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. 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 City.