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30 Days, 30 Authors: Jeremy Dauber

Monday, December 04, 2017 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! JBC invited an author to share thoughts on #JewLit for each day of Jewish Book Month. Watch, read, enjoy, and discover! 

This week, we are featuring the finalists and winner of the Natan Book Award at Jewish Book Council

Today, Jeremy Dauber, the author of  Jewish Comedy: A Serious History, shares the top ten punchlines to Jewish jokes. 

Jeremy Dauber’s Top 10 Punchlines to Jewish Jokes


Okay, these aren’t necessarily my favorite Jewish jokes. And they’re not even necessarily the funniest Jewish jokes out there, or the ones that are the most illustrative of Jewish humor through the ages. (You’ll find lots more of those in my new book, Jewish Comedy: A Serious History, on sale now.) And even without giving you the whole thing, I’m fairly sure there’ll be someone out there who suggests that I’m telling them wrong. But these are ten goodies, that’s for sure - perfect for every bar or bat mitzvah, and commonly known enough that if you happen not to know a few of them, you can ask a well-meaning grandfather or great-aunt and they’ll be happy to tell them to you.

  • 10. “That’s a nickel fan. With a penny fan, you hold it still and wave your head from side to side.”

  • 9. “Who’s he gonna tell?”

  • 8. “Vell, vot time is it?"

  • 7. “I make a living."

  • 6. “For my health, nothing is too expensive."

  • 5. “Religion? My good man, I am a goy."

  • 4. “As a soldier, he was unknown. But as a furrier, he was famous."

  • 3. “What’s the matter, you didn’t like the other tie?"

  • 2. “Sheldon, enough is enough.”

  • 1. “He had a hat."

2018 Natan Book Award Finalist Jeremy Dauber

Monday, November 13, 2017 | Permalink

Jeremy Dauber is the Atran Professor of Yiddish Language, Literature and Culture at Columbia University. He is the author of several books on Jewish literature, including a biography of Sholem Aleichem that was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. He lives in New York.

Jeremy's book, Jewish Comedy: A Serious History, finalist for the 2018 Natan Book Award at the Jewish Book Council, is a celebrated scholar's rich account of Jewish Humor: its nature, its development, and its vital role throughout Jewish history. It was published in October 2017 by W.W. Norton.

Read more about Jeremy's new book here.

See the full list of Natan Book Award awardees here.

On Jewish Comedy and American Jewish Success

Friday, November 03, 2017 | Permalink

Jeremy Dauber is the author of Jewish Comedy: A Serious History, out this week from W.W. Norton & Company. Earlier this week, he wrote about Jewish comedy as a means of survival, and as a "parable for questions of Jewish modernity." He has been blogging here all week as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Once, the story goes, there was a man who made his way to the United States. Starting from nothing, he worked his way up the food chain to become a titan of industry. He brought all his relatives, including his aged mother, over from the old country and set them up in style, in magnificent apartments. He joined the finest of all country clubs, even those that had, heretofore, been restricted; and he purchased himself a two hundred-foot yacht. He dressed only in white, and insisted that everyone refer to him as the Captain. One morning, he was about to take the boat out, and asked his mother if she would like to join him out on the water, reminding her that, if she came along, she would have to refer to him by his preferred sobriquet.

She looked at him. “Benny,” she said. “By you, you’re a captain. By me, you’re a captain. But let me tell you something. By a captain you’re no captain.”

There are a surprising number of things going on in this brief joke. There’s the incorporation of a kind of Yiddish syntax into American Jewish English, and, simultaneously, the reinforcement of the identification of Yiddish, or Yinglish, with funny. (As a professor of Yiddish and Jewish literature, I have a lot to say about this identification and its problems; as a chronicler of the history of Jewish comedy, I’m just reporting a cultural phenomenon.) And there’s the vexed, difficult image of the Jewish mother, present here as killjoy, that draws on a vexed, problematic comic Jewish archetype in American Jewish comedy. But right now I want to focus on just one aspect of the joke: American Jewish success, and its discontent.

