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be happy, it's summer

Some of you may be familiar with Dan Ariely’s column in the Saturday edition of the Wall Street Journal. He’s a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke, and people write into him seeking advice on all kinds of social and behavioral issues.  My recent favorite — A man writes in:

“Dear Dan,

Have you found any small tricks you can use to make yourself happier?”

Ariely responds:

“At some point, I managed to record my wife saying that I was correct.  That doesn’t happen very often.  I made this recording into a ringtone that plays whenever she calls my cell phone.  This not only made me happy when I was able to get the initial recording but also provides me with continuous happiness every time she calls.”

Just reading this column made me happy. This being the first official week of summer, I wanted to share some lighthearted thoughts on the healthy relationship between Judaism and humor.  From Groucho Marx to Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Jerry Seinfeld and Sarah Silverman, some – or maybe most – of America’s best known comedians have been Jewish.  In fact in the 2013 Pew study, 42% of Americans said that “Having a good sense of humor” is an essential part of what being Jewish means, as opposed to 19% (!) who considered observing Jewish law to be essential.

So what is it about Jewish humor that puts it at the core of Jewish identity? For one thing, let’s face it, it can be hard to be a Jew – from the obligations to the guilt and relentless persecution, humor is used to prop us up and invites us to commiserate with each other. For example, this joke about Bloomberg, who on a business trip needed to use a public toilet. He had just made himself comfortable when he noticed that the toilet paper roll was empty. He called to the next booth, “Excuse me friend, but do you have any toilet paper in there?”  “No, I’m afraid there doesn’t seem to be any here, either.”  Bloomberg paused for a moment.  “Listen,’ he said, ”Do you happen to have a newspaper or magazine with you?”  “Sorry, I don’t.” Bloomberg paused again, and then asked, “How about 2 fives for a ten?”

Surely all of us have found ourselves in the same crummy situation as Bloomberg – so we sympathize with him, and at the same time – this is a story is about Jewish ingenuity and optimism. And then there are the jokes that allow us to make fun of ourselves, like:

How many Zionists does it take to replace a light bulb?


One to stay home and convince others to do it.

A second to donate the bulb.

A third to screw it in and a fourth to proclaim that the entire Jewish people stands behind their actions.

For Jews, humor is also used as a tool for survival. There’s this joke about a small village in Poland where there was a terrifying rumor spreading that a Christian girl had been found murdered. Fearing retaliation, the Jewish community gathered at the shul to plan whatever defensive actions were possible under the circumstances. Just as the emergency meeting was being called to order, in ran the president of the synagogue, out of breath and all excited. “Brothers,” he cried out. “I have wonderful news! The murdered girl is Jewish!”

For Jews, humor, especially dark humor, is a way to tackle the unspoken and be able to laugh at our fears. Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, who is the child of a holocaust survivor tells the story about an evening he spent in New York City with other children of survivors on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz ( We all told stories of our parents, said Rabbi Lau-Lavie…because now they’re mostly dead, and we’re the holders of memory. But then afterwards, we went out to dinner at a restaurant nearby.  And i don’t know how many bottles of wine went down, and half the table was psychoanalysts, and the other half…. Was a rabbi, a sex therapist, an architect.  It was hilarious because we told all the stories we couldn’t tell [earlier] where our parents were crazy and what they used to survive and what they handed over to us. And it was…inappropriate and dark and funny. And it was healing. It was deeply healing and unre

Humor is indeed healing.  It has enabled us to endure, and to endure with a smile. And remarkably, social sciences have recently uncovered just how powerful a smile can be. In a Ted Talk called “The hidden power of smiling” ( Ron Gutman, who is the CEO of Healthtap which creates free apps about healthcare, speaks about a study that was done where high school year book photo smiles were used as a mostly accurate predictor of success and wellbeing – the larger the smile, the more successful and happier the life.  Wayne State University also looked at 1950’s baseball cards and discovered that the span of a player’s smile could predict the span of his life!  Players who didn’t smile lived an average of 72.9 years while those who were smiling lived almost 80 years. And if that’s not enough to convince you, he also mentioned that British researchers found that one smile can generate the same level of pleasure in the brain as up to 2000 bars of chocolate, and for a lot fewer calories! Or as much pleasure as receiving 16,000 pounds of Sterling in cash – which translates to 25k. Not bad for a smile!

But you don’t have to believe me or all these studies. Just try it yourself. And the truth is, you don’t even need to wait to be happy to smile. Just smiling can change your mood, and the mood of people around you because smiling is, in and of itself, contagious.

So what small tricks do you have to make yourself happier? If you’re not lucky enough to capture your spouse telling you you’re right as your ring tone, find another way to make yourself smile. Those smiles add up to a longer, healthier and happier life.

For more Jewish jokes click here.

Sat, September 30 2023 15 Tishrei 5784