Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Jewish Joke

Jewish Humour

After the assassination of Tsar Alexander II of Russia, a government official in Ukraine menacingly addressed the local rabbi, “I suppose you know in full detail who was behind it.”

“Ach,” the rabbi replied, “I have no idea, but the government’s conclusion will be the same as always: they will blame the Jews and the chimney-sweeps.”

“Why the chimney-sweeps?” asked the befuddled official
.
“Why the Jews?” responded the rabbi.

Old Jewish Joke 
on Anti-Semitism

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Ruth Wisse’s “No Joke: Making Jewish Humour”

One of the best ways to defuse tension is to tell a joke; the Jewish People, who for long have felt the threats of persecution and insecurity have developed a rich canon of humour, one that has influenced our western ways and values. An article, by Robert Fulford, in the The National Post reviews a book by Harvard scholar Ruth Wisse on how such humour—often based on what is currently taking place around us—has transcended ethnic and religious divisions.

Fulford writes about how events in the former Soviet Union influenced non-Jews to claim Jewish ancestry, chiefly as a matter of escape and convenience.
In the last decades of communist power, Jews in the Soviet Union discovered that they had achieved a previously unimaginable advantage over Gentiles. Jews could get out of Russia and  Gentiles couldn’t. Moscow, under pressure from the US, had agreed to give a limited number of Jews exit visas to Israel. Many non-Jews also wanted to leave and imagined escaping by claiming to be Jews. Some discovered that they had always felt Jewish and began advertising for Jewish grandmothers.
For centuries Jews in Czarist Russia had been banned from many of the empire’s regions. Thousands were killed in pogroms that the government supported. After the 1917 revolution their religion was suppressed and the word JEW was printed on internal passports, their identity cards. Now Russian Gentiles were pretending to be Jews!
It was an astounding reversal of fortune. Naturally, this situation cried out for Jewish comment. Sure enough, someone came up with the perfect joke: Certain resourceful Georgians (the story goes) forge passports that will prove them Jewish and win them visas. Alas, the authorities discover the scam. Their punishment? They aren’t jailed or killed but they must retain their Jewish identity forever.
Both stories, the facts and the comic legend, appear in a richly absorbing new book, No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (Princeton University Press), by one of the most interesting scholars Canada has produced, Ruth R. Wisse.
That there are many non-Jews living as Jews in Israel and elsewhere is undeniably true; that they have to continue living a kind of “lie” is also interesting.  Some suggest, like my wife who is a Jew originally from Russia, that such adoption of the Jewish culture might be a good thing, chiefly because the more “Jews” there are from Russia, the less anti-Semites there are. It’s a type of reverse assimilation. The non-Jews thus become Jews, learning Jewish values, culture and, of course, humour; and we can joke about it with a wink and a nod. The irony is delicious.

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You can read the rest of the article at [NatPost]