The First Book of Jewish Jokes
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The First Book of Jewish Jokes

The Collection of L. M. Büschenthal

Anastasiya Astapova,Tsafi Sebba-Elran,Elliott Oring,Dan Ben-Amos,Larisa Privalskaya, Elliott Oring, Michaela Lang

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eBook - ePub

The First Book of Jewish Jokes

The Collection of L. M. Büschenthal

Anastasiya Astapova,Tsafi Sebba-Elran,Elliott Oring,Dan Ben-Amos,Larisa Privalskaya, Elliott Oring, Michaela Lang

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Works on Jewish humor and Jewish jokes abound today, but what formed the basis for our contemporary notions of Jewish jokes? How and when did these perceptions develop? In this groundbreaking study and translation, noted humor and folklore scholar Elliott Oring introduces us to the joke collections of Lippmann Moses Büschenthal, an enlightened rabbi, and an unknown author writing as "Judas Ascher." Originally published in German in 1812 and 1810, these books include jokes and anecdotes that play on stereotypes. The jokes depict Jews dealing with Gentiles who are bent on their conversion, Jews encountering government officials and institutions, newly propertied Jews attempting to demonstrate their acquisition of artistic and philosophical knowledge, and Jews engaged in trade and moneylending—often with the aim to defraud. In these jokes we see the antecedents of modern Jewish humor, and in Büschenthal's brief introduction we find perhaps the earliest theory of the Jewish joke. Oring provides helpful annotations for the jokes and contextualizing essays that examine the current state of Jewish joke scholarship and the situation of the Jews in France and Germany leading up to the periods when the two collections were published. Intended to stimulate the search for even earlier examples, Oring challenges us to confront the Jewish joke from a genuine historical perspective.

