Daily Archives: March 4, 2011

The Descent of Jewish Humour


Larry David of Curb Your Enthusiasm, in a moment clearly descended from the “badkhn” tradition, takes the stage at a Bat Mitzvah as part of a botched effort at score-settling

According to UC Berkley professor Mel Gordon, sardonic Jewish humor emerged from a pogrom in the Ukraine lasting from 1648 to 1651. Jewish elders determined that the massacre was God’s punishment, and so outlawed traditionally raucous shtetl entertainers to encourage communal piety. There was however one exception, the badkhn, who was regarded as a cruel truth-teller rather than a frivolous mirth-maker.

From the Jerusalem Post:

The badkhn was a staple in East European Jewish life for three centuries, mocking brides and grooms at their weddings. He also was in charge of Purim spiels in shtetl society.

His humor was biting, even vicious. He would tell a bride she was ugly, make jokes about the groom’s dead mother and round things off by belittling the guests for giving such worthless gifts. Much of the badkhn’s humor was grotesque, even scatological.

“They would talk about drooping breasts, big butts, small penises,” Gordon said. “We know a lot about them because they were always suing each other about who could tell which fart joke on which side of Grodno.”

It’s that same self-deprecating tone that characterizes the Yiddish-inflected Jewish jokes of the 20th century, Gordon points out. Who is the surly Jewish deli waiter of Henny Youngman fame if not a badkhn, making wisecracks at the customer’s expense? . . .

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.”

The badkhn’s role was secure from the 1660s to the 1890s and the beginning of the great Jewish migration to America and to the larger cities of Russia and Ukraine.

This character is recognizable in Frye’s account of the “churl” in Anatomy‘s Theory of Myths“:

Such a character [the churlish plain dealer] is appropriate when the tone is ironic enough to get the audience confused about the sense of the social norm: he corresponds roughly to the chorus in a tragedy, which is there for a similar reason. When the tone darkens from the ironic to the bitter, the plain dealer may become a malcontent or railer, who is morally superior to his society…but who may also be to motivated by envy to be much more than another aspect of his society’s evil… (CW 22, 164)