The Targets of Jewish Humor

The recurring characters & subjects of Jewish humor leave no part of the Jewish world unscathed.

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Reprinted with permission from Midstream magazine.

The desire to know the truth is the beginning of wisdom. Among the other types of people who have become main characters in Jewish humor is the schnorrer, the beggar. Theodor Reik [one of Freud's disciples] contended that the jokes about schnorrers express the hope and conviction that the economic gap between the haves and the have-nots will be erased one day.

But we might even go one step further, says Rabbi Reuven Bulka. Indeed, Jews have often been forced to schnor, that is to beg, for what was legitimately theirs. The schnor­rer, therefore, symbolizes the Jew who begs the indulgence of others, so that he might enjoy the basic right to live with decency.

Here is the story of a schnorrer who used to visit the house of the Baron de Rothschild to receive his weekly alms. On one particular visit, he is told that he cannot be supported that week. Visibly upset, he wants to know the reason. He is told that the Baron's daughter had been mar­ried that week and that the wedding had been particularly costly and there were no funds left for charitable purposes. The shnorrer, react­ing with a combination of understanding and protest, says: "I certainly don't mind the Baron marrying his daughter, but not with my money!"

target bullseyeJewish Occupations

It was not always easy for Jews to earn a living when there were so many discriminatory laws limiting their activities; they were not to own land or to engage in many trades, which were regulated by professional guilds that accepted only Christian members. Jews were able to survive only by putting their ingenuity to work.

As they could only engage in professions, which were not regulated by law, they practiced international commerce and banking (which was forbidden by the Church in the Middle Ages), they went into medicine, astrology, and map-making, and quite a few be­came experts in these professions. Many, however, managed to earn a liv­ing by practicing simple trades. They became tailors and shoemakers, grocers and butchers, and many shopkeepers and merchants.

The next anecdote will reveal to us how students of the Holy Scriptures learn about the commercial trade.

There are two young yeshiva bakhurim (students at a talmudic acad­emy) in a train compartment, in Belgium. They are discussing the amaz­ing abilities of Jewish merchants and diamond dealers in their city of Antwerp.

"To what would you attribute their success?" asks one fellow of the other. "You know what, let's ask our landsman (compatriot), who is sitting near the window," says the other.

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Rabbi Leo M. Abrami served as the spiritual leader at Beth Emeth Congregation in Sun City West from 2002 to 2006.