Shtetl Humor

Shtetl Humor
The Jewish people as a whole have typically been associated with humor. This inherent identification with humor has now allowed the Jewish community to dominate the sphere of comedy with such household names as Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler and Sarah Silverman.

While many cite Jewish humor having begun during biblical times, this specific type of Jewish humor was not immaculately conceived and had roots within the Jewish experience of Eastern Europe and Shtetl life. It was born out of the discrepancy between the Jewish people’s role as the ‘chosen people’ and the horrible circumstances that surrounded them within the Shtetls. In the Shtetl they were quarantined off from the rest of society and forced into both isolation and destitution. This separation made them easy targets for anti-Semitic attacks by pogroms. And while Jews considered themselves to be the “people of the book” who could decipher a number of ancient texts such as the Talmud and the Torah, they did not know how to deal with peasants outside of the Shtetl. Jews remained powerless in their situation, while their lives remained dictated by their anti-Semitic oppressors.

Click to continue on to Elliot Oring (Jokes and their Relations by Eliot Oring)

Humor therefore served specific purposes for the Jews. In his novel Jokes and Relations, Elliot Oring, a professor of anthropology at California State University describes Jewish humor as being in its’ very nature transcendent, defensive and pathological. It was transcendent because it helped the Jews rise above their circumstance in order to have hope for the future. It was defensive because it masked the underlying rebelliousness of the Jew towards figures of oppression (those being non-Jews, their own occupations, the rich, their rabbis and even God himself). Finally it was pathological because self hatred was a main theme in their jokes. Their humor allowed them to ‘turn the tables of tragedy’. One Yiddish proverb which translates to “burdens are from God, shoulders too” embodies the function of Jewish humor. Jews realized that suffering was inevitable and was simply their burden as a part of humanity. But God gave them the ability to carry that burden with humor.

Their humor has been considered by some to be a ‘bastard’ form of humor. It is not considered to be real humor because it is so dependent on criticism and self deprecation. This seems to run parallel with the idea of Yiddish being a bastard language. Yiddish is not even considered a language, it is in fact considered a dialect, because a language has at least some connotation of respectability. Both Yiddish and Yiddish humor contain the aspect of the vernacular, which is too common to be given respect.

(Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious by Sigmund Freud)

Freud dedicates a large portion of his book ‘Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious’ to Jewish humor in particular. He said the most distinctive feature of Jewish humor was the self-ridicule. He believed that the Jews mocked themselves in order to gain their own agency by hurting themselves before their oppressors had the chance to.

Table of Contents

I. Typical Jokes in the Shtetl

A. Schnorrer, Schlemiel, Schmozzol

II. Sholom Aleichem

III. Yiddish Theatre


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