Jewish Comedy as a Means of Survival
Jeremy Dauber for Jewish Book Council
Writing a history of Jewish comedy, trying to cover everything—or at least a representative sample of everything—from the Bible to Twitter, was a daunting, though admittedly fun, task. One of the questions I got asked most frequently when I told people what I was working on was, “What is Jewish humor, anyway?” Or, put another way, “What makes comedy Jewish comedy?”
Luckily, now I have a pretty easy answer to that question—“I wrote a book giving my best answer; feel free to purchase on Amazon or at local stores”—but over this week, as a Visiting Scribe™ for the Prosen People, I wanted to try to give three different perspectives on that question. And I wanted to do it through looking at three Jewish jokes: jokes that I find deeply, almost ineffably, Jewish, even though their origins may come from elsewhere, or they could be easily told in other contexts.
So here goes, with joke number one. It’s set in medieval times.
By Yoel Finkelman and Ofir Haim for Jewish Review of Books
A Collection of Long-Lost Manuscripts Sheds Light on Medieval Afghan Jewry
A few weeks before Rosh Hashanah sometime in the 11th century, a distraught, young Jewish Afghan young man named Yair sent a painful letter to his brother-in-law, Abu-al-Hasan Siman Tov. Life had dealt Yair a tough hand, or maybe it was just his own bad choices. Having failed in business in his hometown of Bamiyan, rumors were now spreading that he had “broken promises . . . regarding property” and that he did not truly “observe the Sabbath.” Leaving these problems behind him, he had left his young wife to move some 150 miles to Ghazni and begin anew.
But even there he struggled to make a living. More importantly, he missed his family. “Anyone who marries a woman brings peace to his own mind, as it is for all people, not so that I will be sitting in Ghazni and she in Bamiyan.” But, with business doing so poorly, Yair could barely make ends meet on a day-to-day basis, let alone afford the costs of travel.
Nathan Englander’s New Espionage Thriller, Set In Israel, Spins A Complex Twist Of Stories
BY SANDEE BRAWARSKY for The Jewish Week
An espionage thriller that’s also an allegory, magical realist tale, love story, tragedy and an impassioned cry for peace wrapped in one.
In a dark prison cell somewhere in the Negev, a cell that doesn’t exist in any written record, Prisoner Z spends endless days alone, with his guard. In “Dinner at the Center of the Earth” (Knopf), Nathan Englander artfully spins a complex twist of stories of how this yeshiva-educated boy from Long Island ends up as an Israeli spy, living many lives undercover in Paris and Berlin, and then condemned to this cell.
The novel is intensely engaging in many ways: It is an espionage thriller, and it is also an allegory, a magical realist tale, a love story, a tragedy and an impassioned cry for peace, its many shifts of scene laced with material from Englander’s own life and moments of humor too.
Talking Books with Carol Zoref
Carol Zoref is the author of Barren Island, which was Longlisted for the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction. Earlier this week, she wrote about communal sin and collective responsibility in the wake of the Las Vegas massacre. She is blogging here all week as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.
What books of Jewish interest or by Jewish authors are currently on your nightstand?
Nicole Krauss’s Forest Dark, in anticipation of hearing her speak at the 92nd Street Y with Jenny Erpenbeck. As soon as I finish the Krauss novel, I will dive into Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone, which was recently translated from German by Susan Bernofsky—they are a trifecta of smart writers/translators. In nonfiction, Enraged: Why Violent Times Need Ancient Greek Myths by Emily Katz Anhalt. Anhalt, a classics scholar, shines light on how the Greeks struggled with human violence and the desire for moral evolution.
What’s the last great book you read?
A Different Vision of a Jewish Homeland
By Adam Dickter for Hadassah Magazine
Isra Isle: A Novel By Nava Semel. Translated by Jessica Cohen
In the course of modern Jewish history, there were several visions for a Jewish national home other than Theodor Herzl’s dream of Israel in historic biblical land. In the early 1900s, for example, in response to pogroms in Russia, the British proposed annexing a slice of Uganda for the Jews—a nonstarter. Even more absurd was Mordechai Manuel Noah’s concept of a Jewish homeland as “Ararat City,” to be located in the gray mist of Niagara Falls, where he had purchased Grand Island, poised between the United States and Canadian borders. Noah (1785 to 1851) was an influential American diplomat and journalist, but, ultimately, he couldn’t rally much enthusiasm for an “Isra Isle” while world Jewry dreamed of a return to Jerusalem. (Michael Chabon envisioned another alternate home for Jews in Sitka, Alaska, in his book The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.)