Tiny Revolutions

Even in laughter the heart is sorrowful, and the end of that mirth is heaviness. (Proverbs 14:13)

Years ago in a Hebrew class I was taking, we were given the assignment to read and translate an article titled “Mommy Can I Laugh Now?” The article described a situation in which a Jewish family was hiding in a house being actively searched by Nazi soldiers. After the soldiers finished their search (unsuccessfully) and had departed, one of the children was unusually silent for a prolonged period of time. Finally the little girl asked: “Mommy, is it ok to cry now?” This article had been written many years after the Holocaust was perpetrated and the author’s chosen title was rephrasing this girl’s question — now asking whether it was okay to tell jokes about the Holocaust. The author suggested that laughter is a part of the healing process, a necessary means of overcoming the trauma and the horror inflicted by the Nazis upon the Jews. After tears have been shed it becomes necessary to smile and to laugh.

While we might concede that we haven’t faced anything in our lifetimes that closely resembles what Jews suffered during the Holocaust, we can also recognize that the harsh realities of life inspire people to make jokes as well as to shed tears. Humor helps us to deal with the vagaries of the human condition. With a laugh it’s easier to shed the inconveniences, the ironies, the injustices and the cruelty that any particular human being might face in life.

But jokes aren’t merely a means of recovery. They also offer an avenue for resistance and rebellion against unnecessary adversities. In his essay “Funny, But Not Vulgar“, George Orwell wrote the following:

A thing is funny when — in some way that is not actually offensive or frightening — it upsets the established order. Every joke is a tiny revolution. If you had to define humour in a single phrase, you might define it as dignity sitting on a tin-tack. Whatever destroys dignity, and brings down the mighty from their seats, preferably with a bump, is funny. And the bigger the fall, the bigger the joke.

I bring these points up because I have been reading a book titled A Treasury of Jewish Folklore: Stories, Traditions, Legends Humor, Wisdom and Folks Songs of the Jewish People (edited by Nathan Ausubel). I picked this book up after reading its recommendation in the annotated bibliography of the book Jewish Humor: What The Best Jewish Books Say About the Jews by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin.

What has impressed me as I have read many of the vignettes, anecdotes and tales in this book is that they demonstrate how Jewish people have used caustic humor to deal with the absurd and often cruel realities they faced in their day-to-day lives. It also struck me that these anecdotes portray Jewish people acting in a wide variety of contexts (different countries) where they were facing the same sorts of problems (usually anti-semitism).

So here are a number of tiny revolutions (with a variety of mirth/bitterness ratios — that’s just a warning):

Sedition Saved Him

A Jew was drowning in the Dnieper River. He cried for help. Two Czarist policemen ran up. When they saw it was a Jew, they said, “Let the Jew drown!”
When the man saw his strength was ebbing he shouted with all his might, “Down with the Czar!”
Hearing such seditious words, the policemen plunged in, pulled him out, and arrested him.

The Relativity of Distance

Three weary Jewish refugees stood before the Paris representative of the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
“Where are you all going?” he asked them
“I’m on my way to Rome,” said the first.
“London is my destination,” said the second.
“My plan is to go to South Africa,” said the third.
“South Africa? Why so far?” the agent asked wonderingly.
“Far? Far from where?” wistfully countered the refugee.

Applied Psychology

In a little Southern town where the Klan was riding again, a Jewish tailor had the temerity to open his little shop on the main street. To drive him out of town the Kleagle of the Klan set a gang of little ragamuffins to annoy him.
Day after day they stood at the entrance of his shop.
“Jew! Jew!” they hooted at him.
The situation looked serious for the tailor. He took the matter so much to heart that he began to brood and spent sleepless nights over it. Finally, out of desperation, he cooked up a plan.
The following day when the little hoodlums came to jeer at him, he came to the door and said to them, “From today on any boy who calls me ‘Jew’ will get a dime from me.”
Then he put his hand in his pocket and gave each boy a dime.
Delighted with their booty the boys came back the following day and began to shrill: “Jew! Jew!”
The tailor came out smiling. He put his hand in his pocket and gave each of the boys a nickel, saying, “A dime is too much–I can afford only a nickel today.”
The boys went away satisifed because, after all, a nickel was money too.
However, when they returned the next day to hoot at him the tailor gave them only a penny each.
“Why do we get only a penny today?” they yelled.
‘That’s all I can afford today.”
“But two days ago you gave us a dime, and yesterday we got a nickle. It’s not fair, mister!”
“Take it or leave it. That’s all you’re going to get!”
“Do you think we’re going to call you ‘Jew’ for one lousy penny?”
“So don’t!”
And they didn’t.

God’s Mercy

A great calamity threatened the little Ukrainian village. Shortly before the Passover holidays a young peasant girl had been found murdered. Those who hated the Jews quickly took advantage of the unhappy incident and went about among the peasants, inflaming them with the slander that the Jews had killed the girl in order to use her Christian blood for making matzos. The fury of the peasants knew no bounds.
A report spread like wildfire throughout the village that a pogrom was in the offing.
Dismayed by the news the pious ran to the synagogue. They rent their garments, and prostrated themselves before the Holy Ark. As they were sending up their prayers for divine intercession, the shammes ran in breathlessly.
“Brothers–brothers!” he gasped. “I have wonderful news for you! We’ve just discovered, God be praised, that the murdered girl was Jewish!”

