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Reprinted with permission from Midstream magazine.
The desire to know the truth is the beginning of wisdom. Among the other types of people who have become main characters in Jewish humor is the schnorrer, the beggar. Theodor Reik [one of Freud’s disciples] contended that the jokes about schnorrers express the hope and conviction that the economic gap between the haves and the have-nots will be erased one day.
But we might even go one step further, says Rabbi Reuven Bulka. Indeed, Jews have often been forced to schnor, that is to beg, for what was legitimately theirs. The schnorrer, therefore, symbolizes the Jew who begs the indulgence of others, so that he might enjoy the basic right to live with decency.
Here is the story of a schnorrer who used to visit the house of the Baron de Rothschild to receive his weekly alms. On one particular visit, he is told that he cannot be supported that week. Visibly upset, he wants to know the reason. He is told that the Baron’s daughter had been married that week and that the wedding had been particularly costly and there were no funds left for charitable purposes. The shnorrer, reacting with a combination of understanding and protest, says: “I certainly don’t mind the Baron marrying his daughter, but not with my money!”
It was not always easy for Jews to earn a living when there were so many discriminatory laws limiting their activities; they were not to own land or to engage in many trades, which were regulated by professional guilds that accepted only Christian members. Jews were able to survive only by putting their ingenuity to work.
As they could only engage in professions, which were not regulated by law, they practiced international commerce and banking (which was forbidden by the Church in the Middle Ages), they went into medicine, astrology, and map-making, and quite a few became experts in these professions. Many, however, managed to earn a living by practicing simple trades. They became tailors and shoemakers, grocers and butchers, and many shopkeepers and merchants.
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