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Oral Tradition

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The widely held view that Jewish humor is a distinctive phenomenon emerged during the late nineteenth century and is based largely on the role of Yiddish humor. This view is immortalized in the humor itself:

When you tell a story to a peasant, he laughs three times. The first time he laughs is when you tell him the story, the second time is when it is explained to him, and the third time is when he understands it.

A nobleman [porets] laughs twice. He laughs once when you tell him the story and a second time when you explain it, because he doesn’t understand it anyway.

An officer only laughs once, while you are telling it to him, because he does not let you explain it and he doesn’t understand it.

When you tell a story to a Jew, he tells you that he’s heard it before and, what’s more, he can tell it better.

(Olsvanger, 1947, p. 3)

As late as the 1890s, Jews had to defend themselves against the claim that they lacked the capacity for humor, a talent that was considered a sign of being civilized. This deficit was attributed to a history of suffering, as were eventual characterizations of the uniqueness of Jewish humor. Sholem Aleichem located the source of his own humor in the principle of deliberate contrariness known in Yiddish as aftselakhis (“for the sake of spite”). “Aftselakhis nisht geveynt,” he wrote in a letter published in Dos Sholem-Aleykhem-bukh (1926; p. 298): “Holding the tears back out of spite. Only laughing, laughing for the sake of spite.”

Sholem Aleichem combined the three major approaches to Jewish humor identified by Elliott Oring: the transcendental, the defensive, and the pathological. The transcendental seeks to define humor as a response to the often unpleasant conditions of Jewish life in Eastern Europe; humor is meant to help the Jewish people bear up under the burdens imposed upon them and to console them in their suffering—“laughter through tears.” The defensive approach (which devotes considerable attention to the self-critical and self-mocking in Jewish humor, as well as to its antigentile aspects) sees humor as a preemptive social strategy; while the pathological hews more closely to Freudian ideas about the hostility and aggression that Freud finds at the root of all humor. Freud developed his theory of humor on the basis of Yiddish jokes that were told by Galician Jews: “The occurrence of self-criticism as a determinant may explain how it is that a number of the most apt jokes . . . have grown up on the soil of Jewish popular life. They are stories created by Jews and directed against Jewish characteristics” (Freud, 1963, pp. 111–112). “Incidentally,” he continues, “I do not know whether there are many other instances of a people making fun to such a degree of its own character.”

As the idea that Jews lacked the capacity for humor gave way to the idea that Jewish humor was a unique phenomenon, a genealogy of Jewish humor was constructed with roots stretching back to the Bible. Some argue that the mocking tone that came to characterize so much of Yiddish humor can be found as early as the description of the contest between Elijah and the priests of Ba‘al in 1 Kings 18:17–29: “Cry aloud,” says Elijah, after Ba‘al has failed to answer the prayers of his priests, “for he is a god. Either he is musing or has gone aside [i.e., to urinate] or he is on a journey or peradventure he sleepeth and must be awaked” (1 Kgs. 18:27). A less sophisticated dysphemism yields Jezebel, whose real name was Jeba‘al, “daughter of Ba‘al.” The biblical name means “daughter of garbage,” and the author of the Book of Kings manages to anticipate Yiddish-speakers in the Pale of Settlement who referred to the town of Bielaya Tserkov (“White Church”) as shvarts tume, “black impurity.” As the Talmudic rabbi Naḥman says: “All joking is forbidden, except for jokes about idolatry” (BT Sanhedrin 63b). Inner-directed mockery, Jewish self-satire, and self-criticism are found in the Pentateuch itself, as when the Children of Israel look up at Moses just before the parting of the Red Sea and say, “Are there no graves in Egypt, that you have taken us to die in the desert?” (Ex. 14:11).

These biblical strategies—situational irony, dysphemism, and stinging self-criticism—find their way into Yiddish in tandem with the irony that pervades so much of the Talmud. Talmudic dialectic depends to a considerable degree on questions that are meant to attack or disparage earlier statements, often by reducing such statements to absurdity, and the more discursive sections of the Talmud make frequent recourse to an irony and even a sarcasm that is never gratuitous. Unpleasant or embittered as the sentiment might appear, the statement that “Money makes bastards pure” (BT Kidushin 71a) moves rapidly from cynicism to critique: people will marry into the families of mamzeyrim (bastards with whom marriage is proscribed) so long as the family is sufficiently wealthy. The hereditary taint thus spreads from family to family, finally affecting so many individuals as to lose any stigma and confer de facto legitimacy on the original mamzeyrim and all their descendants. A similarly wide-ranging approach underlies the equally cynical remark attributed to Sholem Aleichem nearly two millennia later: “‘Thou hast chosen us, O Lord’—Do us a favor and choose someone else.”

