Commentary Magazine


Is Jewish Humor Dead?
The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Joke

There are few subjects about which people are more solemn—and disputatious—than Jewish humor. Perhaps, as Irving Kristol here suggests, that is because Jewish humor at its best can be a serious matter.

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It is known that the surest way of killing a joke is to explain it, and humor has, in self-defense, made an especially comic figure of the man who would earnestly analyze it. Thus humor and seriousness contest the field, with all arbitration or appeasement ruled out, and with the possibility of rising above the battle simply unimaginable; one rises above the battle either through seriousness or humor—and then one is right back in the fight. It is an unequal struggle: humor is more aggressive, more mobile, and has the more penetrating weapons. But in the end, humor loses and seriousness wins. Humorists die and dead men tell no jokes, and this, it must be admitted, is a serious matter.

Jewish humor died with its humorists when the Nazis killed off the Jews of Eastern Europe, though it seems likely that even without the intervention of Hitler this humor would not long have survived the disintegration of the ghetto community from which it drew its inspiration. This opinion is certain to be challenged, especially by those who, though willing to concede that persecution can wound the flesh, are reluctant to believe that it can murder the spirit or that the spirit can, by the erosion of time, simply wither and die. They will ask: does not this humor still flourish in the Jewish communities of America and Israel? is not Jewish humor a treasure in the perpetual custody of the Jewish people? The answer to both questions is, I think, no, and in the course of this essay I hope to show why. But first I would like to illustrate the defeat of humor with an anecdote that some will find amusing but that is really not a Jewish joke so much as the dying echo of one.

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A group of Jewish refugees from Poland, recently arrived in the United States, visited one evening with their American-born relatives. One of the latter thought to lighten the conversation by telling an old Jewish joke:

A Jew in czarist Russia wished to buy a ticket that would permit him to enter the platform of a railroad station, and he was referred to a vending machine where such tickets were sold at ten kopecks each. The Jew eyed the machine curiously and mused, “Maybe you’ll take five kopecks?” He inserted five kopecks and pressed the lever. No ticket came out. The Jew shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well, there was no harm in trying.” He inserted another five kopecks, and pulled the lever. Nothing happened. As he stood there, bewildered, a Cossack brushed past him, inserted ten kopecks into the machine, pulled the lever, and got his ticket. The Jew flew into a rage, spat at the machine, and yelled: “Filthy anti-Semite! For a Cossack you give tickets, but for a Jew’s ten kopecks you don’t bother!”

To the narrator’s pleasure, the newcomers laughed heartily at the joke though it is but an inferior specimen of the familiar genre of Jewish humor that pokes fun at the Jews for their propensity to gloss over their own shortcomings and blame the always available anti-Semite for their misfortunes.

Some weeks later there was another family gathering, this time to welcome some still newer arrivals from the DP camps. One of the refugees who had been present at the earlier meeting volunteered to tell the “very funny joke” that the Amerikaner had related. He told it as follows:

A Jew in czarist Russia wished to buy a ticket that would permit him to enter the platform of a railroad station, and he was referred to a vending machine where such tickets were sold at ten kopecks each. The Jew inserted his ten kopecks, but nothing happened. As he stood there, bewildered, a Cossack brushed past him, inserted ten kopecks into the machine, pulled the lever, and got his ticket. The Jew flew into a rage, spat at the machine, and yelled: “Filthy anti-Semite! For a Cossack you give tickets, but for a Jew’s ten kopecks you don’t bother!”

The laughter was every bit as hearty at this version of the joke, though the original point had been blunted and what had been a joke had really become a parable. Actually, these Jews from Poland were not laughing at any joke at all, but only at the way the story summarized their sense of a senseless persecution. The seriousness of the concentration camps had conquered.

It is true that in my telling of this incident the original point has been in part regained, for the butts of my story are Jews so sensitive to anti-Semitism that they have lost the detachment that is at the root of true humor. But it is a point that barely reaches the mark, and whatever smile it arouses is the mere shadow of a shadow. Too many corpses obstruct the comic perspective.

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One recent anthologist of Jewish humor, doubtless expressing the sentiments of many, sees in the Jewish joke a victory gained by the Jewish spirit over centuries of adversity, an exultant defiance of persecution and harassment, an affirmation of the will to survival in the face of an ever impending doom. It would surely be to the glory of the entire human race, and of the Jews in particular, if this were the case. And it is agreeable to note that there is some truth in this description. But not the whole truth.

