The Genesis:3 Project
But Judah said to him, “The man warned us, ‘Do not let me see your faces unless your brother is with you.’ Genesis 43:3
My great grandfather Ben was a spitfire. Of course, I knew him when he was older, spending most of his days in an armchair that seemed to swallow him up, reading the Forverts in Yiddish, smoking Dutch Masters cigars or a pipe and bantering with my great-grandmother Molly and, after she died, his daughter Gertie. But he was filled with stories of how he transformed the landscape of the Chicago Jewish community. Were all of those stories true? I hope so.
I do not remember him being a scholar, but I do remember that he loved wordplay, which is an occupational hazard among my rabbinic colleagues. Just as I am not certain that he established an orphanage for Jewish children, I am not certain that he invented the dad joke. But at his funeral, the rabbi fondly remembered that whenever he asked my Zaydie, “How do you feel?” he would answer, “With my fingers.”
That was a new joke back then.
There are dozens of jokes like that, jokes that play on the literal meaning of an idiom. “This package is too heavy: it needs more stamps” – “More stamps will make it lighter?” “It’s cold outside, close the window” – “If I close the window it will be warm outside?” “The doctor told me I had a disease; I said I wanted a second opinion. He said: you’re ugly, too.” “Doc, it hurts when I go like this.” --- “So don’t go like that.” And, of course, the perfect joke, the signature line of Henny Youngman, four words that defined the endeavor: Take my wife, please.
It is no wonder that I can’t help but read the Bible with gentle disrespect when it comes to language. Serious scholars of Jewish tradition elevated the creative intonation and application of words into the entire system of Jewish law. Schleppers like me have a lower target – a chuckle.
We are satisfied with insisting that baseball predated creation. After all, wasn’t the world begun “in the big inning?” A slightly scatological camp song suggests that there were a number of constipated men in the Bible, including Cain who wasn’t Abel. (There are nine more at least, but you are on your own.) And bilingually there is no better moment than the occasional year when the Torah reading about the red heifer falls on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, and we hear the instruction to put “living waters in the vessel,” which, in Hebrew, is pronounced mayim chayyim el Kelly, as close as you get to the Bible saying, “Get that man a beer.”
I don’t know how old the presumption of a Jewish sense of humor actually is. Despite of the plethora of comedians and comedy writers, from George Burns to Jon Stewart, our comic cleverness is more an American phenomenon than a Talmudic one. Sure, there were stories of Chelm, the town of fools, that emerged from the European Jewish culture, and the occasional exaggerations of our original sages. Yes, Rabbi Akiba said close to 2000 years ago that a little joke is a good way to get your audience’s interest. But puns and wordplay were tools for understanding, not matters for amusement or (if I am going to honest) groans.
Otherwise, it would have been a longstanding tradition that Jacob is misquoted in response to Judah’s representation in the verse above. Instead of chastising his son for telling the Egyptians that there was another brother at home, and thereby putting young Benjamin at risk, Jacob, father of Shecky, would have replied to Judah’s protestation, “The man warned us, ‘Do not let me see your faces unless your brother is with you’” very differently. He would have said, “Tell him not to look!”
Zaydie would have liked it.