Centre for Continuing Education

From Sinai to Seinfeld: The History of Jewish Humour Course

Jewish Culture. Learn about Jewish Culture with us.

Learn about Jewish culture the smart way with Jewish Culture courses at the University of Sydney.

In partnership with the Department of Hebrew, Biblical & Jewish Studies
Course materials developed by The Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning - a project of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. For specific enquiries regarding the program, please contact Hinda Young on 0432 567 917 or email.

The association between Jews and humour has been strong for at least the last 200 years. American comedy was largely an art form during much of the 20th century, with a disproportionate number of comedians and writers hailing from Ashkenazi immigrant backgrounds. Behind the scenes, writers for television, film, and radio shaped American perceptions of what was funny – sometimes in overtly ways, sometimes in more subtle, deracinated ways. The Borscht Belt – the hotels located in New York State’s Catskill Mountains region – was a training ground for a generation of top comics and entertainers, in a ‘golden age’ that ran from the 1930s to the early 1960s. Within ‘high culture’, meanwhile, novelists and poets were often seen as ‘comic’ writers, even when they tackled deadly serious themes like war, sex, political unrest, and prejudice.

From Sinai to Seinfeld: The History of Jewish Humour does not attempt to answer the question 'what’s Jewish about Jewish humour', at least not directly; instead, it uses various jokes as the organising principle for a discussion of major themes in history, from the Israelite’s relationship with God to the growing divide between cultural and religious Judaism in the early 21st century. The goal is not to interpret the ‘psyche’ based on what makes them laugh, but rather to show how the things that make them laugh represent a distinct period, theme, or preoccupation in history. The goal is ultimately to show that the most resonant Jewish jokes are deeply revealing signposts along the journey.


A lack of graves

  • The courage and audacity to argue with God.

Trust me, Im a Rabbi

  • Rabbinic authority in post-Temple Judaism.

The Goyim annoyem

  • Power and powerlessness in jokes.

If you’re so smart...

  • The People of the Book.

The Joy of text

  • The literary tradition of Judaism.

Take my wife, please

  • The humour of matrimony.

You can change your noses but not your Moses

  • Antisemitism after emancipation.

Dig, I’m Jewish

  • The triumph of ethnic humour.

Mothers and Others

  • Women in contemporary humour.

Seriously Funny

  • The rise of religious humour.

Intended Audience

Suitable for personal interest learners: school, university students, adult and active retirees who have an interest in culture or humour.


  • Expert trainers
  • Central locations
  • Small class sizes
  • Free, expert advice
  • Student materials – yours to keep
  • Statement of completion