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What, You’re Coming Empty Handed?


The informant is my grandfather, who spent his teens living in a Jewish neighborhood in New York City. This joke was one he heard every now and then. He calls it New York Jew humor.


I heard this joke a few years ago while out to dinner with my grandfather and his brother. When they get together, they tell jokes for hours on end, like they used to growing up in New York.

Main Piece:

The woman says to her friend, “Rachel, is it true you just moved into a big, new apartment?”

Rachel says, “It’s true. Why don’t you come visit. It’s on 1584 8th st. What you’ll do is you’ll take the train down to 8th st and get out. You’ll walk up to the door, there’s a big double door, and open the door with your left elbow and then use your right elbow to prop the door open and walk in. There’s another door, so you have to go to the list of buzzers and with the left elbow, buzz apartment 680. It’ll ring me upstairs and I’ll buzz you in. Then you use the right elbow to press down on the handle of the inside door and push in. You’ll be in the lobby and you walk up to the elevator and with the left elbow you press ‘up.’ You’ll get into the elevator and with the right elbow press ‘six’ for the sixth floor. The elevator will take you to the sixth floor and then you’ll walk to the left down the hall to apartment 680. You’ll ring the doorbell with the right elbow, and you can give some knocks with the left elbow. I’ll come open the door and you’ll come in and I’ll show you around and we’ll have some coffee.

“Wait, Rachel! What kind of directions are these with all the ‘right elbow’ and ‘left elbow? What’s with all the elbows?’

She says, “What? You’re coming empty-handed?”


Per my grandfather’s own words, this joke epitomizes Jewish humor, at least Jewish humor originating out of New York City. The joke distills the customs and character traits of New York’s Jewish population down to a joke. The meticulous nature of the idiosyncratic details that Rachel describes with all the elbows reminds me greatly of my aunts and uncles that still live in New York. It also conveys the expected hospitality and custom of bringing a gift when someone invites you over to their home. My grandfather also tells the joke with a voice, using a nasally, baritone voice when speaking Rachel’s part, making a mocking imitation of a middle-aged Jewish woman from New York. Much of this Jewish humor that my grandfather has described to me is somewhat masochistic and self-degrading. It makes sardonic, comic relief of shared experiences between New York Jews, such as the ones shared between my grandfather and his brother.

Jewish One Liners


The informant is my grandfather, who spent most of his teens in 1950’s and 60’s New York City. He is Jewish, and grew up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, immersing himself deep into the lore and sardonic nature of Jewish, New York humor.


These are some jokes my grandfather has told me to me over and over since I could walk. There’d be many times at family functions and events that we’d be talking and he’d break into a tirade of “Jewish jokes,” flinging out one-liners and jokes from Henny Youngman, Sid Caesar, and jokes he heard on the sidewalks in the city growing up. My grandfather told me that he and his friends would go for hours, cracking joke after joke like rapid fire, imitating the comedians on the radio.

Main Piece:

A doctor gave a man six months to live. The man couldn’t pay his bill. The doctor gave him another six months.

I broke my leg in two places. The doctor told me to stop going to those places.

My dad was the town drunk. Usually that’s not so bad, but in New York City?


These one-liners were always my favorite jokes growing up. For me, they were my first impression of an era of post-WWII America immortalized by films and television: New York City in the mid-20th century. This was a time where many immigrants were coming to the United States and establishing identities for their communities in this new land. My grandfather moved to a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in the city after his family emigrated from Israel. Many of the jokes he heard and told with his friends during his time growing up there formed the backbone of the Jewish identity in New York City. These jokes are quick, witty, and overly masochistic. The Jewish people suffered greatly in Europe in the prior decades, and now they were forced to try and assimilate to a foreign country. These one-liners are almost a coping mechanism for the Jewish people, as they learn to laugh at pain and misfortune. A broken leg is certainly not as severe as the Holocaust, yet it mimics the misfortune and shares the experience with companions when the joke is told to a group of friends hanging out in a schoolyard.

The Kohen Joke

Main piece: Man goes to his Rabbi and tells him there’s something he’s always wanted to be. Rabbi says, “What’s that?” He says, “I want to be a Kohen.” Rabbi says, “You want to be a Kohen? I can’t make you a Kohen. Why do you want to be a Kohen?” He says “I’ve always wanted to be a Kohen,” and he offers any kind of contribution that the Rabbi wants. He says “The shul needs a new roof. I’ll buy a new roof.” Rabbi says, “Now that’s interesting”. The Rabbi thinks about it and says, “Well let me see if I can work something out”. So Rabbi calls him a few days later, and says “I think I found a way to do it, and I think I found a way to make you a Kohen. We’ll have a ceremony in the shul, and I’ll say the bruchas, and I’ll bless you and you’ll be a Kohen.” So they go through all of this, and the man buys them a new roof for the shul. And everyone’s happy. A few months later, the Rabbi says “Tell me. Something’s been bothering me. Why all these years you wanted to be a Kohen so badly?” He says, “Well my grandfather was a Kohen, and my father was a Kohen, so I wanted to be a Kohen too!”

Background: My informant is an eighty-eight year old Jewish man from Baltimore, Maryland, and a Kohen himself. 

Context: The Kohanim are one of the twelve tribes of Israel, who historically took on the position of high priests, as they are said to be descendants of Aaron. Kohanim in modern Jewish settings today still perform blessings over the congregation. Tribal identity within the Jewish faith is established through the patrilineal line – my informant’s grandfather and father were both Kohanim, so my informant is as well. Shul is a yiddish term for synagogue, or place of worship, and bruchas are another word for blessings. 

After telling me the story about pidyon habens, my informant said “Well, I know a joke about Kohens too!” He doesn’t remember where he heard the joke the first time, but he thinks it was a friend who made him laugh.

Analysis: The joke here is that you can’t make anyone a Kohen – it’s a position only earned through birth, and the man who wanted to be a Kohen couldn’t be made one because he was a Kohen all along. It’s both silly because the man made a stupid mistake, but also it reinforces the status quo – that in terms of tribal identity within the Jewish faith, you can’t move up or down in the hierarchy, and become a high priest. Kohanim are believed to be descendants of Aaron, who was Moses’s brother, so it’s an impressive and weighty heritage and tradition. Kohen have privileges and opportunities to bless the congregation when other members do not. People could interpret the Rabbi’s willingness to make the man a Kohen for a new roof as sacrilegious or folly, and are scared because the status quo has been disrupted by a holy man who should know better. However, at the end people laugh out of relief because the man was always a Kohen, and the shul still got a new roof.