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Part I
On Jewish Jokes and the Collection of Lippmann Moses Büschenthal
A “JEWISH JOKE” is not a social fact, something out there in the world, but rather a constructed category. It is the construction that constitutes the social fact. Not every joke told about Jews would be considered a Jewish joke. A hostile anecdote about Jews told by Gentiles would be regarded as a piece of anti-Semitism and not a Jewish joke (Freud 1960, 111; also Ausubel 1948, 265). Conversely, a joke told by Jews about the number of lawyers or psychologists it takes to screw in a lightbulb would likely be regarded as an instance of joke telling with nothing particularly Jewish about it. Much, it would seem, depends on the nature of the jokes themselves and an assessment of the motivations of the tellers.
I would date the beginnings of the serious discussion of the Jewish joke to Freud’s book Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, first published in Vienna in 1905. Freud employed a substantial number of Jewish examples in his analysis of joke construction and joke purposes (1960, 16–116).1 More importantly, Freud made a comment on an aspect of Jewish jokes that has stuck in the imagination of subsequent joke scholars and commentators:
A particularly favourable occasion for tendentious jokes is presented when the intended rebellious criticism is directed against the subject himself, or to put it more cautiously, against someone in whom the subject has a share—a collective person, that is (the subject’s own nation for instance). The occurrence of self-criticism as a determinant may explain how it is that a number of the most apt jokes . . . have grown up on the soil of Jewish popular life. They are stories created by Jews and are directed against Jewish characteristics. . . . Incidentally, I do not know whether there are many other instances of a people making fun to such a degree of its own character. (1960, 111–12)
Opinions had been expressed on Jewish humor prior to Freud. Hermann Adler, chief rabbi of London, published an essay on Jewish humor in 1893 and had even noted its self-critical aspects (468). But Adler’s concern was to defend the Jewish people against charges of humorlessness made by Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881) and Ernest Renan (1823–1892) rather than to define or characterize the nature of Jewish jokes or to analyze Jewish humor per se. Set within the framework of his psychoanalytic psychology, Freud established the discussion of Jewish jokes on an entirely new footing. Jewish jokes emerged as potentially significant social and psychological phenomena. Freud’s disciples would eventually distill Freud’s casual observation about the self-critical tendencies of the Jewish joke into a thesis of Jewish masochism (Bergler 1956, 111; Reik 1962, 220–221; Grotjahn 1966, 22–23).2 Since then, few commentators have been able to avoid depicting Jewish jokes as self-mocking, self-deprecating, and even self-hating (e.g., Revel 1943, 547; Simon 1948, 46; Ausubel 1948, 265; Mikes 1971, 102–104; Bermant 1986, 242–243; Schwarzbaum 1968, 26; Telushkin 1992, 77–82; Eilbirt 1993, 141–148; Wisse 2013, 7–11, 34, 106; but see Oring 1992, 122–134; Davies 2002, 17–49).
After Freud, the discussion of the Jewish joke became sustained and serious. A substantial literature developed. Efforts were made to characterize the Jewish joke and identify its distinctiveness. Jewish jokes were said not merely to employ Jewish characters, settings, and practices but also to express Jewish sensibilities (Telushkin 1992, 16). They are jokes without which, it was claimed, Jewish culture could not be understood (Nador 1975, 3). “In nothing is Jewish psychology so vividly revealed as in Jewish jokes” (Rosten 1970, xxiii).
Typically, the label Jewish joke is used to refer to a class of jokes believed to have arisen in the Jewish communities of Europe—particularly eastern Europe—and to express something fundamental about the nature and character of those communities (Revel 1943, 546; Cray 1964, 344; Golden 1972, 13; Nador 1975, 3; Davies 1986, 76; Nevo and Levine 1994, 16; Ziv 1986, 11; Fischman 2011, 48; Telushkin 1992, 16). It was the product of the Yiddish language—its intonations, syntax, and style—and the realities of life in the Pale of Settlement. It was a form of expression “born in the Empire of the Czars” (Mikes 1971, 102). In other words, Jewish jokes are considered to be exceptional and distinguishable from the jokes and anecdotes of the Lithuanians, Belarusians, Russians, Ukrainians, and Poles among whom the Jews lived. The jokes of the Sephardim and the Jewish communities of the Middle East, however, were not considered part and parcel of the Jewish joke repertoire. They were excluded because they had not been regarded as substantially different from those found in the Arab, Turkish, or Persian societies in which Jews were submerged (Ben-Amos 1991, 36; Wisse 2013, 20). So while the jokes of Jews in North Africa and the Middle East were held—rightly or wrongly—to be part and parcel of North African and Middle Eastern oral literary culture, the jokes of the Jews of Europe were regarded as a fundamentally different and distinguishable kind of expression. Even jokes from Israel were excluded from the Jewish joke category unless they derived from eastern European sources (e.g., Druyanow 1963). Israeli jokes, and Israeli humor more generally, were apprehended as different and largely ignored. Some commentators did not regard Israel as an apt environment for the production of humor or Israelis as being a funny people (Landmann 1962, 198; Mikes 1971, 114; Bermant 1986, 152; Telsuhkin 1992, 173; Wisse 2013, 30–35; but see Oring 1981).
