Tag Archives: jewish

My Father’s Favorite Yiddish Joke

Main Piece: 

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! 

Background: 

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!” 

Context:

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. 

Thoughts: 

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. 

Dayenu, a Passover song

The following is transcribed from text exchanges between my informant, A, and myself, M.

Main piece:

A: On passover, there’s this tradition that Persian Jews have, and somehow only us. There’s this song called Dayenu that you sing as part of the Passover seder, which is like what we call the food and tradition we do.

A: Passover is about Jews being slaves in Egypt and Passover is specifically about when the Jews were freed, and that’s basically the whole thing. But this song is part of it, and its about thanking God for each specific thing He did in the story. And for Persian Jews, while we sing the song we hit each other with green onions because they symbolize the whips from slavemasters. We get pretty agressive, and it looks really stupid.

M: Why just Persians?

A: I don’t know how it started or why it never made it to any other ethnic Jewish group. I didn’t even know it was a Persian thing until like late into my life, so when I talked about it with my white friends, they thought I was insane.

She later texted me that her parents told her Italian Jews do it as well.

Background: My friend is Persian Jewish from Beverly Hills. Judaism has played a large role in her life, having gone to Jewish high school and been an active participant in the community since birth.

Context: She and I were texting casually, and I asked if I could collect from her.

Thoughts:

Food is a way of communicating, and from what I have learned about the Passover ritual is that it is a very active one, almost like a play. Also that food is heavily involved. I am left curious as to why Persians specifically do this part.

The Golem – Jewish Folk Tale

Main Piece:

Subject: Have I ever told you about the golem before?

Interviewer: Um… I feel like I remember hearing about it at some point when I was a kid but like… I don’t recall any of the details.

Subject: Okay well the golem is Jewish folklore as I’m sure you know. It’s a clay monster… like a muddy mass if you can picture that. And um… it’s like a Frankenstein-esque figure. It was created to do the deeds of its master but in all the stories I’ve heard about it, it always turns against the master and disobeys them. So the myth goes that there was this Rabbi- don’t ask me who or where- who took these blocks of clay and mud and formed them into this creature… and then brought it to life using Jewish magic… like Hebrew spells. And the rabbi made him with the intention that he would defend the Jewish people against anti-semitism and attacks. You know, there’s a lot of that going on with the Jews all the time. Everybody wants to kill us! *laughter* Um… I’m pretty sure the way it goes is the rabbi gets the golem to stop doing his deeds and rein him in by writing this magic word on the golem’s forehead in Hebrew. And at the end of the day, the rabbi would remove one letter of the word, that would change the word to mean “death.” And that would subsequently like, switch the golem off for the day. And the rabbi would do this every day like clockwork. Until one day, he forgets to change the letter of the word, and the golem goes nuts and starts killing a bunch of people… he’s just out of control! So the rabbi finds him eventually after he’s already murdered a bunch of people. But he finds him and takes out the letter and the golem dies. But then the twist on that is that the golem is still sitting around somewhere just waiting to be resurrected again. 

Interviewer: I really like that. Something about hearing about Jewish monsters… it feels like, rare. Um… Who told you that?

Subject: Yeah, yeah. There’s lots of them though. But definitely my mother. Or I learned about it in Sunday School when I was little. Yeah I was always a fan of the story and I’ll tell you what else… We could use a golem these days. *laughter* I shouldn’t say that.

Interviewer: *laughter* Yeah you may be right about that.

Context: The subject- my mother- is a 51-year-old white woman of Ashkenazi Jewish and Russian descent. She is from Lexington, Massachusetts and currently lives in Charleston, South Carolina. We are currently quarantined together in Charleston. One day, late morning, I specifically asked her if she had any Jewish folklore she could share with me. She proceeded to share this folk tale.

