ENTER LAUGHING: The Thirsty Joke
The Jewish joke is a particular form of cultural currency—at once an explanation of, an apology for, an act of aggression against, and a defense of being Jewish, of Jewish ideas, and of Jewish traditions. But why are these jokes so memorable, so funny? Welcome to the second edition of COMMENTARY’s new contest, Enter Laughing, presented to you by our longtime contributor Joseph Epstein. Every month Epstein will supply you with a fresh joke, like “The Thirsty Joke” just below. Your challenge is to offer up a pseudo-Talmudic explication of the joke’s meaning in fewer than 250 words. The reader whose answer is deemed the most penetrating (and doesn’t drain the joke of its humor) will receive a signed copy of Epstein’s newest collection, The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff and Other Stories. Last month’s joke and winning entry appear on the next page. Now here’s this month’s new joke; to get in on the contest, e-mail us before April 8 at email@example.com.
The Thirsty Joke
A tall man,6’3”, somewhat overweight, is attempting to get comfortable in the small space of an upper-birth Pullman Sleeper on a train between Chicago and New York. He turns on his right side, then on his left, then on his stomach, then on his back. He plumps his pillow. Finally, the clackety-clack of the tracks begins to put him to sleep when from the other end of the sleeper car he hears a female voice: “Oy, am I thirsty! Oy, am I thirsty!” Over and over, at regular but all-too-short intervals, the voice calls out, “Oy, am I thirsty! Oy, am I thirsty!”
The man, realizing that sleep will be impossible if this woman’s thirst isn’t slaked, climbs out of his sleeper, puts on his bathrobe, and walks to the end of the car, where there is a water cooler and paper cups, one of which he fills. Following the sound of the voice—“Oy, am I thirsty! Oy, am I thirsty!”—he walks to the other end of the car and knocks gently. An older woman pulls back the drape that encloses her sleeper.
“Excuse me, Madame,” the man says, “I couldn’t help overhear that you were thirsty, and I thought perhaps this cup of water might help.”
“You, sir,” the woman says, “are a real gentleman. Thank you so much.” She takes the cup, and closes the drape.
The man climbs back into his own sleeper. Once again he struggles to find a comfortable position, turning and twisting every which way. Once again he plumps his pillow. Once again the rhythmic clacking of the tracks works its hypnotic spell and he is about to fall asleep when he hears the same voice call out: “Oy, was I thirsty! Oy, was I thirsty!”
Last Month’s Joke
In the village of Frampol, Yankel Garlinsky, a bachelor of 40, terrified of women, is apprised of the visit of one Miriam Schneider, a recent widow in search of a new husband. Yankel is obviously a candidate, and a meeting between the two has been arranged. He comes to his mother to remind her of his extreme nervousness.
“Yankele, darling boy,” his mother says, “there’s nothing to worry about. Always remember that women, all women, are interested in three things: food, family, and philosophy. Bring up these subjects and all will go smoothly.”
The day of the meeting arrives. Yankel is left in a room with Miriam Schneider, who turns out to be roughly four-foot-six and to weigh some 230 pounds. Her face is without warmth or expression of any kind. Yankel feels utterly lost when he remembers his mother’s advice: food, family, philosophy—these are subjects all women like to talk about.
“Miriam,” he asks in a quavering voice, “do you like noodles?”
“No,” she replies, “I don’t like noodles.”
Oy, thinks Yankel. “Miriam,” he now asks, “do you have a brother?”
“No brother,” she replies.
Worse and worse. Food…family…and, oh yes, philosophy.
“Miriam,” Yankel asks, “if you had a brother, do you think he would like noodles?”
The Winning Explication of Last Month’s Joke…
…comes from Anne Folan of Washington, D.C.: In the immortal words of Winston Churchill: “Life offers few experiences more exhilarating than that of being shot at without result.” The laughter that the Yankel joke provides is the purest kind: the laughter of joyous relief at an innocent’s near-miss. There are two main ways this joke could have gone wrong: if the ugly widow had been at all sympathetic or if Yankel had been deliberately trying to escape. Either scenario would have transmogrified this sweet joke into a cruel one at the expense of a vulnerable party (there is no party more vulnerable in Jokeworld than an unattractive single woman). As written, however, the joke dishes up happy endings all around. You just know the widow is going to find someone more worldly with whom to make the kind of utilitarian marriage in which she belongs; and for Yankel, the very naïveté that had been holding him back has in this instance become the instrument of his salvation. We should all be so lucky.