Concerning Jew-jokes

One of the responsibilities I took over from the late lamented Jack Hirshleifer as the rapporteur of what is now the Hirshleifer Tanakh Study Group at UCLA was sending out a weekly joke to accompany the notes on that week’s discussion. I don’t make them up; I remember them, or I find them. A common theme of Yiddish humor is Jews getting clever revenge on goyim who mistreat them.

For example:

During World War II, hostess who lived near an Army base dealt with the difficulty of finding enough young men to balance her dinner parties by inviting soldiers. One day she called the base and told the sergeant who answered the phone that she needed six guests, in full dress, for 7:30 Saturday night. “And Sergeant,” she drawled, “please don’t send any of the Hebrew persuasion. I don’t really cotton to Hebrews.” “Yes, Ma’am,” said the sergeant. “Six soldiers, full dress, Saturday night, 19:30 hours, no Hebrews.” “Why, thank you, Sergeant.” “No problem, Ma’am. Glad to be of service.”

Promptly at 7:30, a Jeep pulled up at her mansion and five PFC’s and a corporal got out. They were all tall, all handsome, all wearing impeccable full dress … and all black.

The hostess, at the door, spluttered with confusion. “Corporal, there must be some mistake.” “No, Ma’am,” replied the corporal. “Sergeant Goldberg, he don’t put up with no mistakes.”

Now, I’d be a little careful about telling that joke in public or in mixed company, because dialect other than your own is always potentially offensive, and it’s not quite clear whether the black soldiers are in on the joke (which is the way I would understand it) or are also being made dupes – in their case innocent ones – by the clever Sergeant Goldberg. But though I’d be a little afraid – not very afraid, but a little – of offending black or Southern audiences, I know that one gets a big laugh from Jews.

The joke about the Taliban militant and the Jewish merchant that Jim Jones told (text at the jump) is exactly in that tradition. It’s deeply offensive – if you’re a Taliban sympathizer. It makes out the Taliban member to be a rude buffoon, and also laughs at the fact that he’s dying of thirst. Despite what the professionally offended Abe Foxman says, there’s not a hint of greed in the actions of the two Jews; they don’t try to make money off the militant’s need for water, they just collude in tormenting him. (Someone should tell Foxman that he, personally, is a walking Jew-joke.)

I would certainly not advise Jones to give up his day job and go into stand-up. It’s not a bad joke in concept, but the way he told it makes it maximally un-funny, and I can’t imagine for the world why he prefaced it with “I’d just like to tell you a story I think is true.” It couldn’t possibly be true, if only because Afghanistan doesn’t have a lot of Jewish dry-goods merchants. And if I’d been telling it, I would have given the merchant a Yiddish accent.

Lame? Yes. But “anti-Semitic”? Give me a break!

Update I just did the experiment by telling the joke to my sister, who didn’t know that Jones had told it (and who doesn’t always laugh at my jokes). She thought it was hilarious. I’m going to send it out as the Hirshleifer joke this week.

I’d just like to tell you a story that I think is true. It happened recently in southern Afghanistan. A member of the Taliban was separated from his fighting party and wandered around for a few days in the desert, lost, out of food, no water. And he looked on the horizon and he saw what looked like a little shack and he walked towards that shack. And as he got to it, it turned out it was a little store owned by a Jewish merchant. And the Taliban warrior went up to him and said, ‘I need water. Give me some water.’ And the merchant said, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t have any water, but would you like a tie? We have a nice sale of ties today.’

Whereupon the Taliban erupted into a stream of language that I can’t repeat, but about Israel, about Jewish people, about the man himself, about his family, and just said, ‘I need water, you try to sell me ties, you people don’t get it.’

And impassively the merchant stood there until the Taliban was through with his diatribe and said, ‘Well I’m sorry that I don’t have water for you and I forgive you for all of the insults you’ve levied against me, my family, my country. But I will help you out. If you go over that hill and walk about two miles, there is a restaurant there and they have all the water you need.’ And the Taliban, instead of saying thanks, still muttering under his breath, disappears over the hill, only to come back an hour later. And walking up to the merchant says, ‘Your brother tells me I need a tie to get into the restaurant.’

Comments

  1. Anonymous37 says

    I just did the experiment by telling the joke to my sister, who didn’t know that Jones had told it (and who doesn’t always laugh at my jokes). She thought it was hilarious.

    Yes, but your sister is anti-Semitic.

  2. says

    I heard that joke played on the radio and the delivery was non-stellar. I even could figure out what the punch line would be. On the whole, I'd say it was mostly harmless.

  3. C.S. says

    I’d be a little careful about telling that joke in public or in mixed company, because dialect other than your own is always potentially offensive

    A dialect is entirely unnecessary to the delivery of the joke. In fact, it is just a little bit funnier told without any attempt at dialect whatsoever.

  4. C.S. says

    To be clear, the reason it is funnier without the dialect is that, to the extent that the hostess' concerns are valid (i.e., that the soldiers would not be able to sufficiently hold their own among august company, thus ruining her dinner party) those concerns are put to rest by a black soldier who speaks "correctly" from the hostess' point of view. Thus, the sole reason why she would be concerned after the soldier speaks is her own racism (or, more precisely, her unthinking adoption of the social mores of her social set).

    Plus, the crux of the joke is the fact that Sgt. Goldberg does not speak with an identifiable accent. In other words, the whole punch of the joke is that the hostess assumed Goldberg to be like her simply because he talks like her. If the other characters — the black PFCs — likewise speak with non-identifiable accents, it highlights the stupidity of the hostess' social preconceptions.

