Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
I’m excited about the new Muppet Movie, and who wouldn’t be given great lines like the following from the trailer:
Kermit, the straight man, pleads, “The Muppets have always been about artistic integrity, not cheap tricks.”
Fozzie walks in and says, “Check it out, fart shoes!!” The adorable, Borscht Belt Bear has whoopee cushions strapped to his loafers.
It’s a sight gag with perfect timing folks, and Judaism has been celebrating that particular shtick for a long, long time. Consider the Talmudic template for the above Muppet scene:
Pelemo, a rabbi who, if I were casting Muppets, would be played by Gonzo the Weirdo, sets up the bit, “On which head does a two-headed man put on his tefillin?”
Rabbi Yehuda, plays the straight man (Kermit the Frog) who has had it up to his eyeballs with Pelemo’s outlandish remarks, “Either geli (get out of here) or be subject to a formal ban!”
Then, the best set-up term in the Talmud, addehakhi, “At that very moment,” a man walks in and says, “an infant with two heads has been born to me. How many shekalim am I obliged to give for the pidyon haben?” (B. Talmud, Menahot 37a).
How about this one? A poor beggar asks Rava for food. The great rabbi, knowing the law regarding sustaining a poor person, asks the beggar what he is accustomed to eating.
“Fattened chicken and aged wine,” the beggar says.
The rabbi protests that the beggar ought to have less extravagant taste, that such luxury is a strain on the community.
Addehahki, “just then,” Rava’s sister, whom he hasn’t seen in 13 years shows up, carrying, wait for it… “Fattened chicken and aged wine!” (Wocka Wocka!).
[For the academic types, take a look at Structure and Form in the Babylonian Talmud, by Louis Jacobs. He has a whole chapter on “the device of addehakhi.”]
Was the Tigeris and Euphrates, the location for the early Babylonian Academies that produced the Talmud, the precursor to the Catskills where borscht belt humor was perfected?
One of the kings of that vaudevillian, take-my-wife-please, Henny-Youngman-styled humor, Milton Berle (Milton Berlinger) actually was a guest for one of my favorite Muppet Show episodes. He goes at it with Statler & Waldorf, the heckling old-timers in the balcony:
Waldorf say to Uncle Milty during his opening bit, “You know what, I just figured out your style. You work like Gregory Peck.”
Berle responds, “Gregory Peck is not a comedian.”
“Well…,” Statler lets the punchline just hang there.
“Now just a minute, please,” the agitated Milt says, “I have been a successful comedian half my life.”
And to that my Muppet heroes say, “How come we got this half?”
Statler and Waldorf are my heroes because they represent that “old Jews telling jokes” humor that I hope to embody someday. These are punchlines that you see coming from a mile away and you laugh anyway. (Just about every joke on the oldjewstellingjokes.com website is a classic, but the commercials are annoying. The book version made a very special gift).
Is there a unique Jewish humor? Remember the Seinfeld episode where the dentist is suspected of converting to Judaism for the jokes? A great deal has been written about the topic (take for example, Joseph Telushkin’s Jewish Humor). Every movie has it’s challenges, but the one I’ll be looking out for with the Muppets was laid down by Saul Bellow, who said, “Oppressed people tend to be witty.”
The truth is that Jewish anti-Semitism in America is at a historic low. Is Mel Brooks ( Melvin Kaminsky) correct, that our humor is our form of revenge – think, Spring Time for Hitler (The Producers) ? Is Woody Allen (Allen Stewart Konigsberg) right, that “Comedy is just tragedy plus time?” If they’re right, does that mean our kids’ kids won’t think we’re funny? I say that there must be more than misery that instills a sense of comedy.
Keep the jokes coming. Feel free to share a classic “Jewish” joke…