How a 1661 decree by the Council of Jewish Elders in Vilna begat
contemporary Jewish comedy.
Today the very concept of Hollywood comedy or American television
culture conjures up an endless stream of Jewish mass-media gladhanders serving
up ironic social satire, self-ridicule, and raunchy parody: the Marx Brothers,
the Three Stooges, Mel Brooks, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Larry David, Howard
Stern, Joan Rivers, Buddy Hackett, Jackie Mason, Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman….
Yet, before the 20th century, Jews were perceived as a singularly humorless
Two 19th-century philosophers, Thomas Carlyle and Ernest Renan, insisted that
Jews lacked any known facility to provoke laughter. And the chief rabbi of
London, Hermann Adler, wrote that the East European Jewish immigrants setting up
shop in London’s East End were a decent, sternly moral, hard-working,
family-oriented, and hygienic people, lacking only in one fundamental communal
asset: a healthy tongue-in-cheek disposition. In a generation or two, he assured
readers, these Hebrews would come to embrace the mirthful folkways of their
How, then, in just 80 years, did the Jews come to be considered one of the
world’s most joke-obsessed ethnic communities, comprising more than 80% of
America’s highest-paid comic performers and writers, and dominating the humor
industries of Berlin, Hamburg, Vienna, Moscow, Warsaw, Budapest, London, Mexico
City, and Johannesburg?
“Laughter Through Tears”
The most prevalent academic theory to explain the Jewish propensity for
embittered clownishness and smart-alecky comedy goes like this: As a wandering
people expelled from its homeland and at the mercy of unsympathetic host
countries, we Jews developed the disquieting perspective of the uninvited guest,
using biting humor to mitigate our persecuted status. Playing sarcastic
wisenheimers helped us not only to exist in inhospitable environments, but to
utterly confuse our hell-bent attackers. After all, what harm can someone do to
you if you’ve already denounced yourself with élan?
There is substance to the notion that diaspora Jews were naturally more
attuned than others to the social hypocrisy permeating the societies in which
they found themselves. Who but history’s quintessential outsiders would be
better positioned to peer behind the world’s hidden sanctums and expose them
with ironic ridicule? Moreover, as members of a tribe calling itself “God’s
Chosen People,” Jews had to grapple with the existential dilemma of having a
Divine life protection policy, but little to show for it since Daniel negotiated
his way out of the lion’s den. Indeed, no other ethnic group has spent so much
time and psychic energy debating why its Creator may have stiffed them.
However, a “laughter-through-tears” theory fails to account for the fact that
other persecuted peoples, such as the Tibetans, Native Americans, and Armenians,
cannot chalk up comparable achievements in the wit arena. If genocidal menace is
the primary catalyst for in-group humor and bitter sarcasm, then there should be
at least a couple dozen uproarious Rwandan or Bosnian standups pacing across our
global comic-scape, nu?
Moreover, the correlation between suffering and humor in Jewish history is
weak. The great catastrophes in Jewish history—the destruction of the First and
Second Temples, the Crusades, the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions, the
Shoah—produced relativity few celebrated rib-ticklers. Nor is there a recorded
incidence where a self-deflating Tevye distracted a single-minded Cossack from
discharging his sworn duties of looting, raping, or torching a shtetl.
Finally, such explanations ignore perhaps the most momentous event in the
history of Jewish humor.
One day in 1661, a decade after Cossack bands and Tartars devastated Jewish
communities in the Ukraine and Poland in the Khmielnitsky Rebellion, a council
of Jewish elders convened in Vilna to determine why God had withdrawn His
heavenly shield from the Chosen People.
The council attributed the catastrophe to God’s anger at the Jews for
mimicking gentile practices on Purim by engaging in such carnivalesque
activities as masked dancing, excessive drinking, and parodies of devotional
The council’s solution was harsh: Heretofore, the 613 biblical commandments
would be strictly enforced and all merry-making sharply curtailed.
Specifically, at Jewish weddings brides could not don finery, such as gowns
made from hammered silk, or be bedecked in gold jewelry; the celebrants would
have to number fewer than 50; and the week of customary amusements, such as the
seven festive meals, would be disallowed.
Traditionally joyful religious holidays such as Purim and Simchat Torah would
henceforth become somber occasions. Masquerades, house-to-house comic
enactments, public drinking, and fire-dances would be forbidden.
And—in what would ultimately transform the trajectory of Jewish humor—Jewish
comic entertainers of all kinds would be banned from Jewish nuptial
In a single stroke, the July 3, 1661 decree did away with all the
freewheeling Jewish jokesters (leytsanim), inventive master rhymesters
(payats), playful showmen (marshaliks), and sleight-of-hand
jugglers (shpilmanern) from Odessa to Warsaw and all the shtetlach
But on that fateful day, one matter still had to be settled: What to do about
the badkhns (rhymes with “Maude wins”)—the ragtag Jewish insult artists
known for their abusive, unpleasant, and rude in-your-face repartee?
Because the badkhns were neither funny nor popular, the council
decided to exempt them from the decree.
Thus, inadvertently, the elders boosted a unique comic sensibility—
hyper-aggressive jousting and obscene effrontery—that would evolve into
contemporary Jewish humor as we know it.
