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Reprinted with permission from Midstream magazine.
“For the past two thousand years, the Jews have been sharpening their wit as well as their wits, on the logical grindstone of the Talmud. This may explain why so much of Jewish humor,” writes Nathan Ausubel, “has an intellectual character.” For Jewish humor is not just laughter; it is in fact, wisdom!
Consider this lovely anecdote from Eastern Europe, which is all about Talmudic logic:
After months of negotiation with the authorities, a Talmudist from Odessa is finally granted a visa to visit Moscow. He boards the train and finds an empty seat. At the next stop, a young man gets on the train and sits next to him. The scholar looks at the young man and thinks: This fellow doesn’t look like a peasant, and if he isn’t a peasant, he probably comes from this city. If he comes from this city, then he must be Jewish, because this is, after all, a predominantly Jewish area. On the other hand, if he is a Jew, where could he be going? I am the only Jew in our district who received permission to travel to Moscow.
Ahh? That’s no problem; I know that just outside Moscow, there is a little town called Samvet, and Jews don’t need special permission to go there. Yes, but why would he be going to Samvet? He’s probably going to visit one of the Jewish families that live there, but let me think; how many Jewish families are there in Samvet? There are only two: the Bernsteins and the Steinbergs. The Bernsteins? No, that cannot be; it is a terrible family. A nice looking fellow like this young man, must be visiting the Steinbergs.
But why would he visit that family? The Steinbergs have only two daughters. So, my best guess is that he must be their son-in-law. But if he is, indeed, a son-in-law, which daughter did he marry? I heard that Sarah married a nice lawyer from Budapest, and Esther married a businessman from Zhitomir; so, I got it: he must be Sarah’s husband, and his name, people say, is Alexander Cohen.
But, if he comes from Budapest, a city where anti-Semitism is rampant, he must have changed his name. What would be the Hungarian equivalent of Cohen? It must be Kovacs. But it is well known that not everyone is allowed to change his name in Hungary, and if he was able to do so, it must be for a good reason: he must have some special status. And what could that be? Obviously, this fellow Alexander Cohen must have earned a doctorate from the University.
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