Thursday, January 15, 2009

Make 'Em Laugh, Make 'Em Holy


Lately on my blog, I have been pretty much exclusively focused on the events unfolding in Gaza. As a rabbi, a Jew, and a strong supporter of Israel, it is hard not to be thinking about Israel especially when she faces such great challenges.

That being said, I had the opportunity last night to take a breather and smile a little because instead of watching CNN, I spent the evening enjoying PBS’s new documentary ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ hosted by Billy Crystal. 'Make 'Em Laugh' looks at the history of comedy in American pop culture. Last night's episode focused on the evolution of both stand-up comedy and situation comedies.

I expected to see a narrative history of the development of comedy, with the hope that many Jewish comedians would be mentioned. With the latter, I was not disappointed, as Jews have played a vital role in American comedy since their vaudeville days. With the former though, I was a bit surprised as the narrative seemed to almost jump around from time periods and topics through an associative train of thought. Being the fan of history that I am, I initially had some trouble following how they went directly from the Simpsons to I Love Lucy.

But thinking about it more, I came to realize the series is almost Talmudic in its approach to examining comedy. One train of thought simply leads to another through intricate connections, which is how you can go from the Dick Van Dyke show directly to Seinfeld or visa versa.

In this sense, all forms of comedy are intertwined, with comedians, writers, and actors all being heavily influenced by one another. Judaism is very much the same. We are certainly an evolving tradition, but we do not create in a vacuum. What we do, say, eat, practice, and live as Jews should be understood in the evolution of Jewish tradition and interpretation. In this way, we are a very organic and vibrant tradition just like American comedy.

I am concerned that sometimes people look at Judaism as a stagnant religion with little to offer them in their modern circumstance. They think of Judaism as a tradition either solely focused on the past or on the constant theme of suffering. The truth is Judaism really is a religion all about the future and the promises of better days to come. But unlike many sit-coms, which have become dull and predictable for the most part, Judaism still has a lot of humor and surprises left in her. All you need to do is become part of the ‘live-audience’ and join in the celebration.

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