The Jew and the Caliph

Once there was a Caliph of Arabia who hated Jews. So he issued the following decree: “Every Jew who enters my kingdom must be halted by the guards and ordered to tell something about himself. If he lies–he is to be shot. If hetells the truth–he is to be hanged.”
By this strategem the Caliph hoped to exterminate all the Jews of Arabia.
One day a Jew came. When the Caliph’s servants commanded him to tell something about himself he said, “I am going to be shot today.”
The guards were confused by his words, so they brought the matter to their royal master’s attention.
“H-m-m!” cogitated the wily Caliph. “This is indeed a difficult matter! If I were to shoot the Jew it would imply that he told the truth. In that case the law is that he should be hanged; so I cannot shoot him. On the other hand, if I had him hanged it would imply that he told a lie, and for that the law provides shooting; so I cannot hang him.”
And so they let the Jew go.

The Rabbi and the Inquisitor

The city of Seville was seething with excitement. A Christian boy had been found dead and the Jews were falsely accused by their enemies of having murdered him in order to use his blood ritually in the baking of matzos for Passover. So the rabbi was brought before the Grand Inquisitor to stand trial as head of the Jewish community.
The Grand Inquisitor hated the rabbi, but, despite all his efforts to prove that the crime had been committed by the Jews, the rabbi succeeded in disproving the charge. Seeing that he had been bested in argument, the Inquisitor turned his eyes piously to Heaven and said:
“We will leave the judgment of this matter to God. Let there be a drawing of lots. I shall deposit two pieces of paper in a box. On one I shall write the word “guilty”– the other will have no writing on it. If the Jew draws the first, it will be a sign from Heaven that the Jews are guilty, and we’ll have him burned at the stake. If he draws the second, on which there is no writing, it will be divine proof of the Jews’ innocence, so we’ll let him go.
Now the Grand Inquisitor was a cunning fellow. He was anxious to burn the Jew, and since he knew that no one would ever find out about it, he decided to write the word ‘guilty’ on both pieces of paper. The rabbi suspected he was going to do just this. Therefore, when he put his hand into the box and drew forth a piece of paper he quickly put it into his mouth and swallowed it.
“What is the meaning of this, Jew?” raged the Inquisitor. “How do you expect us to know which paper you drew now that you’ve swallowed it?”
“Very simple,” replied the rabbi. “You have only to look at the paper in the box.
So they took out the piece of paper still in the box.
“There!” cried the rabbi triumphantly. “This paper says ‘guilty’ therefore the one I swallowed must have been blank. Now, you must release me!”
And they let him go.

9 comments for “Tiny Revolutions

  1. David King Landrith
    October 26, 2004 at 1:29 pm

    These jokes remind me of an Eddie Murphy from of his stand-up albums (it’s slightly crude, so be warned):

    A bear and a bunny are taking a dump in the woods. The bear asks the bunny, “Do you have a problem with sh** sticking to your fur?” The bunny said, “No.” So the bear wiped his a** on him.

    Am I wrong, or is this joke by a young, black comedian quite similar in form to the jokes you tell above?

    It seems to me that American humor is basically a Jewish brand of humor. From the Marx Brothers to Woody Allen to Jerry Seinfeld, Jewish humorists have done much more to define American humor than any other ethnicity–much to the advantage of American humor.

  2. October 26, 2004 at 1:44 pm

    I’ve added two more stories to contribute to the points I’m making.


    Funny you should say that. When I was originally thinking of writing on the subject of Jewish humor I was thinking of titling it something like “Jewish Prophets / Jewish Comedians” … and wanted to make the point that American humor is very much an outgrowth of Jewish comedy and humor. I was going to attempt to make the point that there are two primary sources for truth — divine truths from prophets and carnal or reality truths from stand-up comics or humorists.

    As for American humor being largely derived from Jewish comics, I’ve read an essay or two on the subject … one of them might be in a preface or portion of the book “The Joys of Yiddish.” I’m not sure about that. Doing a google-search on “Jewish comediens” will create a very lengthy list — it’s really quite amazing how many of them there are — and some of them really rip (rather than push) the envelope in how they approach humor (I’m thinking of Lenny Bruce or Sarah Silverman).

    The recently deceased Rodney Dangerfield (who was married to a Mormon woman, by the way) was originally named something like Jacob Cohen.

  3. October 26, 2004 at 1:47 pm

    Here’s a link for a biography of Rodney Dangerfield (original name Jacob Cohen). On the last line of the biography you’ll read that his wife Joan Child was thirty-years younger than him and is a Mormon.


