In the opening of “Jumor: A Journey Through Jewish Humor,” a student documentary film set in fourteen Jewish retirement homes across the country, Scott Kirschenbaum ’03 performs a fast-paced, kinetic ode to a legendary cultural tradition. Before a crowd of delighted retirees, Kirschenbaum recalls people like Jack Benny, the Marx Brothers, Myron Cohen, Milton Berle, Sid Ceaser, and Woody Allen.
While these names represent a striking comic past, the prestigious list is an afterthought to the film’s real focus. Created by Aaron Krinsky ’03, “Jumor” journeys through Jewish humor not only to educate its audience about the past, but also to forge a personal, human connection with a dying generation. The documentary shows how the past and the present can come together through the timeless, universal pursuit of a good, hearty laugh.
That is not to say Judaism doesn’t play an important role in the film. Krinsky and Kirschenbaum are both Jewish, and this shared faith gives their interactions with the retirees a poignant subtext. But religion had very little to do with their motivation for making the film.
“Scott and I both shared an intense interest in meeting new people and having conversations,” Krinsky explained.
For Krinsky, the project was an impulsive, last minute decision. He had planned to spend the summer after his sophomore year in New Haven learning Chinese. When his buddy Kirschenbaum came to him with the idea for the movie, Krinsky dropped everything and leapt at the opportunity. The pair embarked on a six-week Jewish retirement home tour. They traveled to Rochester, N.Y., Portland, Ore., Los Angeles, New Haven, Washington, D.C., and Denver, along with many other cities across the country.
At each stop, they spent a good amount of time just talking with the retirees. In addition to questions about the uniqueness of Jewish humor, they discussed broader issues relating to life and growing old. The response the guys received at almost every home was incredibly positive.
“When you walk in,” Krinsky explained, “You’re not a volunteer, you’re not somebody to pity them.”
They became so engrossed with these conversations that they paid very little attention to the filmmaking process. They taped more than fifty hours of footage with barely any sense of what they were making.
“We both constantly had the fear: is this going to work?” Krinsky recalled. “We had no idea what we were doing. We just wanted to experiment in the world in let things happen.”
Krinsky spent the last two years wrestling with the footage in the editing room, and based on the near-completed final product, this experimentation paid off. The movie is a refreshingly straightforward collection of interviews. Krinsky divides the discussion into sections, ranging from the humor in religion to the healing power of comedy, without letting each interview become too choppy.
As a result, the audience becomes well acquainted with the charming, remarkably candid cast of characters: a bickering Laurel/Hardy duo; the 106-year-old Rose, who teaches the boys a Yiddish curse only to break out in hysterical laughter before she can translate it; Silvia, a woman so astonishingly comfortable in front of the camera that she practically slams her face up against it.
They are all eager to pass on an important tradition to a new generation; this much is evident in the way the topic energizes and impassions them. But the film’s most powerful moments come when the retirees convey how humor keeps them going.
“If we don’t laugh, we might as well lie down and die,” one man succinctly puts it.
For them, humor is at the core of their personalities, their faith, their past, and their humanity.
And, as the film reveals, humor is their connection to the outside world. For it is ultimately the relationship between interviewer and interviewee, between filmmaker and film subject, that makes “Jumor” a moving viewing experience. In its conclusion, the documentary captures the power of humor with the famous Groucho Marx line that “there is no such thing as an old joke if you’ve never heard it before.”
Or, as Krinsky put it: “We were meeting them for the first time, so it was like hearing old jokes for the first time.”