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Friday, March 4, 2011

Jewish Humor Traces Back to July 1661, Berkeley Prof Says

Posted By on Fri, Mar 4, 2011 at 12:01 AM

click to enlarge His origin has been traced to 1661...
  • His origin has been traced to 1661...

At first, the notion of pinpointing the very day Jewish humor was born sounds every bit as crazy as Bishop James Ussher claiming the world was created on Sunday, Oct. 23, 4004 B.C.

But U.C. Berkeley theater professor Mel Gordon tracing the origin of Jewish humor to July of 1661 is neither crazy -- nor funny. In fact, it's a bit sad. Typically, it all started with a pogrom -- not exactly a surefire recipe for hilarity.

Not so many jokes begin "Two Jews walk into a bar -- and get slaughtered by marauding, bloodthirsty Cossacks...". But this one does. The Chmielnicki Massacres of 1648-51 were among the most destructive anti-Jewish campaigns in history. In the wake of the genocidal rampages, the leading rabbis of Poland and the Ukraine could fathom only three reasons why God was not taking care of his Chosen People:

1. God lied. This didn't go over so well;

2. God is weak. See above;

3. Jews were just having too much damn fun.

That worked. So fun was outlawed. Well, almost all fun.

In July of 1661 the "Elders of the Four Councils" in Vilna (present-day Lithuania) declared that, henceforth, there would be no more merrymaking during holidays, weddings, and the like. No more jugglers. No more rhyming singers. All of that was right out. The one form of "humor" they opted to spare was the "badhkin" -- something of a caustic, malevolent jester who peppered the victims of his humor with unspeakable insults. Yes, the primordial Don Rickles.

The rabbis opted to not ban the badhkin because, as Gordon put it, they didn't find badhkins funny. So, yes, what has come to be recognized as "Jewish humor" exists solely because the top rabbis of the age didn't get Jewish humor.

By decree, the only type of Jewish humor deemed acceptable in Eastern Europe was coarse, scatological, insulting fare. In fact, Gordon notes, we have old court records of badhkins suing one another over pilfered fart jokes.

Those fart jokes became the basis for an entire civilization. While the aggression of Jewish humor wasn't widely appreciated back in the old country, it built Hollywood. Gordon points to a 1978 compendium that pegged 82 percent of the nation's top 400 comic performers as being Jewish. These days, he notes, the percentage may even be higher.

"My father grew up in a shtetl, and he remembers the badhkin in his village," says Gordon. The so-called comedian was "a drunk, one-eyed guy living in the cemetery, who would ocme out on Purim and at weddings and tell really dirty jokes, usually about big tuchases, drooping breasts, or tiny penises."

Or, as the Chosen People call it -- TRADITION!

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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