Tag Archives: yiddish

Jewish Jokes

*Note: The informant, Harriet, is my grandmother. She’s a Jewish woman who identifies with Yiddish aspects of Jewish culture.

The following are several Yiddish jokes. At least in my family, humor is considered an integral part of being Jewish, and there’s a special breed of joke that’s distinctively Jewish. Often these jokes come in the form of long stories that can be customized and drawn out by their teller. They often involve old Jews, rabbis, and/or Yiddish words, and a lot of them emphasize wordplay or poke fun at Jewish stereotypes or non-Jews skewed understanding of Jewish culture.

It’s important to note that when these jokes are told, it’s customary for the teller to speak lines of dialogue in a thick, exaggerated Yiddish accent.

INFORMANT: “So there was a big civic dinner one night at the local community center, and there were a bunch of people there from the local synagogue and the local church. And the main dish was this big glazed ham. So when they passed the ham platter to the rabbi, he shakes his head no, and the priest kind of chuckles and teases him and says ‘Rabbi, when are you going to forget that silly rule of yours and eat ham like the rest of us?’ And the Rabbi replies, ‘Oh, at your wedding reception, Father.'”

This is an example of a Jewish culture clash joke that points out the objective silliness of religious traditions and calls out the hypocrisy of other religions who scorn keeping kosher and other Jewish customs. The Christian priest thinks it’s silly that the rabbi doesn’t eat ham, but the rabbi points out that it’s just as silly that the priest can’t get married.

INFORMANT: “A little Jewish boy goes home to his mother and is excited to tell her about the part he got in the school play. He runs home and tells her, and she asks, ‘Oh, Saul, that’s wonderful, what part are you?’ Saul says, ‘I’m gonna play the Jewish husband!’ And his mother frowns and says, ‘Saul, honey, I thought you said you wanted a speaking part?'”

Jewish jokes often play on the fact that Jewish wives and mothers are perceived as extremely strong-willed and stubborn – they often run the house and are dominant over their husbands. The mother considers the role of Jewish husband a non-speaking role, poking fun at Jewish marital dynamics.

INFORMANT: “So there was this Jewish town and they didn’t have enough men to have a decent number of weddings, so they started importing men from other towns. One day a groom-to-be came in on the train, and two mother-in-laws-to-be were waiting for him. The first one said, ‘Oh, that’s my son-in-law,’ and the second one said, ‘No, he’s MY son-in-law.’ The town called a rabbi to settle the dispute. He gave it some thought and he told them, ‘If you both want the son-in-law, we’ll just cut him in half and give each of you one half of him.’ And one woman replied, ‘No, that’s horrible! Just give him to the other woman.’ And the rabbi says, ‘I will give him to the other woman. The one willing to cut him in half must be the true mother-in-law!'”

This joke is a play on the old Biblical story of King Solomon and the baby, except in that story, the real mother is the woman who tells King Solomon not to cut the baby in half, because she truly cares for her child and wants to see it live, even if it has to belong to another woman. In this variation, the family members involved are sons and their mothers-in-law, a relation that can generally tend to be tense in American culture. The joke implies that all real mothers-in-law dislike and wish harm on their sons-in-law, so the man’s real mother in law must be the one who was about to let him get cut in half!

INFORMANT: “There’s this beautiful lady at a charity ball and she’s wearing an enormous diamond, so another lady comes up to her and compliments her on it. The woman with the diamond goes, ‘Oh, thank you, darling. It’s the third biggest diamond in the world. There’s the Hope Diamond, the Kohinoor, and then this one, the Lipshitz diamond.’

‘You must be so lucky,’ said the other lady, and the diamond lady says, ‘Oh no, but it’s not all peaches and cream. With the Lipshitz diamond comes the Lipshitz curse.’

‘Well, what’s the Lipshitz curse?’


This is another joke poking fun at Jewish marital relations and the notion that Jewish people are greedy. In this scenario, the woman with the diamond is excited to have the diamond, but she considers the husband that gave it to her a curse. Jewish wives are often portrayed as being sick of or disdainful of their husbands.

Yiddish Names

*Note: The informant, Laura, is my mother. She’s a Jewish woman who identifies with Yiddish aspects of Jewish culture.


INFORMANT: “A lot of the jokes were based on misunderstandings of Yiddish words, because there was a lot of that. There were a lot of things like… my great uncles were three brothers, and in Russia they were Levenbuch, and when they came through Elllis Island, they each went through separately, and the people at Ellis Island just wrote down what they thought they heard them saying, and so when they started their life in America, one was Levenbook, one was Levenbrook, and one was Levenburg. So there was a lot of that, but the story that they like to tell was about a nervous Jewish guy coming through Ellis Island, and he was so flustered when he got there that they asked him his name and he said in Yiddish: “Jin fergessen,” which means “I forget,” and they wrote down “Shane Ferguson.” Which couldn’t be any less of a Jewish name if you tried. There was a lot of that, making fun of the language, because Yiddish is not a written-down language, it’s a spoken language, so pretty much everything we did in terms of calling things … speaking in Yiddish, calling things Yiddish names and the Yiddish jokes were all based on this language that developed over time that wasn’t really a written language but it was more like a cultural language. so it’s very rich in, you know, this is the cultural part of Judaism that we’re imbued with.”


Yiddish is an interesting case of folklore because it’s a language that’s almost completely carried by oral tradition – Yiddish is not a written language like Hebrew, and it’s hard to peg down agreed-upon spellings for many Yiddish words. Yet, Yiddish is carried on by the Jewish people and even by non-Jews, because several Yiddish words have been adopted into the general English vocabulary. People use words like “shmutz,” “shmuck,” and “nosh” on a regular basis, without really even realizing they’re using Yiddish words!

These stories are also significant to folklore because they exemplify the hilarity resulting from cultural differences. Americans at Ellis Island couldn’t quite grasp the Jewish last names of the incoming immigrants, so Jewish people often lost their names to more Americanized surnames like “Ferguson” in the case of the Shane Ferguson joke. It’s a moment of cultural mixing.

“Don’t be a chazzer!”

The informant describes what the meaning of the Jewish phrase with Yiddish origins “don’t be a chazzer” means today.  The informant recalls his mother always telling him to not be chazzer growing up.

A chazzer is someone who is being rather cheap and taking advantage of the system. For example, if you go to a restaurant and you are taking all of their free bread into your purse.  Or someone is giving you something for a good price and you insist on getting it for lower.

Chazzer appears to be a Jewish word for someone who is being cheap and greedy.  It is interesting that this word is of Jewish origins because if one were to think of typical Jewish stereotypes this word would fit rather well with those.  This word has been widely used in published work such as the movie Scarface when Al Pacino asks, “Do you know what a chazzer is Frank? That’s a pig, that don’t fly straight. Neither do you Frank.”  See citation of movie:  Scarface. Dir. Brian Palma. Perf. Al Pacino. 1983. DVD.