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Jewish Humor That Says `Wake Up'

`Homey realism' is a central theme, forwarding the claims of common sense, family, and everyday life. BOOKS: REVIEW

A TREASURY OF JEWISH FOLKLORE Edited by Nathan Ausubel, New York: Crown, 768 pp., $15.95

THE SHTETL Translated and edited by Joachim Neugroschel, New York: Overlook, 569 pp., $25

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by David C. Gross, New York: Hippocrene Books, 608 pp., $14.95 paper


by Gene Bluestein, Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press,

135 pp., $22.50 cloth; $9.95 paper

Q. One dreamed that he was on a ship at sea with his father and mother and that the ship had begun to sink. It was, however, possible to save himself and one other person only - either his father or mother - not both. What should he do?

A. He should wake up. - from `A Treasury of Jewish Folklore'

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IS there a distinctively Jewish style of humor? Many people think so, although, on closer examination, one finds that not all humor with a Jewish flavor is necessarily Jewish in origin. Nor do all Jews have the same sense of humor or the same values. What most of us think of as Jewish humor has its roots in the experience of Russian and East European Jews, or in the mellower experiences of Jews in America. This leaves out the experiences of Biblical, Greek, and Roman Jews of the ancient world, not to mention modern Israeli Jews, or Jews in China, India, North Africa, or Peru.

Still, certain qualities have emerged that seem typical of Jewish humor, a characteristically Jewish way of looking at things that may be something of a caricature but can serve as an indicator, if not as a label. Traditional Jewish humor, as Nathan Ausubel, editor of ``A Treasury of Jewish Folklore,'' notes, is based on character rather than word-play. It is also a humor based on self-criticism and a touch of resignation, a defensive humor based on admitting your faults and weaknesses before anyone else can attack you for them. A humor of the ghetto, it rarely if ever hits out at non-Jewish targets, except to acknowledge (seldom and indirectly) a sense of being threatened by a hostile (non-Jewish) environment. It is a philosophy of expecting the worst, yet continuing to hope, if not for the best, then the best under the circumstances.

The hundreds of delightful stories - fables, jokes, legends, even songs - in Mr. Ausubel's collection are drawn from centuries of oral and written sources. Yet, to a remarkable degree, they express a consistent outlook on life: respect for poverty, learning, and piety; scorn for material wealth and pretension; approval and sympathy for those who can live by their wits. Like most other brands of humor, this is a humor of realism: not quite the cynical realism of those who worship the ``bottom line,'' nor the coarse, hearty realism of peasants and ``simple folk,'' but a homey (or, in Yiddish, haymish) realism that puts forward the claims of common sense, family, and everyday life. It's a humor that reminds us to ``wake up.''

Something of this attitude of cheerful realism can be found in the longer, more consciously literary works selected by Joachim Neugroschel for ``The Shtetl,'' subtitled ``A Creative Anthology of Jewish Life in Eastern Europe.'' Most typical, perhaps, is ``Stempeniu: A Jewish Romance,'' by the famous Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem (whose tales of Tevye the Milkman inspired the musical ``Fiddler on the Roof'').

Stempeniu is a traveling musician who plays at weddings and cuts a dashing figure on the village scene. (A shtetl is a tiny, often ghettolike, village). He is snared by a hard-nosed girl who gets him to marry her. In his travels, however, he meets Rachel, who is gentle, lovely, virtuous, but, alas, married too. They fall in love. But the fire goes out before anyone gets burned.

The author anticipates our reaction: ```A dull story!' says the reader ... for he's been raised on those modern romances, where people hang themselves and drown themselves, poison themselves and shoot themselves, or where a heder teacher becomes a count, a serving maid becomes a princess and a ... (school assistant) becomes - a dragon. Now can I help it if we have no counts or princesses? We have only ordinary Jewish men and women. ...''

Mr. Aleichem reminds us to wake up to reality. Yet the simple ``ordinariness'' of this reality, suffused in the warm glow of nostalgia that today's readers may feel for the vanished world of the shtetl, disguises the discontent many young Jews felt in such restricted surroundings and obscures a far darker reality that surrounded the cozy village world.

In another story, ``The Kiss,'' the illusive veil of ordinary life is ripped asunder by a graphically horrifying account of a Jewish man brutally murdered in a pogrom for refusing to kiss the foot of one of his tormentors. More subtly, but no less chillingly, the famous Yiddish writer known as ``Der Nister'' evokes the menace of Nazism in his careful account of a preliminary skirmish between a Jewish family and the police. A great strength of this anthology is the editor's attempt to show us the variety, the discordances, of life in the shtetls. Yet the notes are skimpy and no dates for the works' composition or publication are given.

``The Jewish People's Almanac'' is a collection of facts, not fiction. It is simply, unabashedly, an entertaining and informative miscellany of articles by various hands on everything from the Bible and Jewish holiday customs to Harpo Marx, Mexico's Indian Jews, and Jewish views on subjects from astrology to resurrection. Like ``The Shtetl,'' it emphasizes the variety of Jewish experiences and beliefs, but it, too, suffers from being something of a hodgepodge. It is, nonetheless (or perhaps for that very reason), great fun to dip into.

Because it is primarily a kind of dictionary of Yiddish words that have taken their place in colloquial American English, ``Anglish-Yinglish'' also invites dipping yet is concise enough to read straight through. It has a lighthearted, but very intelligent introduction, and two intriguing appendices - one on that seminal novel ``Portnoy's Complaint,'' the other on klezmer music.

The author, Gene Bluestein, is himself a musician, folklorist, and literary critic. He is a knowledgeable, sharp-minded critic, who shows us the difference between writers like Saul Bellow and Philip Roth - who use Yiddish expressions correctly and effectively - and those like Joseph Heller, whose spotty knowledge of Yiddish and awkwardness in employing it is generally unnoticed - or, worse yet, commended by critics who don't know Yiddish themselves.

Proud as he is of the contribution Yiddish has made to English, Mr. Bluestein wisely refrains from attributing special powers to any specific tongue: ``Leo Rosten and other nostalgic writers notwithstanding,'' he writes, ``there is nothing special about the ability of Yiddish to express ideas or emotions idiomatically or metaphorically. Every language has the capability; if you pick the right level of diction in American, Irish, or any folk speech you get similar effects.''

The humor we associate with Yiddish expressions is not intrinsic to the language, but arises from the comic intersection of cultures trying to bridge a linguistic gap at a particular time and place. Humor, Jewish or otherwise, is a universal response to specific circumstances.

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