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 a professor of Jewish literature and American studies at Columbia University. His books include Jewish Comedy and The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem, both finalists for the National Jewish Book Award, and, most recently, American Comics: A History. He lives in New York City.