The First Book of Jewish Jokes

The First Book of Jewish Jokes

The Collection of L.M. Büschenthal

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Elliott Oring
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    Indiana University Press
    , September
     176 pages.
     For other formats: .


This is a review of Elliott Oring’s recent work The First Book of Jewish Jokes: The Collection of L.M. Büschenthal. Oring edited the volume and wrote the introduction, and the review of his work is forthcoming. However, this reviewer begins by talking about the work of the translator, Michaela Lang. Translation is more of an art than a science, but translating jokes is a particularly impossible and, it seems, thankless task. Lang is credited on the cover, but there is no biography provided for her. Oring thanks her in his Acknowledgements without including any title or honorific. I find this especially concerning as her job was impossible on two levels. First, an enormous amount of what makes a joke function is in the language. Something as linguistically-specific as a pun (which many of these were), the very sound of words, the cadence of phrases, the flow and timing of speech, all make a joke “work,” so Lang had to wrestle with that to provide a translation that was both accurate, and made at least a modicum of sense. So many jokes literally become “lost in translation,” and Lang has done a masterful job at presenting them as well as they could be presented. Secondly, Lang was faced with the problem of the cultural specificity of humor. Not only was she wrestling with construction of a translation that makes sense, she was working across time and space to try to render the incomprehensible comprehensible. So, without Lang’s precise and exacting work on this project, there would be no foundation on which Oring could build.

In terms of what Oring built, however, this volume is a small but important contribution to the field of Jewish Humor Studies (as well as Jewish Studies and Humor Studies). Oring has essentially been writing the same book his entire career, with each iteration getting more tightly focused. From Jokes and their Relations (Transaction Publishers, 2010) to Joking Asides: The Theory, Analysis, and Aesthetics of Humor (Utah State University Press, 2016), and now with The First Book of Jewish Jokes, Oring cements his place as the authority on where and how certain humor forms, especially Jewish, developed, and what that means for contemporary scholars of these humor forms. Oring’s genius is in his ability to break a regionally- or culturally-specific humor form into its most elemental parts, in order to make it not only easier to analyze, but also potentially comparable to a different regionally- or culturally-specific humor form—something which is difficult, if not impossible, to do well.

What Oring has given us in The First Book of Jewish Jokes is primarily context. There has been a tendency to look to late 19th century Eastern European Jewish humor as the genesis of contemporary Jewish humor. For example, scholars look to Sholem Aleichem or S.Y. Abromovitz, and see their writings as the beginnings of Jewish humor as we recognize it today. This volume shifts that narrative both earlier in time and further west. It breaks the myth that the reason for Jewish humor is the violence and oppression that Jews in the Russian Pale of Settlement were experiencing. The Leibzoll (body tax) is the major stressor here, not pogroms. This collection was originally published in German, and Oring further separates it from Eastern Europe by telling us it is “devoid of Yiddishisms” (11). 

As a reference text, both Oring’s analysis and Lang’s translation will prove to be invaluable to scholars looking for the etiology of a certain comic trope, or those trying to trace the history of certain comedic ideas. The comprehensive and exhaustive cataloging and cross-listing of the jokes in Büschenthal’s collection makes it easy to move back and forth between sections, comparing the wording of similar jokes, or collecting the jokes that relate to a single topic. Oring has said in interviews that this book is an attempt to “put the study of Jewish jokes on a historical footing,” and overall, that is just what he has done (Times of Israel, 11/25/18).

However, the book does leave some questions unanswered. First, the Ashkenormative assumption that “Jewish” equals “European Jewish” goes unchallenged. It is likely true that this is the first book of Jewish jokes, but there is no discussion of Jewish jokes from Judeo-Arabic or Spanish speaking communities. The texts in this collection date from 1810 and 1812. How does that compare to the oldest collections of Jewish jokes from the Sephardic or Mizrachi world? The underlying assumption, that “Jewish” has a singular and Euro-centric meaning, is one that is rampant in much of Jewish studies, but feels more immediately concerning when looking at cultural history. Second, there is the matter of the earlier, but smaller collection Oring surveys. He is working from Büschenthal’s collection from 1812, but Büschenthal copied a large percentage of his collection directly from Judas Ascher’s pseudonymous collection from 2 years previous. In chapter 4, Oring includes the jokes in Ascher’s text which are not found in Büschenthal’s, and they are significantly more anti-Jewish in tone than the ones Büschenthal reprinted. Ascher calls himself “a friend of the Jews,” yet Ascher printed 30 jokes in which a gentile gets the better of a Jew—compared to 3 such jokes collected by Büschenthal. Jews in Ascher’s collection are portrayed more negatively, and the punchlines of his jokes are more likely to involve a Jew being injured, arrested, forcibly converted, or otherwise menaced. More distance between the tone of the two collections—or at least a bit more analysis of why Ascher’s collection is so much more negative—would not have gone amiss.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jennifer A. Caplan is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Towson University.

Date of Review: 
May 22, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Elliott Oring is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at California State University, Los Angeles. He is author of Joking Asides: The Theory, Analysis, and Aesthetics of HumorEngaging Humor, and Jokes and Their Relations. He is also past editor of Western Folklore and is currently on the editorial boards of Humor: International Journal for Humor Research and Journal of Folklore Research.


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