Origins of Jewish humor

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1905 postcard of a badkhn at a wedding

What are the roots of Jewish humor? According to UC Berkeley theater arts professor Mel Gordon -- author of Siegel and Shuster's Funnyman and Voluptuous Panic -- it goes back hundreds of years before the Borscht Belt. Gordon argues that the Badkhn, a jester-like comedian figure common at weddings and Purim celebrations in East European shtetls, was the father of what we know as Jewish humor today. The Badkhn act was only one of many styles of Jewish comedy popular in the shtetls. Then, in the mid-17th century, 100,000 Jews in Ukraine were killed in a pogrom carried out by Cossacks. The ultraorthodox Rabbis of Poland and Ukraine decided that the pogroms were a punishment from God and that Jews should lead stricter lives and not have as much fun. So comedy acts had to go. But on July 3, 1661, the Badkhn was given a special exemption. From the Jerusalem Post:

...A rabbi asked his colleagues, what about the badkhn? He’s not really funny, the rabbi said. In fact, he’s abusive.

The elders agreed, and the badkhn was exempted from the ban -- he wasn't a merrymaker and wasn't encouraging levity. And that’s how the badkhn became the only Jewish comic permitted in the shtetls, Gordon says, and how his particular brand of sarcastic, bleak humor set the tone for what we know today as Jewish comedy. Before the 1660s, the badkhn was the least popular Jewish entertainer – now he was the sole survivor.

“Jewish humor used to be the same as that of the host country,” Gordon said. “Now it began to deviate from mainstream European humor. It became more aggressive, meaner. All of Jewish humor changed..."

Little remains of the badkhn today outside Chasidic communities, where they are the stars of the yearly Purim spiels. When Gordon lived in New York in the 1980s, he would take journalists to Chasidic synagogues in Brooklyn every spring to witness these raucous celebrations.

But the badkhn’s influence is still felt in mainstream culture, Gordon says, from the Borsch Belt humor of the 1920s and ‘30s, to contemporary Italian and African-American comedians who trade in barbed insults and self-deprecation.

“Even today, almost all Jewish entertainers have badkhn humor," Gordon said. "Sarah Silverman is completely badkhn.

“What did my father find funny? Dirty jokes. Because that’s the badkhn humor he grew up with.”

"Badkhn Belt? Jewish humor was born in 1661, prof says" (Thanks, Adam Parfrey!)


  1. HAH! Right now I am listening to Marc Maron’s podcast WTF, and he is interviewing Amy Schumer! So apropos : D

  2. “What did my father find funny? Dirty jokes. Because that’s the badkhn humor he grew up with.”

    Wait, I’m Jewish?

    Interesting, but likely over-reaching. I doubt ‘the dozens’, for example, can be traced back to the shtetels. In fact, most immigrant groups in the US had a history that lent itself to dark humor.

  3. The essence of Jewish humor is iconoclasm so I would argue that the origin of Jewish humor would have to be the patriarch Abraham. There is a legend taught to every Jewish child of how Abraham, then called Avram, wanted to demonstrate the folly of idol worship to his father Terach. Terach was a purveyor of idols and left Avram to mind the store while he departed. A woman came with a plateful of flour and asked Avram to offer it to the idols. Avram then took a stick, broke the idols, and put the stick in the largest idol’s hand. When Terach returned, he demanded that Avram explain what he’d done. Avram told his father that the idols fought among themselves and the largest broke the others with the stick. “Why do you make sport of me?” Terah cried, “Do they have any knowledge?” Avram replied, “Listen to what you are saying!”

    The only problem with my argument is that that Arabs also claim descent from Abraham and they are not to my knowledge generally known for there sense of humor.

  4. ”Guy walks into a shtetl….”

    All peoples have a sense of humor. Playing ”the dozens”, for instance, seems to be universal. Inuits play the dozens. Humankind’s common ancestors, the !Kung, play them. You can get a lot of laughs out of a well-placed postalveolar click.

