With Jokes Like These . . .
BY RICHARD F. SHEPARD. Richard F. Shepard is a connoisseur of humor, Jewish and otherwise.
JEWISH HUMOR: What the Best Jewish Jokes Say About the Jews, by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. Morrow, 237 pp., $22.
IT'S hard enough to be a Jew, as the old saying goes, but a book on Jewish humor by a rabbi might seem to make it just a little bit harder - because, as the faithful have learned, it is difficult for a rabbi to make light of anything in any but the most learned, sober-sided way.
Well, don't worry. Joseph Telushkin is not only a rabbi but a man who likes a joke, with proper reverence for the old ones that have become part of Jewish tradition and tolerance for the new ones that tell the new crop of Jews who they are. His humor breaks through even in expository passages that analyze the jokes - and, as everyone knows, it is devilishly hard to be funny when writing about humor, especially Jewish humor, which has been tackled by Freud and other major-league analysts.
Even before Telushkin asks if you have heard the one about . . . , he lets you know what he is not doing. "Nothing in these pages reflects Judaism's understanding of God's omnipotence, or why Jews believe they were chosen by God, or the Jewish position on birth control. I would gladly have included these subjects had I found jokes about them, but I didn't."
What he has done is to place Jewish jokes within the framework of Jewish life - or of the various Jewish lives that created them - in Eastern Europe, in immigrant and latter-day America, in the Soviet Union and in Israel (not too much joking there, he finds, outside of politics). Jewish anxiety everywhere finds outlet, better than on a psychiatrist's couch, in humor.
You worry about ethnic jokes? Don't, Telushkin writes; the challenge is to distinguish the insightful joke from those that express hostility and prejudice.