Berkeley Prof Pinpoints Exact Birthdate of Jewish Humor

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
March 3 2011 12:06 PM

Berkeley Prof Pinpoints Exact Birthdate of Jewish Humor

Where does Jewish humor come from? Is it genetic or somekind of cultural adaptation to thousands of years of suffering?

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Actually, it comes from Vilna , circa 1661.

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According to UC Berkeley professor Mel Gordon, Jewish humor'sdistinctive blend of wisecracking and self-deprecation has a very specific,very unfunny source: The Chmielnicki massacres of the 17 th century, in which nearly 100,000 Jews were massacred acrossUkraine within three years.

In today's Jerusalem Post , Gordon describes toSue Fishkoff how, in the wake of that carnage and its resulting famines,a council of leading rabbis from Poland and Ukraine concluded that God must bepunishing the Jews. To get themselves on the right side of the Lord, theydecided to outlaw all things funny and indulgent. Before that period, therewere "at least 10 different stock comic types in shtetl life," Fishkoff notes.Some were jugglers, some were singers. These performers were all banned but one,the badkhn, was allowed to keep practicing. A kind of "cruel court jester," thebadkhn was a "staple in East European Jewish life for three centuries":

His humor was biting, even vicious.He would tell a bride she was ugly, make jokes about the groom's dead motherand round things off by belittling the guests for giving such worthless gifts.Much of the badkhn's humor was grotesque, even scatological.

The elders decided that the badkhn didn't exactly encouragemerrymaking, so he alone survived the prohibition ensuring that Jewish humorwould forever be stamped with his characteristically dark sarcasm.

Contemporary comedians like Sarah Silverman owe a lot to thecenturies-old badkhn sensibility, Gordon argues.

"They would talk about droopingbreasts, big butts, small penises," Gordon said. "We know a lot about thembecause they were always suing each other about who could tell which fart jokeon which side of Grodno."

Photograph of Sarah Silverman courtesy of Craig Barritt/Getty Images.

 

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Nina Shen Rastogi is a writer and editor, and is also the vice president for content at Figment.

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