Friday, May 19, 2006

Polish Jokes, Rabbis, and The Nature of Human Nature

If you are new to the playground, weekends are time for the week's Comedist sermon. If you are unfamiliar with the new religion Comedism, here is an introduction to Comedism, ; passages from The Comedist Manifesto, our holy book; Comedist support for evolution and gay marriage; how Comedism was founded; and a note on the fundamentalist War on Comedy.

This week, we continue our discussion of Polish jokes with a surmise about their origin. This is pure speculation on my part, but as an educated guess I would put forward the possibility that Polack jokes derive from a series of Jewish jokes about the town of Chelm. Chelm was a small village in Poland and the jokes were about the townspeople, especially those who came to the Rabbis for advice with a problem. The advice always solved the problem...sort of.

The Rabbis of Chelm decided they had a problem when half the inmates of their prison claimed they had been wrongly convicted. So they built a second prison. Now they have one for the guilty and one for the innocent.

Or this one,

Two sages of Chelm got involved in a deep philosophical argument.

"Since you're so wise," said one, sarcastically, "try to answer this question: Why is it that when a slice of buttered bread falls to the ground, it's bound to fall on the buttered side?"

But as the other sage was a bit of a scientist he decided to disprove this theory by a practical experiment. He went and buttered a slice of bread. Then he dropped it.
"There you are!" he cried triumphantly. "The bread, as you see, hasn't fallen on its buttered side at all. So where is your theory now?"

"Ho-ho!" laughed the other, derisively. "You think you're smart! You buttered the bread on the wrong side!"

My guess is that these jokes came over to America in the beginning of the 20th century with the European Jews immigrants. When they got here, some goyim asked where Chelm was. When they were told Poland they looked aorund and saw Polish immigrants right off the boat trying to figure out their new homeland, and lo and behold, Polack jokes. These strange new people are inferior, they are stupid.

But something important (if this story is true) happened in the translation. It is not so similar to what happened to the word "polack" in translation. "Polak" is Polish for Pole. The -ak suffix is common in the region for designating nationality. Litvaks, for example, are Lithuanians. It became a derogatory term in English through usage, not derivation. In the same way, the Polish joke wherein the Pole is supposedly stupid seems to be a warping of the original meaning of the jokes.

There are wo types of cultures: those for whom there is a single picture of human nature and those for whom there are multiple human natures. The Greeks give us an example of the first type and it was this notion of soul connected to a singular human nature that infected early Christianity and informs our approach to people. There is a single sense of human perfection towards which we are all striving and people may be judged by how far along the path they are.

But Jews, especially Eastern European Jews, had a multi-faceted view of human nature not unlike the German notion of archetypes. There were different types of people and each had a stereotypical set of characteristics. There were butchers who were strong and strong willed, but not too bright. There were merchants who were clever, but not honest. Jewish wives were nags and their husbands intentionally obtuse. And there were Rabbis. Jewish scholars studied the Talmud with its cryptic circuitous reasonings and they were always lampooned as never quite having the reality thing figured out despite a sense to the contrary. The idea is that no matter who you are, there is a joke about you. There are a fixed number of types of people and everybody gets it evenly.

But when these jokes were taken out of the context of a world view in which there are multiple human natures and put into a cultural context in which there is a single picture of human nature. Now to have a joke about you is not to make you like everyone else, now it makes you less than everyone else. Because there is a single sense of what a human ought to be, we can rank people according to how well they meet that standard. Jokes at your expense aren't appreciative ribbing of your place in the web, they are marks of your inferior position along the chain. In this switch, the jokes became weapons that they were not before. By making a joke about you, I put myself above you in a way that did not exist in the earlier context.

So, if I am right, Polish jokes were not really about Poles and were not insulting until they came over here. But then again, I'm just a scholar and can say some pretty dumb things.

We'll end today with two classics:

Christians believe that a human has value from the moment of conception.
Buddhists believe that life has value before conception. Jews don't think
that life has value until after medical school.

The only cow in a small town in Poland stopped giving milk. The people did some research and found that they could buy a cow from Moscow for 2000 rubles or one from Minsk for 1000 rubles. Being cheap, they bought the cow from Minsk. The cow was wonderful. It produced lots of milk all the time, and the people were amazed and very happy. They decided to acquire a bull to mate with the cow and produce more cows like it. Then they would never have to worry about the milk supply again. They bought the bull and put it in the pasture with their beloved cow. However, whenever the bull came close to the cow, the cow would move away. No matter what approach the bull tried, the cow would move away from the bull and he could not succeed in his quest. The people were very upset and decided to ask the rabbi, who was very wise, what to do. They told the rabbi what was happening; "Whenever the bull approaches our cow, she moves away. If he approached from the back , she moves forward. When he approaches her from the front, she backs off. An approach from the side and she just walks away to the other side." The rabbi thought about this for a minute and asked, "Did you buy this cow from Minsk?" The people were dumbfounded. They had never mentioned where they have gotten the cow. "You are truly wise rabbi. How did you know we got the cow from Minsk?" The rabbi answered sadly, "My wife is from Minsk."