Sholem Aleichem, the noted Yiddish writer and humorist, was praised by critics for his ability to create “laughter through tears.” The most prominent element of the East European Jewish comic vision—its ability to apply humor, through a dizzying variety of media, to the most diverse of situations—is sufficiently noteworthy to allow an overview of the correspondingly broad subject to take a generally historical direction. If the history of modern Jewish life in Eastern Europe is one of constantly changing perspective, there were always those for whom that perspective was best commented on—and, sometimes, even most efficiently achieved and disseminated—through the use of humor.
Perhaps this strong connection between humor and history stemmed from the foundational role of the Purim story in Jewish comic culture. In late medieval Europe, Purim became the occasion for carnivalesque celebration, including, notably, purim-shpils. These plays, written in the Yiddish vernacular, were often bawdy and anachronism-filled retellings of the Purim story. Purim humor was not limited to dramatic material; early Yiddish literature boasts other comic prose works seemingly composed for the holiday, such as humorous debates between the various holidays about their respective superiority. And other humorous forms, such as the parodic sermon or comically exaggerated Torah and Talmud teaching, seem to have been regular parts of the day.
This is hardly to say that all humor of traditional East European society was limited to Purim or was historically grounded. Riddles and riddle tales were apparently popular, often featuring folk figures and motifs common to general European culture as well, and collections of humorous fables were also published, often adapted from earlier Hebrew collections; all of these strove for universality by recognizing essential comic truths. Some other works of the early modern period widely read in Eastern Europe, even if their purpose was not primarily humorous, contain flashes of humor: the parenthetical comments made by the author–narrator Elye Levita in his Bove-bukh, for example, give the reader no doubt that his tongue is located firmly in cheek as he writes this pseudo-chivalric epic. In short, a survey of the comic texts read in early modern Jewish Eastern Europe reflects those readers’ comic conceptual categories: parodies of traditional texts (both scriptural and other), most prominently, but also satire (of internal communal norms and current political events, as well as of Christians, Christianity, and Christian texts), and displays of wit (in riddle tales, jokes, aphorisms, and proverbs).
It was the Purim material, however, that was both catalyst and inspiration for much of the first modern vernacular humorous literature; proponents of the late-eighteenth-century Jewish Enlightenment in Prussia, appalled by what they considered to be crude and obscene material that reflected negatively on Jewish prospects for successful acculturation into non-Jewish society, resolved to create material more consonant with modern, secular sensibilities. Additionally, they realized that the satiric and parodic sensibilities that had always been part of the literary creativity around Purim could be used to spread their own ideological agenda—both by subversively casting doubt on traditional materials and by commenting on what they perceived as problematic or unenlightened aspects of contemporary Jewish society. Two noted satirists of this period include Yitsḥak Euchel and Aharon Halle-Wolfssohn, whose humorous works, which include bourgeois comedies, “dialogues with the dead,” and epistolary satires, are all modeled on contemporary French and German literary genres.
Though the historical milieu of Galicia and the Pale of Settlement differed substantially from that of Prussia, the Haskalah operated from similar ideological first principles, employing humor and satire as central weapons in their war against what they perceived as superstitious, irrational, and corrupt traditional Jewish society. A particular focus of their wrath, as activity began in earnest in the first decades of the nineteenth century, was the rapidly expanding Hasidic movement, which itself employed humor at times to punctuate stories celebrating the deeds and words of Hasidic rabbis or explicating Hasidic teachings. Even Naḥman of Bratslav, whose Yiddish stories are now considered seminal in the history of modern Jewish literature but who is not generally perceived as humorous, shows significant flashes of wit and satire in his tales. That wit and satire, incidentally, was often aimed directly at the maskilim. Both sides used humor in their ideological struggle. Satirists such as Yosef Perl and Yitsḥak Erter, among others, used the forms of the epistolary novel (in the former’s Megaleh temirin ) and the supernatural testament (in the latter’s “Gilgul nefesh” ) to lampoon both the miraculous claims of Hasidic disciples and the more general faults of different East European social groups.
Though Perl and Erter were both known to contemporaries as Hebrew writers, their message—and their humor—was quickly adopted in the same Yiddish vernacular that their Hasidic opponents used more generally; this was certainly the case as the Haskalah spread to the Pale of Settlement in the second quarter of the nineteenth century.
