Tag Archives: Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

Jewish Saying Summing Up Every Holiday

“The way you can sum up every Jewish holiday, for the most part, is: they tried to kill us, we survived, now let’s eat. It means to me two different things. One is very serious… for some reason, so many other cultures have decided that the Jews should be annihilated. The other thing it means to me, that bothers me, is that many of our uh… that Jews tend to dwell on these negative events to define who they are and what they are about.”

 

The informant told me that she doesn’t know where she first heard this phrase, but that “probably some other Jew said it to me.” I have heard this phrase and similar phrases throughout my entire life, and I have often used a variation of this phrase to try to explain my religion or the holidays we engage in to people who are unfamiliar with Judaism.

The thing that interests me the most is this informant’s take on the phrase. I have usually heard this phrase used in a way that is dismissive (oh, all of our holidays are just like this…) or, more often, in a way that is humorous. It’s almost comical to think that most Jewish holidays follow this pattern and that they usually involve the consumption of a lot of food, which seemingly, on the surface, has little relevance to the heavier, darker fact that Jews have been persecuted and have had to escape death time and time again.

For instance, Sean Altman is a singer-songwriter who performs under the band name Jewmongous. He has a comedic song called “They Tried to Kill Us (We Survived, Let’s Eat)” that supposedly explains the story of Pesach. It contains a ton of pop culture references and factual inaccuracies, which is supposed to prove that all of the details of the holiday are basically irrelevant, because all you need to do is boil down the holiday to this one simple phrase, which is contained in the chorus. The song is available as an MP3 and on a CD, which you can purchase on his website at http://www.jewmongous.com/. You can also watch a live performance of the song (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=34atu3WGUgc).

Despite the fact that this phrase is typically repeated for its humor, I have always heard this informant use the phrase in a sort of melancholy way. To her, the phrase represents a long and depressing history of the Jewish people, and she believes that the use of this phrase, combined with the practice of Jewish holidays, tends to perpetuate a tendency to dwell on the negative. While I see her point and definitely agree that Jews tend to have a martyr complex, I strongly believe that this phrase is a way for Jewish people to reclaim their history and bring joy by making light of very serious problems. Rather than dwell on the negative, we look forward to the positive— in this case, a large feast.

 

Chelm

“There’s a whole vein of Jewish humor which refers to the Polish town of Chelm [which is] full of fools, who consistently do unwise things.  So, for instance, at one point, they decide they need to build a new synagogue.  In order to do so, they need to go into the mountains and get large rocks.  Several men go up and carry these rocks down.  When they get to the bottom, one of the townspeople (it may have been the rabbi) is all, “Why didn’t you just roll them down?”  They all think this is a fantastic suggestion, so they take the rocks back up the mountain, and roll them down.”

Leslee was born and raised in a Jewish community in Kansas and currently lives in Illinois. She shared this folklore and remarked (re: the jokes about Chelm), “The town actually exists, though the folklore doesn’t really relate to the actual town.”

Her observation is a very prescient one, because the Chelm jokes are classic examples of blason populaire, folklore designed to perpetuate group stereotypes (often negative) and establish identity in opposition. The idea that one define who one is by defining who one is not. In this case, the idea is “At least we’re not those fools in Chelm.”

The choice of Chelm is interesting, and although there is not a definitive answer as to why Chelm is the town of choice, it is worth noting that it is a place that has had a thriving Jewish community since at least the 14th century, although historically, there was longstanding tension between Jews and gentiles, including a massacre in the 17th century and a violent takeover by the Nazis in 1940. Today, the Jewish community makes up approximately 51% of the population of Chelm. It would seem (although there is clearly no historical basis for the choice) that the decision to base the “fools of [X]” jokes in Chelm was one made affectionately and in good (forgive the pun) humor.

More information on the history of Chelm itself can be found here.

Annotation: More funny stories of Chelm can be found in A Treasury of Jewish Folklore, edited by Nathan Asubel (New York: Crown Publishers, 1948).

Lawyer Joke – American

“So this lawyer is cross-examining this doctor and he says, ‘Doctor, so you’re the one who did the autopsy.’

“And he said, ‘Yes.’

“And he’s like, ‘Well where was the victim when you did the autopsy report?’

“He’s like, ‘On the table.’

“‘Well, what were you looking at particularly?’

“He’s like, ‘The brain. The brain was, you know out of the victim’s head on my table.’

“And he said, ‘Oh, okay. So the victim was dead.’

“‘Yes, there was no way he could be anywhere else. Well I suppose he could be practicing law somewhere else, but other than that, probably dead.'”

Friend showed it to her online. The informant is a Pre-Law student and she was actually accepted into a Law school for the coming year. This joke came up after we had talked about her recent acceptance to a Law school and when we started talking about jokes. She later went and looked up lots of other jokes about lawyers and went through them laughing hysterically. When she told the joke she told it at a pretty speedy pace, somewhat characteristic of someone who has to make detailed verbal reports often. There was not a lot of emotional changes in her voice as she told the joke – it was a fairly dry account. The informant said the that the joke was funny to her because it reminded her of some people that she knew, most likely from her years of participating in Mock Trial.

The informant has, in fact, been on Mock Trial since her freshman year and has know about the inner workings of law for a long time, which meant that she understood the allusions and situational comedy in lawyer jokes very intimately. I in no way doubt that she was thinking about someone she knew as she laughed, but she didn’t initially tell me she knew someone like the lawyer in the joke when she told me that joke. In this way, the joke was somewhat self-disparaging. This may be a case where a person has taken up an occupational stereotype in order to take some of the sting out of it, or to say somehow, “Hey, I can see this joke and I can laugh about it – I’m not some straight-laced, condescending lawyer like the lawyer in this joke.”