  5. “The only problem with my argument is that that Arabs also claim descent from Abraham and they are not to my knowledge generally known for there sense of humor.”

    Er, stereotype much? Admittedly, Arabic doesn’t seem grammatically suited for a lot of punchline-heavy jokes (though I wonder how much Yiddish contributed to Jewish humor over the centuries), and cultural taboos about openly discussing private lives makes it hard to joke about wives and kids. On the other hand, Arabs do a kind of mordant, dry humor quite well, and they’ve got a seemingly inexhaustible supply of political jokes. (“Inexhaustible” because you can use the exact same jokes on every political leader in the region — almost every Mubarak-themed joke I heard coming out of Egypt I first heard in relation to Yassir Arafat during the siege of Beirut.)

    If you want a comparison, think of the Russians; a lot of Arab humor reminds me of when I realized that “The Brothers Karamazov” was actually a *comedy*.

  6. It’s not cultural history that leads to this sense of humor, it’s your thetans. Why don’t you take this personality test and I’ll show you….

    –L. Ron Hoover

  7. Here’s my fave since I’ve got one of these myself.

    How many Jewish mothers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

    None – I’ll just sit here in the dark.

  8. Jewish humor did not begin 1661, but much earlier on. There is a lot of it in the Gospels of the Christian Bible, used by Jesus Himself to great effect, especially when debating with the Pharisees. But as a generalised art form, Jewish humor seems to have been refined during the pogroms and various other persecutions visited upon this people. It was the only way that they could come to terms with their unfortunate situation, and as a means of keeping up their courage in difficult times, Jewish humor is unsurpassable. Modern stand-up comedy itself is deeply indebted to Jewish humor, each gag having a twist to it which tickles the imagination of the hearer. Jewish humor is the epitome of the definition of a joke: “The sudden dissipation of an intense expectation into nothing”.

  9. Methinks it goes all the way back to at least the Israelites, who are said to have kvetched before passing through the sea of reeds (translated by some as the Red Sea):

    “Was there a lack of graves in Egypt, that you took us away to die in the wilderness?” (Exodus 14:11, according to a translation found on the ‘net).

  10. I would argue that the only thing qualifying specifically as “Jewish humor” are jokes about Judaism or jokes told by Jews.

    Other aspects that are often associated with “Jewish humor” such as a self-deprecating style, dirty jokes, or a sharp punchline are hardly unique to Jews. And Jewish comedians are not genetically immune from being influenced by gentile comedians as well.

    In other words, when Woody Allen jokes about being neurotic – that’s not “Jewish humor” (unless you merely mean that Allen is a Jewish comedian). Likewise, when Jon Stewart does satire and commentary it is not “Jewish satire and commentary”, it’s just comedy.

    Certainly, no one calls Colbert’s routine “Catholic humor”. And wouldn’t it appear rather bigoted or tribal if they did?

  11. I am a Jew – 40 this year – I’ve brewed beer since 14 years old -seriously brewed. In brewing lore there is a story how a Belgian monk thought his beer was so good that it might be to good – sinful. Fearing it might be too good – too sinful (feeling guilty with his pleasure) – he sent a cask to Rome to make sure – to get their yeigh or neigh.

    The Papal wine aficionados tasted the Belgian monk’s prized brew and thought it bitter, unrefined, icky, ceepy, so they declared it to be Kosher for monks – right and proper for those living a life of no luxuries, contemplation and solitude – much like they sanctioned some orders beating themselves with thorns.

    I compare the Jewish leadership sanctioning these badkhns as being unfunny, and therefore kosher, with Rome declaring Belgian beer (Lambic et al.) to be bitter and nasty and therefore being perfect for monks and penitents.

    Sometimes the elite really miss what’s good – except of course when they want to keep the good stuff to themselves which happens all too often.

