Thursday, August 1, 2013

What is a Jewish Story

Is there anything special about Jewish stories? Perhaps they are just like the stories of other cultural traditions. But if there is a difference, what is it that makes a story distinctively Jewish?

I thought I would explore this original question – until I discovered that it wasn’t so original, that others had already asked the question and given thoughtful answers, writing about unique aspects of Jewish folktales, jokes, and humor.

Henry Eilbert wrote that a joke is Jewish if it “stems from the conditions of Jewish life or from the experience of the Jewish people, … depend[s] on the use of a Jewish language … [or] show[s] real or supposed Jewish characteristics or stereotypes.”

According to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, a Jewish joke “must express a Jewish sensibility … concerning precisely those subjects and values that receive disproportionate attention among Jews. Antisemitism … professional success … verbal combativeness and aggression … assimilation … logic and argumentation … family relationships …”

A Jewish folktale is depicted by Nathan Ausubel as “philosophical and subtle, pious and moralistic, witty and ironic … ethical, pointing a lesson of right conduct, ceaselessly instructing, often even when it is being entertaining or humorous. … The most precious quality in them is their agitation over the eternal mysteries of the human soul.”

Dov Noy’s analysis showed that a Jewish folktale involves four main elements: a Jewish time (a holiday or life cycle event), a Jewish place (such as a synagogue or the Land of Israel), Jewish characters (a rabbi, a person from Jewish history, etc.), and a Jewish message (an ethical teaching, the listener’s duty to God, family, and community).

As seen by William Novak and Moshe Waldoks, Jewish humor “is substantive … can be sarcastic, complaining, resigned, or descriptive … tends to be anti-authoritarian … has a critical edge which creates discomfort in making its point … [and] mocks everyone – including God.”

Here is one more, a brief definition I find particularly appealing.
A distinctively Jewish story is one that a non-Jew wouldn’t understand, and a Jewish person has already heard.
By telling – and retelling and explaining – these stories, we share what we find of value.


Henry Eilbert, What is a Jewish Joke: An Excursion into Jewish Humor. Jason Aaronson, 1981, pp. 59-61.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Humor: What the Best Jewish Jokes Say About the Jews. William Morrow, 1992, pp. 16-17.

Nathan Ausubel, Editor, A Treasury of Jewish Folklore: Stories, Traditions, Legends, Humor, Wisdom and Folk Songs of the Jewish People. Crown, 1948, pp. xx-xxi

Dov Noy, “Forward: What is Jewish about the Jewish Folktale.” In, Howard Schwartz, Miriam's Tambourine: Jewish Folktales from Around the World. Oxford University Press, 1988, pp. xv-xviii.

William Novak and Moshe Waldoks, Editors, The Big Book of Jewish Humor, Harper Perennial, 1981, pp. xx-xxii.

Additional articles on this topic
Jewish Writer, by David Albahari
Nu, What Makes Jewish Literature so Jewish, Anyway? by Rachel Barenblat
What is a Jewish Book, by Kathy Bloomfield
Defining “Jewish Writing,” by Erika Dreifus
Thoughts on Jewish Story, by Erika Dreifus
What Makes a Short Story Jewish? by David Ebenbach
What Makes a Creative Process Jewish? by David Ebenbach
Am I a Jewish Writer or a Writer Who Happens to Be Jewish? by Ellen Feldman
Writing “Jewish” Fiction, by Allegra Goodman
Are You a Jewish Writer? by Joshua Henkin
Is There Such a Thing as Jewish Fiction? Moment symposium with 17 authors
The Complication of the Jewish Writer Question, by Daniel Torday
Five Jewish Writers Walk Into a Bookstore..., by Joseph Winkler
Are You a Jewish Storyteller? by Jennifer Rudick Zunikoff
Why Storytelling Is Essential to Jews and Judaism by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks 
From Its Opening Parsha, Torah Tells Us a Story by Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb


  1. It strikes me that your delving into a particular tradition of story-telling describes the dynamics of "culture." It certainly rehearses, and advances, particular values. Terry Bergdall

    1. Agreed. It's no coincidence that Bill Harley entitled his blog, Song, Story and Culture

  2. Then again, there's also this very perceptive definition from French secret agent OSS 117: "It's not funny and has no mention of sausages."

  3. Sandor,
    Congratulations on launching this new blog about stories and story telling!

    As the son of a Jewish mother, may I add my own definition? A Jewish story is one your mother told you, from her busom, with a lesson that you carry in your heart for the rest of your life.

    Stories teach. That's why those of us in facilitation, training, coaching, and organization development must cultivate a love for story.

    My dear mother passed away in 1981 and not a day goes by that I don't think of her and her love of sayings, jokes, and stories.

    Best wishes,

    1. Yes, all true. I can't help but want to share with you my story-tribute to my mother, who died in 1982. It's Hard to Tell a Hug.

  4. This is so interesting. MANY years ago, I wrote a piece for to answer the question "What is a Jewish Book?" Here's the Link: I have a different take on this subject which I use on my blog. I look for the Jewish values content of a piece.

  5. Good article that speaks more broadly about how to choose and talk about a Jewish book. Here is a clickable link to Kathy Bloomfield's article.


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