“Long live laughter! Long laugh life!” Polish/Yiddish poster. An appearance by Yoysef Tunkel (Der Tunkeler), along with singer Anna Wysok, “the sweetheart of Warsaw,” in Kutno, Poland, 1925. Printed by J. Keltera, Warsaw. (YIVO)

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Tunkel, Yoysef

(1881–1949), Yiddish humorist. The son of a melamed, Yoysef Tunkel (also known by his pseudonym Der Tunkeler, the Dark One), was born in Bobruisk, Belorussia, and died in New York. Between 1896 and 1899, he studied drawing in Vilna, and then moved to Odessa where he worked as an artist and caricaturist. However, he was quickly forced to limit his art production due to poor eyesight. He then turned to writing “serious” literary works in Yiddish.

Staff of Der moment, Warsaw, 1920s. (Back row, left to right) Mordkhe Spektor, A. Almi, Yoysef Tunkel, Moyshe Bunem Yustman, Tsevi Pryłucki, D. Druk,  Sh. Janowski, Yisroel Khayim Zagorodski (front), Bentsion Chilinowicz, Yisroel Khayim Zagorodski, and Hillel Zeitlin. (YIVO)

Tunkel’s first poems and short stories were published in 1901 in Kraków’s Der yud, as well as in other contemporary Yiddish periodicals. At that point, he was still drawing a certain number of caricatures; and his work in this field, chiefly illustrations in the daily Der moment, has yet to be collected. In 1906, Tunkel traveled to New York, where he remained until 1909. While there, he founded two humorous illustrated periodicals in Yiddish: Der kibetser (The Joker), which first appeared in 1908, and Der groyser kundes (The Great Prankster), which was started under the title Der kundes in 1909. The first book in which he used the pseudonym Der Tunkeler appeared in Warsaw in 1910, titled Der krumer shpigl: Parodies af dem stil fun farshidene shriftshteler (The Crooked Mirror: Parodies in the Style of Various Authors). From 1911, Tunkel contributed regularly to the Warsaw daily publication Der moment and edited its humor section, Der krumer shpigl, until the beginning of World War II.

Even before World War I, Tunkel had appeared at literary “evenings” of reading and humor throughout Poland and Russia, from Łódź to Minsk. During World War I, he left Warsaw and spent time in Bobruisk, and later in Kiev and Warsaw. In the interwar period, Tunkel lived in Warsaw. At the beginning of World War II, he arrived as a refugee, via Belgium, in New York, where he spent the rest of his life.

Tunkel published more than 30 books, including collections of the best of his humorous writings. He also adapted the works of cartoonist Wilhelm Busch for children. Following 20 February 1925, when the cabaret theater Azazel opened in Warsaw, Der Tunkeler’s writings were included in the repertoire. In October 1927, a similar theater opened in Łódź; it too staged his works. In Warsaw, the cabaret theater Sambatyon, which opened in 1927 and specialized in folk review performances, also utilized his writings.

Notl un Motl, zeks shtifer mayselekh (Notl and Motl, Six Impish Tales), by Wilhelm Busch. Translated by Yiddish humorist Yoysef Tunkel (Der Tunkeler). (Warsaw: Levin-Epstein Brothers, 1920). (YIVO)

Tunkel’s linguistic humor and his writings about Polish Jewish life between the wars are in a sense a continuation of the humorous literary mode established by Sholem Aleichem—and Tunkel was fully conscious of this cultural inheritance. His compositions elevate the simple Jew by means of complete identification with him and by giving full artistic opportunity to the spoken Yiddish language presented to his readers. This treasure of emotions and thoughts, fashioned as oral speech, is a substantial cultural artifact. In this light, Der Tunkeler’s literary enterprise is today a historical and cultural source for the language and culture of East European Jewry up to World War II.

Examples of Tunkel’s themes include the romantic-talkative woman and the disconnection between her world and that of her haberdashery merchant husband who works in Warsaw; the Orthodox editor of a traditional newspaper, who is unable to print a love poem without completely bowdlerizing it according to stereotypical notions; the generational gap between fathers and sons; the behaviors of different types of shnorers (beggars) and their modern innovations; the absurd hyperbolic emphasis on socialism and secularism in the primary schools of the Bund; criticism of the Jewish artist and modern art; criticism of unvarying literary compositions on the occasion of Jewish holidays in the Jewish press; and comments on the disgrace of contemporary second-rate Yiddish theater, including shund (trash) theater.

Alongside his literary parodies of modern Yiddish literature—a subject in itself—Tunkel wrote parodies of different genres and styles—shund literature, academic studies, as well as mockeries of the various ideologies found on the Jewish street. Common to all is his condemnation of the disconnection from reality and the setting aside of truth, especially by those who supposedly devote themselves to its exposure and nurturing.

In his book Di yidishe proze in Poyln (Yiddish Prose in Poland; 1949), Yekhiel Yeshaye Trunk asserts that Der Tunkeler’s humoresques belong to entertainment literature. In contrast, Sh. Lev (“Take in gutn mut,” Literarishe bleter 36/643 [4 September 1936]: 574–575) sees in Tunkel’s works the enterprise of a humorist who takes upon himself the role of a social reformer. Lev raises an equation in which humor is directly connected to sadness—the opposite of what is generally accepted by those who see humor as a form of entertainment. He finds in humor a branch of literature that documents and reflects a period and a genre and aspires to correct flaws. In Lev’s opinion, the embodiment of this literary branch is found in the writings of Der Tunkeler.

Suggested Reading

Der Tunkeler (Yosef Tunkel), Der seyfer fun humoreskes un literarishe parodyes: An opklayb fun humoristishe shriftn vegn di mizrekh-eyropeishe yidn in Poyln tsvishn beyde velt-milkhomes, comp. and ed. Yechiel Szeintuch (Jerusalem, 1990), see esp. the editor’s introduction, “Memad ha-retsinut bi-khetavav ha-humoristiyim shel Yosef Tunkel (Der Tunkeler),” pp. 13–68; Dov Sadan, “Sheloshah yesodot,” in Avne miftan, vol. 1, pp. 45–54 (Tel Aviv, 1961); Dov Sadan, “Sugyah be-masekhet ha-seḥok,” in Avne miftan, vol. 3, pp. 282–288 (Tel Aviv, 1972); Chone Shmeruk, “‘Iyunim be-darkhe ha-kelitah shel sifrut-yeladim lo’-yehudit be-yidish,” in ‘Iyunim be-sifrut: Devarim she-ne’emru ba-‘erev li-khevod Dov Sadan bi-melot lo shemonim ve-ḥamesh shanah, pp. 59–87 (Jerusalem, 1987/88); Yechiel Szeintuch, ed. and comp., Der krumer shpigl: Humor yehudi bi-re’i ‘akum; Mivḥar ketavim humoristiyim shel Der Tunkeler ba-yomon ha-varsha’i Der Moment ‘al yehude Mizraḥ Eropah ve-tarbutam be-Polin ben shete milḥamot ha-‘olam, vol. 2 (forthcoming).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 422, Lazar Kahan, Papers, 1908-1940s; RG 435, Herman (Chaim) Lieberman, Papers, 1920s-1950s.



Translated from Hebrew by Carrie Friedman-Cohen