In my last post, I wrote about how Sholem Aleichem prodded at the anxieties that lay under the promise of Jewish emancipation: how there might be something in the Jewish ethos, or character, that might threaten, or even self-sabotage, the possibilities of Jewish success in the modern world. It may be fair to say that there is nowhere in the diaspora that Jews have achieved success the way that they have in the United States. And yet this joke asks—“by a captain you’re no captain”—what exactly that success might mean.

If we nod at the joke, if we find it meaningful, we do so precisely because we recognize some truth, present or past: that others, looking at the image of a Jewish yachtsman, find it incongruous, or oxymoronic. Is that still the case? If it isn’t, why does the joke resonate (if it does)? And if it doesn’t—if American Jewish acculturation has achieved such ground that we are willing to use the phrase “American Jewish sports hero” without pause—then have we entered a new phase of American Jewish comedy, one which is predicated not on difference, or alienation, but something else? And if contemporary Jewish comedy is based on difference and alienation, then what precisely does that difference consist of?

A lot of contemporary comedians—in a road that runs through, among many other sources, Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, the movies of Judd Apatow, and Difficult People—are explicitly or implicitly thinking about this question. Too long to discuss how they do so here (if only there were a book, a recently published one, say, that might treat this at fuller length…hm...), but suffice it to say, for now, that the question is not a new one.

One can even consider one of the first great works of Jewish diaspora living, the Book of Esther, as contemplating the same questions: what does Jewish identity mean, when it can be hidden and revealed, as Esther so famously does? The Book of Esther—which is, among many other things, a great comedy—ends with a triumphant revelation of Jewish identity on Esther’s part. (Well, actually it ends with a new tax, but that’s another story.) But how Esther lives, a queen of a wide-ranging empire and a Jew, that the narrative doesn’t tell us. Whither specific identity, in a world of success?

But this is getting a little too serious for a blog post about Jewish comedy. Let me just end, then, with one last joke, one Milton Berle used to tell, about the Tomb of the Jewish Unknown Soldier. On it is written, HYMAN GOLDFARB, FURRIER. Because as a soldier he was unknown, but as a furrier, he was fantastic.

Thank you all. I’ve been here all week.

Jeremy Dauber is the Atran Professor of Yiddish Language, Literature, and Culture at Columbia University, where he also serves as director of its Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies and teaches in the American Studies program. 

Image via Flickr/Paul Keller

Can You Change Your Fate if You Change Your Hat?

Wednesday, November 01, 2017 | Permalink

Jeremy Dauber is the author of Jewish Comedy: A Serious History, out this week from W.W. Norton & Company. Earlier this week, he told a joke about a rabbi, a monkey, and an anti-Semitic king. He is blogging here all week as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

In my first blog post, I wrote about a talking monkey joke and medieval Jewish history—part of thinking about what it means to write a history of Jewish comedy and, in turn, what Jewish comedy means to Jewish civilization. Not sure if I can top that today, but here’s something about a hat, a train, and the modern Jewish experience, a Jewish joke transformed into a masterful story turned into insightful allegory.

So this Sholem Shachnah, the story goes, was finished doing a deal—a nice piece of business—and he wants to get home to his wife and family in the shtetl for Passover. So he has to catch the train. He gets to the train station in plenty of time and settles down on a bench to catch forty winks, asking someone to wake him when the train comes. Startled out of an uneasy dream, he jolts awake, snatches up his hat, and boards: only to find a remarkable reception waiting for him. Instead of being relegated to third class, the normal milieu for an everyday Jew, he is ushered to a prime seat with bowing, scraping, and cries of “Your Excellency!” Confused, he catches a look at himself in the mirror: and lo and behold—he sees the hat of a Gentile official on his head. He must have grabbed it instead of his own when he woke up. “Oh, no!” he says. “What did that dolt who was supposed to wake me up do? He woke up the gentile official instead of me! I’ll have to go wake myself up now!” And so he leaves the train to wake himself up, and misses the train, and the opportunity to spend Passover with his family.

