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

October 17, 2017 | Dara Horn
About the author: Dara Horn is the author of five novels, most recently Eternal Life.

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.

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