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."