  4. Bryce I
    October 26, 2004 at 2:01 pm

    I think that while it’s impossible to overstate the influence of the Borscht Belt on American humor, and Jerry Seinfeld and Jon Stewart notwithstanding, it seems to me that DKL’s example from Eddie Murphy points to another strong vein of humor in the US, that of the black comic. Is Murphy a direct descendant of great Jewish humorists of the past, or do the similarities in style derive from commonalities in the black and Jewish experience in America? Off the top of my head, thinking of stand-up comics in my generation’s memory, I come up with Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Martin Lawrence, Bernie Mac, Cedric the Entertainer, Arsenio Hall, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley. Quite a list.

  5. Bryce I
    October 26, 2004 at 2:03 pm

    And what of Mormon humor? Mormon culture is rife with possibilities for laughs, but my sense is that we’re collectively a little thin-skinned when people poke fun at us. Or am I just out of touch?

  6. October 26, 2004 at 2:15 pm

    If I remember correctly, my Mom wrote her master’s thesis on Mormon humor. Maybe I should actually go read it. One of my questions is what the basis of Mormon humor really is … is it self-ridicule? We do like to make fun of our own culture.

    Here’s a list of Jewish comedians I found doing the ‘ol google-search:

    All 3 stooges, Danny Kaye, the Marx brothers, Fanny Brice, Milton Berle, Bob Hope, Billy Crystal, Jack Benny, George Burns, Allen Sherman, Joan Rivers, Jackie Mason, Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler.

    That’s still gotta be pretty incomplete.

  7. October 26, 2004 at 6:04 pm

    I loved this piece. I love to laugh; perhaps too much. I notice that I am always the first to laugh at a joke in Sacrament meeting, and much too loudly, I am sure. I think about what Joseph Smith said about himself, that he was given to a bit too much levity, and of the scripture that says something about not with much laughter, for that is sin….. And I feel a bit chastized. But somehow, that doesn’t stop me from guffawing in Sacrament. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t laugh at off-color jokes or anything that is mean-spirited (much), but I can’t seem to rein in the laughter when someone really touches my heart and soul (and funny-bone). And I think I should maybe feel guilty about it, but somehow…um…I guess I don’t…..*wincing* Jewish humor is always particularly poignant because there is so much pain at the back of it. Humor is considered one of the healthy “ego defense mechanisms” and maybe my laughter is just that, a kind of sneezing of the soul to expel the pain buried deep below. Anyway, thanks for the chuckles.

  8. October 27, 2004 at 8:33 am

    I was just looking through this book again and came across another one — it’s short and to the point so I’ll add it in the comments:

    Mutual Introduction

    A Jew was walking on the Bismarkc Platz in Berlin when unintentionally he brushed against a Prussian officer.
    “Swine!” roared the officer.
    “Cohen!” replied the Jew with a stiff bow.

  9. October 27, 2004 at 8:42 am

    What I see in these types of stories, over and over again, is that throughout history Jewish people highly valued and praised the ability for someone to think quickly on their feet — either to counter day-to-day indignities or to save their own lives from some sudden threat.

    I think that Mormons have their own stories that they share over and over again … but our stories are more often designed to instruct or teach some kind of moral lesson and these stories don’t really have any punch-line. Perhaps our stories lack humor because they deal more with the principle of obedience and not so much with the issue of survival.

    Three Mormon stories come to mind (one scriptural, two not):

    In our story of Adam and Eve I think that Adam kind of comes across as not-so-bright — a sort of dull “I’ll obey anything I’m told to do and that’s the end of the story.” His knitted brow says it all. Eve is a lot more quiet but It is because of Eve’s intelligence and desire to be like God that she falls into transgression. She’s the one with initiative, with a desire to change. But there seems to be a nasty consequence — a sort of sense that things could have happened in a better way if she had been more patient.

    This is a scriptural story so it might not be the example we need.

    Another example of a story or tale we are regularly in touch with is the story of the frog placed in water. We’ve all heard this one more than we ought. If the water is already very hot the frog jumps out of the pot and is safe. If the temperature is slowly raised, then the frog is complacent and is boiled to death.

    We can draw a lesson from this story, but the story in and of itself isn’t very funny — there’s no punch-line to elicit a chuckle. This is a very dumb frog. And we are asked to compare ourselves to this frog.

    Finally I’ll just throw in the hypothetical story of the truck drivers. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who has heard this one. There are three truck drivers. One who drives as close to the edge of a cliff as he can. One who drives fairly close to the edge of the cliff. And lastly there’s the driver who stays as far away from the edge of the cliff as possible. We are asked which one we would hire. Then we are told that we should of course hire the safest driver.

    Again, this story isn’t funny. There’s no punch-line. The answer is obvious. No real flash of intelligence here. But it does remind me of another humorous Jewish anecdote I’ve read. This one is from Jackie Mason:

    Did you ever see what happens if a Jew has a son who drives a truck? He’s so embarrassed, he’s hiding in Philadelphia! If you know any Jew, anyplace in the world, whose son drives a truck, say this: “Does your son drive a truck?”
    “Drive! I wouldn’t say he drives. He sits in the truck. I wouldn’t say he drives it. How would it look, a truck is moving, there’s nobody there? So in case it goes out of control, he controls it. He’s not driving–he’s controlling it … That’s it! He’s a controller in the trucking business.

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