The Talmudic influence helped to make the humor of East European Jews a humor of consequences: actions, situations, and intentions are followed to their logical, if often unexpectedly illogical, conclusions. Such reversal of expectation and consequent underscoring of incongruity are particularly marked in the vast range of Yiddish material associated with tricksters and fools. In the antics of such leytsim (wits, waggish tricksters) as Hershele Ostropolyer, Motke Khabad, Shayke Fayfer, and Froyke Greydinger, apparent folly turns out to be not only logical but also astute, a sign of superior intelligence. The obverse of such cleverness is found the town of Chelm (Yid., Khelem; Pol., Chełm), a real place that folklore turned into a city of fools. The typical Chelm story is characterized by the relentless misapplication of the type of logic found in the Talmud and rabbinic literature; the inevitably faulty premise or flaw in the chain of reasoning—as, for instance, when the Sages of Chelm decide that the moon is more important than the sun because the latter shines only in the daytime, when it is already light—is never remarked upon.

It is above all in the joke—rather than in humor and wit more generally or in the trickster or numbskull tale—that Freud and others find what they consider unique to Jewish humor. Immanuel Olsvanger, in a 1947 preface to his 1921 collection of Yiddish jokes and anecdotes, remarked first that the manner in which the story is told, rather than its subject, sets Jewish jokes apart from the jokes of others, and second, that Jewish jokes are distinguished by a peculiar structural feature. He points to “the specific cadence, the intonation or melody” inherent in Yiddish and accompanying gestures, which follow “the rhythm of the listener’s thought-process,” noting that “the inner rhythm of thought dictates the form in which a story is told.” Then, comparing Jewish versions of jokes told in other communities, Olsvanger comments on a structural feature:

The significance of the Jewish version lies in the “super-climax” that renders the original conclusion of the story of mere “pseudo-climax.” I regard such “pseudo-climaxes” and “superclimaxes” as typical of the Jewish way of storytelling. The teller enjoys teasing his audience, and when it laughs at the pseudo-climax he is at his happiest, and is able to say, “Fools, why the laughter? The real joke is yet to come!” (Olsvanger, 1965, p. xi)

He gives as an example a disputation between a Jewish drayman and a Christian priest. Each was to ask the other the meaning of a Hebrew word; the first to give up would lose his head. The Jew asked the first question, “What does ‘eyneni yodea’ mean?” to which the Christian answered, correctly, “I don’t know.” The executioner promptly beheaded him. Back at the synagogue, everyone asked the Jewish drayman how he had come up with such a smart question, to which he responded, “As a child I once asked my rabbi what ‘eyneni yodea’ means, and he said, ‘I don’t know’; and what my learned rabbi did not know, how on earth could that Christian priest know?” (ibid.).

In common with its Talmudic and rabbinic antecedents, Yiddish humor relies heavily on wordplay, particularly between Yiddish and Hebrew but also between either of these languages and the coterritorial non-Jewish language. The most significant non-Yiddish East European Jewish humor was that of the Soviet Union, which used Russian rather than Yiddish, and in which salient features of Soviet life and politics bore the brunt of the mockery. While much of the material is intimately related to older Yiddish material originating in tsarist Russia, such features of Soviet life as consumer shortages and intricate bureaucracy become prime targets of its satire. Non-Jewish Russians are portrayed as stupid and drunken, like the gentiles in the older Yiddish material; Russian society in general is portrayed as a less Jewish, more malignant version of Chelm; the desire to emigrate is a common topic of jokes.

Suggested Reading

Dan Ben-Amos, “The ‘Myth’ of Jewish Humor,” Western Folklore 32.2 (1973): 112–131; Benjamin Jacob Bialostotzky, Yidishe humor un yidishe leytsim (New York, 1963); Yehuda Leyb Cahan, “Vegn yidishe vitsn,” in Shtudyes vegn yidisher folksshafung, pp. 266–274 (New York, 1952); Sigmund Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, trans. and ed. James Strachey (New York, 1963); David A. Harris and Izrail Rabinovich, The Jokes of Oppression: The Humor of Soviet Jews (Northvale, N.J., 1988); Immanuel Olsvanger, comp. and ed., Röyte Pomerantsen: Jewish Folk Humor (New York, 1965); Elliott Oring, The Jokes of Sigmund Freud: A Study in Humor and Jewish Identity (Northvale, N.J., 1997); Elliott Oring, “The People of the Joke: On the Conceptualization of Jewish Humor,” in The Humor Prism in 20th-Century America, ed. Joseph Boskin (Detroit, 1997), also in Western Folklore 42.4 (1983): 261–271; Yehoshu‘a Ḥana Rawnitzki (Yoshue-Khone Ravnitski), Yidishe vitsn, 2 vols. (New York, 1950).