The class Modern Jewish Thought: Funny Jews, started off as perhaps it should – with an inside joke. The professor of the class, Shaina Hammerman, can explain. “I grew up in the golden age of the sitcom when Friends and Seinfeld ruled the networks,” she said. “At the time, I mostly thought the shows were entertaining, but I also understood them to be very Jewish. Even the ones that weren’t explicitly Jewish – like Frasier or The Golden Girls – still had a quality that made me feel like I was on the inside of a great, big, inside joke.” Funny Jews covers the D2 theology core and was first offered last fall. The course “introduces students to some of the foundational concepts of Jewish history, religion and culture – the vocabulary of Jewishness,” wrote professor Shaina Hammerman in an email.
“Students who begin the class unable to articulate why a certain figure, film, or series feels Jewish, will leave the class armed with the tools to analyze what’s Jewish about the popular culture they consume. They become insiders on the inside jokes,” she said.
Although last semester was the first time the class was offered, it was just shy of its full capacity of 40 students. Some students were attracted by the fliers posted around school, which advertised the class with the faces of Jewish comedians such as Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David and Sarah Silverman. “I saw the advertisements and thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m Jewish, so I have to take this class,’” said junior advertising major Dylan Harari, who took the course last semester. “I needed to fulfill my theology core and I thought this was the perfect way.”
“We learned about the history of Jews using comedy to counter oppression and just about why certain Jewish stereotypes came about,” Harari said. “One of the coolest part of the class was the final project. We could do anything that basically studies texts of Jewish comedy and tie it into a bigger thing with some of the readings from class, the archetypes we went over and Yiddish culture.”
Rather than a traditional essay, one student wrote a parody of a Drake song for his final project. “He wrote and recorded legit rhymes – some in Yiddish! – that critiqued the ways Lil Dicky leverages his Jewishness to gain street cred. It was brave and illuminating work. I was inspired!” Hammerman said.
New to the university, Hammerman developed this course to explore issues of how people understand Jewishness in media, specifically through comedy.
“Comedy demands an immediate reaction from its viewers, and because of that, it is easy to take for granted what images mean, why they’re funny, where they come and what effect they might have on how people relate to each other,” she said. “These questions are the foundations of the class.”
Hammerman is teaching one section of Funny Jews this semester. It not only hit its full capacity, but had several students on the waitlist. She is slated to teach two sections of the course in the fall 2018 semester. Registration for next semester begins on April 9.
Featured Photo: Funny Jews: Professor Shaina Hammerman was inspired by her childhood of sitcoms to create the class Funny Jews, which examines “Jewishess” through the lens of comedy, media and social justice. COURTESY OF SHAINA HAMMERMAN