Arts, Culture & Media

Ukrainian roots of Jewish humor

On this hot sticky morning, middle aged women are taking their aggression out on fish, and then hurl insults at each other, and then smile. This is a fish market in Odessa, and I'm trying to learn about Odessa's humor. I'm told to talk to this woman. My translator tries to explain what she's saying: which is that the woman says Odessa is nice and pleasant, but it's not actually nice and pleasant, which is what makes it nice and pleasant. I ask the woman a few more questions, and then she yells across the market to a friend�interview over. I try a new tactic and meet up with a friend who works in TV. He describes a scene from a popular TV show where an old guy is walking around a market and putting his nose in everything. The old man says, why don't you buy the pork? The punch line is, well I don't get the joke. The friend senses that I don't get it. I know humor doesn't translate across borders always, but if this is the basis of New York humor, which I do get, something isn't adding up. I have another idea: I go to a comedy club and the attached restaurant named after a song from The Muppets. A woman there says the problem isn't with me, and that Odessa's humor is Jewish humor but when the Jews left after the collapse of the Soviet Union, humor left with them. As I'm about to thank her and leave, she adds another point: Americans don't know how to joke. At this point, I'm feeling deflated. I report my findings back to my friend who works in TV, but he says the problem is me and not Odessa, which he assures is funny. He says if I move here, I too would be fun.

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