Q. As we mourn Joan Rivers, why is comedy so integral to Jewish identity?
• Rabbi Charley Baginsky says…
In the last year of her life, Joan Rivers experienced one of her most controversial moments when she made a joke referencing the Holocaust. While she refused to apologise for the gag, her justification of it allowed an insight into her own view of the centrality of humour.
It is a means by which we can talk and educate about traumatic events; it represents the decision to survive painful moments. Joan memorably proclaimed: “I think that’s how we get through life. That’s how I get through. You make people laugh, you can deal with it.”
As we enter Rosh Hashanah and prepare once more to read the Akedah, we can see the tragi-comedy present even there. Abraham, whose name means ‘father of many’, has a conversation with God which begins with God commanding “take your son and sacrifice him”. Good start for a father of many! Isaac on the other hand, whose father carries out God’s command without question, Isaac who never speaks to his father again after this episode – his name means he who laughs.
Jewish humour is so often the laughter through tears, the means by which we express the tensions implicit in the experience of life. It allows us to say what otherwise might be too painful and what we have no other language to express.
As the Yiddish proverb says: “What soap is to the body, laughter is to the soul.”
• Charley Baginsky is rabbi of Kingston Liberal Synagogue and chair of Liberal Judaism’s Rabbinic Conference
• Daniel Cainer says…
HOW JEWISH was Joan Rivers? We all recognised her, or at least a variation of her – the bossy, potty-mouthed aunt with an opinion on everything, forever upsetting and offending people; the extravagant show-off who stole the room, spoke her mind and told it like it was.
My grandma Asney was not dissimilar. Except that she wasn’t as clever, or endearing and, at least according to family legend, not as funny.
How funny was Joan? As funny as she was Jewish. As funny as she was insecure. Funny because she saw the joke was on her. Where Asney would relentlessly criticise other people’s habits and attitudes and style, Joan would do the same but add the funny twist that made it forgivable. Swinging from triumph to tragedy and back again, they were both still looking over their shoulders for Cossacks.
I discussed with Joan why there were so few overtly Jewish entertainers in the UK compared to the USA. She said it was because there were fewer Nazis in the Catskills. Well, coincidentally, now there is a new shadow and ‘Jewish’ is a tough sell.
As they close the lid on Joan Rivers, she will, sadly but perhaps fittingly, be immortalised for an ad-lib or two that misfired. She was full of contradictions (as we all are) and exposed them with the gift of the gag. How Jewish and how funny is that?
• Performer Daniel Cainer’s collection of stories in song, Jewish Chronicles, begins a six-week run at the Soho Playhouse, New York, next month. www.danielcainer.com