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“Laughing Matters: Judaism, Comedy, and Identity”
Often when people talk about “Jewish comedy,” they just make a list of comedians who are Jewish. However, Shira Stutman, senior rabbi at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, thinks its roots are deep in tradition. Stutman will be co-teaching a two-part online class, “Laughing Matters: Judaism, Comedy, and Identity;” she’ll focus on Jewish comedy’s historical roots while fellow rabbi Aaron Potek will concentrate on more recent work, like Seinfeld or Amy Schumer. “There are a few distinct ways Jewish humor is used,” Stutman elaborates. One way, widely acknowledged, is to process the pain and destruction that are part of the Jewish historical experience. “Holocaust jokes are profoundly unfunny, but they give us a way of having a one-up over our oppressors,” she says, or a way to address the theological question of God’s seeming absence at Auschwitz with a sarcastic one-liner like, “You had to be there.” Stutman also notes that humor was used “as a teaching tool,” citing an episode from the Talmud where “a student asks the rabbi, ‘If a baby is born with two heads, does he wear two sets of tefillin?’”—small boxes containing scripture worn on the forehead and left hand during weekday morning prayers. “The rabbi throws the student out the house of study for asking ridiculous questions. Just then, someone rushes in reporting that a baby has been born with two heads,” she says. The story gives an example of how “playing the fool could illustrate ethical or moral lessons,” or interrogate the logic behind a ritual. It’s also an example of saying “yes, and…” to absurdity, which marks today’s improv comedy. The class begins at 7 p.m. on Feb. 3 and Feb. 10. Registration is available at sixthandi.org. $12–$18; free for those whose “budget is a little tight right now.”