The way it really was! Some faces and facets of Yiddish humor

In Hebrew, Yiddish humor has found a different creativity. But within it, the castigation of hypocrisy and the sardonic wit, evolved and different, still sparkle.

 A poster advertising Dzigan and Schumacher (photo credit: ANU)
A poster advertising Dzigan and Schumacher
(photo credit: ANU)

In a piece for a future article on kashrut, I tell the following Yiddish joke, in translation of course. I quote it here because there are many qualities of our forefathers’ world-view that it illustrates:

A Jew enters a restaurant, sees the proprietor behind the counter and asks: “Is this place kosher?” 

The reply: ”Of course it is, don’t you see the portrait of the Gaon of Vilna hanging on the wall?” 

The questioner: “If you were hanging and he was cooking, I’d have no problem.”

See how many qualities you find here. I for one find a few salient ones. 

 Shimon Dzigan and his wife, Eva (credit: HANS PINN/WIKIPEDIA)
Shimon Dzigan and his wife, Eva (credit: HANS PINN/WIKIPEDIA)

The wonderful wordplay of Yiddish humor

First, take nothing at face value (no pun intended). Second, kashrut has its swindlers. Third, rabbis (even the most esteemed) are human and can cook. Four, you know the rabbi won’t cook, but you are a bluffer: You show me a picture instead of a kosher certificate. Five, Jews make fun of themselves and their foibles and faith.

This pushed me to look up the word “sardonic.” It is the catch-all word I would use for a large element of Yiddish culture. But is it wide enough a term? Here is what the Oxford dictionary delivers: “grimly mocking or cynical.”

Grimly? Oxford gives a second meaning besides gloomy, “unrelentingly.” Yes, Yiddish humor is unrelenting as we mock ourselves and the human race in general. This brings me quite naturally to probably the greatest last Yiddish comedian in Eastern Europe: Shimon (Szymon) Dzigan.

I recall a performance in the now-defunct Edison Theater in Jerusalem, packed with Yiddish speakers. At that time Dzigan, a graduate of the Lodz and Warsaw Yiddish cabarets, who survived by escaping to the Soviet Union when the Nazi entered Poland, was partnered with his straight-man and foil, Israel (Yisroel) Schumacher (Szumacher).

Their skits were often based on current news. One skit is tellingly self-mocking and is embedded with religious practice.

The period was that of the first successful spaceships, the Russian Sputnik in 1957 (manned by cosmonauts); and the US astronauts in 1961. On stage in 1959, the comedy team showed a kind of “spacecraft,” both actors wore space helmets and heavy clothing and clumped about the stage as if about to enter the spaceship. 

Dzigan: Clump, clump, “Oy vey! We forgot the compass!” 

Schumacher: “I’ll fetch it,” clump, clump, clump.

Schumacher clumps off stage, and clumps back on stage. The audience expects to see some hi-tech newfangled weighty gadget. He clumps back on stage and in his hands... he holds a palm branch, a lulav!

The audience roars and the hall echoes with laughter. There were many, perhaps a majority of bearded Jews there. Everyone was laughing.

What is so funny, why is a palm branch now a compass? 

On Sukkot, the Festival of Tabernacles, every morning one is required by Halacha to wave or shake the lulav and etrog (citron) in a prescribed way. In synagogue, during the Hallel prayer praising the Creator, “whose kindness is forever,” and begging for his help (or salvation) the lulav is shaken in all four directions, as well as up and down (heavenward and down to the earth) to signify God’s dominance over all the universe. Another interpretation is that it sends out blessings all over. 

Since the lulav can point to all directions, it can double as a Jewish compass, right? 

Here we have secularized comedians who cut their teeth on the cabarets of Lodz and Warsaw, who knew how to write a piece based on Orthodox observance. And the audience in a society that was becoming secularized such as Poland then and Israel over 50 years ago “got it,” every single man and woman in the audience. 

There is our Yiddish humor, loving Jews, mocking tradition, loving tradition, perhaps mocking the world’s meshugas (“mad preoccupation”) with Space – the feeble and yet powerful human attempt to conquer nature and overwhelm gravity. 

Were the authors aware of all these levels? Possibly not, since they required no analysis, they just knew what would get a laugh.

There is another skit I recall well. 

Dzigan hated the Soviet system with all his heart. Trying to save his life by taking refuge in Stalin’s USSR, he was sent to the Gulag along with Schumacher for the crime of trying to leave the Communist state with the Polish army of General Anders. Here is one anti-Soviet gag he recited.

On stage, they are standing at a Communist Party Congress in Moscow, applauding Stalin. The applause goes on and on, and Dzigan, out of the corner of his mouth, says to his side-kick, “You stop clapping.” 

Schumacher, no fool, says from the corner of his mouth, “You stop first.” There they keep applauding and pleading that the other should be first to dare sin, to stop applauding the great Stalin. Dzigan’s hatred of the system illustrated the fear Stalin had cast over the entire nation and its many peoples. 

Dzigan and Schumacher continued to perform in the Gulag, often “asked” to do so by their jailers, whom they cursed (in Yiddish) as they entertained them.

