I published a book recently called Jewish Life and Jewish Laughter. Some of my British haredi friends seemed a bit troubled by the word “laughter” in the title. (Well, they do live in England.) But laughter is very much a Jewish thing, even in tough times.
When I was writing my book The Little Book for Big Worries: Dealing With Serious Illness, ” I came across a statistic that shows that people who are diagnosed with a serious illness and can laugh about their condition have a 75 percent higher recovery rate than those who can’t.
Certainly if you have a sense of humor it can get you out of some difficult and embarrassing situations.
Many years ago I was invited to address a bar mitzvah boy. The president of the shul awaited my arrival and greeted me at the door. He then escorted me to sit at the front in the rabbi’s box.
If you’ve never been to England, you may be confused by the phrase “rabbi’s box.” Allow me to explain.
In English shuls, as in shuls the world over, the rabbi’s chair is located up front beside the Aron HaKodesh. In England, however, the chair is situated inside a wooden box. This opens either at the front or the back and the rabbi steps in and out through a little door.
I never understood why the English want to put their rabbis in a wooden box. He is, after all, going to end up inside one soon enough. Why they seem so keen to speed up the process always baffled me. And this particular box was tiny.
The shul started to fill up with family and friends. By the time the young man was ready to read his parshah there were around a thousand people in the congregation.
The president asked if I would escort the Torah in its procession to the bimah. I happily agreed. I dislodged myself from the box and walked to the bimah, shaking hands with congregants and wishing them a good Shabbos. I climbed the steps of the bimah, the Torah was placed there, and I returned to the box.
Halfway through the Torah reading I was called back to the bimah for an aliyah. A few minutes later I was squeezing myself back into my box.
The president came to see me a third time to ask if I would say the prayer for Israel and for the Royal Family. I nodded and levered myself from the box once more.
Most British shuls are Orthodox and most British Jews are denominationally Orthodox even if they aren’t particularly frum. There is always one part of the Shabbos morning service when talking and conversation even among the less religious congregants halts and total silence reigns. That moment is when the rabbi says the prayer for the Queen and for Israel.
The chazzan was an old friend of mine and as I stood beside him, a thousand people rose to stand too. I urgently whispered to my friend, “How do you say it?”
You see, some English shuls say these prayers in English, some in Hebrew, and some half in English and half in Hebrew. I needed to know what the custom was in that shul.
The chazzan pointed to the words in the open siddur in front of me and whispered back, “Just read exactly what’s in the siddur!”
I frowned as he seemed not to understand what I was asking so I whispered, “Yeah, yeah… but how do you say it?”
He showed me he could frown every bit as well as I could and repeated slowly, “Just-read-exactly-what’s-in-the-siddur! ”
I gave a little throat-clearing cough and began.
“He who gives salvation unto kings and dominion unto princes, Whose kingdom is an everlasting kingdom; may He bless our sovereign lady, Queen Elizabeth…”
I looked at the chazzan, who was nodding and smiling approvingly at my performance. Thus encouraged, I carried on. “Elizabeth the Queen Mother [the Queen’s mother was still alive at the time], Philip Duke of Edinburgh…the Prince…and Princess of Wales.”
The problem was that unlike the Queen’s mother, her daughter-in-law, the Princess of Wales, was not still alive. Princess Diana had been killed in a car crash in Paris two years before.
A very strange noise came from the congregation. It wasn’t exactly an explosion of laughter, more an implosion of laughter as a thousand people tried to smother and hold back a guffaw.
There were three reasons for this. One, the people liked me. Two, they knew I was doing them a favor by being there. Three, they realized I didn’t really know what I was doing.
In my own defense I would point out that I did precisely what I was told to. It was hardly my fault that I read “exactly-what’s-in-the-siddur.” It’s just that no one had bothered to remove the words “Princess of Wales.”
The thing is, of course, once I’d said it, I couldn’t unsay it. The damage was done. I returned to my box and would have been quite happy if at that point someone had come along to nail it closed.
The Sefer Torah was returned to the Ark and the congregation sat as the president introduced me and explained that I would be addressing the bar mitzvah boy.
I fought my way out of the box and looked down at a smiling little boy who stood waiting to hear what words of wisdom the visiting rabbi was going to say to him on his big day.
I smiled back at him and looked at the congregation.
“Before I address Howard, today’s bar mitzvah boy, I would just like to point out that if you were listening very carefully a few moments ago, you may have noticed a slight change to the normal wording of the prayer for the Royal Family.”
At this the people sitting there could no longer control themselves and the previous implosion of laughter became an explosion of laughter. I waited for the tsunami of sound to completely subside and when there was total silence, I added:
“I would just like you to know that for some of us…she’ll live forever!”
The congregation laughed again, louder and longer than before, and my embarrassment was erased by their smiles.
Of course the Torah has much to say about laughter, as it has on every subject. The Talmud in Taanis reports that “ Rabbi Broika was often found at the Jewish market place of Beit Lefet where he often met Eliyahu HaNavi. One day he asked, “Is anyone in this place going to Olam Haba? ”
Eliyahu pointed to two brothers. The rabbi approached them and asked what they did. The answer they gave was amazing.
“Us? We are comedians!”
The crucial bit comes next. The brothers continued, “We find people who are depressed and make them laugh.”
Making people laugh and telling funny stories will not earn you a place in heaven. But you know what will? Finding people who have forgotten how to laugh or perhaps feel they will never laugh again – and making them laugh.
So writing a book about Jewish laughter is not something to frown at. It is in fact a perfectly acceptable idea, even for haredi Jews who live in England.