Humor in War and Peace

How Israelis and Jews Laugh at Themselves

by Norman Berdichevsky (Sept. 2006)

How have Israelis managed to survive psychologically once again after so many conflicts, war, terrorism and threats of annihilation? Jewish humor like every other aspect of life was conditioned by centuries of existence as an outcast minority subject to scorn, rejection and, at times, ostracism from the rest of society. A humor developed that was created by Jews for Jews reflecting and often mocking this fact of life particularly for those individuals who could not simply accept with equanimity the notion that this was the price they had to pay for their “election” as a “chosen people” with a divine mission to bring the Torah as a “Light Unto the Nations”.

Part of their means of adaptation was to develop a darker more sarcastic kind of humor than other nations. Many scholars assert that this sense of humor helped them survive. Laughing at difficult situations became a defense mechanism that enabled them to endure. The underlying tenet of the humor was that Jews found themselves in a situation where they had no power or weapons to change it. A favorite technique that became a staple of Jewish humor in both the Diaspora and Israel is to turn the tables on the enemy….

Ezra, a Jewish gentleman was sitting in Central Park one day, and his best friend Moshe came up to him and asked him why he was reading a particular newspaper.
"You know, Ezra, that paper is anti-Semitic." Ezra replies, "I know, Moshe , but I love hearing so many good things that come out of this paper. They think the Jews control Hollywood, the government, the labor unions, big business, all are rich and live in beautiful homes with big cars and beautiful blond mistresses. It's great being a Jew!"

This kind of humor also reinforced two contrasting stereotypes widely accepted by gentile society in spite of the fact that they appear to be mutually exclusive.

These were a picture of the Jews as

1. inept, clumsy, inhibited, naive or starry eyed dreamers totally out of their depth as demonstrated by the great number of Yiddish words such as schlemiel, shmendrik, klutz, putz and schmuck, as typified by Woody Allen and Jack Benny

or

2. brash, loud, vulgar, aggressive, sarcastic and assertive challenging the polite and often hypocritical niceties of Gentile society as signified by the now thoroughly Americanized Yiddish words “chutzpah” and “mamzer“ as typified by the Marx Brothers and Mel Brooks.

Milton Berle and Jerry Lewis were successful at playing both types simultaneously in what could be called “the aggressive schlemiel”.

Just as the first type became identified with Yiddish in the Diaspora, Israeli humor definitely tends toward the second type but with the added dimension of the Hebrew language . Many observers find humor in Israel more aggressive, black and intense as befits a people who have thrown off the acquired characteristics of an oppressed minority expected to defer to the majority and forced in the past to use humor as the weapon of the weak.

What then has happened to humor in Israel now that the Jews are a sovereign nation with their own ability to mold a language that has existed only as a spoken vernacular for the last three generations? Jewish humor as social satire was frequently used to deflate the pretensions and arrogance of the rich and powerful on behalf of the poor and has been transposed on to the national scene in a similar vein today with Israel as the heroic David threatened by its enemies.

Some sensitive Jewish critics in the Diaspora find that Israeli humor has, however, gone too far and is too blunt, tough, iconoclastic, even macabre and vulgar. They often miss out on the delightful playfulness of modern Hebrew slang that often defies translation and for the same reasons as Yiddish did. The language and humor are inseparable from the social and political environment. In Israel life differs drastically from Jewish life elsewhere in spite of the common historical origin.

War and the intense anxiety produced by horrific acts of terrorism must be deflected somehow and many Israelis face them head on often shocking many religious and Diaspora Jews as grossly insensitive. Outsiders also find coarse jokes about the Orthodox, new immigrants unfamiliar with the Hebrew language or Arabs offensive in the same way as Polish-Americans found so called “Polish jokes“ demeaning. Perhaps they represent a freedom for Jews to finally make someone else the “victim”.

In peacetime, Jews in Israel cannot blame “the other” (i.e. the Gentiles or even the Arabs) Having lived in Israel for several years, I found that the Israeli target for humor satire and even invective was well placed - the country‘s politicians, political system and maddening bureaucracy, often flavored by an explicit envy of American life, popular culture and personalities much like an admiring distant cousin …A typical example of a few years ago was ….The United States has Bill Clinton, Stevie Wonder, Bob Hope and Johnny Cash. In Israel we have Bibi Netanyahu, No Wonder, No Hope, No Cash.