    1. Ah, like genmaicha and kukicha teas!

      Of course, once the peasants figured out how to make the leftovers tasty, the elites wanted some too.

    2. I don’t know why it would be important, but you left out the part of the story where the beer spoils over the long journey, and is thus declared “bad enough to be permitted” when tasted IIRC.

      Sadly, regarding specifically jewish humor, I have nothing to add.

  12. The picture is really bothering me. Why does the woman in the chair have no head? It looks like her head has merged with the chest of the woman standing behind her! It’s very disconcerting.

    1. I think she’s got sort of a bonnet on and her head is lowered, and she’s holding a hanky to her face like the other women ’cause they’re laughing so hard that they’re crying.

  13. Minor point, since from what I can tell, you’re just republishing the figure in the Slate article on topic, the Khmelnetsky revolt, while it did lead to the deaths of tens of thousands of Jews, also led to the death of several times that number of Poles, and tens of thousands of Cossacks / Serfs / Proto-Ukranians as well – it was a revolt, not a single-purpose organized pogrom. I’m not defending 17th century ethnic conflict, but the total for Jewish dead was likely more in the 15 000 -30 000 range, not 100 000 (by this point, Wikipedia actually has a fairly solid academic discussion of the topic).

    I’m being pedantic, but I’m also a student of Eastern European history, and I like my history as accurate as can be achieved on scant sources: the 100 000 number is academically discredited and sensationalized by calling it a “pogrom.” The article itself is interesting (and amusing), but the framing text gets to me.

  14. Nice theory, but rubbish. It’s just standard Eastern European humour – read early Chekhov.

  15. If what the author posits is so, then Rodney Dangerfield is a classic b a d k h n . “I tell ya, I get no respect!” That soft of thing.

  16. The badchan is still a fixture at weddings in Chassidic (except for Chabad) communities, at the mitzvah tanz which follows the wedding dinner. (This can run till around 4 AM – the more prestigious the family, the later it goes.) His role is basically to introduce male family members and honored guests as they dance “with” the bride, holding one end of a long sash as she holds the other end. The badchan extols the virtues of the family lineage, recalling departed relatives, which often makes the celebrants weep. But his routine, delivered in song, has plenty of humor of the clean, non-deprecating variety. The finale is when the bride and groom dance holding hands – the first time they are permitted to touch each other, and the last time they will do so in public.

  17. Sarcasm is not “A sense of humour”, it is “Many a truth is told in jest” – to abuse cunningly. Only people with guilt do these things, be they “comedians”, the guilty or the angry.

    Egotism stems from stupidity, ok idiocy, and all cultures which do not have “intellectual pursuits” do not have “A sense of humour”. One reason why the “over-developed” sees those who lack “A sense of humour” as being sloowww and perhaps dumb but most definitely as being “under-developed”..

    It is benevolent to [finally] realised that guilt is merely anger suppressed and anger is merely guilt express, a right today being a wrong tomorrow when one lacks absoluteness/permanency. When permanency is absent, you’ll have transience, oka gambling. Name one activity which is not of a gamble within “The Affairs of Men”. Really? Are you guilty or angry? Is that why some actually survives on air, not having to repeat anything – a permanent being, the one who never changes.

    Humanity is not Truth, Love nor are we Intelligence but we can be truthful, loving and act intelligently whenever the repetition is required – if need be after the “humouring”, gorging, alcoholing, smoking, politiking, viewpointing, hallelujahuing, godding and anything else of gambling/repetition that was missed out.

  18. Pulled from “Old Jews Telling Jokes” podcast:

    A guy is at the breakfast table. His wife starts into a frustrated tirade on him.
    “Look at you. You, you’re such a schmuck. You don’t do anything, you’ve never made any money. You’re a schmuck. In fact, you’re the second biggest schmuck in the world.”

    The husband replies, “What? If I’m such a schmuck, why am I not the biggest schmuck in the world?”

    “Because you’re a schmuck.”

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