Continuing the theatrical tradition of the Prussian Haskalah and its successors, other writers turned to farce and drawing-room comedy to make their critical points; dramatists such as the anonymous author of the anti-Hasidic satire Di genarte velt (The Fooled World), the fabulist and playwright Shloyme Ettinger (whose castigation of the noveau riche and their ignorance of true enlightened value in Serkele would inspire Avrom Goldfadn, the man often credited as the founder of the Yiddish theater), Yitsḥak Ber Levinzon (Di hefker velt [The Chaotic World]; 1888), Yisroel Aksenfeld (Der ershter yidisher rekrut [The First Jewish Draftee]; 1862), Avraham Ber Gottlober (Der dektukh [The Bridal Canopy]; 1876), and others all saw their theatrical work (which was far more often read, either silently or aloud, than it was performed) as a means to effect social change.
Yiddish humor was hardly limited to the dramatic form, however. The same Aksenfeld who wrote distinguished comedies also was the author of Dos shterntikhl (The Headband; 1861), one of the first Yiddish novels, which features comical examples of superstition gone awry; Ayzik Meyer Dik, who had written a Talmudic parody titled Masekhet ‘aniyut (The Tractate of Poverty) in 1848, adapted Erter’s Hebrew tale into Yiddish, and his many other Yiddish works included satiric snapshots of problematic aspects of East European Jewish society, such as the phenomenon of “child marriages” to avoid conscription (“Di behole”). And Yitskhok Yoyel Linetski, writing in the 1860s in a newly established Yiddish newspaper, Kol mevaser, became famous for his bitingly satiric Tristram Shandy–esque account of a Hasidic childhood, in Dos poylishe yingl (The Polish Boy).
Kol mevaser also saw, in 1864, the first Yiddish-language appearance of Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh, better known as Mendele Moykher-Sforim. Abramovitch, who drew from Russian satiric traditions that included the “fools’ town,” sharply and sweepingly inveighed against Jewish economic and political impotence; though beginning his literary career as a more conventional satirist in the Haskalah mold, by the late 1870s—and certainly by his autotranslation and reinvention of his works as masterpieces of Hebrew fiction in the first decades of the twentieth century—he had already become a master ironist, whose Di klyatshe (The Mare; 1873) and, more subtly, Kitser masoes Benyomin hashlishi (The Brief Travels of Benjamin the Third; 1878) reflected a prescient disillusionment with the Haskalah movement and a real doubt about any alternative solutions to the “Jewish problem” in Eastern Europe.
It was Abramovitsh’s literary “grandson,” however, who was to shape most fully a mature comic response to the massive changes modernity was bringing to the Pale of Settlement. Sholem Aleichem, in Tevye der milkhiker (Tevye the Dairyman; 1894–1916), Menakhem-Mendl (1892–1909), the stories set in the fictional town of Kasrilevke, and many other works of fiction, created characters whose traditional or small-world mindsets were radically shaken by the changing environment around them; in Tevye, the romances of the eponymous narrator’s daughters are a veritable catalog of allegorical encounters with the different movements of Jewish modernity, and Menakhem-Mendl’s letters are the comic reports of a little man with big dreams who is well out of his league in the big cities where he attempts to make his fortune. But it is Sholem Aleichem’s mastery of the monologue, his virtuosic ability to write varied voices that show off the comic potentialities of the Yiddish language, that may be his greatest skill.
Aside from his own writing, Sholem Aleichem also edited two volumes of the literary miscellany Di yidishe folks-bibliotek (The Jewish People’s Library) in the late 1880s, an early milestone in the explosive growth, from the 1880s through the interwar period, of a publishing industry of journals, newspapers, literary magazines, and other miscellanies that provided formats for publication and therefore for the economic support of writers. Perhaps most unique were the occasional “holiday journals” known as yontev-bletlekh, whose contributors and creators notably included Y. L. Peretz, whose early short stories featured vicious, twisting satirical moments worthy of the early Haskalah but whose later neo-Hasidic tales often yielded subtler and gentler ironies bearing closer similarity to Sholem Aleichem’s work.