Although the Jewish joke has been attributed to the communities of eastern Europe, there is also a sense among scholars that the Jewish joke sprang from a more ancient tradition. Something of a cottage industry has developed that is devoted to identifying instances of humor in the Bible, Talmud, and rabbinic literature. For some scholars, these endeavors are merely meant to demonstrate that Jews produced and consumed humor throughout their history as a people. In the nineteenth century, it was claimed that the Jews lacked humor, and as has been noted, some of the efforts to uncover humor in early Jewish sources were designed to challenge this characterization (Adler 1893; Chotzner 1905; Isaacs 1911; Radday and Brenner 1990). For others, however, the claim—explicit or implied—is that the contemporary Jewish joke and Jewish humor evolved from this much older tradition (Bermant 1986, 4; Ilan 2009; Brodsky 2011, 25; Wisse 2013, 22; Friedman and Friedman 2014). While there are certainly instances of humor among ancient and early and late medieval Jews—as there are among most peoples both ancient and modern—the identification of jokes or humorous expressions in ancient sources is not a straightforward affair. Some of the proposed identifications seem tenuous and unconvincing (Oring 2015). Absent a report of laughter or smiling in response to a purportedly humorous expression, the claim that a piece of ancient text is humorous is a perilous enterprise.3 Furthermore, what are called “Jewish jokes” today seem worlds away from most of the expressions that are claimed to be humorous in the Bible, Talmud, and rabbinic literature. They seem far more similar in structure and style to jokes found in European cultures generally. Nevertheless, if a claim is made for the distinctiveness of the Jewish joke in relation to the oral humorous literature of Europe, it makes sense that some scholars might seek an explanation for that distinctiveness by situating it in a culture and tradition with roots in a non-European past.
The Jewish joke is said to be distinctive in ways other than the self-criticism identified by Freud. One claim is that Jewish jokes were of superior quality. Jews were held to be particularly astute in joke making, and their jokes were “more acute, more profound, and richer in expression” than the jokes of other peoples (Landmann 1962, 194; Mikes 1971, 111; Alexander Moszkowski quoted in Revel 1943, 545). Jews were said to have a “pre-eminence” in the field of humor production (Bermant 1986, 4). Aesthetic appreciation, however, invokes vague standards of evaluation. What, after all, constitutes a “more acute,” “more profound,” or “richer” expression? Absent specific, well-defined criteria, the assessment is likely to be entirely subjective. Furthermore, people, times, and tastes change. What might be considered profound in one generation may seem utterly conventional or even jejune in the next, assuming it can be understood at all.
Jewish jokes were also said to operate according to a peculiar logic—a logic that descends from or parodies the style and methods of Talmudic study and interpretation. Jewish jokes have been characterized as having a “crazy logic” or a “logical rigor gone over the edge” (Cohen 1999, 45–68). A variety of commentators have noted a tendency in the Jewish joke to engage in impossible argument, elaborate reasoning, and hair splitting (Untermeyer 1946, 521–526; Simon 1948, 43–45; Reik 1962, 114–116; Altman 1971, 141; Nador 1975, 5; Bermant 1986, 240–241; Davies 1986, 76; Raskin 1992, 30–32; Telsuhkin 1992, 41–61; Shloyme Bastomski in Gottesman 2003, 88; Druyanow in Bar-Itzhak 2010, 130, 132; Finkin 2011, 91–94).
Perhaps the last great distinction of the Jewish joke has nothing to do with the structure or content of jokes per se. It rather has to do with the fact of joking itself. Given the history of the Jewish people and their unceasing persecution, the Jews should really have had no reason to joke at all (Richman 1952, 4; Richman 1954, xi; Learsi 1961, 12–13; Skikne 2009, 44). The fact that they did and do joke would suggest either that they possess some special inner resource—some irrepressible spirit that the jokes express—or that the jokes have some compensatory function to perform that would be absent in groups whose joking was cultivated under happier conditions. One view is that the jokes are directed against their oppressors and are defensive or even retaliatory (Adler 1893, 458; Revel 1943, 545; Simon 1948, 46; Druyanow 1963: 1, ix; Schwarzbaum 1968, 23; Davies 2002, 17–49; Druyanow in Bar-Itzhak 2010, 136). Another view is that the jokes are a triumph of the spirit under impossible conditions (“Review” 1876, 81–82; Adler 1893, 458; Davidson 1907, xix; Rohatyn 1911, 11; Ausubel 1948, xx; Richman 1952, 4; Richman 1954, xiv; Ausubel 1967, 22; Schwarzbaum 1968, 23; Rosten 1970, xxiii; Mikes 1971, 104; Samuel 1971, 210–211; Niger 1972, 43; Novak and Waldoks 1981, xiii; Ziv 1986, 11; Alter 1987, 25; Druyanow in Bar-Itzhak 2010, 134).4 This notion is often voiced in the phrase “laughter through tears,” which supposedly marks the Jews as singular in the spectrum of joking nations.
Unfortunately, none of these descriptions have been established through sustained, methodical research. No one has done the comparative work to determine whether what are called “Jewish jokes” are, in fact, distinctive beyond their use of Jewish characters, locales, observances, and behaviors and the fact that Jews—although not exclusively Jews—tell and enjoy them (see Nevo 1991). Scholars are aware that Jewish jokes and stories have older non-Jewish analogues and sources, but the relationships are invariably established in terms of individual texts rather than on the basis of bodies of material (Richman 1952, 4–11; Schwarzbaum 1968, 27–36; Raskin 1992). It is difficult to know whether Jewish joking is more self-critical than the joking of other groups because the principle is evidenced casually and anecdotally through the use of a small set of joke examples (but see Davies 2002, 17–75). The same can be said for the idea that Jewish jokes habitually present a logic different from the jokes of other peoples. There are a few jokes that are regularly trotted out to evidence this proposition as well, but systematic comparisons have yet to be done. Also, there is little information on humor and joking in oppressed populations, so it is difficult to ascertain whether “laughter through tears” is a distinctly Jewish kind of expression.
