These days, Polish jokes are as passé as communism. Ole & Lena yarns are whispered, or recounted at small gatherings, only among close friends. Even blonde jokes have been bottled up.

So how is it that a Jewish humor festival in St. Louis Park has enough content to be spread out over -- oy vey! -- 11 days?

"The fine Jewish comedians are storytellers who literally have something to say that everybody cares about," said Mark Bloom, who will perform satirical songs next week. "You take a look at the popularity of 'Seinfeld,' which is basically a Jewish humor monologue. It was called a show about nothing, but the characters' lives are displayed with all of their eccentricities, all the misplaced goals and ideals.

"They're just being who they are, and who they are is incredibly humorous."

Taking the personal and making it universal is a recurring theme at the first Minneapolis Jewish Humor Festival, in music, film, plays, comic monologues and workshops.

But the converse also holds true. "The greater part of Jewish humor is directed inward and is not really harsh against something else, just harsh inwardly," said local actor/playwright Ari Hoptman, who will perform "The Art of Shtick" on Sunday and "Dial 'M' for Comedy" on Tuesday.

Most Jewish humorists take it one step further, making light of themselves even more than their culture. "Self-deprecation, I think that's the key," said local actor/writer Amy Salloway, whose "So Kiss Me Already, Herschel Gertz!" chronicles experiences at the fictional Camp L'Cheim, "where even the mosquitoes wear yarmulkes."

Borscht Belt and beyond

For millennia now, humor has been a crucial way for Jews to deal with hardship and oppression. Temple Israel Rabbi Sim Glaser will address that legacy at a March 7 workshop.

"There are times I feel that humor is the most important part of Jewish culture. Period," Glaser said. "As a people, Jews have developed the ability to laugh at their own sorrow for over 5,000 years. How does anyone survive terror, sadness, loss? We laugh."

More recent history -- "just" the past century or so -- has found Jewish wisecrackers at the forefront of American culture. Groucho Marx, George Burns, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Billy Crystal and Jon Stewart have mined the Jewish experience or inhabited a decidedly Jewish persona for laughs. It's no coincidence that "shtick" is a Yiddish word.

Having "grown up in a post-Borscht Belt, post-Catskills world," Salloway said, she has tried to "move beyond the whole 'Why aren't you a doctor?' thing."

But that brand of humor endures, Hoptman noted. "You still hear a lot of jokes about the passive-aggressive Jewish mother. 'Oh, it's all right, you don't have to fix food for me; I ate yesterday.'"

Yet the genre has evolved to include everything from Bloom's gentle drollery to Sarah Silverman's raunchy bits (in the footsteps of Lenny Bruce). Even Rodney Dangerfield-style kvetching is a tough go these days, Salloway said.

"I worry all the time about that balance between expressing self-loathing and having a sense of OK-ness," she said. "With all the self-denigration, all the travails, you have to show that you can come out on top. Your audience has to know you're OK, that they don't have to save you."

On the offensive

Another tightrope for Jewish comedians: not offending those of their own faith.

"The idea that somebody's 'Jewing' people out of their money, or the thought that Jews have control over segments of society -- I don't consciously stay away, but you have to be careful," Bloom said. "As long as you're honest and sincere and you're championing this whole legacy, whether it's Jewish delis or Jewish history, you're OK. You can make jokes about that great big book 'Famous Jewish Athletes.'"

Many barbs, of course, can be tossed out only by fellow Jews. Bloom cited Brooks' "The Inquisition." "It's brutal. But it came out of Mel Brooks' mouth, whereas if it came from someone not in the Jewish community, people would be offended."

Even coming from Joel and Ethan Coen, the recent film "A Serious Man" piqued a lot of fellow Jews, said Hoptman, who has a significant role in the movie. Not-so-loosely based on the Coens' upbringing in St. Louis Park's Jewish community, the dark comedy finds a man seeking guidance, if not stability, from his spiritual leaders.

The counseling from three rabbis ranges from (seeming) nonsense about parking lots to silence. "There were not a lot of inspirational Jewish characters," Hoptman said, "but I thought all these stereotypes were handled in a humorous way."

And embracing stereotypes, rather than fleeing from them, might just be the crux of why a Jewish humor fest could last for 11 days. Might this spawn a trend, with Catholic or (God forbid) Lutheran yuk-fests?

"There might be, after this," Salloway said. "I'm totally going to the Bahai humor festival next weekend."

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643