Will jokes about the Holocaust ever be funny?
Lisa Lipkin and Moshe Waldoks stand on stage—Waldoks with what he's dubbed his Holocaust Memorial Paunch, Lipkin with curls cascading around her face. They belt out an old tune with new lyrics:
There's no business like Shoah business,
like no business I know!
Everything about it is appealing,
everything the traffic will allow!
Nowhere can you get that special feeling,
when you are reeling in pain and sorrow!
A touch off key, they warble the second verse, punning on Shoah, Hebrew for Holocaust. "Everybody, join in!" Lipkin calls to the audience in New York's 92nd Street Y. No one does. Writer Thane Rosenbaum, the son of two Holocaust survivors, squirms in his seat, horrified.
The song opens Taking the Shoah on the Road, a piece of scripted storytelling Waldoks and Lipkin originally performed at the MIT Hillel in 1996. After decades of mourning, the two children of Holocaust survivors have decided it's time for laughing. Their song parodies what is known as "Shoah business," the circuit of speakers and seminars that feed American Jews' continuing hunger for the Holocaust, and the show skewers everyone from Shoah business performers to children who rate their survivor parents' suffering. "It may be that to laugh in the face of death is courageous," Waldoks, a rabbi, lecturer, and co-editor of The Big Book of Jewish Humor (HarperCollins, 1981), says in the show. "But to laugh in the face of life is absolutely heroic."
Lipkin and Waldoks dedicated years to mending, examining, and picking at the wounds in their families, an experience Lipkin describes as "swimming in a sea of skeletons." Humor, she says, is the lifeboat that has carried them to sanity. Jews have long chuckled at TV shows like Hogan's Heroes and "snotzies" playground jokes (What's green and flies over Germany?). Until now, though, anything but juvenile laughter about the Holocaust or its aftermath has been taboo. In fact, gallows humor pervaded the camps, and survivors' children have always told Holocaust jokes, though only among themselves, and with shame.
That seems to be changing. In the past decade, writers and artists—the Second Generation, or 2G—have dared to use humor in their work, to shock, to soothe, to reveal truths. Deb Filler's one-woman show, Punch Me in the Stomach, swings from gentle parody to the blackest humor: "Good evening, Ladies and Genocides!" says Uncle Hymie. "The last time I saw this many Jews together, they were naked!" Melvin Bukiet's novel, After (Picador, 1997), uses black humor to shock readers free from platitudes. "There were nearly as many rotten potatoes among the picturesque turrets on the armory . . . as there were dead Jews," he writes.
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