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European Jewish humor in its early form developed in the Jewish community of the Holy Roman Empire, with theological satire becoming a traditional way of clandestinely opposing Christianization.
Modern Jewish humor emerged during the nineteenth century among German-speaking Jews of the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment), matured in the shtetls of the Russian Empire, and then flourished in twentieth-century America, arriving with the millions of Jews who emigrated from Eastern Europe between the 1880s and the early 1920s.
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traces some roots of the Jewish self-deprecating humour to the medieval influence of Arabic traditions on the Hebrew literature by quoting a witticism from Yehuda Alharizi's Tahkemoni.
A more recent one is an egalitarian tradition among the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe in which the powerful were often mocked subtly, rather than attacked overtly—as Saul Bellow once put it, "Oppressed people tend to be witty." Jesters known as badchens used to poke fun at prominent members of the community during weddings, creating a good-natured tradition of humour as a levelling device.
The humorist, like the prophet, would basically take people to task for their failings. As radio and television matured, many of its most famous comedians, including Jack Benny, Sid Caesar, George Burns, Eddie Cantor, Jack Carter, Henny Youngman and Milton Berle, were Jewish.
The humor of Eastern Europe especially was centered on defending the poor against the exploitation of the upper classes or other authority figures, so rabbis were made fun of, authority figures were made fun of and rich people were made fun of. After Jews began to immigrate to America in large numbers, they, like other minority groups, found it difficult to gain mainstream acceptance and obtain upward mobility (As Lenny Bruce lampooned, "He was charming. The Jewish comedy tradition continues today, with Jewish humour much entwined with that of mainstream humour, as comedies like Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Woody Allen films indicate.
Rabbi Moshe Waldoks, a scholar of Jewish humour, argued: You have a lot of shtoch, or jab humor, which is usually meant to deflate pomposity or ego, and to deflate people who consider themselves high and mighty. The newly-developing entertainment industry, combined with the Jewish humour tradition, provided a potential route for Jews to succeed.
But Jewish humor was also a device for self-criticism within the community, and I think that's where it really was the most powerful. One of the first successful radio "sitcoms", The Goldbergs, featured a Jewish family.
Two Rabbis argued late into the night about the existence of God, and, using strong arguments from the scriptures, ended up indisputably disproving His existence.