Jews and Fools: A Rabbi’s Perspective on April Fool’s Day
Jews and Fools
Rabbi Bonnie Koppell
I’m not sure what the origin of April Fool’s Day is, and I AM sure that it’s NOT a Jewish holiday, but I am also sure that I am ready for some levity. We DO have a reference to fools right here in our Kabbalat Shabbat liturgy. In fact, it’s the actual psalm for Shabbat, Psalm 92, which, in verse 5, tells us that fools will never understand what the psalm is trying to communicate. Proverbs isn’t any kinder to the fool. We read, for example, that fools don’t even TRY to understand, (Proverbs 18:2), and Proverbs opens in chapter one by telling us that fools reject Mussar and Wisdom (1:7) Psalm 12 is entirely directed towards contrasting the wise and the fool.
By the time the book of Ecclesiastes appears, King Solomon, the reputed author, ponders the similar fate between the two, and wonders why we should bother seeking wisdom since we will all die and be forgotten anyway? In the Talmud, however, the status of the fool has been elevated to messianic proportions. The story is told of two brothers who come to the market. The prophet Elijah reveals to Rabbi Beroka that these two individuals have a guaranteed place in the world to come. Naturally, this seems remarkable- what could these two unknown individuals do that is so profoundly important and meaningful? As Rabbi Beroka approaches the men to ask them, “What is your occupation?” They replied, “We are jesters, and we cheer up the depressed. And, when we see two people who have a quarrel between them, we strive to make peace.” (Taanit 22a) Bringing peace and joy is THAT important!
Perhaps this is the original source of Jews in comedy? As Sholom Aleichem put it, “The world is in a terrible state, and just on spite we ought not to cry about it. And if you want to know the truth, that’s the source of my humor. Just on spite, I’m not going to cry. Just to spite them, there’s going to be laughter.” Mel Brooks observed, “Look at Jewish history. Unrelieved lamenting would be intolerable. So, for every ten Jews beating their breasts, God designated one to be crazy and amuse the breast beaters. By the time I was five I knew that I was that one.”
We have a whole town of fools we lovingly mock in the town of Chelm. Bodies of literature deride the silly wise men whose foolish answers to challenges sometimes belie a deeper wisdom. Their stories were popularized by Isaac Bashevis Singer, and were loved in the former Soviet Union and in Ukraine. Ukraine, by the way, is the only country in the world where April Fool’s Day is a national holiday- how sad that this year it will not be observed.
How did Chelm become a town of fools? It is said that after God made the world, it was filled with people. God dispatched an angel with two sacks, one full of wisdom and one full of foolishness. The second sack was much heavier. So after a time it started to drag. Soon it got caught on a mountaintop and all the foolishness spilled out and fell into Chełm.
A young housewife living in the town of Chełm had a very strange occurrence. One morning, after buttering a piece of bread she accidentally dropped it on the floor. To her amazement, it fell buttered side up. As everyone knows, whenever a buttered piece of bread is dropped on the floor, it always falls buttered side down; this is like a law of physics. But on this occasion it had fallen buttered side up, and this was a great mystery which had to be solved. So all the Rabbis and elders and wise men of Chełm were summoned together and they spent three days in the synagogue fasting and praying and debating this marvelous event among themselves. After those three days they returned to the young housewife with this answer: “Madam, the problem is that you have buttered the wrong side of the bread.”
This is, of course, reminiscent of the distinction between the schlimiel and the schlimazal. The schlimazel, literally, the one with no mazal, no luck, inevitably drops his bread with the butter side down. What’s the difference between them? The schlemiel is the one who chronically spills the soup; the schlimazel is the one it always lands on.
Jews in Russia survived with their own brand of humor, quietly and privately mocking the oppressive government. Rabinovich’s friend asks him,
Q: Rabinovich, what is a fortune?
A: A fortune is to live in our Socialist motherland.
Q: And what’s a misfortune?
A: A misfortune is to have such a fortune.
An old Jewish man is picked up by the Stalinist police and brought in for questioning:
A: St. Petersburg.
Or, in the last years of the Soviet Union:
Q: Comrade Lev, why now, just when things are getting better for your people, are you applying for an exit visa to make aliyah to Israel?
A: Well, comrade, there are two reasons. One is that my next-door neighbor is Pamyat and he tells me that after they get rid of you communists, they are coming next after the Jews.
Q: But they will never get rid of us communists!
A: I know, I know, of course you are right! And that’s the second reason.
Eddie Portnoy, a senior researcher at YIVO, shares his favorite Jewish joke- When you tell a peasant a joke, he laughs three times: once when you tell it, once when you explain it, and once when he understands it. When you tell a Polish nobleman a joke, he laughs twice: once when you tell it, and once when you explain it; but he never actually understands it. When you tell a Russian officer a joke, he only laughs once. He’ll never understand it, and if you try to explain it to him, he might put you in jail. When you tell a Jew a joke, he interrupts you to say that he’s already heard it, and, by the way, you’re telling it wrong.
He explains that he loves this joke because it is very representative of the Jew’s place in society in the Pale of Settlement, the area of the Russian Empire to which the Jews were restricted during the 19th century. The position of the Jew is as a completely separate cultural entity. Jews speak a different language, Yiddish, and are a minority, surrounded by the peasantry but often working for the Polish nobles, and hence at their beck and call, even though the nobles don’t have any power anymore. Russian officers are the military administrators, so Jews have to heed their orders too.
This kind of joke was a way to make these three groups that the Jews typically had difficulties with look foolish. When you’re powerless, if you can mock your enemy, that gives you some kind of power. That’s what the joke teller is doing. He is making fun of everyone, himself included. He’s oppressed by all three of these figures in different ways, but he comes out on top. Not only is he smart enough to get the joke, but the other Jew he is telling it to can tell it better. The next Jew is smarter than the one before—or at least he thinks so.
What I like about the punch line, he concludes, —when you tell a Jew a joke he interrupts you—is the concept of Jews talking to one another, interrupting one another, talking over each other. This is a Jewish conversational phenomenon linguists call cooperative overlapping. On the surface it seems rude, but it’s actually a method of engagement showing interest and appreciation for what the other person is saying, if in somewhat of an odd way. There’s a sense that there’s an informality between Jews, whether they know each other or not, that allows them to interrupt each other and tell each other straight out, “You’re telling this joke wrong.”
All I can say is first Purim, now April Fool’s Day, it’s good to be able to laugh together.