Interpretation: The nuance of this folklore was interesting to me. The golem seems to be both a figure of protection and a figure of defense. I remember hearing the folk tale about the golem when I was younger, and his only being described to me as an evil figure. But the subject seemed to pose him as a fighter for the Jewish people. I really love learning about Jewish folk monsters and “fairy tales”, because at least with the experience of my Jewish education, they felt rare to hear about. Generally, I also love hearing about Jewish mysticism and spells. The tale reminds me quite a bit of the story of Frankenstein. A monster is created with good intention, and ends up being the cause of unpredictable destruction. Both the Golem and Frankenstein’s downfall seem to be caused by societal forces, rather than any inherent evil within them. They are both reflections of humanity.

Chicken Soup is the Jewish Penicillin

Main story: 

A conversation was had between the informant and myself. The informant can be known as MC and I will be known as MH. 

MC: So there is a saying that goes “chicken soup is the Jewish penicillin”. 

MH: What does that mean, and is that recognized by the jewish community? 

MC: I mean, I am in the Jewish community and I grew up with my family making that joke all of the time, so I would say based on my experience yes. And it stems from the idea that if you are sick, somehow chicken soup will cure you of all your ailments in a way that actual medicine – or penicillin- could never. 

MH: And what are your thoughts on the topic? 

MC: Honestly, I have been very sick and then ate chicken soup and felt better almost immediately after, so there may actually be some truth behind that statement. Obviously there are other deeper systemic reasons for why certain communities do not like going to doctors and instead use a more homeopathic approach, but the sentiment remains. 

Background: 

The informant is a member of the Jewish community and also studies public health. And while she does not always agree with homeopathic approaches to medicine, she says that she can;t help but recognize that there is truth in a lot of the methods used. 

Context: 

The informant is a friend of mine and the conversation was held over facetime in a very casual setting as we talked about different approaches to health care. 

My thoughts: 

I am in a similar vein of belief with her. I do not know where I stand in believing in homeopathic methods. But they have often been used for centuries so there has to be levels of truth to them. Because anything that people dedicate that much time to has to have a certain level of importance for one reason or another. 

JAP Stereotype

Background: The informant is a woman in her late fifties who grew up in downstate New York in Queens and on Long Island before moving to upstate New York for college. In her mid 20s, she moved out to Southern California and she had lived there ever since. She comes from a large family of Catholic Irish-Americans.

Context: TR went to high school in the late 70s/early 80s on the north shore of Long Island, where a substantial percentage of the public high school’s student body was either wealthy, Jewish, or both. TR does not consider JAP to be an antiemetic phrase and mentions that it describes women that aren’t Jewish too. Later, when she went to college in upstate New York, she says there were a lot of JAPs at her school there too.

Main Text:

(In the following interview the informant is identified as TR and the interviewer is identified as JS.)

TR: Especially coming from Long Island, the JAP—the Jewish American Princess…

JS: Did you use the phrase JAP?

TR: Oh god, yeah, cuz I was from Long Island!

JS: And did you know anyone who you considered a JAP?

TR: Oh, yeah!

JS: Do you want to explain exactly what a JAP is?

TR: Well, usually a Jewish American Princess knew it and was proud of it and self-identified, so it was never like, it never seemed like a really negative thing. Actually, I had a friend, she was a senior when I was a freshman—or, she was a junior when I was a freshman and yeah, she, uh, she self-identified as a JAP [laughs].

JS: Wanna explain anything else besides the abbreviation?

TR: Well, usually they’re Jewish…but they don’t have to be. Yknow, they dress very kind of, like, Long Island, downstate New York.

JS: What does “Long Island” mean?

TR: In the eighties…big hair, dark hair, lots of curls, fancy clothes, tons of makeup, very expensive clothes, lots of jewelry. And defitniely a thick New York accent, like “OH MY GAWD.” [laughs]

JS: So their families are wealthy?

TR: Definitely. Yes.

JS: Is there a specific…field Jewish American Princesses go into, studying-wise?

TR: Well, yeah they would get husbands. [laughs] Typically they would get..yknow attorneys, doctors, the hotel industry, ILR…I don’t think I knew any engineering JAPS.

JS: What do their parents do?

TR: Doctors, attorneys, wives…oh, oh, accountants!

JS: Anything else you wanna share about the culture?

TR: No, you know, it was a look and it was consumption—consumption.