Though the records are scanty, it seems safe to assert that the kind of humor we know came late to Jewish history, gaining ground in the 17th and 18th centuries and reaching its apogee in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It is, then, a preeminently modern phenomenon. The Jews of an earlier day were rich in proverbs (some of them witty), parables, moralistic anecdotes—but not, it seems, in humor. This fact is no occasion for surprise if we cast a glance at the development of humor in the various Western Christian nations of the Middle Ages. There we see that humor could exist only in the interstices of a religious civilization (just as the Purim parodies existed within orthodox Judaism), that the religious authorities frowned upon it, and that it won popular affection to the extent that the dominion of religion became questionable, and that, indeed, one of its functions was to challenge this dominion. Humor needs to breathe the air of skepticism, and prior to the modern epoch the Jews were men of faith, piety, and hence sobriety. When one believes that this life on earth is implicated in eternal salvation or eternal damnation, there is little motive for levity.

Take, for example, the matter of Galgenhumor (gallows humor), which was elevated to such a fine art in the writings of the man who gaily signed himself Sholom Aleichem. Here is how Sholom Aleichem has one of his characters, Yisrolik of Kishenev, write to his friend Yankel in America after the Kishenev pogrom of 1903 (I use the version given by Maurice Samuel in his fine book, The World of Sholom Aleichem):

Dear Yankel: You ask me to write at length, and I’d like to oblige, but there’s really nothing to write about. The rich are still rich and the poor are dying of hunger, as they always do. What’s new about that? And as far as the pogroms are concerned, thank God we have nothing more to fear, as we’ve already had ours—two of them, in fact, and a third wouldn’t be worth while. . . . All our family got through it safely, except for Lippi, who was killed with his two sons, Noah and Mordecai; first-class artisans, all three of them. Oh yes, and except Hersh. Perel was found dead in the cellar together with the baby at her breast. But as Getzi used to say: ‘It might have been worse; don’t think of the better, because there’s no limit to that.’ You ask about Heshel. He’s been out of work now for over half a year. The fact is they won’t let him work in prison. . . . Mendel did a clever thing; he up and died. Some say of hunger, others of consumption. Personally, I think he died of both. I really don’t know what else there is to write about, except the cholera, which is going great guns. . . .

This is Sholom Aleichem at his best, which means that it is at the top rung of the world’s literature of irony. Yet it is most improbable that a pious Jew who had, say, undergone the expulsion from Spain in 1492 would have found this letter as entertaining as did his descendants, or that he would have found it as “cathartic” as his own Cabalistic speculations. For him, death at the hands of persecutors was kiddush ha-shem, the sanctification of the Name. It was an affair in the realm of the sacred, and jesting was unthinkable. But for Sholom Aleichem death in a pogrom was a somewhat more ambiguous event. It might be kiddush ha-shem—Sholom Aleichem nowhere states that it is not. Or it might be nothing but bad luck ornamented with a high-sounding title. In this equivocation between the sacred and the profane, the eternal and the finite, the spark of humor is fanned.

It is interesting to note that fifty Jews were killed in the Kishenev pogrom and that the civilized world was shocked and horrified. Sholom Aleichem’s irony was a harmonic counterpoint to this shock and horror. But when some six million Jews were slaughtered during World War II, the world was numbed by the enormity of the crime, and the victims themselves could not respond with the aesthetic freedom of Sholom Aleichem. The kinds of jokes that Jews brought forth from the concentration camps were mainly bitter thrusts at the idiocy of their oppressors. For just as humor cannot mature in a life of utter religious faith, so it cannot survive a life of sheer nihilism.

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No pranks, no slapstick, no practical jokes—nothing that reduces the spiritual and human to the mechanical. It is a humor of the spirit, not against the spirit.

What we call Jewish humor is Yiddish humor. It is the humor that was conceived and expressed in the Yiddish language, in a secular language of the market place that had as part of its everyday idiom a multitude of Hebrew phrases having to do with modes of Talmudic exegesis or with such non-secular affairs as the world-to-come, the after-life, and reincarnation; a language full of the chanting and inflections that accompanied the translation of holy texts and their memorization: a “knowing language,” in Maurice Samuel’s phrase, full of internal hints and esoteric references. It is the humor of a folk community of garrulous intellectuals and hair-splitters cut off from nature and animal life, intrigued only by the oddities of the human and the divine, taking as its frame of reference the complex structure of ghetto society, ghetto life, and Jewish tradition. It is, supremely, the humor of an intelligence running amok in the household of the gods without ever daring, or wanting, to set foot outside the open door.

Many of the specific jokes, of course, were borrowed from other peoples and other tongues, and have since been reclaimed with interest. Others have survived the long voyage to America or Israel and translation into English or modern Hebrew. But, with the wiping out of the Yiddish-speaking communities, the creative source of this humor is gone. To the extent that old habits and folkways persist among Jews in America, Europe, and Israel—especially insofar as they involve the family and the hazards of earning a living—slices of Yiddish humor will be appreciated (mother-in-law jokes, marriage-broker jokes, luftmentsh jokes). However, it is clear that a good part of the pleasure these jokes provide results from the warm nostalgia of merely hearing them. The old folkways are disappearing and Yiddish itself is on its way to becoming a dead language. The Jews of Israel prefer not to think of the ghetto, and their humor seems to be content with variations on Viennese café wit. (Example: Ben Gurion offers a friend the post of minister of colonies. “But we have no colonies,” the friend protests. “So what?” replies Ben Gurion. “Isn’t Kaplan minister of finance?”) American Jews are not so pressed to forget the ghetto, and Yiddish humor has for them a sentimental as well as comic value. But, though parts of the body have been preserved, even adorned and dressed as new, the soul is gone. The Jewish joke is no longer important. We are no longer in that world, and of that epoch, where the greatest of all Jewish writers Was—one can even say, had to be—a humorist.

The “Jewish situation” that brought forth a humor unique in man’s history has altered. What was that situation?

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Stated briefly, the situation was one of God-forsaken religiosity. And the humor of this situation is a humor of pious blasphemy, in which the religious emotion is siphoned off into explosive wit.

In one of Sholom Aleichem’s stories, Tevyeh the dairyman, riding home hungry after a day’s work, with one ruble in his pocket with which to sustain his nagging wife and seven thriving daughters, addresses God as follows:

Thou hast made us a little lower than the angels. It depends upon what you call a little, isn’t it? Lord, what is life, and what are we, and to what may a man be likened? A man may be likened to a carpenter; for a carpenter lives, and lives and lives, and finally dies. And so does a man.

The form of this speech is that of an edifying rabbinic discourse. The content is impudent and sophistical. But—and this is what is most significant—Sholom Aleichem is loyal at one and the same time to both the form and the content that controverts it. The Jews in their ages of faith had experienced the contradictions of life and the cosmos as revelation, as theophany; now they are only contradictions, existing side by side with a faith that cannot comprehend them.

The conflict between form and content can be seen in innumerable jokes, of which the following is a rather good representative:

If I have the right to take money out of my pocket, from which the other man has no right to take money, then is not my right all the greater to take money from his pocket, from which even he has the right to take money?

This “joke” is chanted in the melody usually reserved for Talmudic study, and the parody is further stressed by the fact that in the original Yiddish the two clauses are joined by the technical Hebrew phrase, kal v’chomer, which is the Talmudic counterpart to the logician’s a fortiori. Indeed, the form is impeccably orthodox; only the content negates the purpose of this form, which in the Talmud aims at establishing the immutable principles of justice and piety. But though the form is negated it is not denied, for the jokester—assuming him to have been an average ghetto Jew—had no intention of substituting other and novel laws of thought: these laws were as good as any, it just happened that reality made an absurdity of them, and that was what was funny.

Ernst Simon has shown how the method of argument in the Talmud, and the singsong incantation of the unpunctuated text, lent itself to the uses of humor.1 But before such use could be made, a measure of detachment had to be gained; the mind had to be able to stand apart from the sacred text, and to see itself as standing apart. The affective power of faith had to be stilled, replaced by what Bergson has called “a momentary anesthesia of the heart,” and the world given over to pure intelligence. The life of faith is then seen as something absurd.

But, after that, Jewish humor takes another, a bold, step: the world of non-faith, of pure intelligence, is seen to be equally absurd.

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Jewish humor is the humor of a rebellious rationalism. It is also the reductio ad absurdum of rationalism. Thus there is produced a distinctive quality of Jewish wit: its circularity.

Immanuel Olsvanger has recorded three versions—Arabic, Russian, and Jewish—of the same joke, which purports to reveal the “secret of Telegraphy”:

Arabic—“Imagine a huge dog having its head in Beirut and its tail in Damascus. Pull the dog’s tail in Damascus and the bark will be heard in Beirut.”

Russian—First Russian: “Imagine a horse, its head in Moscow and its tail in Tula. Pinch the horse’s nose in Moscow and it will wag its tail in Tula. And so it is with telegraphy.” Second Russian: “Yes, but how do they telegraph from Tula to Moscow?”

