A Two-Century-Old Yiddish Humor Collection

Sept. 9 2016

Published in Vilna in 1823, Hundert un eyne anekdoten (“101 Anecdotes”) is a Yiddish-language collection of what might best be termed light reading. The book’s episodes—the majority of which were translated from French and Polish—are unlikely to strike modern readers as very funny, but were probably meant to be. The YIVO Institute explains:

[The book was published at] a time when there was not that much available to read in Yiddish. The great blossoming of Yiddish literature of the late 19th century was still a couple of generations away, and the most common Yiddish reading matter was the Ts’eynah Ureynah (adaptations of stories from the Bible), other religious books (especially ethical literature), and a few translations of epic tales, such as Elijah Bokher’s oft-reprinted Bove-bukh, first published in 1541.

Herewith, a sample anecdote, set in the 1756 naval battle between French and British forces at Minorca during the Seven Years’ War:

In the war, at Minorca, . . . a huge cannonball shot from the enemy’s cannon hit and completely tore off the right hand of a cannoneer (or an artillery soldier) who was shooting from the vicinity of the cannons. But the soldier fell into a rage and said, “My enemy should be thankful that I only have one hand. Nu, I still have one left.” He “lent a hand” to the lighting of the wick of his cannon and shot at the enemy.

Read more at YIVO Institute

More about: History & Ideas, Jewish humor, Vilna, Yiddish


The Future of a Free Iran May Lie with a Restoration of the Shah

June 25 2018

Examining the recent waves of protest and political unrest in the Islamic Republic—from women shunning the hijab to truckers going out on strike—Sohrab Ahmari considers what would happen in the event of an actual collapse of the regime. Through an analysis of Iranian history, he concludes that the country would best be served by placing Reza Pahlavi, the son and heir of its last shah, at the head of a constitutional monarchy:

The end of Islamist rule in Iran would be a world-historical event and an unalloyed good for the country and its neighbors, marking a return to normalcy four decades after the Ayatollah Khomeini founded his regime. . . . But what exactly is that normalcy? . . .

First, Iranian political culture demands a living source of authority to embody the will of the nation and stand above a fractious and ethnically heterogenous society. Put another way, Iranians need a “shah” of some sort. They have never lived collectively without one, and their political imagination has always been directed toward a throne. The constitutionalist experiment of the early 20th century coexisted (badly) with monarchic authority, and the current Islamic Republic has a supreme leader—which is to say, a shah by another name. It is the height of utopianism to imagine that a 2,500-year-old tradition can be wiped away. The presence of a shah, [however], needn’t mean the absence of rule of law, deliberative politics, or any of the other elements of ordered liberty that the West cherishes in its own systems. . . .

Second, Iranian political culture demands a source of continuity with Persian history. The anxieties associated with modernity and centuries of historical discontinuity drove Iranians into the arms of Khomeini and his bearded minions, who promised a connection to Shiite tradition. Khomeinism turned out to be a bloody failure, but there is scant reason to imagine the thirst for continuity has been quenched. . . . Iranian nationalism . . . could be the answer, and, to judge by the nationalist tone of the current upheaval, it is the one the people have already hit upon.

When protestors chant “We Will Die to Get Iran Back,” “Not Gaza, Not Lebanon, My Life Only for Iran,” and “Let Syria Be, Do Something for Me,” they are expressing a positive vision of Iranian nationhood: no longer do they wish to pay the price for the regime’s Shiite hegemonic ambitions. Iranian blood should be spilled for Iran, not Gaza, which for most Iranians is little more than a geographical abstraction. It is precisely its nationalist dimension that makes the current revolt the most potent the mullahs have yet faced. Nationalism, after all, is a much stronger force and in Iran the longing for historical continuity runs much deeper than liberal-democratic aspiration. Westerners who wish to see a replay of Central and Eastern Europe in 1989 in today’s Iran will find the lessons of Iranian history hard and distasteful, but Iranians and their friends who wish to see past the Islamic Republic must pay heed.

Read more at Commentary

More about: Iran, Nationalism, Politics & Current Affairs, Shah