The following is transcribed from a conversation between me (LT) and my father/informant (JET).
JT: So here’s the story. A man owes another man money, but the guy who owes the money doesn’t have any money. It bothers him so much he can’t sleep. So, on the day that it’s due, at like three or four in the morning, he goes and knocks on the other guy’s door. And he says “you know that money I owe you? I don’t have it, I can’t pay you.” And the other man says, “okay” (laughs) “so why are you telling me this at three in the morning?” (laughs) And the first man says “Bis jetzt hub ich nisht gekennt schlufen, jetzt solst dee nisht schlufen!” That means “‘til now, I couldn’t sleep, now you shouldn’t sleep!” (laughs).
LT: I love that one. Can you explain the punchline a little more?
JET: Yeah, it kind of plays with your moral compass. Sure, he couldn’t pay the guy back. But hey, he was honest!
My informant is my father, whose parents were Holocaust survivors who immigrated from Poland to New Jersey without speaking any English. My father was raised primarily speaking Yiddish around the house, and he learned English mainly at school. This particular joke is a classic Yiddish joke and was one of my grandfather’s favorites, who told it to my father throughout his upbringing. My father likes this joke “because, first of all, it’s funny,” but also because there’s a lot of truth in it: “It would really bother you if you couldn’t pay someone back, if you have any morals at all, but the thing about that line is the roles get flipped. Now it’s the other guy’s problem, and it must really bother him to know he’s out of money!”
While I’m not in quarantine with my informant/father, I do call him every day, and this piece was collected during a routine call.
I like this joke because it plays on a famous Jewish stereotype. Although it’s never explicitly said, all the characters in Yiddish jokes are jews (unless specified otherwise). One of the most widely known stereotypes is that jews are stingy. Well, this joke is about two jews who don’t have any money. However, they do have other virtues that play into the joke. The first is generosity. The fact that the man’s debt couldn’t be repaid means that the other man gave him money in the first place. The second virtue is honesty. The man not being able to sleep at night shows how he was uncomfortable leading the other man on. Lastly, and arguably most importantly, is a sense of humor. There are so many ways to tell someone you can’t pay them back, but the man did it in a punchline. While this story probably isn’t true, what makes it funny is that it could be. Everyone in the community knows people who have the characters’ qualities. In addition, virtues like generosity, honesty, and sense of humor are what I think of as some of the core values of the Jewish community.