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Can It Be That in Israel a Funny Bone Isn't Kosher?

June 29, 1989|NICK B. WILLIAMS JR. | Times Staff Writer

TEL AVIV, Israel — Prof. Harvey Mindess of the Antioch University campus in Marina del Rey ran this one by his confreres here at the Third International Conference on Jewish Humor:

Adam asks God, "Why did you make Eve so sweet and soft?"

"So you should like her," God replies.

"And why so curvy?"

"So you should like her."

"But why so stupid?"

"So she should like you."

That may or may not be funny, but is it Jewish humor? And if it's funny and Jewish, what's the point?

On such fine points, 16 learned men and women last week debated the state and the nature of humor in Israel, and among Jews elsewhere. They read papers to one another for three days in a stuffy classroom at Tel Aviv University.

On the table for dissection were controversy (Jewish-American Princess jokes), obscurity (Judeo-Spanish banter in northern Morocco) and profundity (the functions of humor in Bernard Malamud's fiction).

But no presentation drew more attention than that of the conference chairman, Prof. Avner Ziv, a well-known and widely published scholar. The visiting academicians, almost all of them Jewish, were getting an inside view of humor in Israel, which is remarkable mainly for its absence.

In their four decades of independence and the preceding years of Zionist immigration, the Israelis have somehow lost track of that noble prince of Jewish humor, the schlemiel , Ziv said in an interview.

And it worries him.

"A schlemiel is someone who behaves in a different way from those of us who are well-adjusted, who follow the rules, who see reality as it is and try to deal with it in an efficient way," Ziv explained.

A Lost Hero

"The schlemiel is a naive person who believes that reality is less important than ideals. He lives in a world where good conquers evil, where people don't hate each other. And therefore he won't achieve success. This world is not for naive people."

But in the days when the schlemiel was a folkloric hero in the shtetls , or villages, of Poland and Russia, late in the last century, he was a man of unreasoning hope against all odds. Ziv offered this one:

An officer of the czarist Russian army calls his troops together and says: "Men, the moment has come. We're going into battle. It's going to be fierce, hand to hand, man to man." And a little Jew speaks up: "Excuse me, sir. Could you show me my man? Maybe I'll talk to him, maybe we can find some arrangement."

"This is a schlemiel ," the humorous creation of a life so full of poverty and oppression that a Jew in the shtetls could only cope by laughing at both his oppressors and himself, Ziv said.

Migration a Factor

In Ziv's view, when the emigration of Jews from Eastern Europe began, the schlemiels went to America, where again the Jews were a minority and shtetl humor still served as a mechanism for coping. The character has never lost his popularity.

"Woody Allen--pure schlemiel ," Ziv said.

The emigration to Palestine was another matter. The men and women who built Israel were realists, tough chutzpaniks .

"Israel wanted to create not only a homeland," Ziv said, "but we wanted to create a new Jew, not the Jews from the Diaspora, who were always victims, but strong, resourceful.

"And within Israel this is the case. Tough, arrogant, always sure that we're right. We don't have any modesty at all."

Also, he said, with their own country the Jews of Israel were no longer a minority, with all that means for a society's humor.

No Room for Victims

There was no room for a schlemiel , a victim, in Israel. Jokes revolved around politics, as life did, and contradictions of personal relationships were put on the back burner. The diversity of Jewish humor in the Jewish state withered.

But Ziv sees signs of change.

"Lebanon started it," he said, "and now the intifada "--referring to the unpopular 1982 invasion and the current Palestinian uprising in the occupied territories. Now the Israeli is less certain that "might makes right," Ziv suggested, and is reaching back for the coping mechanisms developed in the humor of the shtetl to deal with new conditions. Some Jews here are making fun of themselves again.

Ziv was obviously pleased that his daughter had recently come home with this one, which takes a stab at machismo in Israel:

Three couples sit down for dinner. The American turns to his wife and says, "Pass me the honey, Honey." The Briton asks his wife, "May I have the sugar, Sugar?" The Israeli commands his spouse, "Give me the steak, you cow!"

Not subtle, but a beginning, Ziv suggests.

Meanwhile, abroad, particularly in the United States, Jewish humor continues to revolve around traditional characters and themes, according to the participants at the Tel Aviv conference. Jewish-American Princess jokes, which in the America of the 1980s are what Polish jokes were in the 1960s, have been a source of some concern to students of humor.

Old Jokes

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