Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Intersection of Humor, Wisdom and Jewishness

January 26, 2016 by Susan Weinberg
Jewish humor permeates American culture. From the Marx Brothers to Woody Allen to Jon Stewart, Jews have left their mark on what we consider funny. Tonight we gathered in the Tychman Shapiro Gallery in the LOL show, a show devoted to humor. The theme of humor permeates the JCC with the presence of the Jewish Humor Fest through the end of January.
We took advantage of the wonderful material that quite literally surrounded us and focused upon the theme of humor and wisdom and its Jewish connections. Our task was to select an image and consider how humor, wisdom and Jewishness intersect.This is of necessity a visual exploration so let me share a few excerpts from the show and the responses they generated. Kate McDonough captured what many of us thought of as Jewish humor in her grouping of four cartoons.

We asked ourselves why we considered it humorous. Quite simply it made us laugh. We liked the contradictions in language in the one above and identified with the personality she depicted. The wisdom we found it in was self-awareness and a certain self-deprecating approach to that awareness.

We felt that the self-deprecating approach was very typical of Jewish humor. Humor is used as a defense against what we find challenging personally. And as Woody Allen frequently illustrates, worry and a touch of the neurotic are not alien to many of us. The drawing on the right captures that sense of otherness that many Jews carry within them.

Debra Fisher Goldstein's brightly colored photos of the Minnesota State Fair drew our attention with their interesting visual humor. They are real-time, feel-good, joyous images. While McDonough's artwork is personal and captures a sense of solitude, Goldstein's is social and focuses on an event we call the Great Minnesota Get-Together. How could we be any more social than that?

Here humor was captured by the incongruity of nuns munching on an ear of corn or the echo of the cone in the shape of the young man's hair. The wisdom is that of daily life and the artwork makes use of visual puns.

We were especially intrigued with the work by Toni Dachis composed of layered chunks of newspaper to spell out a familiar joke. There is a sense that something may be buried within. By reinventing the familiar in an unexpected way, she allows us to see it through fresh eyes. In fact we proposed that humor lives in the familiar. Too esoteric won't do, we need to recognize the familiar before we can appreciate the twist.
And what could be more Jewish than reading. We conjured up images of old grandfathers reading the newspaper.
Rochelle Woldorsky sketch

For the second part of our session we turned to text, The Wise Men of Chelm (see handout-The Wise Men of Chelm). For this you will need to take a minute and read the stories. The Wise Men of Chelm share the humor of the schlemiel. Laurel and Hardy grew out of this tradition. It is the trickster story where insight may be found from a non-conventional approach. Again we find self-deprecating humor. Even when the characters appear foolish they are treated with kindness and gentleness.We concluded that the wisdom is that there is always hope. The stories arose during a time when life was difficult and laughter was the way out, laughter that was shared as they all saw through the same glasses, an image captured by one of our artists.  (For more stories on the Wise Men of Chelm)

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