Self-deprecating jokes are still popular although the sophisticated comedian often implies that Israelis aren’t really proud of the way their lives have been forcibly shaped by the many problems and tensions that are part of daily life even in peacetime as for example….An Israeli, a Russian, and an American are sitting in a restaurant. A waiter comes by and says, "Excuse me, but we have a shortage of meat." The American asks: "What's 'shortage'?" The Russian asks: "What's 'meat'?" The Israeli asks: "What's 'excuse me'?"

Nevertheless, there are two important aspects of Israeli humor that set it apart from the Diaspora. The first stresses the pride in Israel’s accomplishments and a “can do” mentality in the face of overwhelming odds- precisely the opposite of the poor shlemiel stereotype. This trend began long before Israeli independence. Native-born Hebrew speaking "sabras" have been represented in the public mind and literature of the early pioneer generations as strong, brave, somewhat coarse, and outspoken although often gentle, childish, and uncultivated. A collection of anecdotes in Jokes and Witticisms (Jerusalem 1945) by Alter Duryanov tells the following story …..number 2636 cited in Even-Zohar, Itamar 1990; "The Emergence of a Native Hebrew Culture in Palestine, 1882-1948." Polysystem Studies; Poetics Today 11:1 (1990)],

"Tel Aviv, Herzl Street. A group of children pour out of the Herzlia Gymnasium (academic high school). Two famous Yiddishists are passing by, having come to visit Palestine [probably just before or after World War 1], and the greater Yiddishist says to his junior colleague: 'The Zionists boast that Hebrew is becoming a natural tongue for the children of Palestine. I will now show you that they are lying. I will tweak one of the boys' ears and I promise you that he will not cry out ima ["mother" in Hebrew], but mame [Yiddish].' So saying, he approached one of the boys and tweaked his ear. The boy turned on him and shouted: 'Idiot!' [hamor ("donkey") in Hebrew]. The famous Yiddishist turned to his friend: 'I am afraid that the Zionists are right.'

The whole point of the joke is not simply the change in language but rather the change in mentality of a new generation of Jews born in their own land and brought up to defend themselves. The second aspect is the clever use of wordplays derived from the flexibility of the Hebrew language and the innovative use of Biblical language and characters transcribed into modern contexts.

Today Hebrew remains the language of synagogue liturgy for most Diaspora Jews but outside of Israel lacks the powerful attraction and fascination it held even for many Christian theologians and clergymen who felt the power of the language they believed God first used to speak to man. This feeling of reverence and power was beautifully expressed by the great German writer Hermann Hesse writing in his largely autobiographical novel “Beneath the Wheel”. In a poetic passage he recounts the vitality of the language and insights gained by German boys studying Hebrew to qualify as pastors in the state Lutheran Church.


“Hebrew kept all of them on their toes. The peculiar ancient language of Jehovah, an uncouth, withered and yet secretly living tree took on an alien, gnarled and puzzling from before the boys’ eyes, catching their attention through unusual linkages and astonishing them with remarkably colored and fragrant blossoms. In its branches, hollows and roots lived friendly or gruesome thousand-year old ghosts; fantastically fearsome dragons, lovely naïve girls and wrinkled sages next to handsome boys and calm-eyed girls or quarrelsome women. What had sounded remote and dreamlike in the Lutheran Bible was now lent blood in its true coarse character, as well as a voice of an old cumbersome but tenacious and ominous life.”

 

For almost two thousand years Hebrew was essentially a written language rather than a spoken one. When it was spoken, it was used on formal and ceremonial occasions or as the neutral choice for communication between speakers who had no other common language. It is for this reason that Hebrew changed so little. Even today, schoolchildren are able to read and understand the Bible without any special training.

Modern Hebrew, which began only a little more than a century ago, has changed more since then than in the preceding two thousand years to reflect the needs of a community of speakers. Scholars who have learned biblical, or Talmudic Hebrew are thus often at a loss to understand modern colloquial Israeli Hebrew unless they have lived in the country for some time. Likewise a turn-of-the century American or Englishman would not be familiar with the new meanings acquired by such words as ‘gay’, ‘far out’, ‘blue’, ‘hot‘, ‘cool’, ‘wicked’, ‘boss’ or even ‘brother’ and ‘mother’ in the sense they are used today.

In the early 1970’s a witty bestseller on Hebrew slang Milon Olami Le’lvrit Meduberet (The World Dictionary of Spoken Hebrew) by Dan Amotz delighted Israeli audiences. Slang relies on being able to appreciate the context of the subjects under discussion and an implied familiarity with the social and political realities of the society in which the language is used. It is for this reason that American and Britons, or Irishmen and Englishmen do not necessarily laugh at the same jokes.

