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.