Librarian's Lobby
by Daniel D. Stuhlman
January 2005

Jewish Storytelling

There is a long Jewish tradition of telling stories. The witnessing of events and the report through the telling of stories is the way we share historical events and create a cultural history. Long before the beginnings of a written literature, storytelling served as the means of sharing events of the past and of defining the Jewish identity--that is, the individual's cultural distinctiveness as a Jew. As a member of a unique community, Jews tell and retell stories.

Librarians are known as storytellers and reading stories in a group as a way to introduce literature to children. As an art form storytelling is an oral tradition. The storyteller interacts with the audience and changes or adapts the story to the time, place and audience. Recently I acquired some Jewish humorous story books that are more than 45 years old. I would like to discuss some of these stories. I recognize that in print I can not change the tone or inflection of my voice.

Let Laughter Ring! / compiled and retold by S. Felix Mendelsohn [1] was published by Jewish Publication Society, 1941. These stories were collected from humor columns in the Jewish press and from examples sent to the author after an appeal issued through the Chicago Jewish Sentinal   Humor is a way of dealing with the practical, personal and societal, and problems facing the Jews. This book was written after the knowledge of the German anti-Semitism but before the knowledge of the holocaust. The book also reflects the hope and promise of Eretz Yisra’el.

Many of the stories use the names of famous people.

Sapir, the famous Jewish satirist, was invited by a friend to witness the performance of a world-renowned comedian. Upon leaving the theatre Sapir was asked to express his opinion of the center of attraction. The satirist replied, “Joking aside, he is a great actor.”

Apparently, his full name was Mortiz Gottlieb Sapir (or Saphir, which seems to be the more common spelling), he lived from 1795-1858, and was considered Vienna's most influential music critic, as well as a humorist. He published a journal called the "Berliner Courier" in the 1820s and 30s and founded the Berliner Sonntagsverein.

Israel Zangwill was entertained at lunch in a club-house in Chicago by a small group of Jewish women. The guest of honor ordered ham and eggs. Several women at an adjoining table expressed their surprise that an eminent Jewish leader should eat ham in public. Zangwill over heard this remark, and it annoyed him greatly.

A little while later one of the ladies leaned over to Zangwill and said, I suppose you know that this city is a great meat packing center. Do you like our ham?”

“Much better than your Chicago tongue,” snapped Zangwill.

Israel Zangwill,1864-1926, was a British novelist, playwright, and Zionist leader. His books include The King of Schnorrers(1894 and Dreamers of the Ghetto (1898). He was spokesman for the Zionist movement. This is background to explain how prominent a leader he was. Even among Jews who have no claim to keeping kosher, eating of pork products is a taboo. One could ask why the women were concerned with his choice of food when their food was not kosher either. One could ask why he ordered “common” food at a fancy club.

Chicago is no longer a big meat packing center. This story is not amusing today because too many of the connections are not in current culture.

The jokes concerning the Germans and anti-Semitism are interesting sociologically, but not only are they not funny. Below is story that is that is anti-Nazi but a contemporary story could make updates.

A visiting Jewish professor from Berlin was describing conditions under Nazi rule. The president of an American university interrupted. “What has really happened to Germany? Formerly American visitors would say that is God’s country.”

“I’ll tell you just what has happened,” replied the professor. God is still liberal with us, and in out day he gave the German people three institutions: honesty, intelligence, and Nazism. However, God imposed the condition that a German may have only two of the three institutions. For this reason, if a German is honest and a Nazi, he cannot be intelligent; if he is intelligent and a Nazi, he cannot be honest; and if he is honest and intelligent, he cannot be a Nazi.”

This story is remarkably similar to the business principle that says you may have only two of the following-- fast, cheap, high quality.

Here is one story that I have rewritten:

A shul rabbi died suddenly and left a widow and small children. The shul board was very concerned about the best way they could help them. They knew he had been working on a book, but had told no one of its subject or contents. They thought that publication of the book would help the family.

However, their plan was halted when they learned the manuscript contained eulogies for the funerals of the leading board members.

This book is basically ghetto humor, a type of humor poking fun at Jewish life, culture and circumstance. This was the humor of the Eastern Europe Jew and New York Lower East Side Jew. These Jewish worlds are largely gone and have been fading slowly away for over 40 years. To understand this type of humor one must know about Jewish history, culture and observance.

Jewish humor is more intellectual than main stream American humor. It is terse, based on a Jewish or human truth, subtle, suggestive of God’s role in the world, self effacing, and sometimes the listener does not know whether to laugh or cry.

A second book I acquired is Laughing with tears : a treasury of Jewish stories, wit wisdom, jokes … / compiled and edited by Martin Rywell Harriman, TN, Pioneer Press [c1960] Here’s one of the stories.

George M. Cohan [the famous performer and theater producer-owner] phoned for a hotel for a room reservation. He was told, “We don’t accept Jews.” Mr. Cohan, a non-Jew, replied, “Obviously we are both mistaken. You thought I was a Jew, and I thought you were an American.”

Storytelling is coded communications which means different people understand the words in different ways. Adults understand the sociology and history. Children understand the action. Storytelling requires verbal clues and conventions. While the child and adult may laugh at the same words, they did not hear the same story.


Daniel D. Stuhlman is president of Stuhlman Management Consultants, Chicago, IL, a firm helping organizations turn data and information into knowledge. We are looking for new clients and opportunities. Visit our web site to learn more about knowledge management and what our firm can do for you. Previous issues of Librarian's Lobby can be found at: http://home.earthlink.net/~DDStuhlman/liblob.htm.

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Asher's bar mitzvah speech.

 ©2005 by Daniel D. Stuhlman. All rights reserved.
Last revised February 10, 2004