Old Jews Telling Jokes: 5,000 Years of Funny Bits and Not-So-Kosher Laughs by Sam Hoffman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
When she was a little girl, my grandmother Esther Ruth emigrated from Russia, escaping pogroms with her family, and settling in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She learned English anyway she could, even picking up gum wrappers off the street to read them.
In her eighties, she moved into a house on her son’s property, and I had the privilege of living with her for two years. We went to synagogue together (sometimes), read the Psalms together (a lot), and ate her potato pancakes together (too often).
Esther taught me a Jewish sensibility and sense of humor by the way she talked to me. One day, when we were eating potato pancakes, she looked up on the wall where she had hung portraits of the composers Mozart, Beethoven, and Wagner.
Don’t ask why Wagner’s portrait hung there since he was no fan of the Jews. But anyway, Grandma pointed to the pictures on the wall and said, “Joey, why can’t you be like one of them?” The best I could say was “I’ll do my best.” But what I should have said was, “You want me to be like Wagner?!”
Her comment was typical of Jewish grandmothers and mothers. On another day, we had just finished a potato pancake breakfast, and I was late for church (where I worked on the staff, helping with the music). For some reason, we got into a heated argument, and I stormed out of the house, slamming the door of her thin-walled motor home on the way out.
When I reached my car, I was overcome with guilt, and I went back to apologize to my grandmother. When I opened the door, I saw her standing there, slightly hunched over in her dark pink bathrobe, and holding a clock that had fallen off the wall.
The clock must have gone crackers because the second hand was spinning and whizzing around and around really fast. I swallowed my pride and spoke, “Grandma, I’m really sorry.” She looked me in the eye, held up the crazy clock and said, “Joey, you’re such a good Christian.”
On yet another day, the table was set for a big feast with the whole family. Esther sat down before everyone else and waited. After waiting and waiting and twiddling her thumbs, she finally looked at her empty plate and said, “Look what they give me!”
Maybe she wanted some potato pancakes.
This “look what they give me” line is now a standard joke in our family, whenever we remember the life of our dear Esther or whenever something doesn’t live up to our expectations. Understanding such expectations and the kind of pressure (and guilt trips) that Jewish mothers put on their children and grandchildren will help readers appreciate the book “Old Jews Telling Jokes.”
But you don’t need to be Jewish or have a Jewish sense of humor to laugh at the jokes in this book. I bought the ebook and the audio book versions. And I’m sure some people laughed at me as I laughed out loud while jogging with the audio version. And as I retold some of the jokes from the ebook (and from memory), my Japanese friends and family laughed with me (or at me).
So yes, this book promises many good laughs, some of them clean, but be forewarned; it also carries many offenses. There are many ribald and risqué jokes in this book (maybe too many). And you might not want your mother to hear you laugh and look over your shoulder and say, “Darling, why can’t you enjoy good, clean jokes like all the other people in the world?”