Chelm Stories & Motke Habad

Where the lovable fools of Jewish humor came from--and what they mean.

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"Certainly!" cried Motke, all eagerness. "And how much is your Excellency willing to spend for a first-class French poodle?"

"Up to 20 rubles."

"Out of the question!" Motke snapped. "For a really first-class French poodle one must pay at least--at least--at least 50 rubles!"

The nobleman tried to dispute this, but Motke was so pos­itive that the other finally yielded. Handing over the 50 rubles, he told Motke to hurry off, whereupon the schlemiel became covered with confusion and stammered: "Yes, Your Excellency, I go, I go. B-But please, Your Excellency, what exactly is a French poodle?"

But for all his misdirected ambition, Motke is not the sort of overreacher one finds in the tragic stories of, say, a Faust or Macbeth. The Motke Habads of Yiddish anecdote always have decidedly smaller goals and their "failures" allow for good cheer on the part of protagonist and reader alike.

Failures of All Sorts

As I have suggested earlier, the schle­miel's failures come in a variety of sizes and shapes. At times he is the cuckolded one (Shemuleil) or the ama­teur entrepreneur (Motke). On other occasions, he is the henpecked husband--a fate as much to be feared as cuckoldry and deeply entrenched in a sensibility which had strong leanings toward misogynism. In these stories, the shrewish wife becomes a grotesque of all that the shtetl's male population unconsciously feared. As al­ways, the laughter that generated from such humor was likely to be terribly uncomfortable, particularly when the fate of the schlemiel looked to be only an exaggera­tion or two away from their own.

A man was married to a shrew who ordered him around the livelong day. Once, when she had several women friends calling on her, she wanted to show off before them what ab­solute control she had over her husband.

"Schlemiel," she ordered, "get under that table!"

Without a word the man crawled under the table.

"Now, schlemiel, come out!" she commanded again.

"I won't, I won't" he defied her angrily. "I'll show you I'm still master in this house!"

The official religion may have talked about the nobil­ity of their suffering, the God-given character of their mission, etc., but as Mr. Clement Greenberg has sug­gested: "When religion began to lose its capacity, even among the devout, to impose dignity and trust on daily life, the Jew was driven back on his sense of humor."

Humor as Weapon

It was Yiddish--rather than Hebrew--which emerged in the lands of the Diaspora as the language of daily liv­ing.... It was primarily a folk tongue, a perfect vehicle for the cultural values known as Yiddishkeit and the continued survival of the species. If the "goyim" could boast of armies and power, the shtetl Jewry could offer up sharp retorts by way of putting things into perspec­tive. Jewish humor, then, was a way of building in a cer­tain amount of victory.

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Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor of English at Franklin and Marshall College. He writes widely about Jewish literature and culture, and in recent years has been a judge for the Edward Lewis Wallant Prize, the Reform Judaism Prize, and the National Jewish Book Award.