“The Sukkah in Danger.” Di royte fon (The Red Flag), edited by Yoysef Tunkel, Warsaw, ca. September 1918. The cartoon depicts the leaders of Jewish political parties (some newly legalized) holding their respective party-oriented newspapers and arguing with each other. Meanwhile, they ignore the “counterrevolution” (pig) leaning against the shaky upright that holds up the roof of the flimsy postrevolutionary political structure (Sukkah). (YIVO)

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With the onset of the modern period, parody became a quantitatively significant component within the genre of Jewish satire. The genre of parody was used to comment on a wide variety of themes connected to Jewish life, including Hasidism, socialism, Zionism, and socioeconomic issues. The majority of Hebrew and Yiddish parodies produced in Eastern Europe were imitative, in that they borrowed structures and language from well-known texts in order to comment on or mock unrelated topics, and did not attack the original, structural works. One of the earliest known parodies to appear in Eastern Europe was the Sefer ha-kundes (Book of the Prankster; 1824), a comic manual for pranksters based on the style of the Shulḥan ‘arukh. Published in Vilna, and commenting on the number of young pranksters there, this book was banned by the administrators of Vilna’s Jewish community, who collected all known copies and burned them, leaving only a small number to survive.

“What Do Our Four Sons Say about Hebrew University?” Der afikoymen (The Afikomen), Warsaw, April 1925. In this parody of the Four Sons of the Passover Haggadah from an example of a yontef-bletl, each of four Warsaw Jewish dailies (from right to left, Haynt, Folks-tsaytung, Moment, and Nasz Przegląd) expresses its opinion of the newly founded Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Haynt: “Nu, who remains the wise one? Me or them?” Folks-tsaytung: “University, shmuniversity! We care about it as much as our left earlock. Comrades! Come to a meeting on the Sabbath!” Moment: “Be my guest. There should be a Hebrew University, too.” Nasz Przegląd: “All right! Let’s do university! There will be photos of it in our illustrated supplement.” (YIVO)

Also prevalent was Masekhet Purim (Tractate Purim), a Talmudic parody written in fourteenth-century Italy by Kalonymus ben Kalonymus, but copied and republished multiple times throughout Ashkenaz, including in Lwów in 1847. The work includes parodies not only of the Talmud, but also of Rashi and Tosafot. As one of the most widespread satiric works, it created a paradigm for later Talmudic parodies and numerous other forms of religious and liturgical literature.

During the nineteenth century, parody was an important weapon for proponents of the Haskalah’s campaign against Hasidism; early East European maskilim enthusiastically engaged in the form. Notable in this category are Yosef Perl’s Megaleh temirin (Revelations of Hidden Secrets; 1819), an epistolary parody that bitterly mocked Hasidim and their rebbes, and his Boḥen tsadik (Examiner of a Tsadik; 1938), which mocks Hasidic diction. Another epistolary parody of this period is Yitsḥak Ber Levinzon’s Divre tsadikim (Words of the Righteous; 1830). A number of other maskilic satires contain brief parodies, particularly of Hasidic diction or homiletics, an example of which is Levinzon’s ‘Emek refa’im (Valley of the Ghosts; published posthumously in 1867). Some maskilim wrote anti-Hasidic parodies based on poems of German writers such as Heine and Schiller, though these were generally meant for maskilic audiences, since the general Jewish readership was not familiar with foreign literature.

The greater part of Jewish parodies used the structure of religious or liturgical literature to mock or comment on unrelated issues. The use of liturgical material was a necessity, as this was the literature most familiar to large numbers of Jewish readers. One important aspect of Hebrew and Yiddish parody in the nineteenth century was the fact that it addressed issues not common to popular literary and journalistic discourses of the day. As a result, a forum was created to address such themes as ignorance, social inequality, and blind faith—issues often not considered by other Jewish authors. Ultimately, this was a result of the severe repression of the Yiddish press in the Russian empire.