Thoughts: The phrase JAP is something I know, but not really something me or people I grew up around ever used. Perhaps it’s still frequently used in downstate New York, but I suspect part of the affiliation had to do with the style and “consumption” (as TR calls it) of the 80s. It’s funny that she says it’s not exclusive to young Jewish women, despite what the acronym stands for, and that people would proudly self-identify as JAPS, despite it seeming like a stereotype. I suppose it’s not the worst stereotype to be identified with.

Further Citations:

For a humorous take on the Jewish American Princess, see Rachel Bloom’s “JAP Battle” from the television show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2015-2019).

“JAP Battle (EXPLICIT) – “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”.” Youtube, uploaded by racheldoesstuff, 29 Feb 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-TQmo5TvZQY.

Afikoman

Main Piece:

So a Jewish Tradition on Passover that we do is my dad will hide the Afikoman somewhere in our house. The afikoman is a few pieces of matzah bread wrapped in usually a cloth napkin. And after the seder dinner, my siblings and I would run around the house and try to be the first person to find it. It was and still is extremely competitive, and the first person who finds it gets some cash. But the cash was not even the important part it is definitely just a pride thing. But I believe the meaning behind it is kind of convoluted. I think the tradition was mostly created to keep kids engaged at Passover dinner, because it can be really long and boring depending on which one you go to. Like I don’t think most people our age still do this but it’s always been a big deal in our household and we have yet to grow out of it. But on the deeper level, it’s supposed to represent the Jews’ liberation from Egypt, and like despite the fact that we found freedom from that, we are still always searching for a deeper, hidden freedom yet to be discovered? Like I said, convoluted.

Background:

My informant is of Ashkenazi descent, and is a participant of Judaism. She grew up under Jewish parents and a household that practiced Jewish traditions from a young age- though not enforced, she definitely had exposure to the culture ever since she could remember. She currently lives in South Carolina, where Jewish American heritage has long history compared to other Southern regions of the United States. She also comes from a family of four children, her being the third eldest, and they’ve all been practicing Jewish traditions together. This sense of family, tradition, and rivalry amongst siblings definitely had a factor as to why her family kept this tradition of Afikoman alive, even though my informant is currently 19 years old, which is older than what most Jewish people would consider appropriate to practice this tradition.

Context:

My informant and I watched a 2019 film titled “Uncut Gems” together, a film starring famous Jewish American actor Adam Sandler. In the film, there is a scene involving this very tradition of Afikoman. Enticed by this foreign concept, I had asked my informant to explain what that tradition was. The conversation took place in the Uber ride on our way back from the theater, in a comfortable environment where the only outsider listening to us was the driver.

Thoughts:

Personally, I am a big fan of any traditions involving a ‘treasure hunt’ element. It adds so much engagement from participants, and it’s such a great tool to gather a large group of people. The tradition of Afikoman hunt has been a valuable one for my informant’s family, as it has been a source of entertainment and comradely amongst her siblings, and hearing about it was a great delight. With cash as the prize, I find no reason why her family should stop practicing this tradition.

Good Luck Shower at Bat Mitzvah

Main piece:

The following conversation is transcribed from a phone conversation between the interviewer and the informant.

Informant: So when I was 13, is when I was Bat Mitzvah’ed. Like, coming into my womanhood or whatever. It’s a big deal that all Jewish girls go through. There’s an hour and a half long service, I read from the Torah, I chant my prayers, I wear a really pretty dress.

Interviewer: And you get to choose the dress?

Informant: Oh yes, and getting a dress you want is a big deal. I got to choose my own. Anyways, all of my family and friends are there and there’s a baller party after. But after the service, there is tradition that the congregation will “shower me with good luck and sweetness.” What that means is everyone in the synagogue throws gummy candy at me. It’s supposed to be a loving act but people usually throw to hard and it ends up hurting a little.

Interviewer: What kind of candies were thrown? And is there significance in the types of candies?

Informant: Not really, it was a random assortment of candies. I specifically remember Jolly Ranchers hurting the most, because you know, out of the gummies they’re the hardest. I got hit in between my eyes with a grape flavored Jolly Rancher, and I avoid that flavor even till this day.

