Linguistic humor, Yiddish anecdotes

Source: Immanuel Olsvanger. 1947. Royte pomerantsen. New York: Schocken. My translations—BES.

An unlikely scholar (pp. 149–150)

Hebrew prerequisite: You need to know that eyneni yoydeya is Hebrew for 'I do not know'.

A decree came out in a town that a priest wanted to hold a scholarly disputation with the Jews in Hebrew. The priest had said that he understood Hebrew better than any of the Jews, and so the local landowner ordered there to be a disputation. The town would pick a Jew to examine the priest, and the priest would examine the Jews. And whoever didn't know the first word, well, there would be a soldier who would cut off his head before he could even give a cough. And if the Jews couldn't find anyone to represent them, then all the Jews in town would be killed.

Needless to say, there was a huge commotion in town. What was there to do? That priest, what if he's smart? And what if he asks a question that our guy can't answer? What a pain! Mercy on us all! A meeting was held in the synagogue to pick the person to represent the town. But no one wanted the job. Finally, a guy gets up, a guy that drove carts for a living, an ignoramus, a lout, and he says: "If it's all the same to you, I'll go. I ain't never been scared of no priest in my life." So everybody says: "What do you mean, you'll go? You're an ignorant lout." But they can't get the guy to change his mind, he absolutely wants to go. So word is sent to the landowner that Itske the cart-driver will represent the town in the disputation with the priest.

The next morning, everyone meets in the landowner's courtyard. People everywhere, priests, other landowners, and the people from our town, a real celebration! Over there is the priest, and over here is Itske, and close by stands the soldier with his sword already drawn.

Itske gets to start the disputation. So he goes to the priest: "Tell me, priest, what is the meaning of "Eyneni yoydeya"? Immediately, the priest answers: "'I don't know.'" And no sooner does the soldier hear this than he chops off the priest's head.

Joy, jubilation, the Jews have escaped once again, three cheers for Itske! Everybody gathers in the synagogue, and the whole congregation says the prayer of thanks for escape from great danger. And then it occurs to people to ask Itske: "How come you were able to ask the priest such a good question? Who told you to ask that question?" So Itske goes: "Well, here's the deal. When I was a kid in school, I had a teacher. And one day, I asked him, "Rabbi, what is the meaning of Eyneni yoydeya"? So he goes, "'I don't know'." So the other day, I says to myself, well, if the rabbi didn't know, then how could the priest know?"

The matchmaker's apprentice (pp. 11–12)

An old matchmaker had a student, a young matchmaker. Wherever the old one went, the young one would go with him, and that's how he learned how to negotiate a match.

One day the old man said to him, "You understand, don't you, that a matchmaker has to constantly be exaggerating. For example, if the girl has, let's say, a thousand rubles, the matchmaker has to say that she's got three thousand. So keep that in mind, and when you accompany me, you should constantly exaggerate what I say, and I'll see if you are already good at this business."

The young matchmaker understood all this. Once he went with the old one to a man to propose a match for the man's son. As usual, the old one was the first one to talk, and he says, "You should be aware that the girl comes from a very good family."

So the young matchmaker goes, "What do you mean, a good family? She's of noble descent."

"And the girl's family is well-to-do."

"What do you mean, well-to-do? They're millionaires."

"And the girl isn't bad-looking. In fact, she's quite good-looking."

"What do you mean, good-looking? She's a beauty!"

"However," said the old man, "she does have a small defect; she has a bit of a hunchback."

So the young man goes, "What do you mean, a bit of a hunchback? She's got a hunchback as big as a mountain!"

The wedding present (pp. 18–19)

In our town, at weddings, each guest gives the bride and groom a wedding present. One person gives silver spoons, the second person gives silver goblets, and other people give menorahs with cups, and other things like that. But there are also people who give the bride or the groom a piece of their life.

At one wedding, a guest stands up and says: "I give the groom ten minutes of life." Another one stands up and says: "I give the bride ten minutes of my life." A beautiful present, and inexpensive to boot! Finally, a Polish hasid stands up and says: "I give the bride ten years of life." Everybody is amazed, and they ask the hasid: "What are you doing? Why are you giving away such a big part of your life?"

So he says: "Oh, not mine, my mother-in-law's."

Why are you lying to me? (pp. 67–68)

Two Jewish businessmen meet one day on the train and get to talking. "What's new, Yankl?"

"What's new, David?"

"Well, what should be new, I'm getting by."

"Where are you going, Yankl?"

"I'm going to Warsaw, to take a look at some wheat."

David gives Yankl a look and smiles. So Yankl asks him, "What are you smiling at, David?"

So David goes, "I'm smiling because a Jew is always trying to fool the other guy."

"Fool the other guy? What do you mean, fool? Have I ever tried to fool you?"

"Come on now, Yankl. You know perfectly well that you're telling me you're going to Warsaw to look at some wheat so that I'll think you're going to Lodz to look at some cloth. But I happen to know that you are in fact going to Warsaw to take a look at wheat. So why are you lying to me?"

One telegram

A young woman had a boy, and of course, there was great rejoicing. The husband wanted to send a telegram to his mother. So he took a piece of paper and wrote down, "Fanetshka happily delivered son."

He showed the telegram to the wife's father, who took a look and said, "Well, you aren't a businessman. Telegrams need to be short. Just take a look at all the unnecessary words you've got here.

First, Fanetshka. What do you mean, Fanetshka? Obviously, Fanetshka. Would you go and send telegrams about women you don't know?

Second, happily. How else? Not happily? If there had been (God forbid!) any danger, would you be running and sending a telegram?

And further, delivered? What else? The kid dropped out of the sky?

And again, why bother writing 'son'? Of course, if you're happy enough to send a telegram, it's a son. If it had been a daughter, you wouldn't be sending a telegram."


And another telegram

One businessman needed to collect a debt from another. Months and months go by, and the second businessman doesn't pay. The first businessman writes letter after letter, but to no avail.

One day, the businessman really needs the money badly, so he tells his assistant to draft a telegram to send to the guy who owes him the money.

The assistant sits down and drafts a telegram containing ten words. He shows the telegram to his boss, and his boss says, "Are you crazy? For that telegram, I'll have to pay 65 kopecks. A telegram needs to be short and to the point. Take a look at how I do it, and you'll see." And he goes and writes a telegram containing a single word, "Now!"

The assistant takes the telegram to the post office. And in two hours, there's an answer, a telegram back from the guy who owes the money. The businessman opens it up, and finds it consists of two words:

"Now, now!"


The rabbi's complaint

In a town, there was a rabbi who was very dissatisfied with his congregation. So one fine day he told them what? That he wanted to leave them. For the town, of course, this was a huge disgrace. The rabbi leaving town! What would people say? So they had a meeting, and they decided to send two members of the congregation to the rabbi to persuade him to stay. And the people they picked were the two richest men in town. Why not? They figured, well-do-do men, rich men, those would be the type of person that could change the rabbi's mind.

The two were indeed rich, but unfortunately total pigs. The morning after the meeting, they went to see the rabbi. They came to his house, shook hands, sat down and started talking: "What's this talk about leaving, Rabbi? Why, and how come, and what's the explanation?"

So the rabbi goes, "What can I tell you? If there were only five men in town that were like you, I'd stay."

So the one rich guy looks at the other one, and they say to the rabbi, "Rabbi, you are doing us too great an honor. It shouldn't be that difficult to find five more men in town who are like us."

So the rabbi goes, "You don't understand. That's exactly the problem. If there were only five of you, I could handle it. The problem is that there are about a hundred of you guys."