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Jewish Heritage Month: Serious Jokes

Philip Davis is a professor of English literature at Liverpool University, author of Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life, and editor of The Reader.  Since it is Jewish Heritage Month here in the United States we asked him to reflect on his own Jewish heritage.  Below we learn about serious jokes.

More than forty years ago, Mr Zold was the shamas – the Jewish church warden, as it were – of the Orthodox Synagogue to be found in Shakespeare Street, Nottingham.

As a boy I was more interested in Shakespeare than in Judaism, but the address was only part of the incongruities of assimilation: just along the road, in a not dissimilar white-stone building, was the local YMCA. My father was an orthodox Jew, a Yeshiva-educated boy from Hackney in London, who as the years went on became more and more disillusioned with orthodoxy. He hated the thought that the more money you paid, the better your seat in the synagogue – meaning, not some superior cushioning (he could have put up with that), but a place closer to the Ark of the Covenant and by implication to the Lord Himself. My father also disliked the new Rabbi. I remember one Day of Atonement – Yom Kippur, which follows hard upon Rosh Hasshanah, the Jewish New Year – when towards mid-afternoon, my father went upstairs to the separate ladies gallery above us males, to see how my mother was doing during the fasting. That was his custom as a husband every year around three o’clock; it was like a religious ritual. Only as he did so, the ‘new Rabbi’ (meaning he had probably been in post for five years by now) made a loud announcement in English that the men were not allowed to visit their wives upstairs – which, in point of orthodoxy, was correct. My father, however, had his own laws, and even as Rabbi Posen renewed his prohibition from the dais, the bimah, there was my father visibly leaning over the rail of the ladies gallery in profiled assertion of his greater loyalty. Defiantly, he expected to be seen in his silent protest, and I sitting alone downstairs awaiting his return was (I now recall with some surprise) not in the least embarrassed but delightedly proud. I knew even then that this was the minority within the minority, the righteous law-breaker, the stiff-necked hook-nosed Jew of the prophets recalling spirit against letter.

Zold, nonetheless, was the only one of the establishment whom my father respected. He was, like us, learned but neglected, lower in the formal hierarchy, higher in the hidden spirit. It was not that same Yom Kippur – the all-day service without all-day breakfast – but another a year or so later, I think, when one hot afternoon Old Man Zold suddenly became an unlikely Moses, descending from Mount Sinai with the stone tablets of the Commandments, only to find his people forgetting him (and Him) in worship of a Golden Calf.

It happened some time after the most sacred part of the service when the Jews become mindful that this is indeed the period in which their Lord carefully writes down their names in the Book of Life for the year to come. Or not:

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed,
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,
Who shall perish by water and who by fire,
Who by sword and who by wild beast,
Who by famine and who by thirst,
Who by earthquake and who by plague,
Who by strangulation and who by stoning,
Who shall have rest and who shall wander,
Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,
Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented,
Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low,
Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished.
But penitence, prayer and righteousness may avert the severe decree.

It was our last chance, but by late afternoon, the synagogue was hardly a place of repentance. Tired and hot, without food or water, the ill-breathed Jews would talk amongst themselves of family, of secular business, of scandal, in a rising murmur that accompanied in English counterpoint an interminable service in an ancient language. We were a community of feckless talkers, messily involved in ill-sorted existence, not a congregation on its strictly Sunday-best behaviour. Let the rabbi proceed with the praying for us: below the bimah, we had the life of talk to get on with – until, at regular points during the day, the sea of sound rising to unacceptable and ungodly heights, the rabbi would turn round from facing the Ark and demand silence from his people, forcing the tide to subside until gradually it rose again.

It was at its height that day when Zold was called from his separate little stall to read from the Law. And he read and he chanted and rocked passionately, and the noise still rose. Then Zold banged on the bimah, as the rabbi often did, but for no particular reason, this time the bored congregation did not respond. It was at that point that the banging became huge and repeated and violent, and though he would not turn to face us but made his own noisy protest to his God, we knew that Zold was angry, very angry.

Then the terrible thing happened. Zold, audibly, burst into tears, his back still towards us. Then, equally dramatically, prayer-shawl covering his face, tore himself from the bimah and ran out of the temple in tears.

There was silence. We the children of Israel had made this good man cry, in despair of us. There was, too late, a collective hush as of one body feeling one thing. But what did we feel together? It was not penitence, it was not quite guilt or shame, as perhaps it should have been, though we did feel very sorry for him. It was pride, surprised, incongruous and undeserved pride. For we were proud of him, the moral father of the shul, like Moses, rebuking us as the children of Israel. We knew what we were, we expected to be that lax and to be punished for it: that’s the cost of the human experience we also need. But Zold – he had suffered this for us: indeed at quite another level and within some different part of our collective tradition, he was us and we were proud of our Representative.

This is I think a serious Jewish joke, made out of paradox.

I remembered it in Baltimore a few weeks ago. I was in Loyola College, giving the Jerome S. Cardin Memorial lecture, dedicated to Judaeo-Christian relations. My somewhat ill-attended talk was on Bernard Malamud and modern Jewish assimilation, to mark the publication of the paperback edition of my biography of him (a book I had come to write somewhat by chance, just after I had finished a more conventional work on Shakespeare). What I was trying to say at that lecture was that in the scattered and assimilated tradition, in the melting pot of Malamud’s novels, the Jew emerged out of the non-Jew or the non-practising Jew like some unlikely hidden law. In Malamud’s The Fixer, for instance, one character says to the protagonist, Why do you blame God when you don’t believe in him? To which Yakov Bok replies: ‘I blame him for not existing.’ Yakov is a Dreyfus figure in late nineteenth-century Russia, put into solitary confinement on a trumped-up charge of (Christian) child-murder at the behest of the Tsar’s men. Only anti-semitism makes Yakov Bok a Jew: before that, he was non-practising, free-thinking. But on the night preceding his trial when a guard offers him food, Yakov refusing, says that he must fast. What the hell for? says the guard:

‘For God’s world’
‘I thought you didn’t believe in God.’
‘I don’t.’

This man has become a latter-day Job in the great Hebraic argument with God, and, reluctantly, has found the Jewish tradition emerging within him. The reluctance is important.

That too is a Jewish joke of great seriousness.

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