I’ve written before about my short-lived comedy career, during which I told jokes so Jewish and insidery that I limited my audience essentially to synagogues and Jewish day schools. When it comes to humor, I sometimes feel like the guy who does fantastic impressions of his aunts and uncles: No matter how good they are, they don’t mean that much outside the family.
That’s why I had given up on thoughts of a career in comedy — that is, until a friend sent me a link to an article on “The Most Intellectual Joke I Know.” The 50 nominees include jokes of the “a physicist, a mathematician, and an engineer walk into a bar” variety; linguistic meta-jokes (“Is it solipsistic in here, or is it just me?”); and head-scratchers that reward people who stay awake during Nova, like this one: Q: What does the “B” in Benoit B. Mandelbrot stand for? A: Benoit B. Mandelbrot.
Not to be outdone, I just knew I could write jokes that were just as obscure and pretentious, or at least indecipherable without a Jewish education. So here, as a public service, I present “The Most Intellectual Jewish Jokes I Could Come Up With.” If they enter the Jewish canon, I’ll be sure to thank the rabbis and teachers who put up with so many questions from an am ha’aretz like me. If they don’t, I’ll blame anti-Semitism — because, you know, Jews can’t get a break in the world of comedy.
Don’t worry if you don’t get them — explanations follow.
1) It’s 11th-century France. A rabbi walks into a bar wearing a frown, looks around, and leaves. The bartender goes, “What’s bothering Rashi?”
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2) A Bratslaver hasid is driving in the mountains and sees a sign: “Narrow bridge ahead.” “No problem,” he says.
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3) A Lubavitcher hasid wakes up from a coma and rushes to Brooklyn to thank the Rebbe for his good fortune. He tells the guard at Chabad headquarters, “I’ve come to see the Rebbe.” The guard says, “The Rebbe passed away.” “I’ll wait,” says the hasid.
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4) The gematria expert is found dead in his home, with a noose around his neck and a gunshot wound in his temple. “It just doesn’t add up,” says the detective.
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5) Mordecai Kaplan commissions a contractor to erect a new house. When it’s almost complete, Kaplan visits the building site, and doesn’t like what he sees. “Build it over,” he tells the contractor.
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6) Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s son gets a D on his history essay, and asks his dad for advice on improving his grade. “Write it over,” says Jabotinsky.
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7) It’s April, and two Jewish atheists meet on the street. “Murray,” says Jack. “You haven’t called me since Pesach, but who’s counting?”
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8) In his yeshiva days, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik used to relax by playing tennis with his friends. One day, he was having a hard time with one of his opponents, who was using lots of creative strategy to control the court, while Soloveitchik relied on his faith that God would guide him to victory. When Soloveitchik got home, his mother asked him how the match went. “Adam won,” said Soloveitchik.
1) “What’s bothering Rashi?” (mah kasha l’Rashi) is a technique, popularized by the late Bible scholar Nechama Leibowitz, for interpreting the commentary of the Torah sage Rashi. It’s sort of like Jeopardy! — Rashi supplies an answer; you come up with the question.
2) One of the best known sayings of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav is, “All the world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to be afraid.”
3) Some factions of the Chabad-Lubavitcher hasidic movement believe their late Rebbe will return as the Messiah.
4) Gematria is the art of interpreting Hebrew words and phrases according to numerical values assigned to each letter in the aleph-bet. For example, the Hebrew letters of chai (life) add up to 18, which is why 18 is a lucky number.
5) Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan was a Reconstructionist. Get it?
6) Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky was a Revisionist. Bah-dum-bum.
7) Beginning on the second night of Passover, observant Jews count the “omer,” a daily ritual that marks the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot.
8) In his magnum opus Lonely Man of Faith, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, perhaps the central figure of Modern Orthodoxy, famously describes humankind’s creative, dominant impulse, which he calls “Adam One,” and our spiritual, submissive side, which he calls “Adam Two.”
Bonus explanation: Benoit B. Mandelbrot (1924-2010) was a pioneer of “fractal” geometry, in which any one piece of an image or structure resembles the structure as a whole — the way a twig looks like a tree, for instance, or how one taygl looks and tastes like a whole bunch of tayglach.
Oh, I’m sorry — too Jewish?