So the rabbi says to the : No joke: Retired San Francisco teacher now aiming for the funny

Ralph Beren is a laugh peddler. The 75-year-old San Francisco resident has retired from full-time teacher training, but he still teaches workshops and classes throughout the Bay Area on Jewish humor.

He loves making people laugh and teaching about the great Jewish comics of past and present.

“During these hard times, there are many issues to be unhappy about,” Beren said. “How do we keep ourselves from obsessing about all of these things?”

Ralph Beren leads a seminar on Jewish humor at Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame.

Well, humor, of course.

“Jews have used humor to get us through all kinds of situations that have caused real suffering and oppression. Humor is an old friend of ours. It is a Jewish icon,” he said. “Why not think of our humor as a palliative for our health? It’s like therapy without having to pay.”

Beren taught high school outside of Philadelphia in the 1960s before getting his doctorate in education. Two of his students, in different years, were baseball Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson (at Cheltenham High School) and current Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu (whose family lived in Cheltenham, Pa., during his high school years).

After moving to the Bay Area in 1995, he directed the secondary teacher training program at San Francisco State University until his retirement in 2006.

In recent years, Beren has taught Jewish humor at — in his estimation — every JCC in the Bay Area and dozens of synagogues. He’s bound to pop up at any time on a Jewish organization’s schedule, although he does have a steady gig, as well: teaching a Jewish humor class to high school students at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.

“The class at Kol Shofar centers around different themes of Jewish humor,” said Beren, who has three children, two grandchildren and is divorced. “Some of the themes are self-deprecation — you could go for weeks on that. There is also Jewish humor and manipulation, and Jewish humor and poking fun at authority.”

Beren starts his classes by introducing some jokes. Then the students read the jokes and learn how to tell them. He then shows video clips of Jewish comedians, going as far back as legends like Jack Benny and Sid Caesar.

“We also talk about where all this Jewish humor comes from,” Beren explained. “So we also explore where we came from. And the students bring in stories.

“Jackie Mason, for example, does a routine about food and Jews, so it’s fun to talk with the students about people they know who have been fussy over food.”

Beren said his students over the years have appreciated how he injects humor into every class. “When I taught at San Francisco State, I emphasized that the students should not get too serious about their work. Humor was always part of what I did. Once, at the end of the year, a student said to me, ‘Thank you, Dr. Beren, for being so silly.’

“It was important for them to stay loose and not have to be perfect,” he added, underscoring how humor can help ease anxiety and make life more fun.

He recently led a Jewish seminar for Holocaust survivors at the offices of Jewish Family and Children’s Services in San Rafael.

“They were very funny,” Beren said of the elderly survivors. “I showed a clip of Jackie Mason and it turned out someone in group had dated him in the 1960s. Another person knew Jack Benny. And another knew Sid Caesar. That usually doesn’t happen.

“In my seminars I am more of an entertainer, so I try to give people a good time. There’s a lot to be said for healing and humor,” he said.

So, Dr. Funny Bone, how about treating us to a free sample?

Well, Beren said, there were these two Jewish men standing before a firing squad in Czarist Russia. Their crime? Being Jewish. So the Cossack captain heading the firing squad looks at Abie and Yankele and shouts, “Jews, take off your hats.” Abie takes off his hat. But Yankele says, “No, I won’t take off my hat.” So Abie leans over to Yankele and whispers, “Yankele, don’t make trouble.”

Beren said his philosophy of life is to always have a sense of humor in whatever one does.

Maybe that’s why he wears the kippah he does — one decorated with multiple images of the trademark hat worn by Paul “Bear” Bryant, the late University of Alabama football coach. And Beren didn’t even go to college at Alabama. He went to a small school in Connecticut.

“But I married a woman from Montgomery, Ala.,” Beren said. “And once you marry into an Alabama family, you are infected with Crimson Tide fever.”

Steven Friedman

Steven Friedman is a freelance writer.