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Jewish Humor Featured in Chicago Exhibit

March 11, 1997

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So did you hear the one about what these people have in common — the Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers, Fanny Brice, Milton Berle, Danny Kaye, Jack Benny, George Burns, Jerry Lewis, Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld and Billy Crystal?

Well, they’re all funny — and Jewish.

Jewish humor and American culture are as interlocked as lox and bagels. That’s overwhelmingly evident right now at the Spertus Museum in Chicago, where an exhibition called “Let There Be Laughter! Jewish Humor in America” has opened.

The exhibit curators are Jack Kugelmass, UW–Madison professor of cultural anthropology and folklore, and his wife, Esther Romeyn, who is completing her doctorate in American studies at the University of Minnesota. Kugelmass has been a member of the faculty for eight years. He teaches courses on the study of American Jews through film and television, the Holocaust, American folklore, public culture, photography and urban anthropology.

Public lecture
Romeyn and Kugelmass will give a public lecture on Jewish humor at the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies, 618 S. Michigan Ave. in Chicago, on Sunday, April 6 at 1:30 p.m., with a reception at 3:30 p.m. They also will give UW–Madison alumni and friends of the university a guided tour of their exhibit at 11:30 a.m., followed by a noon luncheon. Appearing with Kugelmass and Romeyn will be Jim Abrahams, a former UW–Madison student who has written, directed and produced several Hollywood comedies, including “Airplane” and the “Naked Gun” series.

Cost of the tour, lunch and lecture is $35. To make a reservation call 263-3604 by March 28.

The museum invited Kugelmass and Romeyn to produce “Let There Be Laughter,” which runs through Aug. 17. The exhibit is an interactive collection of more than 400 artifacts (including Marx Brothers costumes on loan from the Smithsonian Institution), photographs and documents, as well as radio, television and movie clips. It ranges from turn-of-the-century vaudeville to the present day.

“We have tried to trace the trajectory of American Jewish humor over a century,” says Kugelmass. “The exhibit shows how American Jews have used humor to carve a minority voice out of a majority culture.”

Jews used humor to focus on the incongruity — a premise of much humor — of different ethnic immigrants being thrown together in America. One vaudeville skit featured a Yiddish-speaking bagpiper called “The Scotchman from Orchard Street.”

“There was sudden contact among different cultures and even among different Yiddish dialects,” says Romeyn. “As one Jewish vaudeville song put it, ‘We’re happily married, I don’t want to squawk. We understand each other completely, except when we talk.'”

Jack Kugelmass, professor of cultural anthropology, and his wife Esther Romeyn spent two years gathering items for the exhibit.

This cultural confluence produced various songs in the 1920s, plays and films such as “Abbie’s Irish Rose” and a popular film series featuring the Cohens and the Kellys.

Cultural incongruity has continued to feed Jewish humor. The Spertus exhibit includes a ’60s album showing what happens when President Lyndon Johnson’s family vacations in the Catskills and encounters Max, a Jewish waiter.

But why have Jews been especially sensitive to incongruity? “Jews are a religious minority living in a non-Jewish world,” says Kugelmass. “At the same time, Jews typically were bilingual — Yiddish and Hebrew — and had some familiarity with a non-Jewish European language. Such linguistic and cultural multiplicity made them sensitive to the ambiguity of meaning across languages and cultures.

“In addition, religious decisions in Judaism usually involve discussions of majority and minority opinions. So ambiguity is built into the cultural system. All this was amplified when Jews modernized and entered the mainstream of Western culture,” he says.

The Spertus exhibit, says Romeyn, is “lively and full of interactive displays. We didn’t want it to be like a book on a wall.”

“The motor of our show is music,” says Kugelmass. “We have various recordings playing in each section of the exhibit.” He and Romeyn combed used-record stores across the country and found more than 200 LPs and 78s of Jewish humor in music and stand-up comedy.

They also contacted several collectors, like the one in San Diego that provided them with “bagel seeds” and — speaking of cultural incongruity — a bagel Christmas tree ornament. Other artifacts they found include board games based on Groucho Marx’s TV show “You Bet Your Life” and Allan Sherman’s song “Hello Mudda,” called “Camp Granada.”

“We spent two years running around the country collecting for this exhibit,” says Kugelmass. “But there also were fantastic resources right here in Madison. We used the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research at the State Historical Society, interlibrary loans through the UW–Madison library system and a local wholesaler who owns tens of thousands of records.”

Kugelmass was raised a Jew in Montreal, but Romeyn was raised a non-Jew in Amsterdam in the Netherlands. “When I started dating Jack,” she says, “he played me a video of a Jackie Mason show, and I couldn’t understand what was funny about it. So I developed an intellectual curiosity about Jewish humor, and now I find it incredibly liberating because my own Dutch culture is not especially funny.”

Humor is not a new research topic for Romeyn, who wrote her master’s thesis on Italian-American immigrant humor and now is finishing her dissertation on turn-of-the-century immigrant performers in New York.

Kugelmass is the author of various books, including Masked Culture: The Greenwich Village Halloween Parade and The Miracle of Intervale Avenue: The Story of a Jewish Congregation in the South Bronx. He is on leave this semester and will spend four months with Romeyn in Israel on a Lady Davis Fellowship.

The Spertus Museum, with Asher Library and Spertus College, is part of the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies. The institute’s charge is to preserve and disseminate the intellectual, cultural and spiritual legacy of the Jewish past and demonstrate its relevance to the present.

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