Nov ’09 Spotlight

“Mentsch tracht, Gott lacht.” warns the old Yiddish proverb (“Man plans, God laughs.”). But the Chicago Humanities Festival is daring to call His bluff anyway, organizing an entire month of programs on the subject of laughter. And yes, of course, Jews are everywhere on the schedule, serving as both practitioners of comedy and scholars thereof.


Barry Sanders was a college student when he first heard Lenny Bruce perform, but that experience determined his future. He bookends his erudite 1995 critique Sudden Glory: Laughter as Subversive History with two Jews, opening with Isaac and closing with Bruce.

In chapter one, a woman in her 90s, told she will soon bear a child, starts laughing. And so, “God confers on the son of Abraham and Sarah his Hebrew name Yitzchak, which means ’he laughs.’” (Page 44) This was the first child ever born of a Jewish mother, and laughter has been part of our tradition ever since.

In chapter eight, set many centuries later: “Without Lenny Bruce, without this wild man of laughter, all of that political activism [of the 60s] would have taken longer to burst forth. He put ideas in the air; he planted seeds of change.” (Page 262)

To read my review of Lenny, the Lenny Bruce BioPic starring Dustin Hoffman that received six Oscar nominations in 1975, visit:


Stand-up comedian and “Torah maven” Aaron Freeman intends to put God on trial for his crimes against Job, history’s longest-suffering hero.

“Job talks a lot about putting our God on trial,” Freeman told me, “so we’re going to have a trial. I’m working with Richard Henzel, who’s a mask maker, and we have masks for God and for Satan, and Richard and I will perform together, and let the audience decide whether they want to be character witnesses for the prosecution or the defense!”

“Working on The Comic Torah project with my wife, Sharon Rosenzweig, the nutshell of what we learned is in the words of the great Sufi master Hafiz:

‘God and I have become like two giant fat people living in a tiny boat.  We keep bumping into each other and laughing.’”


Mickey Katz was one of the great musical comics of the 1950s, combining Yiddish lyrics and popular songs in giddy cultural mash-ups like “Duvid Crockett” (“Duvid, Duvid Crockett, King of Delancy Street!”), “Old Black Smidgick” (“That same old chaserei when your eyes meet mine!”), and my personal favorite “Barber of Schlemiel” (“I schnip off de payos!”).

In 1993, African-American jazz musician Don Byron rediscovered Katz, and brought his “Greatest Shticks” back to life with a new group of klezmer virtuosos.


How to choose with such an embarrassment of riches? Here are a few more sessions for which I’m also holding personal tickets.

Dr. Freud’s Little Jokes or How the Jews Became Funny: Sander Gilman (11/7)

Simon Schama Tells Jewish Jokes: Simon Schama (11/8)

The Anatomy of Harpo Marx: Wayne Koestenbaum (11/14)

The 2009 Chicago Humanities Festival opened on Oct 17 and will run through November 15. For more information, call (312) 661-1028. To purchase tickets online, visit:


Jan Lisa Huttner (Tzivi) is the managing editor of Films for Two: The Online Guide for Busy Couples ( Send comments and/or suggestions for future columns to Visit for online copies of prior columns.

Previous Post Next Post