Here is the common set-up for Jewish folktales: A Jewish community in a foreign land is threatened by a Jew-hater who plots their destruction. The Jewish masses stand by, helpless, praying, fasting, weeping, waiting. Who will save them?
The ur-version of this story of course is Megillat Esther, which we read on Purim, but there is an entire Hunger Games-type sub-genre in which the Jewish community is forced to choose a champion to compete in a win-or-die quiz bowl. The idea of sending out a surrogate to determine our people’s fate goes back to David and Goliath. If the Jewish representative loses, the entire community faces impoverishment, expulsion, forced conversion or death.
Let’s start with a popular jokey variation.
In the Middle Ages, the Pope challenges the Jewish community to a silent debate. If the Jewish competitor loses, all Jews will be expelled from Rome. Nobody dares go up against the Pope. The community is about to lose by default, when finally, the synagogue custodian, the shammes, an unlearned man, steps forward to accept the challenge. The crowd is aghast, and more astonished as the pantomime unfolds.
The Pope waves at the heavens, the shammes at the ground. The Pope holds up three fingers, the shammes one. The Pope takes out wine and the wafer, the shammes takes out an apple.
The Pope announces that the shammes has bested him and the Jews are spared.
When the Pope is later asked what it all meant, he explains, “I asserted that God is in heaven, but the Jew pointed out that God is also is here on earth. I said God is in the Trinity, and the Jew reminded me we share one God. I showed him the wine and the wafer that symbolize God’s forgiveness, but the Jews brought out an apple representing Original Sin. I deferred to his wisdom.”
The shammes has a different explanation for his Jewish listeners. “He said he was sending us away, I told him, we’re staying right here! He told me we have three days to get out and I told him where he could go! Then he took out his lunch, so I took out mine.”
The Jewish victory is wish fulfillment, or, as in the next tale (and the Esther story), a revenge fantasy.
A wandering beggar, a simpleton, is trying to discover the meaning of two Hebrew words, Eineni Yodea, and much like Costello in the “Who's on first?” routine, he cannot grasp that when people say, “I don’t know,” they are answering his question.
The antagonist is an evil, Jew-hating vizier, the “smartest man in the world,” the master of 70 languages, including Hebrew. The Jews have one chance, one question, to stump him with, if they are to survive.
Just then our wandering beggar happens along, and when he hears that this wise man is willing to answer anybody’s question, he ambles up to the stage. When the vizier hears the simpleton’s question, he grins madly with anticipation, and proudly answers, "I don't know!" – the correct translation of the Hebrew phrase the beggar uttered.
Unfortunately for him, the king thinks the vizier is conceding the match, and has him put to death before he has time to straighten out the mix-up. The simpleton, believing he has received no satisfaction, wanders off even as the crowd cheers his success.
Stories like these pre-date the Holocaust, before the scale of destruction became unfathomable. They must have served in their day as a psychological defense, a palliative to the impotence to resist persecution in real life. Today, such tales remind us of our past vulnerability, simultaneously an acknowledgement of how far we have come and a warning that such vulnerability might return. They seem ante – or anti - Zionist in their assumption that Jews can never fully be secure, that we ought never feel at ease.
As in all riddle tales and detective novels, the listener is thinking ahead, try to solve the puzzle before the solution is revealed. The dramatic tension comes from waiting to see how the Jews are going to escape the evil decree, not whether they will be spared.
They are also satires, parodies, mocking not just our enemies, but ourselves, and on this level, they remain eternally appealing. First, there is a joke about Jewish cowardice. Nobody wants to risk his or her neck, even when the fate of the entire community is at stake. Only the uneducated shammes, a man with no spiritual or intellectual stature, or a simpleton, neither one from the elite, have the “common man’s” courage to take the risk.
Jewish intellect and perhaps Talmudic reasoning are also being mocked. The victory of the unsophisticated Jewish champions is laughing at intellectualizing and theologizing; the shammes answers logically but prosaically and winds up victorious while wrongheaded theological abstractions are the provenance of the Pope. The ridicule is more extreme when a simpleton wins the day, and the “smartest man in the kingdom” loses his head.
Despite the pope’s concession, of course, he retains all the power, and loses nothing by his defeat. Only the vizier falls victim to another easily manipulated monarch.
It’s interesting to consider if any other people tells stories like these about themselves. Our Jewish Hunger Games tales remind us of our past vulnerability, but also of our ability to laugh at the rapacity of our enemies and at the hubris of our own intellectualism and at our leadership elite. Comedy can be democratizing, and these tales seen as examples of defiant optimism – or perhaps fatalism – from a people frequently victimized.
Don Futterman is the Program Director for Israel for the Moriah Fund, a private American Foundation, working to strengthen civil society and promote democracy in Israel. He can be heard weekly on TLV-1’s The Promised Podcast. For the complete versions of the tales discussed, see The Big Book of Jewish Humor and The Wandering Beggar.
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