Interviewer: Is there any bad intent in throwing these candies hard? Or is it strictly an act of showing blessings and kindness?

Informant: I think it comes out of good means. It’s just that anytime little kids and throwing any objects is involved, and especially when the target is your friend, they tend to get jokey and try to throw it hard. But it’s a light hearted prank, kinda like cake-facing someone at their birthday.

Background:

My informant is a 19 year old college student who comes from an Ashkenazi descent. She grew up in a family which practiced the religion, and she was exposed to the culture from a very young age. Her three siblings also practice the religion with her, and Judaism is a big part of her family tradition. She comes from a large family with plenty of Jewish relatives, so Bat Mitzvah for her was a big deal.

Context:

I was aware of the general concept of Bat Mitzvah, but I was never sure what specifically went down during the process. I had asked my informant to describe the most interesting thing that happened at her Bat Mitzvah, and this shower of good luck was her choice. The conversation happened over phone, where I was in Los Angeles (2:00 pm PST) apartment while the informant was in South Carolina (5:00 pm EDT) in her house, in her room.

Thoughts:

Learning about this tradition reminded me of how different cultures utilize candies to represent good luck. My mind went immediately to piñatas, Trick o’ Treat, and Easter egg hunts. Candies are sweet, and it’s that sweetness that makes humans associate it with good luck and a ‘sweet life’. Imagining being a 13 year old getting showered with candies by my loved ones, it definitely made me happy.

Afikoman: Jewish Holiday Folk Game

Context: AW sits with her daughter preparing for the second night of her Passover Seder, the room is bustling with activity as people get food prepared for AW’s many relatives. AW’s Daughter chimes in every so often to ask questions
———————————————————————————————————————
Performance:
MW: So what do you know about the Afikoman?
AW: The Matzah, the bread we eat during Passover, because it represents the fact that when the jews had to flee Egypt and slavery. They left in such haste that the bread did not have a chance to rise, that’s why we have matzah.
AW: So, we eat the matzah all week so that we remember what happened to us, and during the seder…the person that leads the seder
[AW flips through her Passover Haggadah]
AW: explains to everyone…REMINDS not explains, what the bread means to us as a people
AW: they break it in half, one half to be eaten, and the other to be set aside for later. Traditionally that half is hidden by the oldest person at the seder for the children to find after the festival meal.

MW: Do you have any, like, special house rules?
AW: So we make rules, first the Afikoman has to be hidden in the house. Depending on the age of the children, if they’re very young it has to be in one specific room in the house to make it easier for them to find it. If they’re older it’s anywhere downstairs. It’s usually hidden by the person who led the seder.

MW: Ok
AW: Someone says “on your mark get set, go” and the kids race to find it, if there are young kids we hide it again so all the kids get a chance to find it.

Meaning
MW: So what does the Afikoman mean to you?
AW: It’s just part of the festival, it’s nice, you know what it’s nice because I remember the nights where we were all to grown up to do it. So it’s comforting to see the next generation carrying on our traditions.
———————————————————————————————————————

Analysis:
The Afikoman is wrapped which serves the practical purpose of keeping it, a dessert item, separated from the rest of the food. But the wrapping also serves a symbolic role as mimicking the way Ancient Jews would have wrapped their matzah as they fled Egypt. This mimicking is key to the overarching theme of Passover, that all Jews see themselves as having been liberated from Egypt, not just their ancestors. So in repeating the wrapping behavior modern Jews inhabit the role of their ancestors. The Talmud, a commentary on the Torah states that “We snatch matzahs on the night of Passover in order that the children should not fall asleep.” Thus, Afikomen hunting becomes a way to engage children with short attention spans during what is a fairly long religious event.
Likewise, the matzah is split in half during the seder. This might represent the delayed nature of Jewish salvation, the matzah eaten during the Seder representing the exodus itself, while the Afikomen matzah, hidden away and eaten only after the Seder ends, represents either the Mosciach, or Messiah’s final redemption of the Jewish people, or perhaps their eventual return to their homeland Israel after 40 years in the desert. For alternate uses of the Afikoman in Jewish households as a pendant for blessing see What Makes a Jewish Home Jewish

Ochs, Vennessa. “What Makes A Jewish Home Jewish?” What Makes a Jewish Home Jewish?, an Article by Vanessa Ochs, in Cross Currents, the Quarterly Journal of Opinion Covering Religion and the World., www.crosscurrents.org/ochsv.htm.