  5. K says

    I sort of read your Sgt. Goldberg along the lines of the Indian chief in Blazing Saddles: Hosti gezen in dayne lebn? They darker than us! Woof!

    I.e., coalition building.

  6. J. J. Ramsey says

    I've heard that joke before I'd even heard of the Taliban. It has made the rounds for a while. Can't say that I find it that funny, though, since the Jews in it largely play the role of the bad guy, jerking around someone in desperate thirst. Ok, in this version, it's a member of the *Taliban* who gets jerked around, which isn't so bad, but as I said, the joke predates the Taliban becoming a household name in the U.S.

  7. larry birnbaum says

    I don't find the joke offensive. What I do question is why on earth Jones and his staff felt it appropriate (a) for the occasion (b) at all. If I were the National Security Advisor to the President, I don't think I'd be cracking jokes about, I don't know, rich oil men from Texas and how they con some Gulf prince.

    In other words, I object to the mind-set the joke reflects, and also to the fact that we seem to have a National Security Advisor who isn't very bright.

  8. says

    I'm not Jewish, but my first reaction was that this joke sounds like the jokes told in a thousand Borscht Belt comedy clubs throughout the 40s-60s. Told mostly by Jewish comedians.

  9. Swift Loris says

    The dinner-party joke makes me a little queasy. It has to be clear that the soldiers *are* in on Sgt. Goldberg's scheme and happy to cooperate, or it looks like Goldberg is taking revenge on the woman by inflicting on her something *he* sees as intolerable–in which case the audience would be expected to applaud his racism.

    I have to think that was the original thrust of the joke, or the corporal's response to the woman wouldn't be in dialect. The joke requires some judicious tweaking before it's "safe," IMHO.

  10. Sarah says

    I'm not of any of the ethnicities bandied about, but I am female, if that counts for anything. I'm with your sister: I find it hilarious. I've heard the same joke told, different setting, different setting (I believe the drygoods storowner was Scottish), and the thirsty wanderer wanted liquor. The humor is in the twist. Maybe we should use Martians and Vegans for the protagonists…but then the subtexts of stereotypes would be lost.

  11. Robert Johnston says

    "I’m not Jewish, but my first reaction was that this joke sounds like the jokes told in a thousand Borscht Belt comedy clubs throughout the 40s-60s. Told mostly by Jewish comedians."

    It's modeled on those, but there's a key difference. Those jokes were about getting one up on an oppressor next to whom you were powerless. This "joke" is nothing of the sort. This joke is about jews being phenomenal assholes and laughing at the suffering of another person who, for all his belonging to a group that is widely considered evil, is still just some powerless schmuck. There's the further fact that middle eastern muslims are likely, whether or not justified, to see truth in this "joke" and upon hearing it think "that's exactly why we want all the jews dead." For a national security adviser to tell such a joke is a firing offense at the least.

    This joke is yet another attempt to conflate the Taliban with the nazis under Hitler. It's hysterical right-wing nonsense of the sort that got us into the messes we're in in Afghanistan and Iraq in the first place, and there's nothing funny about that.

  12. Barry says

    Swift Loris says:

    "The dinner-party joke makes me a little queasy. It has to be clear that the soldiers

    *are* in on Sgt. Goldberg’s scheme and happy to cooperate,

    or it looks like Goldberg is taking revenge on the woman by inflicting on her something

    *he* sees as intolerable–in which case the audience would be expected to applaud his racism."

    No, it doesn't rely on the soldiers being in on it, or Sgt Goldberg being racist.

    It relies on (a) the hostess not realizing that Sgt Goldberg was jewish,

    and he figuring that anybody who didn't want jews at their dinner

    party would object 10 times as much to having blacks at their dinner party.

  13. jamie_2002 says

    In my youth in Canada, the stereoypically stupid jokes were told about residents of Newfoundland. You can substitute in "Newfie" (the other "N" word) into ethnic jokes and maintain the sense of putdown.

    In a similar spirit of getting back at the Man, my favourite newfie joke is:

    "What is black and blue and floats in the harbour?"

    A mainlander who told one too many Newfie jokes."

  14. Swift Loris says

    No, it doesn’t rely on the soldiers being in on it, or Sgt Goldberg being racist.

    It relies on (a) the hostess not realizing that Sgt Goldberg was jewish,

    and he figuring that anybody who didn’t want jews at their dinner

    party would object 10 times as much to having blacks at their dinner party.

    Yes, I understood the point of the joke, thanks. That wasn't my point; I was wondering about the context.

    If we don't know the soldiers are in on it, we can't be sure Sgt. Goldberg isn't racist. Does he figure the hostess will object more to blacks than to Jews at her dinner party because he himself would object to blacks at his dinner party? The corporal's dialect suggests the soldiers are too unsophisticated to realize how they're being used.

    I think it was originally intended as a racist joke for a racist audience. Note the setting, World War II. It's probably not a World War II-era joke, but it's not likely a recent one.

  15. Howard Wasserman says

    I heard a Rabbi tell the Sgt. Goldberg joke at High Holy Day services a couple of years ago. But, perhaps to make the joke safe, the five soldiers who showed up were Jewish. Now the meaning is about Jews with sudden and unexpected authority (obviously the woman did not think that the sergeant she was talking to was, or could possibly be, Jewish) putting one over on the anti-Semite.

  16. Mark Kleiman says

    Swift Loris:

    "A racist joke for a racist audience," when the racist in the story is left with egg on her face at the hands of Jew? If I had to guess at a time and place of origin, I'd guess Borscht Belt, c. 1955.

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