As I’ve retold it here, with infinitely less panache and sophistication than it appears in its much more famous literary form, it’s not a very clever joke. More of a rehearsal of idiocy so staggering that it beggars belief: Who looks in a mirror and doesn’t recognize himself, even if he’s wearing a strange hat? But in the hands of the master of modern Jewish comedy, Sholem Aleichem, the story—which was, indeed, based on an old joke the author had heard—becomes a parable for the essential questions of Jewish modernity.

Boiled down to haberdashery, the question of Jews’ entrance into the modern world could be put something like this: can you change your fate if you change your hat? A number of polemicists and advocates for Jewish emancipation, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, suggested that Jewish acceptance would be predicated on the transformation of Jewish social and cultural habits. Dress like everyone around you, the idea went. Don’t be so different. And at that point, you’ll be welcomed with open arms. Now, the history of the twentieth century seems to have been a strong and sobering rejoinder to that proposition—Nazis and pogromists didn’t much care about whether the Jews they murdered had ritual garments on or not—but Sholem Aleichem, that brilliant and insightful examiner of the Jewish condition, wanted to explore another tack.

And it’s one that, like much of the greatest comedy, is disturbing in its implications. Because in the story the change of hat works. Or, more precisely, it should work: it does from the Gentile side. If Sholem Shachnah had just rolled with it, he would have been able to travel home in style. No one would have stopped him. But there’s something within Sholem Shachnah himself that prevents it—something so deep-rooted that he would rather believe that the image he sees in the mirror is not himself than believe that he could be wearing such a hat, accepted in the luxury car, getting home on time, achieving his dreams. And what does that say about him? About the modernizing Jew?

Sholem Aleichem doesn’t say. Sometimes the best comedy only suggests; it doesn’t prescribe. But it’s as provocative as any work in the Jewish literary, and comic, canon.

In my final blog post, I’ll tell one last joke about a different kind of vehicle (this a shout-out to my two boys, who at five and two are obsessed with things that go), and what it says about the American Jewish experience.

Jeremy Dauber is the Atran Professor of Yiddish Language, Literature, and Culture at Columbia University, where he also serves as director of its Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies and teaches in the American Studies program. 

Jewish Comedy as a Means of Survival

Monday, October 30, 2017 | Permalink

Jeremy Dauber is the author of Jewish Comedy: A Serious History, out this week from W.W. Norton & Company. He is blogging here all week as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Writing a history of Jewish comedy, trying to cover everything—or at least a representative sample of everything—from the Bible to Twitter, was a daunting, though admittedly fun, task. One of the questions I got asked most frequently when I told people what I was working on was, “What is Jewish humor, anyway?” Or, put another way, “What makes comedy Jewish comedy?”

Luckily, now I have a pretty easy answer to that question—“I wrote a book giving my best answer; feel free to purchase on Amazon or at local stores”—but over this week, as a Visiting Scribe™ for the Prosen People, I wanted to try to give three different perspectives on that question. And I wanted to do it through looking at three Jewish jokes: jokes that I find deeply, almost ineffably, Jewish, even though their origins may come from elsewhere, or they could be easily told in other contexts. 

So here goes, with joke number one. It’s set in medieval times.

An anti-Semitic king threatens the Jews in his kingdom with persecution and expulsion. The Jewish community sends their leader, a rabbi renowned for his wisdom, to meet with the king and plead their case. The rabbi, accompanied by the kingdom’s leading citizens, stands before the king, seated on his majestic throne, and says to him, after a moment’s thought, “Your Highness, I can’t help but notice the magnificent monkey perched next to you.”

 The king, puzzled, but somewhat bemused, nods.

“I assume it talks,” the rabbi continued.

The king’s brow clouds. “Are you attempting to mock me, Jew? Of course it does not talk. Monkeys do not talk.”

“I beg to differ, Your Highness. Many of them do not, but they can. If they have the right teacher.” And the rabbi bowed, slightly.

The king stared. “Do you mean to tell me that you, a simple rabbi, can accomplish a feat beyond the imaginings of the wisest of my councilors?”

