Catastrophe in Ukraine, Comedy Today
by Mel Gordon

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 people.

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 adopted homeland.

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.

“The Badkhn Ruling”

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 rites.

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 celebrations.

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 in between.

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 badkhonish .

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.

Union for Reform Judaism.