Probably everything you need to know about this kind of Jewish humor and the Jews as a people can be summed up in an old joke popularized by Jack Benny and, more recently, Eddie Murphy in Coming to America:
An old Jewish man sits down in a fancy restaurant and orders a bowl of soup. Within 30 seconds of being brought his order, the man calls the waiter over and asks that he taste the soup. The waiter inquires as to the problem. The Jew doesn't answer, but again asks the waiter to taste the soup. The waiter advises that he's not in the habit of tasting patrons' food, but the Jew persists. The waiter asks if the soup's too cold, too hot or contains -- heaven forbid -- a fly. Each time the Jew merely repeats his request for the waiter to taste the soup. Ultimately, the waiter relents, if only to bring some closure to what has become quite an episode. He looks all around the table, and then asks, "Where's the spoon?" To which the Jew replies with a smile, "A-ha."
My favorite Jew joke. Told flawlessly by a black man. Somehow, that makes perfect sense to me.
This is my favorite Jewish joke, even though I'm sure the only thing most take away from it is that Jews are insufferable pains in the ass. But that's only the obvious punch line. This old man wanted to teach a lesson and not in a haughty, degrading manner, but through humor. Without putting the waiter down, he said, "Understand what it's like to be a hungry man with a bowl of soup and no spoon." Yes, he wanted a spoon, but he also wanted to make the waiter remember. This old Jew wants to make sure that someone else gets their spoon tomorrow.
Perhaps more important, though, is that by taking the time and energy to do things the hard way, he confirms his faith in humanity. He rejects cynicism. Who would waste that kind of energy unless they believed they were addressing someone who wanted to be taught? That kind of humor, mixed with energy and faith, is a tiny part of tikkun olam. And even though it's not in the joke (because it's not funny) I like to believe the old Jew left the waiter a good tip. Of course, he did. The Jew likes the waiter. Don't you know that?
This joke is only possible with a Jewish patron. Change the customer to a WASP and this is what you get:
An old WASP sits down in a fancy restaurant and orders a bowl of soup. After receiving his order, he notices that the waiter has failed to bring a spoon. Accordingly, he simmers, quietly, for five minutes until he can catch the waiter's attention with a polite gesture. Upon doing so, he requests a spoon while mentally calculating a small, but distinct, reduction in tip.
The sad part is that most of us would rather sit at the table next to the quiet (if angry) WASP were we at the restaurant. But don't you think the old Jew knows that, too? He lives in this world. He knows he has been set apart. But he does it anyway. He makes a joke knowing that some will view him merely as the joke.
But what about those who might reject that analysis? People who are convinced this joke is only about how far Jews will go to belittle and belabor because they think they're better than gentiles? Of them I would ask, "Is it hard to find a place to get your jackboots properly polished in Argentina?" Because these are the people who can't be taught. These are the people who blindly hate. And they deserve the Don Rickles kind of comedy, not the Jack Benny kind. Being a Jew in America, you need to learn the difference, and if people are going to hate you anyway, well, then sometimes it feels better to give them a reason.
Don't get me wrong. America is rife with gentiles who magnanimously blur the distinctions between Jews and the rest of Americans. They're really swell folks. They're so open-minded that they actually get really pissed off if you set yourself aside as anything different from them. You'll see some of them in the comments to this article. Or the classier ones will say things like "Hey, you're just like us," and then adjust their navy blue sports jackets. And who wouldn't want to be? Who could envision anything better? Don't the citizens of every country want a government just like ours? A powerful presumption by Christian Americans who fully understand (without ever even stating it) that Christianity is America: powerful, successful, expansive, and almost completely devoid of American Indians.
So sometimes, our humor is a polite way to decline your invitation to climb aboard the S.S. Milquetoast. Flattering to be thought of that way, but we better not. We'll react badly to the shellfish appetizer. Yes, it's like an allergy.
It's better that we use humor to kindly keep some distance and gently remind you who we are to save us both the pain of your shocking realization later. Because even the most inclusive of you will ultimately discern the difference. And we want to be different. Yes, we can throw a punch or a football. We can drink a beer or go fishing. But we don't buy meat on a stick or tell our kids they can skip homework to watch the Final Four. We won't do something because everyone's doing it. We won't believe all's well that ends well when the same sin is scheduled for the day after tomorrow. Except for those Jews who will. Because some Jews do. And I don't know what to say about them. They own German-made cars. They like Philip Roth. They ruin all my theories. They're not like me.
I like to think those Jews aren't funny. That they don't laugh at the right jokes. That all of them probably wish they were Christians. And I like to say I'm different. That if I were Christian, I'd ask to convert to Judaism. But I have to confess, I might only ask twice.
Portions of this article appeared previously over at The Morning News -- a site for smart, funny, cool people.
For more Gladstone, check out 3 Reasons the Ground Zero Mosque Debate Makes No Sense and 5 Things From the 90s That Might (As Well) Come Back.