The Targets of Jewish Humor

The recurring characters & subjects of Jewish humor leave no part of the Jewish world unscathed.

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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!"

target bullseyeJewish Occupations

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.

The next anecdote will reveal to us how students of the Holy Scriptures learn about the commercial trade.

There are two young yeshiva bakhurim (students at a talmudic acad­emy) in a train compartment, in Belgium. They are discussing the amaz­ing abilities of Jewish merchants and diamond dealers in their city of Antwerp.

"To what would you attribute their success?" asks one fellow of the other. "You know what, let's ask our landsman (compatriot), who is sitting near the window," says the other.

"Ir zeit a soykher (you are a businessman), aren't you? Please tell us: to what do you attribute the success of businessmen in this medine (country)?"

"Oh," he says, "that's very simple. It is due to the kind of food we eat."

"Oh yes, and what kind of food do you eat?"

"We eat heads of herrings, and this gives us brains."

"Interesting," say the two young travelers.

"By any chance, would you have some heads of herrings in your bag, and would you be willing to sell them to us?" asks one yeshiva bokher.

 "Of course," says the merchant. "It will be just 100 francs a piece."

The two students are anxious to try the experiment without any delay, and they start eating. "Do you know," one of the students says to the businessman, "in Antwerp, you can buy a whole herring for 10 francs, and here, I paid 100 francs, just for one head

"You see, my friend," answers the businessman, "it's already working...

The Matchmaker

The shadkhan, the matchmaker, was a vital element of survival in the old country. He or she was instrumental in bringing together eligible males and females for the purpose of marriage and propagation. In the atmos­phere of constant threat to their existence, every marriage was regarded as an investment in the survival of the Jewish people.

We all know the answer of Yente, the Matchmaker:

"The way she sees and the way he looks, it's a perfect match!" Or, "She is beautiful, intelligent, and from a good family; what else do you  want?" "But why me, I have none of these." "Oh, I should have told you before: she is just a tiny bit pregnant."

Religious Traditions

Even religious traditions and practices were not spared from the double-edged sword of Jewish humorists.

A 10 year-old boy tells his father what he learned in Sunday School that day.

"You know the exodus from Egypt, Dad? That was quite a feat on the part of the Hebrews. They were able to cross the Red Sea in am­phibious vehicles while combat helicopters and rocket launchers were protecting them from the Egyptian cavalry. That must have been an amazing victory."

"Tell me, son," asks the father, "is that what your teacher said?"

"Oh no, Dad; but if I told you what he said, you would never believe it."

Another anecdote pokes gentle fun at some of our most important be­liefs. It recounts a conversation between two Jews who are comparing the respective merits of their jobs. One says to the other:

"I have a good job and I am getting a good salary, but I have no secu­rity. The poretz (the owner of the land) may let me go at any time, and I am constantly worried about the possibility of losing my job."

The other one says, "I have a simple job and it does not pay much, but I would say that it is quite a secure job."

"Ah," says the other, "and what do you do for a living?"

"Oh, I work for the shul (synagogue)," answers his interlocutor. "Every morning, at dawn, I have to go up on the roof of the shuland look all around, as far as I can, to see if the messiah is coming. The moment I see him, I will have to inform the rebbe and the president of the congregation immediately. I'll tell you the truth, my friend, it doesn't pay much, but there is plenty security!"...

Rabbis

In Latin America, as well as in the rest of the world, they have always picked on the rabbis and the other members of the Jewish clergy. The fol­lowing anecdote tells you about the tsuris(the painful episodes) in the life of a rabbi.

Everyone knows that there is a shortage of rabbis in Mexico. Two con­gregations in particular had been unable to find a rabbi, for years. So they decided to insert ads in newspapers, and they soon received letters from two potential candidates, who were immediately invited to Mex­ico. But unfortunately, one of them died soon after he reached Mexico City from the effects of air pollution. As a result, each of the two con­gregations claimed the remaining rabbi.

The members of one congregation were willing to follow the advice of King Solomon and cut the rabbi in two; the other agreed to let him live, just as in the biblical story of the two mothers and their child.

What did they do? They consulted the Beit Din [rabbinical court] of Mexico City. The judges heard the case and decided: "The remaining rabbi must go to the first congregation--the one whose members wanted to cut him in two--because that is, indeed, the fate awaiting all rabbis."

Women

Women have always played an important role in the Jewish commu­nity, even when it was not officially recognized. Of course, the situation is much different today, but many are still not willing to acknowledge it. So, women have been campaigning for equal rights.

The mayor of Ra'anana [a town in Israel] was inspecting a public building site, accom­panied by his wife, when one of the construction workers called to the mayor's wife and said, "How are you, Dinah?" and she answered, "Good to see you, David." And she continued to chat with the worker for a few minutes.

After the mayor had completed his inspection, he asked his wife, "How do you know this man?" "Ah," she said, "he was my sweet­heart in high school. He even proposed to me, many years ago."

The husband laughed and said, "You should be grateful to me, then, for if I had not come along, you would be the wife of a con­struction worker, instead of being married to the mayor of the city."

"Not at all," said the wife. "If I had married him, he would now be the mayor of this city!"

Israelis & Palestinians

Even the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has not escaped the scope of Jewish jesters. Some facts are better conveyed in the form of a joke than in a serious lecture on history, as in the following anecdote:

At an emergency meeting of the Security Council of the United Na­tions, the ambassador of Israel and the chairman of the Palestinian Au­thority, Yasser Arafat, were scheduled to speak from the podium. The Israeli delegate was called first:

"Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to preface my remarks by telling you an old story of our folklore. When Moses was leading the Children of Israel through the wilder­ness, he felt extremely tired one late afternoon, and he decided to take a stroll. He walked away from the camp of the Israelites, and, lo and behold, he saw a lovely lake, right in front of him. He quickly took off his clothes, set them in a pile on the shore, and he went for a swim. Refreshed and relaxed, he came back to the shore and looked for his clothes, but they were nowhere to be found. 'Surely,' said he, 'some Palestinian must have stolen my clothes."

At this point, Yasser Arafat could not stand still anymore and he shouted: "Ladies and gentlemen, this is an abject lie, for everyone knows that there were no Palestinians in those days!

"Thank you, Mr. Arafat," said the Israeli ambassador. "That is correct, and that is indeed my first point. Now, I can proceed with my remarks."

This article is the third in a four-part series on the characteristics of Jewish humor. To read the next article in the series, click here.

This series originally appeared as a single article in Midstream magazine, which was anthologized in Best Jewish Writing 2003. It is reprinted with permission.

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Rabbi Leo M. Abrami served as the spiritual leader at Beth Emeth Congregation in Sun City West from 2002 to 2006.