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Four Jewish Jokes... or Five

by Dr David Fialk, Editor / Publisher

Humor depends on suffering; think slapstick or Charlie Chaplin. Laughter often arises, like crying, as a response to the random cruelty of existence. The Jews don't have a monopoly on suffering, but, from a Western perspective anyway, we've been doing it longer. Once upon a time 75% of comedians were Jewish.

These days, consciousness is changing and people are thinking more Jewishly, which is to say they are thinking. The Church encouraged faith, not critical reasoning; "That's just the way it is. You'll have pie in the sky when you die."

The basic Jewish distinction in consciousness is between a yiddisha kup and a goyisha kup, a Jewish head and a gentile way of thinking. Let me illustrate this with a joke:

Mendel and Shmuel are homeless and starving. The local priest is offering $20 rubles to any Jew who will convert to Russian Orthodoxy. Mendel says to Shmuel, "We don't have to starve to death. Go in and get the $20 rubles." Shmuel goes in. Thirty minutes later, he comes out. "Mendel asks him, "Nu?" (Well?""). Shmuel recounts, "First he sprinkled some water on me. Then he waved some smoke around me." Irritated, Mendel interrupts him, "Where's the money?" Shmuel hits his own forehead, exclaiming, "Goyisha kup." He only just converted and already he is thinking like a gentile, forgetting the money.

On a serious note, I have a close working relationship with a young man who is a devout Christian. Recently, he wrote to me wanting to know what I thought of the 53rd chapter of Isaiah, a text Christians use to show that the bible foretold Jesus. I referred him to a source that rebuts that usage, and added:

"Two basic objections to the idea of the Nazarene being the messiah are, 1, the messiah needs to come patrilineally from the House of David, and his paternity was not such. And, 2, the Messiah's main feat is to destroy corrupt political power and usher in a new age of justice. He might be an enlightened spiritual master, he obviously changed the world, but he could not have been the Jewish Messiah. That said, I have always admired your personal faith."

This detail-oriented Jewish mindset, this yiddisha kup, this emphasis on particularities and distinctions brings to mind another joke: The religious Jewish kid goes to his gentile friend's home at Christmastime, where he sees a Christmas tree. He asks about it and is informed that the tree is a religious ritual. Intrigued, he asks his Christian friend: "Does it have to be a certain height? Are there a minimum number of decorations required? Can there be too many?"

This legalistic approach to life is codified in the Jewish Talmud. (At the end of his life, Albert Einstein regretted not having studied the Talmud.) This drive towards justice led the Jews to initiate a lot of what we consider civilization: women's rights, universal education, taking care of the poor... Margret Mead asked her mentor, Franz Boas, "Do you think the Jews have an extra gene for social justice?" Chief among these civilizing innovations was law and the insistence that no one was above it. Here in Mexico, the hacienda owner could beat, rape and kill his serfs with impunity.

Alongside this logical, legal frame of mind, and seemingly at odds with it, is Jewish mysticism, which, erasing distinctions, insists on the fundamental unity of experience. The lumber merchant was negotiating to buy the trees in a certain large section of forest. Toiling over the elaborate, detailed calculations he was making in his notebook regarding the deal, he put down his pencil and, looking up at the seller, declared, "The bottom line is that God is One." ("God is One" being the Schma, Judaism's most fundamental declaration.)

It would be easier to dismiss religion if its metaphors and lessons did not correspond so closely to our experience. The story of Cain killing Abel occupies only 17 sentences in the bible, yet gets to the ultimate depths of human nature.

Declaring oneself free of any system of thought, as is the fad today, leaves one isolated. The great issue today is a tension between individual freedom and meaning: "Ok. So you are free? What will you do now?" Meaning is found in context.

People are just as religious today as they ever were. It's just that now they are religious about politics and Covid. Veganism and climate change are used to fill the God-shaped hole that atheism has left in their lives.

In my personal life, I feel this polarity between the details and the whole. I live it. On one hand, there are a host, a large host, of nagging things that I should improve about myself. On the other hand, my life is really cool: creative, purposeful, animated... I made my bed, and I'm lying in it, and it feels really good.

Which reminds me of what Seinfeld calls "the ultimate Jewish joke": Two Jewish men are talking. One asks, "How's business?" The other responds, "Great." SPOILER ALERT-- explanation: Maybe you want to think about it for a minute? Ok: The joke is that a Jewish businessman would never say that business is great; we complain; we kvetch. It's never good enough. It could always, it should always, be better.

Wasn't it in Annie Hall that Woody Allen reminds us of that old joke of two ladies in the cafeteria of the Catskills resort? One complains, "The food at this resort is horrible." The other responds, "Yes, and the portions are so small." Woody updates it, observing, "Life is full of pain and suffering, and it's all over much too soon."

Buddha's reminder that everything changes seems elementary, something we already know by the age of four. But on a deeper level it is a reminder that we must develop the ability to change our point of view, to not get stuck in only one way of thinking. This, for me, is enlightenment, or at least a few steps on the road in that direction.

Everything contains its opposite. The opposite of any great truth is also a great truth. Everything could be better, but it could also be worse. I'd prefer a less severe teacher, but there is a lot to learn from suffering. It's ironic, and to my way of thinking, very Jewish.


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