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Jokes To Tell Your Parents For Rosh Hashana

Here's a joke to start your week:

A grasshopper walks into a bar and orders a drink.

The bartender looks at him and says, "You know, we have a drink named after you."

The grasshopper replies, "You got a drink named Stanley?"

If you liked that, then you'll love Sam Hoffman and Eric Spiegelman's new book, Old Jews Telling Jokes: 5,000 Years of Funny Bits and Not-So-Kosher Laughs. Both the book and its jokes began as a website which the authors launched after YouTube videos of older Jewish men and women telling jokes went viral.

Those first videos were shot in Hoffman's hometown of Highland Park, N.J. and casted by his father, a retired Superior Court judge who gathered 20 friends and relatives for a rigorous audition.

"I would suggest, 'What about so-and-so?'" Hoffman tells NPR's Liane Hansen.  "He would say, 'What? Are you joking? He can't tell a story! He can't tell a story to save his life!' So he was very, very dedicated to finding good, funny people to come tell stories, and those 20 people produced the first 30 jokes."

The first of those 30 jokes to go viral was told by Hoffman's mother, Diane Hoffman, a notoriously bad joke teller.  Hoffman describes it as "the only joke I can remember her ever finishing properly." ("It's not a Sunday morning joke," Hoffman says. "It's called 'Broccoli,' if anybody wants to go on the website and watch it." -- Ed. Note: Linked video includes language that most would not use at the dinner table.)

"I think part of the appeal of it was seeing my cute, 60-something-year-old mother and hearing her potty mouth and watching her sort of shame at the expletive and also her joy at getting a laugh at the same time," Hoffman says.

But Spiegelman says it's also about that common human experience of simply joking around.

"If you're sitting around with your family on any given Saturday and someone's just cracking jokes over dinner or something like that, they're going to tend to be uncensored," he says.  "Everyone has that experience growing up where there's the funny uncle who comes over and he tells dirty jokes that you don't understand and your parents look kind of aghast … There's something honest about that. There's something real about that. There's something, ironically, very family-oriented about the language in those jokes."

But there's also something very culturally specific about them. Just as folklorist Alan Lomax worked to preserve and collect folk music, Hoffman and Spiegelman have worked to preserve and collect Jewish humor.

"One of the rules on our site is that you can't tell a joke unless you're over 60 years old," Hoffman says.  "So the people who tell jokes have at least had some first-hand experience with parents who, or at least maybe grandparents… who came from the old country, who maybe spoke Yiddish. And their ideas and their ways of storytelling and the cadence of their speech is all … affected and inflected by that knowledge.  It's something that we don't have anymore, that people in this country who were born in the second half of the 20th century, don’t have that anymore. So the Alan Lomax-inspired element of the project is to record that."

The result of that effort is a 250-page, categorized archive of the Jewish-American experience -- in Groucho Marx packaging.

"I really think of it as kind of like an informal and not intellectually rigorous history of the American Jews as told by their jokes," Hoffman says.  "So you have chapters about coming to America, chapters about the rabbi, chapters about the Jewish mother, chapters about husbands and wives -- and, of course, the biggest chapter is sex."

That last chapter makes it impossible to talk about the book without touching on its racier humor -- even in this interview -- but the collection also covers more serious aspects of the Jewish-American experience, such as assimilation.

"There's a whole bunch of jokes that are Jewish men and women trying to get into a country club," Spiegelman says. "They're faking that they have these Protestant names, and then they slip up at the last minute. Or they're starting a business and they don't want to be known by their Jewish name so they fake a Protestant name and then they slip up at the last minute."

That hurdle of assimilation, faced by both first- and second-generation Jewish immigrants, comes out in the humor.  And while there are some classics -- have you heard the one about the Frenchman, the German and the Jew? -- the authors say they've also heard some new ones.

So, to see us off, Hoffman shares this gem which he first heard from New Jersey dentist Joel Leizer:

There's an old rabbi who wants to try pork before he dies.  But, being an Orthodox rabbi, he can't eat pork in his community, so he goes to a restaurant 50 miles away.  On the menu is a dish called "Suckling Pig" so he orders it and they bring it out on a beautiful tray with an apple in its mouth.  Just as he's about to take his first bite, in walks Goldberg, the president of his congregation.

Goldberg says, "Rabbi, what are you doing? What are you eating?"

The rabbi replies, "Goldberg, can you believe this restaurant?  I order a baked apple and this is how they serve it to me!"

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