In any daily conversation on the street, in a bus, or at the marketplace in Israel, one can hear Hebrew terms which have undergone a transformation, so that although the root meaning of the words may be recognizable, it is not immediately obvious how to interpret their usage or the implied connotations. The following is intended as a ‘Guide to the Perplexed’ for both Hebraists abroad, non-Hebrew speakers and those who intend to visit Israel and keep their ears open for expressions of Israeli humor. You need not even have an acute ear since these expressions are repeated dozens of times a day.

The etymology of three common idiomatic expressions illustrate how the social development of Jewish society in Mandatory Palestine and the modern state of Israel have changed the Hebrew language to conform to a reality in a way that could not have been foreseen in the two thousand years of Diaspora existence.

Israel is a society beset with many tensions and the terms I analyze here ‘Davka’ ‘Ma Pit’om’ and ‘Kol Hakavod’ are frequently resorted to as tensions releasing devices. They are interjections or philosophical expletives to combat the daily frustrations for which no tourist guidebook or standard Hebrew language textbook, let alone Zionist sympathies, prepare prospective immigrants and tourists. Most short-term visitors to Israel are aware of the country’s ‘macro problems’ - the constant threat of war and terrorism, massive taxation, the high cost of living and how to deal with religious extremism. The “micro problems’ of everyday life (shoddy products, arrogant bureaucrats and the very low level of politeness and respect for public property and private space) are usually what drive many immigrant-idealists from Western countries to return home after a few years.

 

DAVKA

In order to appreciate the ‘Davka mentality’, one must have lived in Israel for some time and have been exposed to the everyday frustrations and irksome situations which are common but do not make screaming headlines - endless frustrations in trying to wait in line - i.e. the everyday trivia of life which too often provoke intense conflicts, anger and frustration - the background to the tension releasing device of ‘davka’.

The etymology of the word is uncertain. It does not appear in the Bible but it is probably related to the root D-Y-K (to be exact or on time). It conveys the idea of precision and came into use during the time of the Talmud to indicate something particularly appropriate to a particular time and situation. In the course of the development of modern Israeli society, it has, however, acquired an ironic and sarcastic flavor.

Old time Hebraists may still encounter it or use it in its original sense and say something like ‘Davka, I fancy a cup of tea just now’. Its sarcastic connotations arise, however, in two, ostensibly opposite situations to mean ‘just when least expected’ or ‘just for spite’. In fact, this last meaning of davka has become so common that is frequently used, especially by children, as a verb ‘to davka someone’ meaning ‘to spite someone’.

The two situations which provoke usage are negative and positive: the negative - not being able to carry out what should be an everyday trivial task in spite of increasingly heroic but vain attempts to do so; the positive - actually being able to accomplish the task at hand against all the odds and the usually expected frustrations based on the overwhelming weight of precedence. If, contrary to all expectations, one does manage to accomplish the task at hand, this is cause for a ‘positive’ davka - much rarer than the ordinary negative one. A positive davka is sure to evoke the admiration and hearty approval of bystanders who will most likely recall their last positive davka experience, allowing everyone to bask briefly in an atmosphere of self-congratulations.

But is this really specifically an Israeli phenomenon? Other cultures have their own colorful expressions for ironical and paradoxical situations - fate, Kismet, Karma, Fado, Destiny. These, however, by and large, deal with the great issues of human existence, Divine Retribution, life, death and honor and are often immortalized in great literature or opera. What makes the Israeli ‘Davka complex’ special is its close linkage with the mundane, trivial commonplace experiences of the ordinary citizen.

The second cliché is ‘Ma Pitom’, literally meaning ‘What, suddenly!?’. In the Bible, pitom meaning ‘suddenly’ is used to indicate an unexpected event that occurs very quickly. It is used twenty-five times but nowhere does it indicate a question. In contemporary Hebrew, however, the combination of the interrogative Ma (What?) with pitom is both a form of rhetorical question and exclamation on the order of ‘How can any serious person ask such a stupid question or really mean what he/she is saying?’. As such it is favored by teenagers in reply to their parents’ questions or politicians in reply to questions raised by the opposition party. It is inherently sarcastic and can be translated as ‘You’ve got to be kidding!’ or ‘You can’t really mean that!’. It seeks no actual reply since the issue raised is not worthy of being discussed any further.

