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Excerpt: 'Old Jews Telling Jokes'

Old Jews Telling Jokes

Chapter One: The Jewish Mother

She was so deeply embedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise. As soon as the last bell had sounded, I would rush off for home, wondering as I ran if I could possibly make it to our apartment before she had succeeded in transforming herself. Invariably she was already in the kitchen by the time I arrived, and setting out my milk and cookies. Instead of causing me to give up my delusions, however, the feat merely intensified my respect for her powers.

So starts Portnoy's Complaint, Philip Roth's definitive kvetch novel of the American Jewish Mother. What's interesting to me is that Roth's portrait doesn't start with any of the petty stereotypical claims- overprotective, anxious, neurotic. Instead Portnoy's mother is defined by her power.

Coincidentally, when I posted my own mother's joke to our website, it was accompanied by the following description: "Diane Hoffman is my mom. She can do pretty much anything and, at any given time, is doing everything." The phrasing may be less sublime, but the sentiment is related. If we, and by "we" I mean the Jewish boys, have an issue with our mothers, the issue is with their abundance of gifts, talents, and abilities, or at least with our perception of these things.

But why are these Jewish mothers so exaggerated? Are there steroids in the flanken? What has created this über-race of shape-shifting moms?

Some scholars suggest that it is intrinsically tied to the Jewish suburban flight during the middle of the last century. For generations the mother had occupied the central role in the Jewish family. In the shtetl, they ran the household, which could include domesticated animals and small farming, while the fathers often spent copious time studying Torah. Suddenly these ferociously intelligent, energetic women were stuck in a house in the middle of nowhere with little or nothing to do. By the 1950s, many could even afford a little help around the house with the laundry and the dusting.

So what's a ravenously curious, intellectually gifted, ambitious woman to do? Many joined associations and community groups such as Hadassah and synagogue sisterhoods. Many ran parent-teacher organizations and started book clubs and charity organizations. And starting in the 1960s, many started to enter the labor market. But before having a job became a generally accepted option, many turned their laserlike focus to their children. This had a mixed effect, which we could address further if we had a chapter on psychoanalysis, but unfortunately the publishers didn't find our collection of 378 Freudian knock-knock jokes to be worth printing.

One might ask-why start the book with a chapter on Jewish mothers?

The answer is simple. That's where it all starts.

A Bonus Freudian Knock-Knock Joke

"Knock knock."

"Who's there?"


"Oedipus who?"

"Oedipus shmedipus, as long as he loves his mother."

Dennis Spiegelman

Dennis Spiegelman is Eric's dad. He moved to Los Angeles in 1963, married a shiksa (Eric's word choice), and had two children. He deals in antique and collectible objects.

My Son, the President

It's the year 2016, and a Jew has been elected president. He calls his mother and says, "Ma, I'm the president of the United States! Are you coming to the inauguration?"

She says, "Eh, well, I've got nothing to wear."

He says, "Ma, I'm gonna be the president. I can get you a dressmaker."

She says, "Eh, well, I only eat kosher."

"Ma, I'm gonna be president! I can get you a kosher meal."

She says, "Eh, well, how am I gonna get there?"

"Ma, I can get you Air Force One. Come to the inaugural."

She ends up at the inaugural and they're on the reviewing stand. On the left side of her are all of the Supreme Court justices; on the right side is the president's cabinet.

She nudges the guy to her right and says, "You see that guy with his hand up? His brother's a doctor!"

Sylvie Drake

Sylvie Drake has led a fascinating life, which began in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1930. After she immigrated to the United States in 1949, she spent three years acting and directing with the Pasadena Playhouse.


What is the difference between a Jewish mother and a Rottweiler?

Eventually, a Rottweiler will let go.

A Bonus Joke from Sylvie Drake:
Staring at the Sea

These four women are sitting on a bench in Santa Monica.

It's a gray day. They're staring out at the gray sea, under a cloudy sky, looking miserable. They're not talking.

All of a sudden, one of them breaks the silence and says, "Oy."

Two seconds later, the one next to her says, "Oy, vey."

A few seconds later, the one next to her says, "Oy vey iz mir."

The fourth one turns toward the others and says, "Excuse me, I thought we had agreed that we weren't going to talk about the children!"

Mike Leiderman

Mike Leiderman has spent more than thirty years as a Chicago TV sportscaster, producer, writer, and host. He was so excited to be a part of Old Jews Telling Jokes that he flew himself from Chicago to Los Angeles to tell his jokes.

Meeting Mom

This guy tells his mother that he's finally going to get married. His mother is thrilled!

She says, "Am I gonna meet her?"

He says, "Well, Ma, I'd like to play a little game with you. You have such a good sense of what's going on. I'd like to bring in three women and have you guess which one's gonna be my wife."

His mother agrees.

The next day, he brings in three beautiful ladies and he sits down on the couch next to his mom. His mom talks to them for two minutes and says, "The redhead in the middle."

He says, "Ma, that's amazing! How'd you do that so quickly?"

She says, "'Cause I don't like her."

Harold Zapolsky

Harold (Harry) Zapolsky spent most of his career as a professor of physics at Rutgers University, where he served two terms as department chair and is now professor emeritus. He also served in Washington, D.C., for several years as program director for theoretical physics at the National Science Foundation.


A lady is taking her young son to his first day in school. She's walking him to school and she starts giving him a little lecture.

She says, "Now, bubele, this is a marvelous thing for you, bubele. Bubele, you're never gonna forget it. Just remember, bubele, to behave in school. Remember, bubele, anytime you want to speak, you raise your hand."

They get to the school and she says, "Bubele, have a good day. I'll be waiting for you when you get out of school."

Four hours later, she's standing there, and the little kid runs down the steps. She runs toward him and says, "Bubele, bubele, it's been such an exciting day. Tell me, bubele, what did you learn today?"

He says, "I learned my name was Irving."

Steven M. Brown, M.D.

Excerpted from Old Jews Telling Jokes by Sam Hoffman with Eric Spiegelman. Copyright 2010 by Sam Hoffman. Excerpted by permission of Villard, a division of Random House, Inc.

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Sam Hoffman with Eric Spiegelman