Book Review | The First Book of Jewish Jokes edited by Elliott Oring

Moses Mendelssohn walks into a bar...
September, 28 2018
jewish jokes

The First Book of Jewish Jokes
Edited by Elliott Oring
Translated by Michaela Lang
Indiana University Press
2018, 176 pp, $65

It’s the inherent vice of joke books that their jokes are stale, wizened, practically in full beards. Paper doesn’t just flatten the delivery; it kills. (Take my joke—please!) There’s no joke teller, no emphasis on sound or detail, no voice. Lenny Bruce’s now-canonical “Jewish and Goyish” is funny because of the rhythm, and because of the intense personality it barely restrains. Joke books have no rhythm and no persons; they are disembodied words. The surprise of The First Book of Jewish Jokes is that a joke book from 1812 still sometimes shows a faint pulse. After all, when’s the last time you heard a good one about the learned philosopher Moses Mendelssohn?

Edited by Elliott Oring, an anthropologist and folklorist who has been writing about jokes for 40 years, The First Book of Jewish Jokes is actually three books in one: a translation of a collection of “witty notions from Jews” published in 1812 by Lippmann Moses Büschenthal, a former synagogue leader and a one-time newspaper editor; a translation of an earlier collection of “anecdotes, pranks, and notions of the Children of Israel,” published by an unknown author under the pseudonym Judas Ascher, that serves as the source of 75 percent of Büschenthal’s jokes; and an extended critical argument by Oring about the origins of the Jewish joke and what—if anything—makes a joke “Jewish.”

Oring is not convinced that Jewish jokes are of superior quality, or operate according to Talmudic logic, or that the very fact of joking despite historical trauma—of laughing through tears—is particularly significant to their essence. More important to Oring is the act of labeling a joke “Jewish”: “My definition of the ‘Jewish joke’ is any joke that has been ‘conceptualized as uniquely, distinctly, or characteristically reflective of, evocative of, or conditioned by the Jewish people and their circumstance.” We should, he argues, approach Jewish jokes not as literary critics, but as sociologists or historians. Rather than attempt to discern what features make a joke “Jewish,” we should turn to the why, when and how of their becoming Jewish.

Here Büschenthal’s collection enters the story. Popular wisdom (and much scholarship) holds that Jewish jokes descend from Eastern European Jewish culture and Yiddish orality. But, Oring notes, there’s little printed evidence to support that claim. It wasn’t until the 1920s and 1930s that collections of Yiddish jokes appeared. Instead, the first published appearances of Jewish humor appear in 19th-century Germany, at the unlikely intersection of two seemingly disconnected threads: the German idea of the Judenwitz, a “caustic, mercenary, destructive, and merely clever” style thought to characterize Jewish writers, and the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment.

Büschenthal was a follower of the Jewish Enlightenment, a maskil: He contributed romantic poetry to Sulamith, the leading maskilic journal, and translated Friedrich Schiller into Hebrew. In a brief introduction to his collection, Büschenthal argues that Jewish humor is a response to “centuries-long oppression.” Necessity and oppression gave rise to cunning, and “cunning is the mother of wit.” (The German sounds only slightly less Yoda-like.) His understanding that humor and jokes were essential Jewish characteristics derived from the same logic that propelled countless Jewish social movements during and after the age of Enlightenment, from education to emancipation and Zionism.

Indeed, Büschenthal’s collection contains enough jokes about the Jewish Enlightenment and its philosophers that they practically form a subgenre:

A young officer was guarding the gate to Berlin when he saw an ugly, crippled Jew coming out whom he didn’t know. He decided to make a joke at his expense. Among the things he asked him, he wanted to know what he traded.

The unknown Jew was the learned Moses Mendelssohn. He had a right to his answer, which was, “What I trade in, you’d never buy!”

Officer: “Well, what is it?”

Mendelssohn: “Intelligence.”

Here, as in other Mendelssohn jokes, the humor stems from the contrast of body and mind, one weak, one acute. Büschenthal reasoned that cunning was more widespread in lower-class Jews than in upper-class Jews because lower-class Jews were more oppressed. The particular charm of Mendelssohn jokes is that he embodies a contradiction: As the most enlightened and liberated he is also the most oppressed, always in need of his cunning, his Judenwitz, as proof of his intellectual belonging, since he no longer belongs.

Yet this kind of joke also speaks to something else: a culture finding itself, emerging, in thought. If scholars and critics have located Jewish humor in the Eastern European tradition, it’s because so many canonical works of post-Enlightenment Ashkenazi Jewish culture sprang directly from jokes that extrapolated, transformed, overworked, burdened and became the vehicle for deep explorations of the Jewish psyche. “Doctor, this is my only life and I’m living it in the middle of a Jewish joke!” Alexander Portnoy yells in Portnoy’s Complaint. The First Book of Jewish Jokes doesn’t exactly negate that lineage. It asks us instead to look at other points of origin, and indirectly redirects us from psychology to philosophy.

Humor and jokes were essential Jewish characteristics derived from the same logic that propelled countless Jewish social movements during and after the age of enlightenment, from education to emancipation and Zionism.

The curse of writing about jokes or comedy is that the author is obliged to wade into extended theoretical and historical arguments when what we really want to know is: Is it funny? The answer here is typically no. Many are witty; few will make you laugh. The jokes are largely evidence for Oring’s historical arguments. Consider the following:

A rich Jewish man and woman stroll on the street. “A beggar boy” asks them for money. He continues following them, refusing to leave. Finally, the rich Jew reaches into his pocket and examines his coins but he doesn’t find any small change.

How could he separate himself from the beautiful money? He decided quickly and put it all back into his pocket and turned to the lady with the words:

“I’d give a fortune for a groschen [penny]!”

I suppose the joke is funny because the punch line presents a reversal, or because the translator managed to preserve the comic sounds. But the joke is remarkable for what it is not: a schnorrer joke. In the Eastern European Jewish tradition, the perspective of the joke would have been reversed: the thrust of the joke would be the poor Jew asserting his humanity. Here the joke is fully aligned with the rich Jew and his problem of having too much money, even if it makes light of his way of thinking.

Yet as much as Oring would like to depart from earlier scholars, his narrative is consistent with previous literary interpretations. In considering the maskilic origins of Jewish humor, I was reminded of something the critic and Hebrew translator Robert Alter once wrote: “Jewish humor typically drains the charge of cosmic significance from suffering by grounding it in a world of homey practical realities.” Here, too, we see Jewish humor as a secularization, a
departure from the realm of the sacred.

The late Sidney Morgenbesser, professor of philosophy at Columbia and erstwhile rabbinical student, became, like Mendelssohn, a star of jokes, his deep, unbridled capacity to wrestle with the inherent contradictions of life preserved by his friends and students. “I had occasion to probe him for details of a trip he had recently made to Israel, a trip I sensed had been emotionally trying: ‘déjà Jew’ was the cryptic reply.” With its rapid-fire cunning, the joke resembles one of Büschenthal’s Mendelssohn jokes, but with a critical difference: There is specificity, a personality, a Jew telling a joke, a rhythm. Jewish jokes may be historically linked to the enlightenment, but Jewish humor joins philosophy to psychology. Behind the joke is a real person reasoning, rationalizing, aiming for enlightenment.

Eitan Kensky is the Reinhard Family Curator of Judaica and Hebraica Collections at the Stanford Libraries and cofounder of In Geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies.

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