Early ‘Jewish jokes’ are anything but funny, argues new book
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Jews themselves spread most anti-Jewish stereotypes

Early ‘Jewish jokes’ are anything but funny, argues new book

Very little is known about the origins of Jewish jokes, but one expert has started to unravel the mystery — and he’s not amused

An 'Enlightenment' scene with guests in the home of Moses Mendelssohn, by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim,1856 (public domain)
An 'Enlightenment' scene with guests in the home of Moses Mendelssohn, by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim,1856 (public domain)

Despite mounds of Jewish joke books, few scholars have probed the origins and evolution of the genre since it first appeared in Europe in the early 1800s.

Enter folklorist and joke expert Elliott Oring, author of “The First Book of Jewish Jokes: The Collection of Lippmann Moses Buschenthal.” Published this month, the tome includes 106 “witty notions from Jews” recorded by Buschenthal in 1812, as well as “anecdotes, pranks, and notions of the Children of Israel” compiled by Judas Ascher — a pseudonym — in 1810.

For readers expecting belly laughs, or even just potty humor, “The First Book of Jewish Jokes” will be disappointing.

“The point is to make people aware of what a very early book of Jewish jokes looks like in the hope they might reconsider what they think they know about Jewish jokes,” said Oring in an interview with The Times of Israel. “The book is an effort to begin to put the study of Jewish jokes on a historical footing.”

Although some of Buschenthal’s inclusions can be considered humorous, a good deal of them don’t translate into English with aplomb. Others are riffs on the familiar, “I know you are, but what am I?” genre. None of this matters to Oring, of course, who is interested in unearthing where these anecdotes came from, and not their entertainment value.

Taking a sociologist’s approach, Oring explores jokes told about Jews by other Jews and Gentiles alike. He notes that some of the most prolific purveyors of anti-Jewish stereotypes were “Enlightenment” Jews themselves.

“The deformed character of the Jew in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century was a viewpoint that was not only maintained by haters of Jews,” wrote Oring. “It was accepted by advocates of Jewish emancipation as well as by their opponents. It was also accepted by many Jews, especially enlightened Jews, during this period,” according to the author.

For his analysis of Buschenthal’s book, Oring categorized the jokes and anecdotes by subject, ranging from business and trade to “flogging and execution.” Many of the jokes are self-effacing responses to oppression, including item No. 14:

You Jews are all damned,” said a Christian to a Jew. “Why?” asked the Jew. “Because you crucified our Lord.” “Tell you what,” said the Jews. “When you find ours, crucify him too.”

A man of many talents, Buschenthal was born in Strasbourg, France. After moving to Germany, he made a name for himself as a rabbi and dramatist. He also put forth what might be the first theory of the Jewish joke: that “oppression creates necessity and weakness, which in turn gives rise to cunning — the mother of wit,” wrote Oring.

Author Elliott Oring (IU Folklore & Ethnomusicology)

Despite this “theory’s” resonance with Jewish history, it does not explain what is “Jewish” about Jewish jokes, said Oring.

“That is a central question the book is asking,” Oring told The Times of Israel. “Has anyone really done the comparison of jokes about Jews with those of non-Jews to be able to say with confidence how what are called ‘Jewish jokes’ are different? To date, they have not.”

According to the author, “scholarly and popular study of Jewish jokes has depended largely on collections only complied in the 20th century. Buschenthal’s collection was one that scarcely anyone had looked at. If we want to speak knowledgeably about Jewish jokes, we need to begin to locate and examine early sources,” said Oring.

A former professor at California State University, Los Angeles, Oring is an expert on the “aesthetics” of humor. In addition to examining Israeli humor, he authored a book on the connection between jokes told by Sigmund Freud’s characters and the iconic psychoanalyst’s Jewish identity.

‘Nary a reference to Jews or Jewish practice’

When it comes to anti-Jewish jokes, there is also little known about the origins of the genre.

“There were certainly jokes and stories told about Jews by non-Jews that either made fun of them or cast them as villains; villains that might receive terrible punishments,” Oring told The Times of Israel. “Who created the jokes is still unknown. Whether Jews adopted jokes about themselves first told by Gentiles is yet unknown, but at least one student of the Jewish joke has suggested it.”

Contemporary etching of the Hep-Hep Riot”in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, in fall 1819 by Johann Voltz (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Included in the Buschenthal collection are jokes that could be told about people belonging to any religious or ethnic group. Some of life’s obstacles, after all, do not discriminate:

A baby with six fingers on his right hand was born to a Jew. The father, as well as the mother and the rest of the relatives, was very brokenhearted.

An acquaintance visited the family, and when the mother complained about her bad luck, their Jewish friend responded: “Hey, what’s there to fear? I congratulate you. Your son is a born piano player.”

As Oring told The Times of Israel, “It is not hard to point to jokes about Jewish characters that Jews tell, that are also told by Gentiles with nary a reference to Jews or Jewish practices in them.”

Among the peddlers of anti-Jewish jokes, Oring noted, were “Enlightenment” Jews critical of — for example — their fellow Jews’ money-lending practices. In one example cited by the author, “a lawyer defended Jewish propensities to cheat their Gentile neighbors in business as as act of revenge.”

‘Anecdotes, pranks, and notions’

By calling his work, “The First Book of Jewish Jokes,” Oring intended to provoke readers to look for earlier sources of Jewish jokes, he said.

Although L.M. Buschenthal’s assortment of humorous tidbits came to be known as the first book of Jewish jokes, the lion’s share of Buschenthal’s material was air-lifted from a collection published by Judas Ascher — a pseudonym — in 1810. Oring’s misnomer in the title points to a lack of historical research on Jewish jokes, a gap that Oring hopes will eventually be filled, he told The Times of Israel.

Woodcut of a tavern in the Carpathian Mountains, part of the Katz Ehrenthal Collection of anti-Semitic visual materials of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (courtesy)

Within Ascher’s “anecdotes, pranks, and notions of the Children of Israel” are poems including, “Complaint of a Pigtail-Ribbon Jew,” and “Thoughts of a Jew at Sunset,” where a Jew imagines the sun to be plated with gold. In some anecdotes, the Jews’ alleged lack of heroism is mocked:

“A Turkish sultan ordered a mass call-up [Insurrektion] of Jews in Antioch. Eight thousand should move armed through the forest. They then asked the Sultan for a small escort because of robbers.”

As in Buschenthal’s collection, the Ascher volume was not short on depicting Jewish “cunning,” including this example of “greasing the wheels” at the proverbial town hall:

In a city where a distinguished civil servant had died, through whom the Jews had achieved great advantages, someone said to a Jew, “I am sorry that you all have lost your great benefactor.”

“Well,” said he, “He is bound to have a successor. And if he has no money, we will give him some, and if he has some, we will invest it for him.”

In terms of the need for deeper research into Jewish jokes, Oring would like to see scholars compare “a ‘random’ selection from a large corpus of jokes that are identified as ‘Jewish’ with a similar corpus of jokes told by Gentiles in Europe from approximately the same period,” he said. In this manner, what is of Jewish origin in jokes about Jews can — perhaps — be discerned.

“Certainly,” said Oring, “it is not likely that the gentile jokes will be told about rabbis and mohels, but is there any difference in the nature of the jokes — the stories, the devices — or is it simply a difference in the characters, customs described, and settings, all of which are easily changeable?”

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