and language. Whether in English, Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, German, French, Russian, Spanish, or any other language, Jewish humor has unparalleled potential to bring us together – and has made numerous contributions to global comedic culture.
The interactive exhibition showcases the world’s finest Jewish humor through joke books, comic strips, newspapers, posters, and personal objects that belonged to some of history’s greatest Jewish comedians. As for the jokes themselves, what would an exhibit of Jewish humor be without considering the Jewish mother? The tension between Hanukkah and Christmas? Or life in a Jewish home?
Curators Asaf Galay and Michal Houminer spent three years researching the exhibition, which spans the silly stories of Chelm, Sephardic folk tales, American Jewish slapstick, Soviet-era Jewish comedy, contemporary Israeli TV series, and more. An original film, The Stand-Ups, features well-known Israeli comics sharing their childhood stories.
Visitors will have the chance to contribute to the legacy of Jewish humor. In keeping with Beit Hatfutsot’s belief that we are all part of the story, guests can add to the exhibition by recording their own jokes at special recording stations.
“The Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot is the only museum in the world to tell the story of all Jewish people. It is a place of positive, optimistic, and future-oriented Jewish identity, and, as such, it’s the perfect place for a Jewish humor exhibition,” said Irina Nevzlin, chair of the board of directors of the Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot and president of the Nadav Foundation.
Can’t make it to Israel to see the exhibition? Take a virtual tour here, and plan a trip to visit in 2019, when the museum’s new core exhibition will be open. Boasting 66,000 feet of modern exhibition space, Beit Hatfutsot will use cutting-edge design and technology to tell the story of the Jewish people like never before, jokes and all.
Dan Tadmor is the CEO of the Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot.