Commentary Magazine


Why Jews Laugh at Themselves

A year or two ago I was told a joke by a friend who had heard it from a friend of his, an Orthodox Jew, who in turn had heard it from an ultra-Orthodox Jew. It had to do with the biblical injunction, “Thou shalt not boil a kid in its mother's milk,” from which the ancient rabbis derived the prohibition against mixing meat with dairy in any form.

Moses, the joke goes, while copying down these words from God's mouth on Mount Sinai, looks up and says: “Lord, you obviously wouldn't be bothering us with a law that's just about baby goats. You must mean that we shouldn't eat any kosher animal at all that's boiled in its mother's milk.”

“Well,” God says, “all I told you was: ‘Thou shalt not boil a kid in its mother's milk.’ ”

“But how often do we eat animals boiled in their mother's milk?” Moses continues to muse aloud. “There must be more to it than that. . . . I've got it! We're not supposed to eat meat with milk in general.”

“Moses,” God says, “just write down what I said: ‘Thou shalt not boil a kid in its mother's milk.’ ”

“But what's the difference between milk and milk products, like butter or cheese?” Moses goes on reasoning. “And if we're not supposed to eat meat with butter, surely we shouldn't be cutting it with a knife that's been used for butter, either.”

“Look, Moses,” God says, “we have only 40 days on this mountain. Do whatever the f—you want and let's move on to the next law.”

This, told by a Jewish fundamentalist! One wonders which is stranger: a religion like Islam, whose believers riot around the world because a newspaper pokes fun at their prophet, or a religion like Judaism, whose believers poke fun at their prophet themselves?

And yet the second religion may owe something of its peculiar sense of humor to the first. The Jewish joke, it can be argued, begins with the Qur'an.

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What makes a joke “Jewish” anyway? It certainly isn't the mere fact of Jews either telling it or being the butt of it. Take the supposed Jewish jokes I am regularly sent by an unsolicited e-mail source. Recently, I received a page of them on the subject of “What If Famous People Had Jewish Mothers.” Typical was one that went: “Mona Lisa's Jewish mother: ‘This you call a smile? After all the money your father and I spent on braces?’ ” This is a joke about Jews, and in all likelihood it was made up by Jews, but however intrinsically Jewish its mother may be, its humor is not.

Freud, who liked a good Jewish joke himself and whose Wit and the Unconscious invariably forms a part of any discussion of Jewish humor, had some perceptive things to say about it. Here is one of them:

They [Jewish jokes] are stories invented by Jews and aimed at Jewish characteristics. The jokes made about Jews by outsiders are mostly brutal comic anecdotes in which . . . the Jew counts as a comical figure. The Jewish jokes originating with Jews admit this too, but although they show an awareness of [Jews'] real faults, they also know how these are related to their good points; and the share the raconteur's own person has in what is being criticized creates the subjective conditions for the joke-work that are otherwise difficult to set up. By the way, I do not know whether it often happens in other instances that a people should make fun of its own nature to such an extent.

According to Freud, then, a classical Jewish joke is one in which:

  1. The primary thrust of the humor is directed not, as in most jokes, aggressively or mockingly against the Other but rather against one's own group, that is, against the Jews themselves. Moreover, such a joke is truly Jewish only when its Jewish teller identifies with this group. If mechanically repeated by a Gentile or an assimilated Jew, it would no longer be the same joke.
  2. At the same time, there is in the self-denigration of this humor a dialectical element of self-praise, which works in the opposite direction. That is why Jewish-mother jokes, which are little more than “brutal comic anecdotes” aimed at women with no redeeming qualities, and whom the joke teller does not acknowledge as his kith and kin, fail to constitute such humor.

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One of the jokes related by Freud in Wit and the Unconscious illustrates the difference between a Jewish and a non-Jewish joke particularly well—because in it, Freud or somebody else before him has turned a Jewish joke, by means of a minor alteration, into a non-Jewish one. Here is Freud's version:

A doctor, having come to deliver the baby of a Baroness, pronounced after examining her that the moment had not come and suggested to the Baron that they in the meantime enjoy a game of cards in the next room. After a while a cry of pain from the Baroness struck the ears of the two men: “Ah, mon Dieu, mon Dieu, que je souffre!” The Baron sprang up, but the doctor signaled to him to sit down: “It's nothing. Let's go on with our game!” A little later there were again cries from the pregnant woman: “Mein Gott, Mein Gott, welche schreckliche Schmerzen!” “Aren't you going in to her, Doctor?” asked the Baron. “No, no, it's not time yet.” At last there came from next door an unmistakable scream of “Ayy, ayy, ayy!” The doctor threw down his cards and exclaimed: “Now it's time.”

There is indeed nothing discernibly Jewish about the joke in this form. Yet in another version, which is almost certainly the original one, the Baroness does not cry “Ayy! Ayy!” but rather, in Yiddish, “Gottenyu! Gottenyu!”—“Dear God! Dear God!” This makes a great difference. In Freud's mildly misogynist telling, the punch line informs us that as long as the Baroness is sufficiently in control of herself to speak, her labor pains cannot be serious; only when she emits an animal scream does the doctor know she's about to give birth. In the Jewish original, on the other hand, the Baroness is not a true aristocrat at all but rather an East European Jew and native Yiddish speaker who has been passing herself off as a French or German blueblood. As her pain gets worse, she involuntarily screams in her mother tongue, thus revealing to the doctor that her labor has reached its climax.

Even though in both cases the woman's true nature is exposed by pain, we are thus laughing at different things. In Freud's joke, it is at women, or at least at refined and cultivated women who, when push literally comes to shove, revert to their naturally primitive selves. In the Jewish joke, it is at Jews pretending to be Gentiles.

And there is something else that is different about the second version of this joke, namely, the hidden bond between the doctor and the woman. As related by Freud, the doctor is cleverer than the Baron because he knows more about women and human behavior. In the joke's Jewish variation, being a Jew the doctor also realizes from the moment he sees her that the “Baroness” is Jewish, and keeps this knowledge to himself.

At whom, then, is this joke really aimed? Is it only at the Jewish “Baroness,” whose fraudulence has been exposed? Clearly, it is also at the Christian Baron, who has been dimwitted enough to be taken in by her. And alongside the two of them, the Jewish doctor, who refrains from revealing the Baroness's secret to the Baron, emerges as a wise and honorable figure.

Nor does Jewish humor need to relate to Jews explicitly; the implicit may be enough. Take the legendary Jack Benny skit in which Benny is accosted by an armed mugger who threatens, “Your money or your life.” The comedian takes his time answering and, when prodded with a gun, protests: “I'm thinking. I'm thinking!” While he is not openly identified as a Jew, the two characteristics that he is being mocked for, love of money and over-intellectuality, are widely associated with Jews. So is the ambivalence of the humor. It is laughable, after all, to be so attached to the contents of one's wallet that one would be prepared to die for them, just as it is laughable to want to cogitate on the matter at gunpoint. Still, are we not also forced to admire the person who refuses to be rushed even by a threat to his life, and insists on his right to rational reflection? A stereotypical goy acts blindly; a stereotypical Jew thinks before acting.

In fact, Jewish humor does not even have to be implicitly about Jews. Groucho Marx's famous quip that he would never join a club whose standards were so low as to accept someone like himself, in which the clash of self-deprecation and self-esteem reaches the nth degree, could be attributed not only to a member of any minority group but to anyone at all who feels rejected by society. Although many Jewish jokes can be told only about Jews, most Jewish jokes have a universal aspect.

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But where does the Jewish joke come from? It has become customary to think of it as deeply rooted in the Jewish psyche, even part of the Jewish “instinct for self-preservation,” as an editor of an anthology of such jokes has put it:

By laughing at the absurdities and cruelties of life, Jews draw much of the sting from them. . . . What makes the Jew such an irrepressible jester? What gives so much of Jewish humor its ruefulness? The answer is: the Jews are a very ancient people, and they have navigated all the seven seas of misery since they became Pharaoh's bondsmen in Egypt.

The problem with this is that when we turn to Jewish texts, not only do we find nothing resembling a Jewish joke from the time of the Pharaohs but we find nothing anywhere in the Bible or, for that matter, in the Talmud, the Midrash, or later rabbinic literature. In these places, Jewish suffering and persecution are reacted to with grief, or anger at the enemy who caused them, or self-castigation or remorse for the sins that brought them on, or vindications of God's justice for meting them out, or even occasional questioning of that divine justice—but never with laughter.

This is not to say that one cannot find in such texts the attitudes or thought processes on which many Jewish jokes are based. Think of the well-known joke about the two Jews on a train in Russia, one of whom asks the other where he is going and, when told “to Minsk,” replies: “What a liar you are! You say you're going to Minsk because you want me to think you're going to Pinsk, but I happen to know you're going to Minsk, so why not admit it?” But even though the joke mocks the Jewish penchant for intricate talmudic logic, that penchant is rarely mocked by the Talmud itself.
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Similarly, while linguistic word play is an intrinsic part of the rabbinic exegesis of Scripture, it does not in itself constitute Jewish humor in Freud's sense. There is, for example, a rare example of a documented joke from the 15th century, from the circle of the renowned Spanish rabbi Isaac Abuhav. Once, it is related, when Abuhav, who was blind in one eye, was out walking with three of his disciples, they sat on a rock to rest and a disciple said to him, “We are seven eyes on a rock,” punning on the phrase “seven facets of a stone” from the prophet Zechariah. He could do this because in the biblical verse, the Hebrew word for “stone” can also mean “rock,” the word for “of” can also mean “on,” and the word for “facets” can also means “eyes.” This is witty, but it is not a Jewish joke.

In fact, what Freud calls Jewish humor cannot be found in writing before the 19th century. It probably first occurs in literary form with the baptized Jew Heinrich Heine (whose many witticisms on the Jews include the remark that on the day Christians take to eating tsholent, the beloved Jewish Sabbath stew, every Jew will convert to Christianity), and it attains its full development in the great Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem, of whom the Borscht Belt comedian is a distant descendant. By the end of the 19th century, the Jewish joke was so well known that Freud could assume it was familiar to all his readers.

But where was it hiding before this? Of course, jokes have oral histories of their own, and Jewish jokes are undoubtedly older than their literary manifestations; we know of a few made by 18th-century wedding jesters and rogue figures that have some of the flavor of the modern Jewish joke. And yet if such jokes went back much farther than that, we would expect to find at least some written evidence of them—and we don't. The main form of written humor among Jews that we do find is something else. This brings us back to the Qur'an.

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Unlike the Christian New Testament, but like the Hebrew Bible, the Qur'an was considered by those who believed in it to be a divinely revealed document, which is to say quite literally God's word. As such, it was also regarded as a touchstone of literary excellence—so much so that it became a common practice among Muslim authors to embellish their work with scriptural quotations not only, as did their Christian counterparts, in religious writings and sermons but in purely secular prose and poetry as well.

This practice was called in Arabic iqtibas, which means, literally, lighting one coal or fire from another—that is, heightening the beauty of one's words with the greater beauty of God's. The skillful use of iqtibas was considered an art in itself, involving the choice and placement of verses from the Qur'an so that they would blend naturally with the passage into which they had been inserted and redound to its best benefit. Thus, the early Islamic poetess el-Khansa, a 7th-century contemporary of Muhammad's, took a verse from Sura 99 of the Qur'an, “When the earth is shaken with her shaking and brings forth her burdens,” which refers to the wonders that will accompany the resurrection of the dead on Judgment Day, and transferred it to an elegy written for a deceased brother. Indicating the cosmic magnitude of his death for her, she wrote: “The high mountains fell down because of his loss, and the earth was shaken with her shaking.”

There is nothing funny about this kind of iqtibas. But medieval Arabic literature includes much comic writing, too, and although it seemed blasphemous to most Muslim commentators, iqtibas came to be used for humorous purposes by turning Qur'anic verses into pointed doubles entendres. The Dutch scholar Geert van Gelder gives a striking example of such “forbidden firebrands,” as he calls them, taken from Sura 78, in which Mohammed declares: “Truly, we warn you of a chastisement near at hand—the day when . . . the disbeliever will say: O would that I were dust!” Borrowing the end of this verse, the poet ibn al-Damamini put it into an epigram about some pious Muslims who had smashed a jug of prohibited wine. “They broke the jug and soaked the earth with wine,” he wrote, “[and] I said . . . O would that I were dust.” Obviously, ibn al-Damamini's motive for uttering this wish was not the same as that of Muhammad's terrified unbeliever.

Medieval Hebrew literature, a great deal of which was written by Jews living in Muslim lands, was heavily influenced by Arabic models. Not surprisingly, then, both ordinary iqtibas, known to modern Hebrew literary criticism as shibbuts or “insetting,” and its comic variety are widespread in the Hebrew literature of this period, the sole difference being that the scriptural quotations come from the Hebrew Bible rather than from the Qur'an. Still on the subject of alcohol, for instance, the great 11th-century Hebrew poet Shmuel Hanagid has some lines in praise of wine in which he calls it “my portion and my cup,” menat helki ve-kosi—words lifted from Psalm 16 where they appear in the verse, “The Lord is my portion and my cup.” Any educated Hebrew reader of Hanagid's time, whether he smiled or frowned at such irreverence, would have recognized the “inset” immediately, just as any educated Muslim would have identified ibn al-Damamini's.

The comical iqtibas reached its peak in an Arabic genre that was once again borrowed by Hebrew writers—namely, the rhymed-prose narrative, known as maqama, that was highly popular in the Middle Ages. These works of fiction were lengthy, picaresque accounts that generally featured two main characters, an itinerant rogue and a narrator who relates the rogue's escapades. Here is a passage from one of the best-known Hebrew maqamas, Judah al-Harizi's 13th-century Book of Takhkemoni, in which the narrator relates how the rogue, angered by the tight-fisted Jews from whom he seeks to beg or swindle a livelihood, composes a mock epic about a great war between the King of Generosity and the King of Stinginess that is won by the latter with Jewish support. The rogue's description of the climactic battle of this war, which contains two scriptural “insets” from the book of Judges and one from Isaiah, goes as follows:

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Now it came to pass at midday, that the troops of Generosity gave way, and the sons of Judah took sway. Shouting Hurray! Hurray! Hurray! they broke the lines of Generosity like flaxen cords; they chased their foe through hill and dale with waving swords; they battered them, scattered them, shattered them, then took the fords until the survivors, trembling slaves, buried themselves in the holes of rocks and in earthen caves.

The chapter ends with the narrator's summation, which incorporates five scriptural citations; three are from the book of Lamentations, the biblical threnody for the Babylonians' sacking of Jerusalem:

For this our hearts are faint and our eyes grow dim, for this our spirits melt, the cup of bitter overruns the brim—for the mountain of Generosity that is desolate, its sweet prince gone; foxes walk thereon. Oh, Lord, let our petition not be spurned: turn us unto Thee and we shall be turned. Raise high the horn of Generosity so long enslaved; in his day Judah shall be saved.

Here, the use of the “inset” has been expanded. No longer limited to an isolated jest as in ibn al-Damamini or Hanagid, it has taken on the character of a parody of Holy Writ—in this case, one in which Jewish penny-pinching is compared to the enemy that sacked Jerusalem. Jewish jokes about this subject do not begin with Jack Benny.

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The genre of the medieval Hebrew rhymed-prose narrative has many such passages, the humor of which comes from the burlesquing of religious tradition and its texts. Consider a 15th-century parable by a little-known Hebrew author named Matatyah in which an elderly Jew is told by Time that he will be comforted with a second wife, named Seyvah (Hebrew for “Gray Hair”), to replace his first wife, Ahavah (“Love”), who has left him. After a wedding scene that features a comical take-off on the ketubah, the Jewish marriage contract, comes a description of the couple's first night together. Here, the main source of “insets” is the Song of Songs, whose beautiful beloved is changed by Matatyah into an ugly crone. Where the Bible compares the shape of the beloved's forehead to the curve of a pomegranate (rimon), Matatyah makes this a maggot (rima), and the “scarlet thread” (hut ha-shani) of her lips becomes a “double pain” (mehush ha-shanuy).

There is more to this, however, than verbal slapstick. Read symbolically, Ahavah and Seyvah are the same woman, and Matatyah has written a biting commentary on what happens to romantic love, as depicted in the Song of Songs, during the course of a long marriage. The Bible represents an ideal world that is played off against the world as it is, with the contrast between life's expectations and its realities providing the deeper humor.

To the best of my knowledge, one does not find this sort of thing in the Arabic maqama. The comical iqtibas, the “forbidden firebrand,” is irreverent but no more; it never goes so far as to suggest that the ideals of the Qur'an are incompatible with real life—or, to reverse the formulation, that real life falls comically short of the Qur'anic ideal.

Why did Jewish humor go beyond Arab humor in this respect? One reason is Jewish historical experience. The Qur'an promises the followers of Islam glory and dominion, and medieval Islam, which triumphantly expanded all over the world, fulfilled this promise handsomely. The Bible promises Israel the same—and Jews in the Middle Ages were everywhere a small and often downtrodden minority. If they learned to laugh at the same Scripture they fervently believed in, this was not only, as our anthologist has observed, to help them “navigate the seven seas of misery,” but because contradiction, especially on a grand scale, is comic in itself.

In talking about the humor of the Hebrew rhymed-prose narrative, therefore, we need to distinguish between two different aspects of it. For the most part, this humor is no different from that of other peoples; stories and jokes about men who, to their dismay, find themselves unexpectedly in bed with ugly women are a feature of male humor everywhere. Yet from time to time, by virtue of “insetting,” it becomes unique—and in doing so, it also becomes ambivalent; for the Hebrew reader who is forced by biblical citations to concede that God has let him down is at the same time reminded by them that he belongs to God's chosen, the proof being that only a Jew can understand such virtuoso games with God's Word.

Jewish joking about what was sacred to Jews was also longer-lived than the comic Arabic iqtibas. An increasingly conservative Muslim world eventually put an end to such blasphemies. Jews never did. On the contrary, their laughter at Judaism's expense only grew as it spread from Arab lands to Europe, where it also took the form of the “Purim Shpiel,” a costumed spoof, performed once a year, of biblical stories. Traditional Hebrew rhymed-prose narratives themselves continued to be written well into the 19th century, one of the last notable ones being a delightful parody of Hasidism, replete with numerous scriptural “insets,” by a Hungarian Jew named Yosef Chutzner.

Nor did Hasidism balk at telling such jokes about itself. One of the great rogue-jesters in Jewish folklore, Hershele Ostropolyer, was an authentic historical figure hired by the followers of Rabbi Boruch of Mezhibozh (1757-1810), the grandson of Hasidism's founder the Baal Shem Tov, to alleviate his depressive tendencies. It is told about the two of them:

Once, as was Rabbi Boruch's custom when stricken by an attack of melancholia, he withdrew to his room and refused to see anyone. Hershele put on the rabbi's clothes, sat in the rabbi's chair, and pretended to be Rabbi Boruch. After a while a woman appeared, having come to ask the rabbi to have pity on her daughter, all of whose pregnancies had ended in miscarriages.

“Go ask my wife,” Hershele told her, “for a pair of my underpants and tell your daughter to smell them all through her pregnancy.”

The woman did as she was told and her daughter gave birth to a healthy child. After Rabbi Boruch had recovered from his depression, he asked Hershele: “Where did you learn of such a remedy?”

“It's written in the Mishnah,” said Hershele. “It says there, ‘No woman ever miscarried from the smell of sacred flesh.’ ”

Hershele was quoting from The Ethics of the Fathers, which states that “ten miracles were granted to our forefathers in the Temple,” the first being that “no women ever miscarried from the smell of sacred flesh”—that is, from the smell of the animals sacrificed and burned on the Temple's altar. Applied to Rabbi Boruch's underpants, this is a comic maneuver that can be traced back to el-Khansa's 7th-century elegiac iqtibas for her brother.

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But let's return to Heine. He was also the first Jewish author to treat of the schlemiel, a figure emblematic of the modern Jewish joke as a whole. Schlemiel jokes, to cite Ruth R. Wisse's The Schlemiel as Modern Hero (1971), depend on “a balanced humor that cuts simultaneously into the character and into those belittling him.” Schlemiels, Wisse remarks, though invariably “powerless and unlucky,” are “psychologically, or, as one used to say, spiritually, the victors in defeat.”

Heine was not the first European author to mention schlemiels. His contemporary Adelbert von Chamisso preceded him, publishing in 1814 a novel entitled The Wonderful Story of Peter Schlemihl. But while Chamisso picked up the word “schlemiel” from Jews, his Peter is a Gentile, one who sells his shadow to the devil only to discover that he cannot get along without it. Heine's schlemiels, on the other hand, are not only Jews, they are famous ones.

In 1851, impoverished and bedridden in Paris with his Christian wife, Heine published a volume of poems called Romançero, one section of which, “Hebrew Melodies,” consisted of poems on Jewish themes. The longest of these is about the great medieval Spanish Hebrew poet and philosopher Yehuda Halevi, most of whose verse was lost until rediscovered by Jewish scholars in the 19th century.

Long before Heine's time, Halevi, the author of many poems of longing for Zion, had been made into a romantic Jewish legend by the mystery of his death. Leaving his home in Spain in the year 1140, a renowned figure in his sixties, he had set out on a long and dangerous journey to Palestine, then a war-torn battlefield between Crusaders and Muslims, determined to live his last years in the land he dreamed of all his life. Even today, when recent scholarship has greatly added to our knowledge of this journey, which first took him to Egypt, nothing is known of what happened to him once he reached the shores of Palestine. Although all historical traces of him then vanish, for centuries the story was told that he was trampled to death by a Muslim horseman as he knelt at Jerusalem's gates to kiss its dust.

The first part of Heine's “Jehuda ben Halevy,” anecdotally meandering and digressive in typical Heine fashion, is a sweetly lyrical imagining of Halevi's life, from his childhood in Toledo to his death “zu Fuessen seiner Liebsten,” at the feet of his beloved Jerusalem, “while his dying head lay cradled in her lap.”

3 And yet just as the poem seems about to become hopelessly mawkish, it takes a new turn. “My own dear wife is most unhappy,/ With the chapters I have written,” Heine tells us, and off he goes in a different direction. Grouping Halevi with two other leading Hebrew poets of the Spanish period, Solomon ibn Gabirol and Abraham ibn Ezra, he discourses on the latter's life as a homeless wanderer; laments the Dichterschicksal, the sad “poet's fate,” of all three men; and concludes that, in their impractical attachment to the muse of poetry, they were all types of der goettliche Schlemihl, “the divine schlemiel.”

And now we are treated to another digression, this time on the word Schlemihl. Not only does Heine feel that he owes his German readers an explanation of it, but its provenance has always puzzled him. And so on a visit to Berlin, he asks his knowledgeable friend, the Jewish lawyer Hitzig, about it and is told that it derives from the name of the minor biblical figure of Shelumiel ben Tsurishaddai. According to Hitzig, writes Heine:

In the Bible is the story
Of the wandering in the desert,
And how the men of Israel lusted
For the winsome girls of Canaan.
Thus it happened that one Pinhas,
Seeing that the highborn Zimri

Was consorting with a floozy
From a Canaanitish background,

Seized his spear and in a fury
Ran it through the aforesaid Zimri,
Stabbing him to death most neatly—
Or so at least the Bible tells us.

Yet through the multitude of Israel
Quickly spread the whispered rumor
That the intended victim, Zimri,

Was not the fellow speared by Pinhas—

Who, blinded by his sudden anger,
Went and murdered the wrong person,
A quite innocent bystander
Named Schlemihl ben Zuri Schadday.

And so it was that this poor devil
Was the father whose descendants
Are the schlemiels. . .

Both Shelumiel ben Tsurishaddai and the story of Pinhas and Zimri appear in the biblical book of Numbers but not in the same chapter, leading scholars to argue that this etymology of “schlemiel” is incorrect. They may well be right. Yet it can be demonstrated, I believe, that a version of the Pinhas story, in which Shelumiel ineptly gets in the way of a spear meant for Zimri, did exist among Jews. And it was with the help of such a parody of Scripture that Heine, ironically subverting the beginning of his own poem, suggests that the romantic poet of Zion was a schlemiel like Shelumiel, a hapless victim who gave up the good life in Spain to be killed by someone with nothing personal against him. A more practical pilgrim, presumably, would have had his head up, on the lookout for danger, rather than his face down in Jerusalem's dust

This comical deflating of the Halevi legend could serve as the basis for a routine by Mel Brooks or Woody Allen—the latter of whom might indeed have been thinking of Halevi's fate when he remarked, “I don't want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it by not dying.” And yet, as Ruth Wisse observes, the same joke that ridicules the schlemiel vindicates him on the rebound. There is a sublimity in other-worldliness that no practicality can vie with.
4 In the poem's last part, Heine, who himself might have led a comfortable existence as an acclaimed German poet in his native land had not his political indiscreetness forced him into exile, makes his own identification with the “schlemiel” clear, changing direction once more:

The years come and the years go.
Three thousand of them have gone by
Since the death of our first father,
Herr Schlemihl ben Zuri Schadday.

Pinhas too is long since gone—
Yet his spear is still held fast,
And still we hear it as it whistles
Through the air above our heads.

The best hearts are those it strikes at,
Like Jehuda ben Halevy's,
Or like Moses ibn Ezra's,
Or like Solomon Gabirol's.

Or like Heinrich Heine's. Once, invalided in Paris, he told his friend Alfred Meissner of a visit from an old acquaintance, a German synagogue cantor, who to lift his spirits had sung to him “some of the old desert chants of Judea in all their original, traditional purity”—causing, he added drily, “our poodle Minko to crawl under the sofa and our parrot Cocotte to cling for dear life to the bars of her cage.” Asked by his innocent French wife after the cantor had left, “Henri, what was that terrible music?,” he then replied, “I'm sorry, my dear, the man was just singing a few of our German folk songs.” And describing Jewish humor every bit as well as Freud did, Heine said to his friend: “You can see for yourself, my good Meissner, how in one and the same breath I mock the Jews and take their side. I can never decide if they seem to me more laughable than praiseworthy or the opposite.”

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Heine's “Jehuda ben Halevy” might be said to mark the point at which, in the person of the schlemiel, pre-modern Jewish parody of Scripture turns into modern Jewish humor.

Of course Moses, in the joke about meat and dairy with which we began, is no schlemiel. He is a nudnik, a nitpicker who doesn't know when to stop. The nudnik does not win, like the schlemiel, because of his weakness, but because he wears down the stronger party. Although God may think He is giving the Jews simple laws, the Jewish mind refuses to be thwarted. It craves complexity and will get it even if it has to exhaust God's patience. In fact, it is happiest when it has exhausted God's patience, because then it is on its own.

Still, the principle is the same as that in the schlemiel joke. One mocks the nudnik—and takes his side.

Why does an ultra-Orthodox Jew enjoy such a joke so much that he tells it himself instead of demanding the scalp of the heretic (or perhaps of the fellow ultra-Orthodox Jew) who made it up? Maybe because it is not really so heretical. Jewish humor, as we conceive of it, may not go back very far in Jewish tradition, but a Judaism that builds elaborate structures on the bare foundations of biblical law certainly does. And so does an imperfect Moses. Frightened of the mission thrust on him and seeking to beg off as unworthy when first approached by God, the biblical Moses is quite capable of making mistakes and driving God to distraction while also sometimes prevailing on Him. The Bible never treats him as anything but fallible, which is how he thinks of himself (“now the man Moses was very humble above all the men on the face of the earth,” we are told), and tradition, which has some remarkable legends about the Law's taking on a life of its own in the hands of its interpreters, is in agreement with this.

In Islam, on the other hand, Muhammad is the epitome of human perfection. “Your companion errs not, nor does he deviate,” he says of himself in the Qur'an. About such a man and the revelation received by him, his followers do not joke.

One can speculate about who, ultimately, is the more secure in his religious faith: the believer who can laugh at his prophet or the one who cannot. But speculation aside, the historical fact is that the comic iqtibas that helped inspire modern Jewish humor was never accorded the same kind of legitimacy among Muslims. Although “forbidden firebrands” may have continued to lead a private or underground existence in the Islamic world long after their disappearance from permissible literary discourse, they were publicly repressed. We might be better off today if they hadn't been.

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Footnotes

1 As Rabbi Joseph Telushkin observes in his Jewish Humor, a few passages in the Talmud do jest about what can happen when talmudic logic is debased. For instance, there is the conundrum posed by the first-century Rabbi Yossi ben Taddai: “I am forbidden to marry my daughter, but my daughter's mother is permitted to me. All the more so, then, should I be forbidden to marry the daughter of someone who is forbidden to me. [Since] I am forbidden to marry somebody else's wife, I should be forbidden to marry the daughter of somebody else's wife. Therefore, all marriages should be forbidden.”

2 The translation is by David Segal in his The Book of Tahkemoni (2003). For a discussion of this work, see my article, “Out of Andalusia,” in COMMENTARY, September 2003.

3 Here and in what follows, the translations from Heine are my own.

4 As her final chapters make clear, Wisse's finely discriminating appreciation of the “schlemiel as modern hero” does not extend to an endorsement of the type as a cultural, let alone a political, model for Jews.

_____________


About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.




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