The Very Un-American Jewish Humor of S.Y. Abramovitsh

Examining the work of S.Y. Abramovitsh (1836-1917), the founding father of modern Yiddish literature, Dara Horn notes that, while comedy was the genre that came most naturally to him, his humor was far darker than the wisecracking that most 21st-century Jews associate with Yiddish. Abramovitsh, who wrote under the pseudonym Mendele Mokher Sforim (Mendele the Book Peddler), used his fiction to send up both shtetl Jews and anti-Semites:

Those who know little about Yiddish often associate it with humor. But most Yiddish literature isn’t particularly funny except in a horrible, un-American way: comically-told plots in which people suffer terribly or die horrible deaths. . . . This . . . aspect of Yiddish literature has a profound source beyond Jewish historical realities: Jewish tradition is fundamentally skeptical of art, and consequently Yiddish literature’s greatest humor is really humor about literature’s supposed redemptive powers.

Consider one of modern Yiddish literature’s foundational novels, Mendele the Book Peddler’s Travels of Benjamin the Third—a parody of classic Hebrew travelogues describing Jewish merchants’ voyages around the medieval world. Or, as its Russian-translation title announces, The Jewish Don Quixote. . . .

Travels of Benjamin the Third (1878) is about a pair of shtetl idiots who decide to journey to the Promised Land and end up walking around the block. Like Don Quixote, our leading idiot, Benjamin, is driven mad by books—in his case, medieval travelogues of the land of Israel. His Sancho Panza is Senderl, a loser whose wife routinely beats him. Senderl wants to escape violence, while Benjamin is inspired by proto-Zionist delusion; both motivations, which are the twin engines of modern Jewish history, are played for laughs. When they embark on their “expedition”—which begins at the town windmill, naturally—only Senderl thinks to pack food. . . .

[M]ost of the book’s jokes are entirely deadpan: “In [the shtetl of] Tuneyadevka, indeed, there was a saying: ‘No matter what gossip starts with, it will end with someone’s death, and no matter what is debated, the price of meat will go up,’ thus accounting for the presence of death and taxes in the world, two things that only a heretic would question, although why everybody died while only Jews paid taxes remained an unanswered riddle.” Like all Abramovitsh’s jokes, this one is funny because it’s true: in tsarist Russia, Jews were taxed as a group through sky-high tariffs on kosher meat and other extortions.

Read more at Tablet

More about: Arts & Culture, Jewish humor, Mendele Mokher Seforim, Yiddish literature

How America Sowed the Seeds of the Current Middle East Crisis in 2015

Analyzing the recent direct Iranian attack on Israel, and Israel’s security situation more generally, Michael Oren looks to the 2015 agreement to restrain Iran’s nuclear program. That, and President Biden’s efforts to resurrect the deal after Donald Trump left it, are in his view the source of the current crisis:

Of the original motivations for the deal—blocking Iran’s path to the bomb and transforming Iran into a peaceful nation—neither remained. All Biden was left with was the ability to kick the can down the road and to uphold Barack Obama’s singular foreign-policy achievement.

In order to achieve that result, the administration has repeatedly refused to punish Iran for its malign actions:

Historians will survey this inexplicable record and wonder how the United States not only allowed Iran repeatedly to assault its citizens, soldiers, and allies but consistently rewarded it for doing so. They may well conclude that in a desperate effort to avoid getting dragged into a regional Middle Eastern war, the U.S. might well have precipitated one.

While America’s friends in the Middle East, especially Israel, have every reason to feel grateful for the vital assistance they received in intercepting Iran’s missile and drone onslaught, they might also ask what the U.S. can now do differently to deter Iran from further aggression. . . . Tehran will see this weekend’s direct attack on Israel as a victory—their own—for their ability to continue threatening Israel and destabilizing the Middle East with impunity.

Israel, of course, must respond differently. Our target cannot simply be the Iranian proxies that surround our country and that have waged war on us since October 7, but, as the Saudis call it, “the head of the snake.”

Read more at Free Press

More about: Barack Obama, Gaza War 2023, Iran, Iran nuclear deal, U.S. Foreign policy