Shaina Hammerman teaches her course on Jewish humor at USF (Photo/Maya Mirsky)
Shaina Hammerman teaches her course on Jewish humor at USF (Photo/Maya Mirsky)

Comedy, the Holocaust and the Jews in USF’s ‘Funny Jews’ course

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The spotlight hits an upturned face and a Nazi begins to sing: “Springtime for Hitler, and Germany.”

It’s a clip from the 2005 musical version of “The Producers,” and Shaina Hammerman’s University of San Francisco class laughs, as she expects them to, as Uma Thurman struts down the stairs with eagle wings and an enormous headdress.

“Putting Nazis in tap shoes and making them Broadway stars, somehow it removes power from them, and that’s funny,” Hammerman explains to the students when the clip is over.

Analyzing Jewish humor in its many forms is Topic A in Hammerman’s class, “Funny Jews,” which she is teaching for the second time at USF. By breaking down onscreen Jewish humor, she helps her students become adept in identifying cultural signifiers — what makes a joke “Jewish,” for example — a critical thinking skill that they can then apply to all the media they watch.

“They become insiders on the inside joke,” she explained.

The class covers much more than the Holocaust, which Hammerman admits is probably the least funny section of the course, though it includes clips from “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and the 1942 Ernst Lubitsch film comedy “To Be or Not to Be,” about a troupe of actors in Nazi-occupied Warsaw.

On the more droll side, her syllabus ranges from Woody Allen to Jon Stewart, with detours into places as unexpected as “The Simpsons” and “The O.C.,” in order to get the USF students thinking about stereotypes, cultural clues and assumptions around identity.

“I want you to jot down while you’re watching this, what’s Jewish about this show?” she tells her students.

Sometimes that requires some thinking, because the students who take Hammerman’s class are, for the most part, not Jewish.

“This will be, for most students, their introduction to Judaism,” she said.

Arjun Narayan, a junior, said he already loved shows like “Seinfeld” and “Mad About You” before he took the class. “What I never learned much about until this course was the ‘Jewishness’ of some of my favorite shows and films and how it has shaped pop culture and includes so many elements that are Jewish,” he said in an email.

Hammerman also asks the students to think about which narratives become prominent enough to turn into stereotypes, and which stories are left behind or ignored.

“Pop culture can reveal a lot to us,” she said.

For Hammerman herself, it took stepping outside her own culture to make her examine her Jewishness.

A Jewish “camp kid” from Arizona who also went to Jewish day school for a while and tutored b’nai mitzvah students, she took much of her identity for granted until she moved to France.

Screen Shot 2018-04-25 at 2.41.39 PMWhen she came back — married to a Frenchman — she did a doctorate at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and was surprised to find herself loving academia. She recently published her dissertation as a book, “Silver Screen, Hasidic Jews: The Story of an Image.”

Besides her work at USF, Hammerman, a resident of San Francisco’s Glen Park, also teaches at Oakland’s Mills College and at an institution a little different from those private colleges: San Quentin. She started a volunteer job there in 2017.

“It was the best, most powerful, most insane teaching experience,” she said.

Looking for a way to get out of the academic bubble, she started teaching English there in January and quickly found that her students were incredibly motivated. She also plans to help the prison rabbi teach inmates about Judaism.

At USF, “Funny Jews” is under the school’s Theology & Religious Studies Department, chaired by Aaron J. Hahn Tapper. “Shaina is an amazing teacher and sophisticated scholar, and a pleasure to have on the faculty,” he wrote in an email.

With waitlists both times, the course has become so popular that in the fall she’ll teach two sections — and even more students will figure out how to use humor as the thin end of a wedge for examining the underpinnings of pop culture.

“They don’t have to be taking for granted the ‘types’ they see onscreen,” she said.

And that’s what Hammerman really wants to get her students to do — think critically and examine their assumptions, all the while enjoying themselves.

“I want them to have the vocabulary and skill to ask, ‘Why am I laughing?’ ” she said.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.