Most nineteenth-century parodies mocked the lives and customs of Jews living in the Pale of Settlement. One of the earliest of this type was Ayzik Meyer Dik’s Masekhet ‘aniyut (Tractate of Poverty; 1848), which addresses the condition of Jews under Russian rule, criticizes Jewish religious functionaries, and questions the reliance on so-called Jewish professions such as commerce and trade. Another early parodist, Zhitomir-based Yitsḥak Kaminer, greatly broadened the scope of Jewish parody by attempting to parody the entire siddur. Kaminer’s parodies addressed such issues as the korobka (kosher meat tax), Jewish education, and literature. Yosef Brill, a maskil from Minsk, wrote a number of parodies, some of which appeared in Ha-Shaḥar, criticizing issues such as Jewish journalism and literature, as well as tax collection, education, philanthropists, and rabbis. Brill’s parodies, including his Mishnat mevakrim (Mishnah for Critics; 1877), were based on Mishnah, midrash, and the Shulḥan ‘arukh.

By the end of the nineteenth century, socialist-oriented parodies had become common. Most of these were created by Jewish émigrés—most notably Morris Vintshevski (Winchevsky), who lived in London and New York—whose works were directed at Jews of the Pale in hopes of fomenting class-consciousness. As was true of the maskilic parodies, these works were based on traditional texts.

When censorship reforms were instituted in the wake of the failed 1905 Russian Revolution, a Yiddish satiric press came into being. From this point, satirists in that language frequently used the concept of yontev-bletlekh (holiday pages), an outgrowth of the pre-1905 censorship period in which the publication of Yiddish periodicals was illegal and during which “one-time” journals were printed in the guise of holiday publications, an idea first proposed by publicist Heshl Eplberg and borrowed by Y. L. Peretz in the mid-1890s. The publication of satiric journals during holiday times created annual opportunities to parody religious texts connected to specific holidays. From the inception of this satiric press to its demise in 1939, thousands of parodies of religious texts and folklore were created. The field was centered in Warsaw, though publication of satiric journals occurred throughout Eastern Europe.

The satirical journals, as well as the humor sections of the dailies, printed numerous parodies on subjects such as religious texts, folk songs, theater and cabaret songs, as well as on the works of many popular Yiddish writers. The parodies provided humorous critical commentary on a wide variety of subjects in Jewish life, such as the press, politics, theater, education, religion, literature, and other public matters.

Major parodists of the period included Yoysef Tunkel, Avrom Rozenfeld, Yoysef-Shimen Goldshteyn, and Pinkhes Kats. Tunkel, the most important twentieth-century Yiddish satirist, published numerous journals and was the founder and editor of the Warsaw daily Moment’s humor section, Der krumer shpigl (The Crooked Mirror). Tunkel also imitated the styles of many Yiddish writers, and published a number of anthologies of his satires and parodies. Kats initially worked for the daily Haynt’s humor section, and later published a number of periodicals devoted to satire, including Der sheygets (The Gentile) and Der blofer (The Bluffer). Avrom Rozenfeld, who wrote under the name Bontshe, took over Haynt’s humor section and also published several satirical journals. Goldshteyn published numerous satirical journals and also worked for Haynt using the pseudonym Der Lustiger Pesimist.

In the Soviet Union, publication of popular satire was coopted by the state; no Yiddish humor periodicals were permitted after 1918. A small number of parodies of religious texts were created as part of the Soviet Evsektsiia’s antireligious campaigns. Notable among them were M. Altshuler’s Hagode far gloyber un apikorsem (Haggadah for Believers and Heretics; 1927) and his Komsomolishe hagode (Young Communist Movement Haggadah; 1930).

Suggested Reading

Israel Davidson, Parody in Jewish Literature (New York, 1907); Yechiel Szeintuch, ed., Der seyfer fun humoreskes un literarishe parodyes / Sefer ha-humoreskot uha-parodiyot ha-sifrutiyot be-yidish, by Der Tunkeler (Jerusalem, 1990), in Yiddish with an introduction in Hebrew.