From Yoysef Tunkel in Warsaw to Abraham Liessin in New York, 21 February 1930, about a humor piece Tunkel is submitting to the journal Tsukunft for publication. He hopes that Liessin will agree that it is a piece "of the better sort, which must be published in a journal" and apologizes for submitting a handwritten manuscript rather than a typescript. Yiddish. Polish and Yiddish letterhead: Der Moment, Warsaw, Nalewki 38, Konto Czekowe P.K.O. 51. RG 107, Letters Collection. (YIVO)
Most important, certainly, were the satiric sections of widely circulated Yiddish newspapers, among them the WarsawMoment’s section titled Der krumer shpigl (The Crooked Mirror). A significant number of these periodicals were in Yiddish, though many Hebrew ones existed as well, and the contributions there of writers such as Yaknehoz, Der Tunkeler (Yoysef Tunkel), Linetski, Avrom Rozenfeld, Pinḥas Katz, and others illustrate the variety of humorous genres available to the East European Jewish writer at the time, including, but not limited to feuilletons, humoresques, parodic news analyses, mock ethnographic or sociological sketches and studies, and humorous cartoons. If such topics as the Russo-Japanese war or the 1905 Constitution came in for humorous reappraisal in Yiddish prose, broader movements and ideologies were also grist for the comic mill: Itsik Manger’s mock-epic retellings of Bible stories, most notably the Book of Esther, anachronistically merged a classical Jewish landscape with current concerns about Russian antisemitism, providing his own cockeyed response to the neoromanticism and cultural nationalism popular among East European intellectuals of the period. By contrast, East Europe’s most distinguished practitioner of Hebrew literary humor, Shemu’el Yosef Agnon, saturated his elegies to a traditional Jewish world rapidly vanishing in the aftermath of World War I in blackest irony.
Not all East European Jewish humor was limited to the printed page; the same period that saw the rise of the modern Yiddish periodical press also witnessed the rise of staged Yiddish theater. Playwrights, including Goldfadn, Sholem Aleichem, and Manger, crafted works that relied on winning combinations of stock characters, comic patter, farcical elements, physical comedy, and the occasional metatheatrical moment to attract audiences; Goldfadn’s operettas, in particular, occasionally featured humorous songs, some of which were later performed in the Yiddish kleynkunst cabarets that sprung up in Warsaw and other major East European centers during the interwar period. And Jewish jokes flourished, continuing the comic exploration of stock figures such as the schlemiel, the shlimazl, the shadkhn, the schnorrer, and others, and even becoming the object of collection and study by figures as prominent as Sigmund Freud.
The wars and revolutions that irrevocably scarred East European Jewish life in the twentieth century permanently destroyed many of these institutions, along with the societies that nurtured them. No Yiddish humor periodicals were allowed in the Soviet Union after 1918, and comedy and satire were carefully monitored by the state (though, perhaps fittingly, some of the finest comic minds insisted on constantly testing the boundaries, most notably the artistic directors and performers of the Moscow State Yiddish Theater, or GOSET, who staged plays by Goldfadn, Peretz, and Sholem Aleichem to great success during the Soviet period). Humorous material written in Russian by Jews, such as the occasional work by Isaac Babel or the output of Il’ia Il’f, was not subject to the same linguistic scrutiny, but ideological censorship was a continuing affair. Soviet Jews, however, developed a rich network of underground humor, mostly in the form of jokes, which has survived and blossomed in the post-Soviet era.
Given the complex relationship between Jewish history, tragedy, and humor, it may be unsurprising to find that the Holocaust saw a significant burst of Jewish comic creativity: aside from the gallows humor reflected in jokes circulated in the ghettos and camps, parodic newsletters that circulated in the Warsaw ghetto indicate that even in this darkest period, Jewish strategies for understanding their lives and fates continued in forms familiar to them for centuries, and that, for them, humor was a matter of the utmost seriousness.
Though its critics and practitioners often have regarded East European Jewish humor as performing many different functions—as a psychological coping mechanism, a social safety valve, a method of ethnographic representation, and even as a key instrument of maintaining communal continuity and generating a sense of shared nostalgia—it hardly seems necessary to choose among these and other options when considering the place of humor in that society. Instead, it may be best to simply consider particular instances and examples in situ—and to see their complexities and their differing features and functions as natural products of the complex, nuanced society that created them.
Sarah Blacher Cohen, ed., Jewish Wry: Essays on Jewish Humor (Bloomington, Ind., 1987); Jeremy Dauber, Antonio’s Devils: Writers of the Jewish Enlightenment and the Birth of Modern Hebrew and Yiddish Literature (Stanford, Calif., 2004); Israel Davidson, Parody in Jewish Literature (New York, 1907); Ken Frieden, Classic Yiddish Fiction (Albany, N.Y., 1995); Yehuda Friedlander, Perakim ba-satirah ha-‘ivrit (Tel Aviv, 1979); Steve Lipman, Laughter in Hell: The Use of Humor during the Holocaust (Northvale, N.J., 1991); Dan Miron, A Traveler Disguised (Syracuse, N.Y., 1996); David G. Roskies, A Bridge of Longing: The Lost Art of Yiddish Storytelling (Cambridge, Mass., 1995); Chone Shmeruk, ed., Maḥazot mikra’iyim be-yidish, 1697–1750 (Jerusalem, 1979); Avner Ziv, ed., Jewish Humor (New Brunswick, N.J., 1998).