The rabbi shrugged, modestly. “All I ask is the chance to please Your Majesty—and, of course, to help my people.”

The king considered. “All right,” he said, at last. “Let us make an arrangement. If you can teach the monkey to speak, your community will be welcome in my kingdom for as long as my reign shall last. If you cannot, however, not only will you be banished, but your property will be forfeit as well.”

The rabbi bowed, accepting the terms. “However, there is one minor matter,” he said. “It is hardly feasible to accomplish something this noteworthy immediately. It usually takes me approximately five years.”

“Very well, very well,” the king grumbled. “We shall meet, in this room, five years from today. And for your sake—and for your people’s—I hope to see results.”

The rabbi bowed once more, and left the room. His fellow sages and communal leaders turned to him. “Have you gone mad? You know very well you’ve promised something impossible!”

The rabbi turned to them and smiled. “I know. But a lot can happen in five years. The king could die. The monkey could die. And who knows? Maybe it’ll even learn to talk.”

This joke, I think, has a lot to say about Jewish life in—and experience of—the diaspora over the centuries. Constantly fraught, balanced on a knife’s edge, with the possibility of sudden persecution brought on by feckless or irrational leaders always hovering in the air. What options are there? In a traditional mindset that hopes for and expects the end to come with the miraculous sound of a messianic ram’s horn, maybe the allegorical prospect of a talking monkey seems like an act of faith, of trust in God’s providence. But for those who believe that the Redemption may not come any time soon—or fear, at least, that it won’t come soon enough—then the first part of the punchline resonates strongly, too. The Jews wait, and, in waiting, live and survive. By their wits, as it turns out; the one advantage they have in their disempowered state. The rabbi has bought his people five years, when previously they faced immediate calamity, and there’s nothing funny about that.

Does this speak to the modern Jewish condition as well as the medieval? What might Jewish comedy have to offer the Jew faced with the prospect of emancipation, acculturation, even acceptance? Tune in next time for our second joke—wrapped inside one of the greatest Jewish stories of all time—and find out.

Jeremy Dauber is the Atran Professor of Yiddish Language, Literature, and Culture at Columbia University, where he also serves as director of its Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies and teaches in the American Studies program. 

30 Days, 30 Authors: Jeremy Dauber

Wednesday, November 18, 2015 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! In honor of the 90th anniversary of Fanny Goldstein's tribute to Jewish books in the West End's branch of the Boston Public Library, Jewish Book Council invited 30 leading authors, one for each day of the month, to answer a few questions.

Jeremy Dauber is the Atran Professor of Yiddish Language, Literature and Culture at Columbia University where he directs the Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies. His most recent book, The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem: The Remarkable Life and Afterlife of the Man Who Created Tevye (Schocken Books, 2013) was a National Jewish Book Award finalist and received an honorable mention from American Library Association’s Sophie Brody Award. He is currently working on a history of Jewish comedy, to be published by W.W. Norton & Co. in 2017. 


If You Read Just Ten Stories by Sholem Aleichem...

Thursday, October 10, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Jeremy Dauber wrote about touring with his recently published biography, The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem (Schocken Books/Nextbook Press). Want to win a copy? Click here. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Everyone likes lists, right? Who doesn’t like lists? Okay, fine, you in the back, maybe. But I like lists. And Buzzfeed seems to be doing pretty well by them. So in that spirit, I’ve decided to provide, as a public service, a list of ten of the top stories Sholem Aleichem ever wrote.

The one problem is that picking ten stories out of the dazzling range of works by this remarkably talented and hugely prolific writer is bound to create discord and disagreement among the Sholem Aleichem cognoscenti. Sure, over a thirty-plus year period of writing you’re bound to come up with some dogs – and Sholem Aleichem’s pace, born of (at various points) financial necessity, ideological enthusiasm, youthful exuberance, or family and personal stress, didn’t render him immune to the more-than-every-once-in-a-while bow-wow – but there are so many fantastic stories, so many tales you envy someone a first reading, that it’s hard to know where to begin. But here are ten corkers, anyway.

