Moses Mendelssohn Walks Into a Bar...

Author:Kensky, Eitan


Edited by Elliott Oring

Translated by Michaela Lang

Indiana University Press

2018, 176 pp, $65

It's the inherent vice of joke books that their jokes are stale, wizened, practically in full beards. Paper doesn't just flatten the delivery; it kills. (Take my joke--pleuse!) There's no joke teller, no emphasis on sound or detail, no voice. Lenny Bruce's now-canonical "Jewish and Goyish" is funny because of the rhythm, and because of the intense personality it barely restrains. Joke books have no rhythm and no persons; they are disembodied words. The surprise of The First Book of Jewish Jokes is that a joke book from 1812 still sometimes shows a faint pulse. After all, when's the last time you heard a good one about the learned philosopher Moses Mendelssohn?

Edited by Elliott Oring, an anthropologist and folklorist who has been writing about jokes for 40 years, The First Book of Jewish Jokes is actually three books in one: a translation of a collection of "witty notions from Jews" published in 1812 by Lippmann Moses Ruschenthal, a former synagogue leader and a one-time newspaper editor; a translation of an earlier collection of "anecdotes, pranks, and notions of the Children of Israel," published by an unknown author under the pseudonym Judas Ascher, that serves as the source of 75 percent of Buschenthal's jokes; and an extended critical argument by Oring about the origins of the Jewish joke and what--if anything--makes a joke "Jewish."

Oring is not convinced that Jewish jokes are of superior quality, or operate according to Talmudic logic, or that the very fact of joking despite historical trauma--of laughing through tears--is particularly significant to their essence. More important to Oring is the act of labeling a joke "Jewish": "My definition of the Jewish joke' is any joke that has been 'conceptualized as uniquely, distinctly, or characteristically reflective of, evocative of, or conditioned by the Jewish people and their circumstance." We should, he argues, approach Jewish jokes not as literary critics, but as sociologists or historians. Rather than attempt to discern what features make a joke "Jewish," we should turn to the why, when and how of their becoming Jewish.

Here Buschenthal's collection enters the Story! Popular wisdom (and much scholarship) holds that Jewish jokes descend from Eastern European Jewish culture and Yiddish orality. But, Oring notes, there's little printed evidence to support that...

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