On October 19, noted stand-up comic Jessica Kirson spoke on the topic of Jewish comedy at the University of Hartford as the second feature in a three-part Jewish Humor Series that the Center for Judaic Studies is participating in this fall with the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford.
Students, faculty, and community members were treated to a fun night as they listened to Kirson’s unique take on life and Jewish humor. Jessica Kirson has twice appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The View, HBO, and will be featured in Robert De Niro’s upcoming movie The Comedian set to be released this December.
Today’s comedy, from stand-up to movies to TV, is dominated by both Jewish entertainers and producers. What accounts for this worldwide success? On Wednesday, September 14, Josh Lambert, Academic Director of the Yiddish Book Center and visiting assistant professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, examined the question in the first talk of this fall’s Jewish Humor Lecture Series developed by the University of Hartford’s Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies and co-sponsored by UConn’s Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life.
In his presentation, “The Roots of Jewish Humor,” Professor Lambert explored the possible reasons for the notable, modern-day success of Jewish comics, ultimately rejecting the idea that today’s comics are tapping into and perpetuating an ancient tradition, largely because no such coherent tradition of comedy can be found in the textual sources of the Talmud and Hebrew Bible. Instead, Professor Lambert attributed much of the comedic success of performers such as Sarah Silverman and Adam Sandler and producers such as Judd Apatow and Carl Reiner to the fact that Jews are fundamentally connected to the most deeply valued Western traditions while remaining as outsiders to the majority culture. This allows Jewish comedians to provide a unique and different take on subject matter that is ubiquitous, engendering the humor that members of Western culture can relate to.
In essence, Jewish comics of today have done what sages and prophets accomplished two millennia ago—crafted an irresistible commodity that found favor throughout the world.
Professor Lambert is the author of Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture (2014), which won a Jordan Schnitzer Book Award from the Association of Jewish Studies and a Canadian Jewish Book Award. He serves as a contributing editor to Tablet and has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Haaretz, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Globe & Mail, and the Forward.
The Jewish Humor Lecture Series is being offered in conjunction with a new Jewish humor course developed and being piloted at both UHart and UConn by Professor Avinoam Patt (UHart) and Professor Jeffrey Shoulson (UConn).
On October 19, the annual Lillian Singer Jewish Humor Lecture will feature the unique and captivating style of noted stand-up comedian, Jessica Kirson. On November 16, Jesse Appell, a stand-up comedian who brings Jewish humor to China, will perform at UConn as part of the series.
Professor Yotam Hotam, the 2015 Horace W. Goldsmith Visiting Professor in Judaic Studies at Yale, presented “‘Transgression’ in Modern Jewish Thought” at our recent, April 20, faculty colloquium. Dr. Hotam is a lecturer in the department of Learning, Instruction and Teacher Education at the University of Haifa; and his research focuses on the intersections between secularism, religion, and theology in modern European and modern Jewish thought.
In his highly enjoyable presentation, Dr. Hotam examined Freud’s 1905 work, The Joke and its Relation to the Unconscious, and argued that the book, which consisted of a large collection of Freud’s “Jewish jokes,” revealed the way Freud navigated his dual identity as a lawful Jew whose parents hailed from Galicia and a secular modernist who rejected obedience to Jewish law. As Dr. Hotam explained, jokes act as a social mechanism to defy the norms of society by expressing inhibited or suppressed desires, but they also preserve the norms they attack. Freud’s jokes, according to Dr. Hotam, served much the same function in preserving his Jewish identity.
Dr. Hotam is the author of Modern Gnosis and Zionism: The Crisis of Culture, Life Philosophy and Jewish National Thought (Routledge 2013) and a co-editor of New Social Foundations for Education: Education in Post-Secular Society (Peter Lang 2015). Currently, he is working on a book project that explores the relation between the concepts of critique and theology in the writings of leading modern Jewish thinkers such as Sigmund Freud, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor Adorno. We look forward to learning more about his work!
An amazing performance by the Guy Mendilow Ensemble was held at the Charter Oak Cultural Center in Hartford on April 7. The Guy Mendilow Ensemble is an award-winning quintet with a cast of world-class players who mesmerized the audience with their skill in playing a wide variety of instruments, including the Berimbau, Jaw Harps, and Thumb Piano. The unique performance, entitled “Tales from the Forgotten Kingdom,” combined storytelling with the music of the Sephardic diaspora, transporting the audience through time and place from Sarajevo to Jerusalem. The concert was sponsored by the Charter Oak Cultural Center and the Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life.
On March 23, at our faculty colloquium, Maha Darawsha, lecturer in Arabic at UConn, presented on her exciting discovery this past summer in Nazareth, Israel of a mosaic floor thought to be from one of the earliest churches in Christianity.
Darawsha, whose work is in collaboration with the University of Hartford’s Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies, along with Professor Richard Freund of the University of Hartford and Shalom Yanklovitz of Haifa University, led a team of archaeologists in excavating near the current Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation.
The Church of the Annunciation, so named because it is said to be built above the spring where the Virgin Mary was drawing water when the angel Gabriel revealed to her that she would bear the Son of God, lies just south of the excavation site. Darawsha, originally from a village just outside of Nazareth, has been researching the project since 2003 and believes that they have found the exact site of Mary’s well, upon which the original Church of the Annunciation was constructed. Ground penetrating radar, along with the primary source material that records the existence of the early Byzantine era church, helped the team to uncover the site where the mosaic, believed to date to the fourth century, was found.
Darawsha holds a B.A. from the University of Haifa in Archaeology and an M.A. in Judaic Studies from UConn. She will return to the excavation site in the 2016 summer season and hopes to uncover more of the building and an extension of the mosaic which is decorated with crosses and other Christian iconography. We look forward to hearing more about these exciting discoveries as the excavation continues!