The Jew in Western Wit and Humor

What humor says about the Jews' place in society

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Jews, Money, & Capitalism

Nevertheless, an important difference was already manifest at this juncture compared with his treatment in Europe. Social criticism of the Jew in capitalist America, from the beginning, became identified with a measure of self-criticism within the new society as well. The popular Biblical word-image of the Golden Calf may serve as an instance of such self-criticism: Since earliest times, the Golden Calf was used in Europe as a symbol of “Jewish mammon worship.”

In America, however, it always represented the money principle, generally. It appears in this aspect also in the crooked mirror of laughter and as the expression, also, of the discomfort felt by individuals forced to submit their cultural ideas to this impersonal principle. Thus, the image of the Golden Calf caught hold as the self-criticism of a nascent American cultural consciousness.

Caricature

To gain an inner understanding and knowledge of histori­cal situations, although in a more indirect way, folklore is no less valuable an instrument than the wit and literary humor of the times, although admittedly, in this form it is somewhat harder to seize upon the truth. Truth in the field of wit has at its disposition a unique instrument--the caricature--which, on occasion, makes use also of the visible things of folklore, as, for example, the three balls of the pawnbroker, used as symbols in the drawings.

The value of caricature as a path to historical truth should not be underestimated. Its effects are immediate and powerful. The caricaturist is able to allow fantasy to roam freely or he can exercise self-restraint for the sake of achieving specific goals. We see this best in the classic example of the political caricature, where social reality is the artist’s first and unconditional intent.

The knowledge of the value of caricature and its general character were early understood in America. An announce­ment of 1839 proclaims:

"Caricature seldom stings the faller, and never handles to obscure. Once more--the caricaturist is the best historian."

Thus, by means of caricature the deeper meaning of the symbolism of the money principle, through the Jew, is dem­onstrated by the use of the simple formula of the Golden Calf. Over the road of the Biblical Jew, this symbol strik­ingly represents the most important development in Amer­ica: its changeover from an agrarian, land-oriented economy to an industrialist-creating riches, for whom land was no longer the symbol, but to whom money became a new prin­ciple which could be attacked much in the same way as the earlier mammon-service of the Jew was attacked in a still-religious Europe.

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