Notes from a Yid #3
By Howard Glass
An elderly Jewish man trips and falls in the street. Several passersby rush to assist him, one woman using her folded coat to cradle his head, another caressing the old Jew’s hand. “Are you comfortable?” she asks. Looking up at her, he replies, “I make a living.”
An old and oft-repeated joke, sure, but illustrating a number of aspects of Jewish humor, especially the “inside joke.” Only a landsman “gets” what makes this funny. Only a landsman knows how to pronounce “landsman.”
Years ago, I was asked to try my hand at teaching Sunday school. Twelve years later, I was clear on two points: that I thoroughly enjoyed it, and that I had had enough. After teaching the history of Israel for five years, I moved “up” to teaching a series of electives to the teenagers, during which time they taught me what I needed to know. The most popular of these electives was titled “Jewish Humor,” in which they entered the class to strains of Vaughn Monroe singing “Ghost riders in the Sky,” immediately followed by Mickey Katz “singing” “Borscht riders in the Sky.” It was Mickey who taught us all (courtesy of my Dad) that the Yiddish word “killer” (kileh) meant “hernia.”
Two rabbis were discussing their respective problems with squirrels in their synagogue attic. One rabbi said “we simply called the exterminator, and we never saw the squirrels again.” The other rabbi replied, “We simply gave them all a bar mitzvah, and we never saw the squirrels again.”
Coming from a consistently oppressed people, Jewish humor was/is often anti- authority, whether the authority was the czar, a rabbi, or the wealthy. Up until very recently, Yiddish flavored a lot of jokes, especially in the borscht belt. My father played a weekly pinochle game with “the men,” and was himself the banker. At the end of a season, all the couples went to Grossinger’s, or Neville, to hear Buddy Hackett (my mother’s favorite) and others of his ilk do their shtick, largely in Yiddish. When we were older, my mother assured us that in Yiddish Buddy was as dirty, or “blue,” as she liked to call it, as anything we had heard.
“How do you spot a convert to Judaism?
“Easy—she’s the only normal one in the congregation.”
Self-deprecation may have arisen as a defense mechanism, but remains an integral facet of our humor.
An old Jewish beggar was out in New York. “Please sir, he asked a passerby, can I have a dollar twenty three for a piece of pie and a cup of coffee?” “Why a dollar twenty three?” was the reply, “that costs at least two dollars.” The beggar replied “So who buys retail?”
Never much for self-deprecation, I am more a fan of the Jewish shaggy dog story, here presented with minimum shag (for me):
The rabbi, cantor, and president of a congregation are kidnapped by terrorists, and taken to a cave. They are assured that they will die, but the terrorists, with a pang of guilt, grant them each one last request.
The rabbi, going first, of course, asks to give the sermon of his dreams, unlimited in length, where he can and will expound on obscure texts, comment on apocrypha, and relate stories and parables to his heart’s content, imparting all his vast rabbinical wisdom, until he is spent. “It shall be so, said the terrorist.”
The chazzan, next to choose, asks to sing to his heart’s content. He will perform twelfth century niggunim, obscure interpretations of popular prayers, show tunes and jazz. He will perform opera in Italian and Hebrew, and even sing the forbidden Wagnerian opera. His voice will ring true and clear until he has no voice left. “It shall be so, intoned the terrorist.”
The president of the congregation, without a moment’s hesitation, revealed his wish. “Kill me first.”
Whatever your personal shtick, it is all part of our heritage. Whether a fan of Groucho Marx, Mel Brooks, or Jerry Seinfeld—enjoy, laugh a little.