While you’re lighting the menorah, spinning the dreidel, and stuffing your face with latkes, you could also spend the next eight days and nights checking out some funny books by Jewish writers in honor of Hanukkah 2014, which starts at sundown tonight. The stories are full of food, sex, guilt, shame, love, family, and summer camp — you know, the good stuff.
Writer/comedian/filmmaker/cultural icon Mel Brooks once said, “Look at Jewish history. Unrelieved lamenting would be intolerable. So for every ten Jews beating their breasts, God designated one to be crazy and amuse the breast beaters. By the time I was five I knew I was that one.”
Brooks is definitely one of the chosen, hilarious few, but he’s not the only funny Jew, obviously. There’s Joan Rivers (RIP), Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, Sarah Silverman, Chelsea Handler, Larry David, Jon Stewart, Bette Midler, Gilda Radner — and the list goes on.
So, in honor of Hanukkah — aka The Festival of Lights — here are 10 books of hilarious essays, absurdist novels, and laugh-out-loud memoirs by Jewish writers that are guaranteed to make you do a spit-take, whether you own a menorah or not. But, you know, your mother really hopes you do. And call her back, won't you?
The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee by Sarah Silverman
If you’re not sure whether this book is for you, here’s a little questionnaire that might help from Silverman’s publisher HarperCollins:
1. Which of the following do you appreciate?
(a) Women with somewhat horse-ish facial features.
(b) Women who, while not super Jew-y, are more identifiably Jewish than, say, Natalie Portman.
(c) Frequent discussion of unwanted body hair.
If that sounds good to you, add The Bedwetter to your to-read list. Silverman’s 2010 memoir is offbeat, bold, raunchy, and hilarious. She writes about embracing cursing at a young age (like, as a toddler), her childhood in New Hampshire (where she battled bedwetting), summer camp (“the second worst camp for Jews”), and her teenage struggle with depression. If you’re a fan of Silverman, you’ll love it.
Without Feathers by Woody Allen
The title is a riff on Emily Dickinson's line, “Hope is the thing with feathers,” and this bestselling collection of essays/short stories is one of Allen’s best books. The stories are all written in his distinctive, neurotic, witty, angst-ridden voice. Check out “The Whore of Mensa” and “If the Impressionists Had Been Dentists” if you really need a laugh.
Portnoy's Complaint by Phillip Roth
I was introduced to this 1969 classic in college, and it’s about a “nice Jewish boy” named Alexander Portnoy who has a masturbation fixation, a problem with his parents, and a universe of guilt swirling around in his psyche. The book made Roth a major star in the lit world, and Jon Stewart has called it “the Jewish manual.” At the time of publication it was considered controversial for its depictions of sex and desire, but today it’s just considered a dark humor masterpiece.
Eating Delancey: A Celebration of Jewish Food by Aaron Rezny and Jordan Schaps
This brand new cookbook is from food photographer Aaron Rezny and magazine creative director Jordan Schaps, and the late, great Joan Rivers wrote the introduction. “There’s an old joke: What does a Jewish woman make for dinner? Reservations. That was my mother,” she writes. And later on she adds, sadly, “If I had to choose, my last meal would be a good piece of gefilte fish.” The book is filled with beautiful photos and recipes, alongside celebrity mini-memoirs from Bette Midler, Jackie Mason, Itzhak Perlman, Joshua Bell, Don Rickles, Fyvush Finkel, and Isaac Mizrahi.
Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart
Little Failure just landed on The New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2014 list, and it’s the true story of an immigrant family coming to from Leningrad, Russia to Queens, New York. At its heart, Shteyngart’s memoir is about oddball who finds himself through writing. The title comes from the phrase failurchka — “little failure” — a nickname Shteyngart’s mom gives her misfit son. In order to survive, Shteyngart turns to comedy — “humor being the last resort of the besieged Jew, especially when he is placed among his own kind,” he writes, echoing Mel Brooks. It’s one of the funniest memoirs in years.
I Was Told There'd Be Cake by Sloane Crosley
While you’re waiting for Crosley’s first novel The Clasp to come out next year, go back and read her first book of essays if you want great writing, laugh-out-loud anecdotes, and stories that will make you feel like you’re not the only one out there who makes ridiculous mistakes in life. Her story “Christmas in July” is about the summers she spent at a Christian camp. “For eight years I spent my summers all but forgetting I was Jewish,” she writes. “I went to a camp where we hummed the Lord’s Prayer before breakfast.” It’s about Crosley questioning her faith, thinking she was mistakenly born to Jews, and deciding, at age 12, that she didn’t want to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. A perfect Hanukkah read.
Science... For Her! by Megan Amram
To judge a book by its cover, it doesn’t really seem like the first book from hilarious tweeter/Parks and Recreation writer Amram would be a Jewish humor book, but Science… For Her! is, in fact, told from the perspective of a very unreliable, unstable – yet undoubtedly Jewish – narrator. It’s a satirical science book for the ladies, but it also officially qualifies for this list. If you’re doubtful, just read it and see.
The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson
Jacobson’s book won the Man Booker Prize in 2010, and it’s about old buddies Julian Treslove, a professionally average former BBC radio producer, and Sam Finkler, a renowned Jewish philosopher, writer, and television personality. Despite their differences, they've never lost touch with each other, or with their former teacher, Libor Sevcik. The book is about friendship, maturity, and loss, and it also happens to be very funny. Dark themes plus humor — are you detecting a pattern here? Because you should be.
No Joke by Ruth R. Wisse
Wisse delves into modern Jewish humor around the globe, and she explores examples from German, Yiddish, English, Russian, and Hebrew. The book looks at how Jewish humor channeled Jewish learning into new modes of creativity, brought solace to liberal non-Jews in repressed societies, and entered popular culture in the United States. If you’re in the market for a more academic look at Jewish humor, take a look.
The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick
Ruth Puttermesser, the thirtysomething protagonist of Ozick’s book, is a New York Jew who quit her dead-end job at a “blue-blood Wall Street” law firm. Instead she’s working in the Department of Receipts and Disbursements of the City of New York, which is not exactly a step up. Ruth’s love life sucks, her career sucks even more, but, because she wants a daughter, she creates one — in the form of the first recorded female golem. David Foster Wallace often cited Ozick as one of his favorite writers, and The Puttermesser Papers is a bizarre, unique, and very funny book. It was also a National Book Award finalist. If absurd, fantastical humor sounds like your thing, Ozick delivers.