Growing up Jewish, in cold, rainy Manchester, England, I always knew that I was a "little different."

My parents promised me a post-bar mitzvah growth spurt. I'm still waiting. And when the No. 135 bus took me home each day and stopped to pick up the kids from the other schools, I'd shove my yarmulke (kipah) even deeper into my pocket. Getting picked on by the big kids for being short and shy was bad enough. Getting picked on for being Jewish was much worse. But there was no point provoking the local anti-Semites by exhibiting my religiosity. These bullies weren't the majority, by any means – but that didn't make them any less scary.

My fears at the bus stop followed me into Hebrew School, where I learned all about centuries of Jewish suffering and oppression. And when I walked back outside, our synagogue had been spray-painted, yet again, with (misspelled) obscenities.

Growing up Jewish, in cold, rainy Manchester, England, I always knew that I was a "little different."

Like many Jewish families, the standing joke at our family's Passover Seder table was, "They tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat." But it didn't seem all that funny to me, not when the tombstones in the local Jewish cemetery were defaced with swastikas. And so, like many underdogs, I sought solace in popular culture and the world of superheroes. Within that alternative universe of "Zap! Pow! Bam!" nebbishy nerds like Clark Kent beat up the bad guys, not the other way around.

Halfway through high school, however, I made a life-changing discovery. Underneath my nebbishy exterior I possessed a hidden "superpower" of my own: the power of humor. Suddenly I became the class clown, cracking up my teachers and classmates. Now the cool kids liked me more, and the mean ones were less prone to beat me up. I learned later that I was in good company; many famous Jewish comedians had been class clowns, too.

Only later did I take that yarmulke out of my pocket. I'd studied film at university, and after graduation I began a rewarding career in movie and television production. Yet something was missing. After all, the entertainment industry revolves around all things superficial and trendy. As I looked for something more serious to dedicate my life to, I found myself thinking more and more about my faith.

I started taking classes, and became more observant. My spiritual awakening was nothing dramatic – unless swapping movie sets for "rabbi school" (yeshiva) counts as "dramatic." During that journey, I met rabbis and rebbetzins who became my new mentors and "super heroes." The men were full of wit and wonder, nothing like the stuffy "white shirt/black suit" penguins I'd expected. The women surprised me too. They were outrageous, confident and freethinking, not stereotypical, shmatteh-wearing submissive kitchen slaves. Through these holy Hebrew jesters, I finally came to appreciate those dark-humored jokes around the Seder table, and the very real role comedy has played in helping Jews survive centuries of persecution.

Indeed, humor – which is all about paradox and a sense of the absurd – plays a significant role in the Jewish faith. As the old joke goes: If you don't think G‑d has a sense of humor, you haven't seen a platypus.

Yet the persecution still exists and shows no sign of abating. On New Year's Eve, 1999, the world pinned its hopes on the dawn of the new millennium, when we would finally bid farewell to the bloodiest century in history. Instead, the 21st century ushered in the new Intifada, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and other deadly bombings in London and Madrid. Humor – which is all about paradox and a sense of the absurd – plays a significant role in the Jewish faith.And who would have dared imagine that the ancient and barbaric practice of beheading would re-enter the modern world with the execution of Jewish "infidels" like Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl? Nations like Iran and North Korea pose threats to world peace, while reports of genocide in Darfur seem to indicate we have failed to learn the lessons of the Holocaust. Closer to home, the evening news presents a nightmare vision of violence and pointless tragedy, coupled with reports of shallow, shameless celebrity insanity.

With all the tzurus in the world, we might well ask: what is there for 21st century Jewish comedians to joke about?

When contemplating the most (de)pressing issues of our time, to laugh in the face of fear can be a powerful statement of defiance. If we find ourselves besieged by enemies on all sides, comedy can be both a weapon against the bad guys and a morale booster. Besides, humor is a light portable weapon that can easily pass through airport security!