In Poland, because of the fulsome antisemitism fostered by the nationalist government and the majority of the Catholic clergy (Sound familiar?), it was easy to poke fun at the cabinet ministers. 

This was somewhat more difficult in Israel. But Dzigan found his way. One skit has then prime minister Ben-Gurion acting like a school teacher, with Moshe Dayan, easily identifiable by his iconic eye patch, along with other ministers, in school uniform shirts and short pants. Dayan, then the idolized commander of the sweeping Sinai Campaign of 1956, is reduced to a schoolboy in short pants. The skit illustrates the ancient trait attributed to our patriarch Abraham: the smashing of idols. This time not with an ax but with wit.

One of Dzigan funniest monologues, produced as the immigration from the Soviet Union began, is a letter from a new Russian immigrant, a professional house-breaker and thief, to his fellow thieves in Moscow. The new Israeli waxes lyrically about the easy pickings in Israel. The people, he says, are naive and many do not lock their houses at night, windows are left open to the cooling breezes. Then the punch line. If you are caught and sent to prison, it’s great! “You will sit with the finest people,” he cracks. This was in the 1970s. I no longer recall who the faynste mentshen sitting in Maasiyahu Prison were then, but that satire is as relevant today.

Dzigan of course knew hunger, danger and tragedy in his life, but here we will just stick to humor. 

Let me switch to a great Yiddish poet, also deeply embedded in our tradition. Itzik Manger survived the Holocaust and in his latter years, penniless and sad, he was beloved by Yiddishophiles in Israel with enough clout to provide him with a free house, in Haifa, as I recall it.

Manger was born in 1900 in Czernowitz, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As the map of Europe changed it became Romanian and was subsequently conquered by the Soviet Union and handed over to Ukraine. In 1930 over a quarter of its inhabitants were Jews, still speaking mainly German and Yiddish. He flowered as a poet in the capital of Yiddish creativity, Warsaw. There were at least 20 Yiddish theaters then in the city ,doomed to disappear just a few years later, as well as a number of literary circles and cafe hang-outs and Yiddish publications; as well as a powerful Orthodox community. Manger, like his contemporary Isaac Bashevis Singer, was steeped in tradition and Jewish learning. 

Mange dropped the first name Yitzchok in favor of the more popular Itzik.

He became a folk bard, writing rollicking ballads based on biblical stories, often mixing them with then-modern time-frames. Thus in his Midrash Itzik, he has the Bible’s patriarch Abraham cloaked in Hassidic garb, puffing on a pipe and stroking his beard. The poems are funny and are also a trenchant critique of our ancestors’ foibles and weaknesses and even cruelty. 

Perhaps most poignant and typical is the poem written about Hagar, Abraham’s Egyptian concubine first selected for him by the childless Sarah to bear him a child and finally thrown out by Sarah after her own son Isaac (or Itzik), begins to grow up. Manger, as usual, sides with the underdog. He anachronistically slams the silk-frocked hypocrites posing as holy while mistreating the weak and the stranger. Manger had internalized the biblical commandments of protecting the weak – the orphans, widows, strangers and victims of power. Is this humor? Yes, because of the crisscrossed time frames, the wagon driver and the bargaining in the then-modern-day shtetl setting.

There are many echoes of erudition as well. The cock-crowing recalls the first blessing of the Hebrew morning service; while “three times” has echoes of the Christian pre-crucifixion dialogue between Jesus and Peter. Then the sardonic ending, Hagar calling upon heaven and earth as witness, echoing Moses last oration and the hypocritical modern men of “long beards and pious dress.” Here is my translation:

‘Hagar leaves Abraham’s house’

Blue light dawns in the window,

Three times the cock has crowed

Outside the horse is neighing

Ready for its long road.

Hagar stands, is weeping

Her child held tight in her arms

Her eyes drink in a last look

At the walls and the house’s charms.

The wagon driver is bargaining

With Abraham over his pay:

“Add another sixpence, sir,

There are two people, I say.”

The horse, impatient, scrapes hoof

As to say: “Enough! I need to pace.

Any minute I’ll show you, my Jews,

How beasts taught Balak his place!”

“Don’t cry dear little Ishmael,

This is bashert – preordained;

Thus our forefathers behaved.

Pious long beards hide their shame.”

She envisions herself abandoned

In a distant train station’s great hall

And she sheds copious tears

Into her Turkish shawl.

“Hagar, enough, stop crying

Do you hear what I say, or no?”

And Hagar takes up her bundle,

And sets off on the road she must go.

Here stands with his velvet skull cap,

Rabbi Abraham, the so pious Jew.

“Does he at least, sweet mama,

Of my bitter struck soul have a clue?”

The whip snaps, “Start up, horse”

And before her weep-red eyes

The houses of the shtetl slowly

Fall away, fall away with her sighs.

And Hagar summons as witness

Heaven and earth to attest

That so act elders and patriarchs

With long beards and pious dress.

How can one write of Yiddish humor without a sense of mourning? Both Dzigan and Manger knew their time had peaked, their great audiences and myriads of readers gone. In Hebrew, Yiddish humor has found a different creativity. But within it, the castigation of hypocrisy and the sardonic wit, evolved and different, still sparkle. ■

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