Even in laughter the heart is sorrowful, and the end of that mirth is heaviness. (Proverbs 14:13)
Years ago in a Hebrew class I was taking, we were given the assignment to read and translate an article titled “Mommy Can I Laugh Now?” The article described a situation in which a Jewish family was hiding in a house being actively searched by Nazi soldiers. After the soldiers finished their search (unsuccessfully) and had departed, one of the children was unusually silent for a prolonged period of time. Finally the little girl asked: “Mommy, is it ok to cry now?” This article had been written many years after the Holocaust was perpetrated and the author’s chosen title was rephrasing this girl’s question — now asking whether it was okay to tell jokes about the Holocaust. The author suggested that laughter is a part of the healing process, a necessary means of overcoming the trauma and the horror inflicted by the Nazis upon the Jews. After tears have been shed it becomes necessary to smile and to laugh.
While we might concede that we haven’t faced anything in our lifetimes that closely resembles what Jews suffered during the Holocaust, we can also recognize that the harsh realities of life inspire people to make jokes as well as to shed tears. Humor helps us to deal with the vagaries of the human condition. With a laugh it’s easier to shed the inconveniences, the ironies, the injustices and the cruelty that any particular human being might face in life.
But jokes aren’t merely a means of recovery. They also offer an avenue for resistance and rebellion against unnecessary adversities. In his essay “Funny, But Not Vulgar“, George Orwell wrote the following:
A thing is funny when â€” in some way that is not actually offensive or frightening â€” it upsets the established order. Every joke is a tiny revolution. If you had to define humour in a single phrase, you might define it as dignity sitting on a tin-tack. Whatever destroys dignity, and brings down the mighty from their seats, preferably with a bump, is funny. And the bigger the fall, the bigger the joke.
I bring these points up because I have been reading a book titled A Treasury of Jewish Folklore: Stories, Traditions, Legends Humor, Wisdom and Folks Songs of the Jewish People (edited by Nathan Ausubel). I picked this book up after reading its recommendation in the annotated bibliography of the book Jewish Humor: What The Best Jewish Books Say About the Jews by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin.
What has impressed me as I have read many of the vignettes, anecdotes and tales in this book is that they demonstrate how Jewish people have used caustic humor to deal with the absurd and often cruel realities they faced in their day-to-day lives. It also struck me that these anecdotes portray Jewish people acting in a wide variety of contexts (different countries) where they were facing the same sorts of problems (usually anti-semitism).
So here are a number of tiny revolutions (with a variety of mirth/bitterness ratios — that’s just a warning):
Sedition Saved Him
A Jew was drowning in the Dnieper River. He cried for help. Two Czarist policemen ran up. When they saw it was a Jew, they said, “Let the Jew drown!”
When the man saw his strength was ebbing he shouted with all his might, “Down with the Czar!”
Hearing such seditious words, the policemen plunged in, pulled him out, and arrested him.
The Relativity of Distance
Three weary Jewish refugees stood before the Paris representative of the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
“Where are you all going?” he asked them
“I’m on my way to Rome,” said the first.
“London is my destination,” said the second.
“My plan is to go to South Africa,” said the third.
“South Africa? Why so far?” the agent asked wonderingly.
“Far? Far from where?” wistfully countered the refugee.
In a little Southern town where the Klan was riding again, a Jewish tailor had the temerity to open his little shop on the main street. To drive him out of town the Kleagle of the Klan set a gang of little ragamuffins to annoy him.
Day after day they stood at the entrance of his shop.
“Jew! Jew!” they hooted at him.
The situation looked serious for the tailor. He took the matter so much to heart that he began to brood and spent sleepless nights over it. Finally, out of desperation, he cooked up a plan.
The following day when the little hoodlums came to jeer at him, he came to the door and said to them, “From today on any boy who calls me ‘Jew’ will get a dime from me.”
Then he put his hand in his pocket and gave each boy a dime.