1. “Chava.” The finest of the Tevye stories, which are the finest stories of Sholem Aleichem’s whole oeuvre.

2. “The Enchanted Tailor.” It’s not a folk tale; it’s not a ghost story; but it’s not not those things, either.

3. “On Account of a Hat.” See the previous blog post.

4. “Londons.” Our first encounter with Menakhem-Mendl, the notoriously optimistic (and inexpert) businessman, and one of Sholem Aleichem’s most famous creations. His wife Sheyne-Sheyndl has equally good lines, if not better.

5. “The Man from Buenos Aires.” A nasty little encounter on a railroad with a man who is not who he seems to be…or maybe he is.

6. “Dreyfus in Kasrilevke.” How do Jews talk politics? This is one way.

7. From the Fair. Sholem Aleichem never completed his autobiography; but what we do have is a now-largely hidden treasure (which is, not entirely coincidentally, a leading motif in lots of his works, including this one).

8. “The Guest.” A holiday story and a story about children – two of Sholem Aleichem’s specialties – wrapped in one. A third specialty: the twist ending.

9. “A Tale of A Thousand and One Nights.” Set not in some fantasy land, but in Jewish Eastern Europe in the throes of World War I, the tales of survival the story’s Scheherazade relates chill to the bone.

10. “Haman and Mordechai.” A bizarre little effort about what happens when the two Biblical characters – the real ones – appear in Yiddishland.

All of these, except the last, are available in translation. Happy reading!

Jeremy Dauber is a professor of Yiddish literature at Columbia University, where he also serves as director of its Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies and teaches in the American Studies program. His newest book, The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem (Schocken Books/Nexbook Press), is now available. Win a copy here.

Jeremy Dauber On Touring with Sholem Aleichem

Tuesday, October 08, 2013 | Permalink
Jeremy Dauber is a professor of Yiddish literature at Columbia University, where he also serves as director of its Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies and teaches in the American Studies program. His newest book, The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem (Schocken Books/Nexbook Press), is now available. Win a copy here. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

So my biography of Sholem Aleichem – the great Jewish writer, perhaps the greatest in modern Jewish history, the man who created Tevye, the person who can lay as good a claim as any to inventing modern Jewish humor – comes out today, and, as you can imagine, I’m pretty happy about the whole thing. Schocken, Nextbook Press, and Random House produced a beautiful volume; the reviews so far have been very kind; I got mentioned in a Huffington Post listicle; and thanks to the JBC Network, I get to go to a whole bunch of places and talk to people about how the man’s life was just as remarkable, in its own way, as his remarkable work. I leave for DC tomorrow; and Baltimore, Charleston, Philadelphia, Detroit, Houston, Miami, and others aren’t far behind.

So naturally my thoughts are turning to Sholem Aleichem’s experiences on tour: since he was, at different times in the course of his career, a prodigious traveler, heading from city to city to give readings to make money to support his family. (Why was such an enormously popular author, a massive seller, in such financial straits? It’s a long story; the answer’s in the book. But he was.) It was the age of the railroad, and Sholem Aleichem became deeply familiar with the train routes that criss-crossed Eastern Europe – although he had his share of mishaps, which included getting lost, oversleeping, and confusing himself for a high-ranking non-Jewish official with whom he had exchanged hats.

Okay, that last one didn’t happen to him; it was a fate that befell one of his characters, the protagonist of “On Account of a Hat,” one of Sholem Aleichem’s finest stories. It’s a brilliant tale, born of an old joke and transformed, through authorial artistry, into a meditation on the underlying uncertainties of modern Jewish life. For the purposes of this post, it’s enough to say that it’s not the only time, or place, where travel becomes an inspiration for Sholem Aleichem’s literary artistry. In his series of “Railroad Stories,” the most exciting thing about the train is that it’s a source of narrative inspiration. Travel is where you meet your next stories, where you find your inspirations.

And so I’m excited to get on the road; who knows what I’ll learn.

I just hope I don’t oversleep.

Check back on Thursday for Jeremy Dauber's next post for the Visiting Scribe.