Dayenu on Passover

Context: My informant is a 63 year-old man of Persian descent. The piece is a ritual practiced by Persian Jews at traditional Passover seders, which is a generations-old gathering where specific foods are eaten to remind oneself of the hardships faced by Jews in Egypt. Each food symbolizes an aspect of the suffrage, and is consumed after reading stories and prayers from the Haggadah – the text recited at the seder.

 

Background: The morning after I had a Passover seder with my family, I decided to ask my informant about a tradition almost exclusively practiced by Persian Jews. He explained that they had practiced this tradition while still living in Iran, before they moved to Los Angeles after the fall of the Shah. It remains a staple of Passover seders at any Persian Jewish home.

 

Main Piece: “When it’s time in the seder for the green onions, we do Dayenu. This food symbolizes how we remember that the Jews were beaten and whipped as slaves in Egypt. Persian Sephardic Jews have a fun twist on this to make the seder more fun and enjoyable while also remembering these hardships. After reading the piece from the book and saying the prayer over the green onion, everyone starts singing the Dayenu song and runs around hitting each other with the onions. It’s fun and chaos, and it makes such a long traditional seder a little more lively and bearable. I’m not sure how this ritual originated, but only Sephardic Jews do it usually. It mimics what the slaves went through in Egypt but it also brings a fun and enjoyment to the holiday.”

 

Analysis: It’s interesting to see the distinction between practices of different sectors of Jews. While Orthodox and Ashkenazi Jews take a more traditional aspect to the Passover Seder, Sephardic Jews practice this ritual to celebrate the remembrance while also bringing excitement to the tradition. There is debate about where the custom originates, but it’s typically practiced by Sephardic Jews from Iran and Afghanistan.

 

The Chuppah

Context: My informant is a 37 year-old Jewish woman who recently moved to Los Angeles from Toronto. She was preparing for her upcoming wedding when she began to discuss what Jewish traditions she planned on incorporating in her ceremony. In the piece, she is identified as J.T. and I am identified as D.S.

 

Background: The Chuppah is essentially a canopy in which the bride and groom and their family members stand under in a Jewish wedding ceremony. The tradition can be traced back to biblical weddings in Jewish culture, and is deeply rooted in its’ history and religious customs.

 

Main Piece:

DS: “You mentioned your fiancé is Christian, are you still going to have a traditional Jewish wedding?”

JT: “Definitely. My family is fairly religious, and he’s in the process of converting right now, so his family is open to keeping it more traditional too.”

DS: “What are some of the traditions you’re going to include?”

JT: “Well, pretty much everything. A Rabbi is speaking at our ceremony, we’ll be reciting the seven prayers and the blessing over the wine, the chuppah, and of course breaking the glass at the end of the ceremony.”

DS: “Do you mind elaborating on the importance of the chuppah a bit?”

JT: “Sure! The chuppah is pretty much a canopy, and it represents the home that the bride and groom will build together. Couples usually decorate it beautifully for their weddings. I’m planning on having mine strung with vines and white roses. It’s supposed to stand with all four sides wide open, to represent a home with open doors that’s welcoming and loving. Hospitality is something that’s highly regarded in Jewish culture, as I’m sure you know.”

 

Analysis: Since I come from a reform Jewish family, I’m aware of most traditions, but I don’t have much background knowledge on the meaning behind them, so it was interesting to hear the symbolism behind this tradition in particular. Having attended quite a few Jewish weddings, the Chuppah is always the staple of the ceremony, and is always decorated beautifully.

 

Annotation: For more on Jewish wedding customs and the history behind the Chuppah, reference to:

Goldman, A. L. (2000). 3. Weddings. In Being Jewish: The Spiritual and Cultural Practice of Judaism Today (pp. 69-86). New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.