The Jew in Western Wit and Humor

What humor says about the Jews' place in society

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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.

jewish humorThe 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.

The separation of the Jew from his religious prototype finally came about in the American consciousness only under the pressure of the experiences gained in an America in a state of flux, turning rapidly into an urban capitalistic indus­trial nation after the Civil War, in which the role of the Jew became unmistakably recognizable.

American wit at the time of the build-up of this industrial society became a mirror of reality, in which the Jew appears as a driving element. Bearer of an old culture, the Jew, on the new continent, worked to find success in an environment which evaluated people according to new economic cate­gories, newly rising. At the same time, he sought to trans­plant the historic values of his former community to this new world. No wonder that much that was understood in him was derided in the cruel humor of the tough, young, still-to-be conquered continent; no wonder that he was often forced into a category of beliefs which could not easily be erased even by his economic rise. The Jew was here, as nowhere in his history, on strict probation--while an amazed environment looked on.

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Rudolf Glanz has written extensively about the Jewish experience in America.