Jewish—First Jew: “Imagine, instead of the wire, a dog, whose head is in Kovno and whose tail is in Vilna. Pull the tail in Vilna and the bark will be heard in Kovno.” Second Jew: “But how does wireless telegraphy work?” First Jew: “The very same way but without the dog.”

Here, rational explanation ends up by being identical with the original confession of ignorance, yet is offered as a proof. Now this circularity is partly a sardonic and sophisticated mimicry of the naive circularity that is intrinsic to religious faith and that, for instance, permits the pious commentator to prove that Abraham wore a hat when he invited the angels into his tent—for would the patriarch Abraham not wear a hat? In the 19th century this mimicry was directed in particular against the “wonder-working” rabbis of Hasidism, as in the following:

Rabbi A., in Cracow, while praying, saw in a vision that Rabbi B., in Lemberg, had just died. He and his congregation went into mourning. Later, travelers from Lemberg reported that Rabbi B. was still alive and in good health. The critics of Rabbi A. took this opportunity to scoff at his supposed supernatural powers. To these the disciples of Rabbi A. retorted: “And isn’t it miracle enough for you that our rabbi could see all the way from Cracow to Lemberg?”2

But if the reasoning of the devout is absurd, it is not ridiculous, for there is always one bit of evidence that makes sense out of the nonsense of faith: the pious man, who by his presence converts what is rationally absurd into something real. One must bear in mind to what extent the fullness of Jewish life was, for almost two millennia, devoted to what is rationally absurd, to what extent it was a dream-life, a sane type of madness. Jewish existence was grounded in a series of fantastic “make-believes.” The Jews, seemingly the lowliest of the low, were God’s chosen people. The Temple was destroyed but the routine of sacrifice was studied. On the last day of the Feast of Booths all Jews prayed for rain so that the non-existent crops of Palestine’s non-existent Jewish settlements might prosper.

And here the Jewish jokester is in a dilemma. He is the child of a later age, and he believes that what is rationally absurd should be really absurd. He is, however, also close enough to the vitality of Jewish faith to be profoundly aware that the absurd can, through faith, become real. He knows, uncontrollably, and in every fiber of his being, that the Jew is the son of the covenant, even if such an idea is an outrage to enlightened intelligence. He becomes the victim of an exhilarating paranoia. Truth and reality diverge: what is true is rational, but what is real is the absurd. His reason finds itself impotent, and in the circular joke it proceeds to outwit itself.

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A jew, whose life had been one long trial and who was sustained only by the hope of compensation in the after-life, lay dying. With his remaining breath he told his children, assembled round his bed, how he had suffered and with what joy he looked forward to the world-to-come. “But,” he concluded, “what a joke it would be if there were nothing over there!”

The joke comes about if one ardently believes in a God who does not—and one secretly fears it—exist

Jewish humor dances along a knife-edge that separates religious faith from sheer nihilism. It “knows” that the material world is the only true reality, but it also finds that this world makes no sense in its own terms and is impossible to live in, while the absurd world of Jewish faith, the one into which it was born and whose air it is accustomed to breathe, is no longer true. The intensity of Jewish humor derives from this double loyalty to incompatibles, to the sacred and the profane. Bergson has said that “a situation is invariably comic when it belongs simultaneously to two altogether independent series of events and is capable of being interpreted in two entirely different meanings at the same time.” So it is that the European Jew, achieving self-consciousness in the Enlightenment, found himself at the point of intersection of faith and reason, in a comic situation he could only master with a joke.

Jewish humor is, consequently, also nostalgic. It looks backward to a state where the Jew did not know the comic, was incapable of wit, and did not need humor to make him laugh. Occasionally, its nostalgia is so acute that, as Theodor Reik has demonstrated, Jewish humor, especially in its self-aggression, strongly resembles psychopathic melancholia.

What is this but to say that Jewish humor is of the essence of modernity? Sholom Aleichem is a truly modern writer in the same sense that Dostoevsky and Nietzsche are modern writers. He has eaten of the fruit of the tree of rational knowledge but he hungers for the fruit of the tree of religious life. And Sholom Aleichem’s true heir is Franz Kafka, who used to laugh until the tears came to his eyes when he read his work aloud to friends. But Kafka doesn’t make us laugh. That is a measure of the extent to which the modern situation, dissolving into murderous nihilism, robs Jewish humor of its victory.

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Footnotes

1 In his article “Notes on Jewish Wit,” in the Jewish Frontier, October 1948.

2 This is taken from Freud’s Wit in Its Relation to the Unconscious, which is still one of the best books on Jewish humor ever written.

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