Delighted with their booty the boys came back the following day and began to shrill: “Jew! Jew!”
The tailor came out smiling. He put his hand in his pocket and gave each of the boys a nickel, saying, “A dime is too much–I can afford only a nickel today.”
The boys went away satisifed because, after all, a nickel was money too.
However, when they returned the next day to hoot at him the tailor gave them only a penny each.
“Why do we get only a penny today?” they yelled.
‘That’s all I can afford today.”
“But two days ago you gave us a dime, and yesterday we got a nickle. It’s not fair, mister!”
“Take it or leave it. That’s all you’re going to get!”
“Do you think we’re going to call you ‘Jew’ for one lousy penny?”
And they didn’t.
A great calamity threatened the little Ukrainian village. Shortly before the Passover holidays a young peasant girl had been found murdered. Those who hated the Jews quickly took advantage of the unhappy incident and went about among the peasants, inflaming them with the slander that the Jews had killed the girl in order to use her Christian blood for making matzos. The fury of the peasants knew no bounds.
A report spread like wildfire throughout the village that a pogrom was in the offing.
Dismayed by the news the pious ran to the synagogue. They rent their garments, and prostrated themselves before the Holy Ark. As they were sending up their prayers for divine intercession, the shammes ran in breathlessly.
“Brothers–brothers!” he gasped. “I have wonderful news for you! We’ve just discovered, God be praised, that the murdered girl was Jewish!”
The Jew and the Caliph
Once there was a Caliph of Arabia who hated Jews. So he issued the following decree: “Every Jew who enters my kingdom must be halted by the guards and ordered to tell something about himself. If he lies–he is to be shot. If hetells the truth–he is to be hanged.”
By this strategem the Caliph hoped to exterminate all the Jews of Arabia.
One day a Jew came. When the Caliph’s servants commanded him to tell something about himself he said, “I am going to be shot today.”
The guards were confused by his words, so they brought the matter to their royal master’s attention.
“H-m-m!” cogitated the wily Caliph. “This is indeed a difficult matter! If I were to shoot the Jew it would imply that he told the truth. In that case the law is that he should be hanged; so I cannot shoot him. On the other hand, if I had him hanged it would imply that he told a lie, and for that the law provides shooting; so I cannot hang him.”
And so they let the Jew go.
The Rabbi and the Inquisitor
The city of Seville was seething with excitement. A Christian boy had been found dead and the Jews were falsely accused by their enemies of having murdered him in order to use his blood ritually in the baking of matzos for Passover. So the rabbi was brought before the Grand Inquisitor to stand trial as head of the Jewish community.
The Grand Inquisitor hated the rabbi, but, despite all his efforts to prove that the crime had been committed by the Jews, the rabbi succeeded in disproving the charge. Seeing that he had been bested in argument, the Inquisitor turned his eyes piously to Heaven and said:
“We will leave the judgment of this matter to God. Let there be a drawing of lots. I shall deposit two pieces of paper in a box. On one I shall write the word “guilty”– the other will have no writing on it. If the Jew draws the first, it will be a sign from Heaven that the Jews are guilty, and we’ll have him burned at the stake. If he draws the second, on which there is no writing, it will be divine proof of the Jews’ innocence, so we’ll let him go.
Now the Grand Inquisitor was a cunning fellow. He was anxious to burn the Jew, and since he knew that no one would ever find out about it, he decided to write the word ‘guilty’ on both pieces of paper. The rabbi suspected he was going to do just this. Therefore, when he put his hand into the box and drew forth a piece of paper he quickly put it into his mouth and swallowed it.
“What is the meaning of this, Jew?” raged the Inquisitor. “How do you expect us to know which paper you drew now that you’ve swallowed it?”
“Very simple,” replied the rabbi. “You have only to look at the paper in the box.
So they took out the piece of paper still in the box.
“There!” cried the rabbi triumphantly. “This paper says ‘guilty’ therefore the one I swallowed must have been blank. Now, you must release me!”
And they let him go.