After the 1661 decree, badkhns became the only professional jokers
among Yiddish speakers in the Pale of Settlement. Competition was fierce—it was
the survival of the filthiest—and legal disputes often arose over which
badkhn originated what insulting gags and had the right to repeat them.
Secretaries in rabbinic courts transcribed the merciless rants to enable judges
to determine who had the right to proclaim which cutting slur north or south of
Grono (which is why we still have a paper trail of many of their routines).
Much of badkhn humor traded on grotesque eroticism and scatology,
juggling references to over and undersized body parts and fart jokes. Other
badkhn comic enactments involved gross physical humor, like the
Strassberg badkhn who sat backwards on a horse, holding a sheet of paper
and the horse’s tail in one hand and a pen in the other. While he solemnly
parodied the pronouncements of a learned rabbi, he “dipped” the pen into the
horse’s rear end and pretended to scribble them on the page.
At Jewish marriage ceremonies, badkhn MCs corralled the bride and the
groom in isolated compartments and delivered manic lectures about the sorrowful
futures that awaited them. It was said that a good badkhn could make you
cry until you nearly went blind from dread and embitterment. At the wedding
meal, the badkhn sang about the inadequate qualities of the gifts the
couple was about to receive. Typically, the badkhn would also silence the
wedding guests by dispassionately noting that everyone at the affair, even the
youngest of the lot, would be worm-infested corpses within 60 years.
Badkhns performed at Jewish funerals too, often interrupting tearful
testimonials for esteemed luminaries with inappropriate table blessings for the
consumption of meat or wine.
The institution of the badkhn flourished for some 200 years before it
almost became extinct in the 1890s, as the Industrial Revolution, mass
migration, and assimilation upended traditional Jewish life in Europe.
The badkhn figure, however, endured on the Yiddish stage. In fact, the
first modern playwrights and professional performers in the Yiddish theatre,
such as Avrom Goldfaden and the Broder Zingers, were former badkhns.
In I.B. Peretz’ Yiddish classic play Night in the Old Market
(1915), two badkhns brought the curtain down with blood-curdling shrieks
and a smug warning against Divine indifference to imminent Jewish obliteration.
One of them chanted the traditional badkhn refrain, “The worse the world,
the better our jokes!”
But while professional badkhns were increasingly becoming a rarity,
the badkhonish humor they embodied persisted. For Eastern European Jews
immigrating to America at the turn of the 20th century, lambasting their
cultural shortcomings and parodying the wretched status of God’s chosen in acute
satirical and obscene riffs remained part of their cultural baggage.
The “Heb comic” duo Weber and Fields (Moishe Weber and Moishe Schanfield)
would deliver America’s first taste of badkhn humor. By 1905 they’d added
ridicule and slapstick violence to their act, inspiring the raucous antics of
many emerging Jewish comedy teams like the Howard Brothers, Smith and Dale, the
Marx Brothers, the Ritz Brothers, the Happiness Boys, the Hudson Brothers, and
the Three Stooges. Even the half-Jewish team of Abbott and Costello borrowed
several sketch ideas from the Weber and Field repertory.
Seemingly overnight, Hebrew monologists and Jewish stumblebums inundated the
American vaudeville, burlesque, and revue scene. Cynical wisecracking,
overwrought grievances, self-depreciating asides, and taboo-piercing insults
became the national rage. With the invention of modern technologies—sound
recordings, radio, and “talking movies”—badkhn-inspired humor roared
across the land.
By the 1920s–30s, wide-eyed, big city primitives such as Eddie Cantor, Ed
Wynn, Lou Holtz, and Fanny Brice pivoted, patty-caked, and pranced their way
across Manhattan’s tony revue houses. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, they
reappeared as eccentric MCs of America’s earliest national radio variety shows.
As the Depression and antisemitism intensified, though, they toned down the
screwball greenhorn schtick. Overtly Jewish badkhn humor had to go
elsewhere—like the Jewish resort hotels and bungalow colonies in the Catskill
Mountains outside New York City. There, “social directors” recruited scrappy
stand-up comics called “toomlers” to keep a difficult clientele pacified. The
improvisational invective the toomlers employed led to new incarnations of
New York’s Borscht Belt begat Danny Kaye, Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar, Mel
Brooks, Buddy Hackett, Lenny Bruce, Joan Rivers, Rodney Dangerfield, Don
Rickles, Woody Allen, and many others who would later rise to fame through the
media of television and film.
By the 1960s the green rooms of hip nightclubs were jammed with arrogant
stand-ups—mostly Jewish, but outsider gentiles too—who energized the
counterculture with Borscht Belt effrontery in badkhn tradition.
A decade later, Jewish headliners such as Richard Belzer, Susie Essman, Paul
Reisner, Howie Mandel, Robert Schimmel, Roseanne Barr, Jerry Seinfeld, Carol
Leifer, Adam Sandler, Richard Lewis, Rita Rudner, Gilbert Gottfried, Sarah
Silverman, and Seth Rogen took badkhonish full circle by flaunting their
Jewishness and unabashedly trumpeting their tribe’s unique comic sensibilities.
For this, we need to thank the Jewish elders of Vilna 350 years ago.
Mel Gordon is a professor of Theatre at UC Berkeley and the author of 14
books. This essay is adapted from his most recent book, Siegel and Shuster’s
Funnyman, the First Jewish Superhero (Port Townsend, WA: Feral House, 2010),
co-authored with Thomas Andrae.