Viennese Jewish humor is the best medicine

With a new book on the subject, Marcus Patka gets serious about jokes.

patka 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
patka 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
Marcus Patka is living proof that you don’t have to be one of the Tribe to appreciate a good Jewish joke, as evidenced by his recently published tome Passages of Laughter, Jewish Wit and Humor from Vienna (Wege des Lachens: Jüdischer Witz und Humor aus Wien) from the Weitra, Austria-based Bibliothek der Provinz publishing house.
There’s more to the 45-year-old Patka’s Jewish connections. When he’s not writing about Jewish funnies, he works as a curator at the Jewish Museum in Vienna.
So what drew him to the Jews? Patka recounted that story when we met a while ago at the Austrian Hospice in Jerusalem’s Old City, and and he tells it again more recently at a comfortable watering hole in Vienna’s 9th district.
“I studied German literature and contemporary history, and I have been a curator at the Jewish Museum for about 14 years,” he says. “There are three points I should make in this regard. Through my German literature studies, I realized that a very high percentage of the literature of quality [in German] was written by authors of Jewish origin.”
Politics and, more precisely, scandal, also acted as a catalyst.
“When I was about 20,” he says, “there was the Waldheim affair,” in which evidence came to light that former UN secretary- general Kurt Waldheim, who was campaigning to be president of Austria in the mid-’80s, had been economical with the truth when claiming he knew nothing about Nazi war crimes while he was in the German army during World War II.
Waldheim became persona non grata in the United States and several other countries, and Austria’s international standing hit an all-time nadir.
“I realized, then, that something was wrong in Austria,” continues Patka.
The third spark for his heightened interest in all things Jewish was of a more personal nature.
“A friend of mine from university wanted to marry an Israeli guy, and both sets of parents opposed the marriage, so they came to Israel for the wedding and to live.
I was their best man, so at the age of 21, I came to Israel, and it was fascinating for me to be here, and I started reading about the Middle East conflict.”
In fact, his first encounter with Judaism happened when he was small.
“When I was a child, eight or nine, my parents had a record by Georg Kreisler, and I wanted to learn something about him,” he recalls. Kreisler was a Jewish Vienna-born cabaret artist, satirist, composer and author who fled to the States in 1938, at the age of 16. He was particularly popular in the 1950s and ’60s.
“The record was called Non-Aryan Arias and was published in 1962. He sang in a style that comes from a time before [World War II],” Patka continues. “He has this little Yiddish tone in his voice, and he is authentic. Most of the singers who came after the war, it’s not authentic, especially if the singers are not Jewish. It became something of a fashion to bring this music, like klezmer music, back to life. If you don’t have it in your blood, it can become very tricky.”
Does the same go for writing a book about Jewish humor? “No, I don’t think so,” he says. “These guys were artists, and I am a scholar. It’s not the same thing. Also, if you are a scholar, that can sometimes allow you to look in from the outside, and may give you a more objective image on what you’re working on.”
Even so, presumably, listening to a record by a Jewish satirist and having visited Israel would not be enough to get Patka a position at the Jewish Museum in Vienna.
“I also wrote a big dissertation about [Czechoslovak writer and journalist] Egon Erwin Kisch, who was Jewish and also a communist,” he explains. “He was in exile and very much opposed to the Nazi regime.”
All these years later, Patka has decided to explore the humorous side of his hometown’s Jewish history.
“I was interested in the topic and I wanted to write something that would be widely read,” he admits, adding, however, that getting a handle on such an ephemeral subject proved to be a challenge.
“It was very difficult, because how can you write a scholarly book on something that is like a bubble which can burst at any moment, like a joke or humor?” But at the end of the day, humor is about arousing an emotional response, he says.
“The basic thing of humor is about laughing and crying, which are very closely connected,” he notes. “They are the most extreme form of our feelings, and there are so many different ways of laughing. You can laugh at someone, you can laugh about someone. You can pull someone up by giving them a friendly smile, and you can pull them down by smiling at them in a shabby way and trying to make them feel small. If you want to kill someone completely, you make a joke about them.”
That can have political import, too: “Dictatorships are always afraid of laughing, because laughing means critical thinking.”
PATKA’S BOOK takes a close look at the emotions that evoke humor in general, and Jewish humor, and the emotions that can be expressed through it.
“Many times we laugh instead of crying,” he says.
“Laughing can show so many different feelings. When we feel insecure we laugh, and sometimes when we’re angry we cry, and sometimes when you’re extremely happy you can have tears in your eyes. Laughing and crying, being so similar, are a very important part of Jewish humor, because of the suffering. You cannot cry about your fate the whole time – it’s better to make a joke about it. Laughing is the simplest and cheapest drug you can get.”
The medium of language – a specific language – is also an important vehicle for expressing humor.
“Jewish humor only started with Yiddish,” says Patka.
“The Sephardi [Jews] in Spain were not funny at all because they were orientated to the Spanish people, and they were very stiff.”
His research for the book also led him to the realization that self-deprecation is central to Jewish humor. “It is always self-critical, but it is warm and not offensive.
It can be impolite, for sure, it can very often be against women, but it is warm-hearted.”
The source of the fun-poking is important as well. “It is a very different matter if it is a non-Jew who makes a joke about a Jew, or a Jew who makes the joke.”
In addition, there’s the matter of nationality. “Germans and Austrians laugh about very different things, and it’s the same with jokes by Jewish Israelis and jokes by American Jews.... It is completely different humor, even though they are all Jewish.”
One of the more complex areas the author investigates in his book is the subtleties of colloquial humor.
“Jargon jokes are a very tricky thing,” he explains.
“They were spoken in a sort of pidgin German, by merchants who came from Eastern Europe to the Germanspeaking world, and it was a sort of mixture of Yiddish and German.”
Passages of Laughter, Jewish Wit and Humor from Vienna also touches on the Holocaust.
“There was humor during the Shoah, too,” says Patka, “of course, as a kind of escape from the horrors of the time.”
Passages will also form the basis for an exhibition on Viennese Jewish humor which will open at the Jewish Museum there in April and run until October 2013. The exhibition will be divided into sections, such as the Eastern European and religion-based roots of local Jewish humor, humor in Vienna up to 1938, humor in post-WWII Vienna and the German-speaking world, humor in Israel and humor in contemporary media.
Though most of the book focuses on the development of Jewish Viennese humor in the 20th century, it also goes back a bit further, to the mid-19th century.
The author says that the capacity to appreciate humor was one of the basic differences between Jewish and non-Jewish German-speakers.
“If you look at assimilated Jews of that time, they lost their sense of humor when they stopped being Jewish.
If Jewishness was seen to be a synonym of liking jokes and humor, they didn’t want to show humor in public.”
So maybe you do have to be Jewish to appreciate a Jewish joke.