Five minutes before the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin, his wife Leah was asked in an on-the-spot interview by a journalist from the Israeli newspaper HaAretz: ’Aren’t you concerned that your husband isn’t wearing a bulletproof vest?’ Mrs. Rabin sarcastically answered, ‘Why all of a sudden (Ma Pitom?) a bullet proof vest? Is this Israel or Africa?’.

The press used her remarks to call upon the public to do some soul searching. Mrs. Rabin’s blind overconfidence was similar to that which caused Golda Meir and the Israeli political leadership to discount the threat of an imminent Egyptian attack in the 1973 Yom Kippur War in spite of accurate intelligence regarding Egyptian intentions.

Kol ha Kavod’ (All the Honor!) sounds mot like Biblical Hebrew. Kavod means honor. The root K-V-D and the organ of the liver (the heaviest organ in the body). Kavod is often used in conjunction with God. His throne, one’s parents. (The fifth commandment requires us to ‘Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you’).

Kavod and its many cognates appear several hundred times in the Bible especially in some of the most poetic verses in Psalms, and the Book of Isaiah. ‘Kol HaKavod’ means that you are entitled by right to all the honors and recognition due to you for your achievements. Anything less than these full honors would be an insult. This phrase is the highest form of a compliment in modern Hebrew. It is, however, used by a much wider range of persons for much lesser achievements in keeping with the leveling tendency of Labor Zionism which sought to create an egalitarian society of Jewish toilers. In fact, the example given in Dan Amotz’s dictionary; ‘My kid made kaka (had a bowel movement!) today for the first time’ to which the appropriate reply from a bystander is ‘Kol Kavod’!

Israelis love to make fun of themselves. The source of this humor is that life is equated with goodness and God‘s just laws. Goodness and human life belong together as do death and evil. Even non-Jews recognize the traditional Jewish toast L’chaim (To Life), offered at any joyous and festive occasion. Deuteronomy 30, Verses 15-19 expands on the meaning of life as the hall mark of Jewish ethics….“See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil, in that I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments, His statutes, and His judgments that you may live and multiply….I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing, therefore choose life that both you and your descendents may live“.

It is this cherishing of life - understood as God‘s greatest gift to man whom He has endowed with all the human faculties animals lack, not least of which are laughter and humor that is so typically “Jewish”. The musical Fiddler on the Roof based on a story by the great Yiddish humorist writer Shalom Aleichem spells out a creed ALL Jews (from the most Orthodox to the least observant and atheist agree on) as sung in one of the most popular songs “To Life”……..

“To us and our good fortune,


Be happy be healthy, long life!


And if our good fortune never comes


Here's to whatever comes,


Drink l'chaim, to life!



To life, to life, l'chai-im,!


L'chai-im, l'chai-im, to life!


Life has a way of confusing us


Blessing and bruising us,


Drink l'chaim, to life,



God would like us to be joyful


Even though our hearts lie panting on the floor;


How much more can we be joyful,


When there's really something


To be joyful for. “

In the age of Victorian tranquility, Gilbert and Sullivan composed a clever and cute song that spoke of the “”felon whose capacity for innocent enjoyment is just as great as any honest man” (Pirates of Penzance) in lamenting that A Policeman’s Lot is Not a Happy One. Could they have conceived of the apparent capacity of Arab and Muslim felons for endless mayhem, terrorism, mutilation and torture that have characterized the bloody horrific conflicts of the Lebanese Civil Wars, Iran-Iraq War, Jordanian suppression of the PLO in Black September, Syrian destruction of the city of Hama to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood, current situation between Sunnis and Shias in Iraq), etc., let alone the fate that awaits non-Muslim in their path? No, the Middle Easterners’ Lot is NOT a Happy One.


It is all the more revealing that the sworn ideal of the Islam fanatics who cannot enjoy life is to seek “martyrdom” in which death and destruction are their ultimate rewards. In March 2004, a military spokesman for al-Qaeda in Europe, Abu Dujan al Afghani had this to say on a recorded tape to Spaniards (and of course to Israelis and Jews everywhere) following the bombing in Central Madrid at the Atocha Train Station that killed almost 200 passengers. ….

“We declare our responsibility for what happened in Madrid exactly two and a half years after the attacks on New York and Washington. It is a response to your collaboration with the criminals Bush and his allies. This is a response to the crimes that you have caused in the world, and specifically in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there will be more, if God wills it…..You love life and we love death.”

And that is No Joke.

 

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