Humor and folklore can say a lot about a culture–such as what is considered proper or not and who is on the inside and who is an outsider. The following article looks at the role Jews played in European and American folklore and humor. Reprinted with permission from The Jew in Early American Wit and Graphic Humor (Ktav).
In Europe, the Jew’s place in the world image of his Christian neighbors was more or less solidly defined; he was a well-known object around which their folk imagination and social humor could wind. In literature and drama the Jew was represented as the personification of evil or, later, as a figure of comedy.
The religious antagonism, long supported by church and state, which produced such folk fantasy as the legend of the Wandering Jew, never radiated the same strength of feeling in America as was common in the Old World. From the beginning, the rebellious Protestant sects that migrated to the New World identified themselves with the Hebrews of Biblical literature: Their emphasis on the Old Testament, their attitude toward Hebrew as a holy tongue and the Hebrews as the People of the Book led to a different image than that held by their forebears in Europe–at least on the surface. For a long time, the religious notions of the founders of the American civilization so dominated the Americans’ image of the Jew that his appearance as a real member of a living contemporaneous community of people came to their consciousness only slowly and reluctantly.
Real vs. Unreal Jews
The contrast between the real subjects–the Jewish people struggling for survival as a community of human beings in new times and on a new continent–and the unreal picture consisting of a mixture of the most diverse interpretations of Biblical literature, led to the wildest notions: the identification of the Indians as the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel, the importance of the conversion of the Jews as a preliminary to the redemption of the world, and continuous comparisons of various Christian sects with Judaism, all of which almost erased the real living Jew.