It is possible that the descriptions that have been offered are accurate and can actually serve to characterize the large body of jokes that have been called “Jewish.” It seems a doubtful proposition, but it is possible. What is more certain is that at present there exists more of a mythology of the Jewish joke than a sober and substantive representation of it. A mythology may sometimes prove to be true, but it would be foolish to simply accept such truth on faith.
My definition of the Jewish joke lies elsewhere. Whether the jokes of Jews are literary formations peculiar to the Jewish people or not, the key question is how did the genre of the joke become attached to Jews in the first place? When and where did this happen? And why did Jews adopt the joke genre as a symbol of their nationhood? When did “The People of the Book” become “The People of the Joke”? My definition of the “Jewish joke” is any joke that has been “conceptualized as uniquely, distinctly, or characteristically reflective of, evocative of, or conditioned by the Jewish people and their circumstance” (Oring 1983, 262; 1992, 114–15). Whether such conceptualizations are accurate is beside the point. The definition of “Jewish joke” lies in the act of ascription of the label and not in the joke itself. Jewish jokes, then, are not old jokes about Jewish characters or old Jews telling jokes, but the idea that certain jokes, joke qualities, and even joke-performance styles are regarded as distinctly Jewish. With this definition, the whole question of the Jewish joke becomes a sociological and historical rather than a literary question.
Consequently, whatever jokes were to be found in the Bible, Talmud, or Midrash were not Jewish jokes. As far as is known, this humor was never regarded by the writers and compilers of these texts as anything more than jokes and witticisms. They were not considered typically Jewish. They were not considered representations of Jewish character or signs of peoplehood. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, such jokes were excavated from these age-old texts to evidence an ancient connection between jokes and the Jewish people. In that act of excavation, in that effort to construct a history or pseudo-history of Jewish humor, those jokes—if they actually were jokes—became Jewish jokes.
When and where did the connection between Jews and jokes come into being? When and where did the jokes of Jews become “Jewish jokes”? There seem to be no collections of jokes about Jewish characters in typical Jewish circumstances compiled by Jews that go back to the Middle Ages. Undoubtedly, the rabbis would have condemned such collections as frivolous and betul torah (a neglect of Torah study)—a serious transgression—yet such joke collections exist for the Arab and Persian Middle Ages (Omar 2004, 1:319–22), and Muslim religious authorities would unlikely have been any more favorably disposed toward frivolity, irreverence, and misspent time than the early rabbis (Schwarzbaum 1968, 20).5 From a historical standpoint at least, it might seem to be the Persians and Arabs who might claim a privileged connection to jokes and joking rather than the Jews.
The earliest dates for collections of jokes about Jews in Yiddish are generally later than Sigmund Freud’s 1905 Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. There is a Yiddish book of jokes that was published in Vilna in 1823, Hundert un eyni anekdotin (One hundred and one anecdotes).6 This is a very early date. The book is in Martynas Mažvydas National Library in Vilnius but is not widely available. The blurb on a digital copy of the title page of the book notes, however, that “most of the anecdotes are translations from French and Polish into easy to understand Yiddish” (YIVO Vilna). Two sample jokes appear on the web page. One concerns a Turk who finds himself in Poland in wintertime. When he tries to pick up a stone from the street to throw at an angry dog, he finds it frozen and curses the Poles for forging their stones into the ground. There is a version of this joke about a Frenchman in Russia (Teitelbaum 1945, 322; Spalding 1969, 4). The story can be found in John Taylor’s Wit and Mirth printed in London in 1628 and goes back at least as far as 1258 in Sa’di Shirazi’s Gulistan (Clouston 1888, 78–79 Sa’di 1258). The other joke is about an exchange of fire between British and French cannoneers at the Battle of Minorca (one of the Balearic Islands off the east coast of Spain) in 1756 (YIVO Vilna). This book of jokes would not seem to be a book of jokes by or about Jews but a more general book of jokes that was translated into Yiddish. The dates of books of jokes in Yiddish about Jews and characterized as “Jewish” seem to be of a much ...


  1. Cover
  2. Title Page
  3. Copyright
  4. Contents
  5. Foreword
  6. Acknowledgments
  7. Part I: Introduction
  8. Part II: The Texts
  9. Appendix I: Büschenthal Texts Taken from Judas Ascher, Der Judenfreund
  10. Appendix II: Sources of Joke Analogues
  11. References
  12. Index
  13. About the Author
Estilos de citas para The First Book of Jewish Jokes

APA 6 Citation

Astapova, A., Sebba-Elran, T., Oring, E., Ben-Amos, D., & Privalskaya, L. (2018). The First Book of Jewish Jokes ([edition unavailable]). Indiana University Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2018)

Chicago Citation

Astapova, Anastasiya, Tsafi Sebba-Elran, Elliott Oring, Dan Ben-Amos, and Larisa Privalskaya. (2018) 2018. The First Book of Jewish Jokes. [Edition unavailable]. Indiana University Press.

Harvard Citation

Astapova, A. et al. (2018) The First Book of Jewish Jokes. [edition unavailable]. Indiana University Press. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Astapova, Anastasiya et al. The First Book of Jewish Jokes. [edition unavailable]. Indiana University Press, 2018. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.