BERKELEY, Calif. (JTA) — The Chmielnicki massacres weren’t particularly funny. From 1648 to 1651, nearly 100,000 Jews were slaughtered throughout Ukraine by Bohdan Chmielnicki and his roving bands of Cossacks. It was arguably the worst pogrom in history, leaving hundreds of Jewish communities in ruins.
Yet according to Mel Gordon, a professor of theater arts at the University of California, Berkeley, those years of terror led to the canonization of what we now know as Jewish humor. A lot of what we laugh at during Purim festivities stems from that horrific period.
And it happened on one day in July 1661 when the badkhn — a kind of cruel court jester in East European Jewish life — was spared a ban on merrymakers. “We’re funny because of the badkhn,” Gordon told JTA. Gordon, who has authored numerous books on theater, cinema and popular culture, lectures widely on his badkhn theory at Jewish and non-Jewish venues.
“Everyone says that Jews are funny because they suffered so much,” he said. “That’s ridiculous. You think the rest of the world hasn’t suffered? What about the Armenians, the Biafrans, the American Indians? None of them are known for their humor.”
Nor are Jews funny because they’ve “always been funny,” another common falsehood, Gordon says. It’s only in the past 100 years, with the rise of Hollywood and nightclub society, that Jewish humor has become a staple of American popular culture.
“At the turn of the 20th century, the Jews were commonly perceived to be a humorless, itinerant nation,” he wrote in “Funnyman,” a 2010 book co-authored with Thomas Andrae about the short-lived Jewish comic book superhero.
So it’s not genetic, and it’s not because of suffering or social marginalization, that led to this thing we call Jewish humor — it’s the badkhn.
The badkhn was a staple in East European Jewish life for three centuries, mocking brides and grooms at their weddings. He also was in charge of Purim spiels in shtetl society.
His humor was biting, even vicious. He would tell a bride she was ugly, make jokes about the groom’s dead mother and round things off by belittling the guests for giving such worthless gifts. Much of the badkhn’s humor was grotesque, even scatological.
“They would talk about drooping breasts, big butts, small penises,” Gordon said. “We know a lot about them because they were always suing each other about who could tell which fart joke on which side of Grodno.”
It’s that same self-deprecating tone that characterizes the Yiddish-inflected Jewish jokes of the 20th century, Gordon points out. Who is the surly Jewish deli waiter of Henny Youngman fame if not a badkhn, making wisecracks at the customer’s expense?
Before the 1660s, there were at least 10 different stock comic types in shtetl life, Grodon says. One would rhyme, one would juggle, one might sing. Wealthy folks would hire a variety for their simchas, or festive celebrations.
But in the summer of 1661, a decade after the Chmielnicki massacres and its resultant famines, leading rabbis from Poland and Ukraine — the “Elders of the Four Councils” — met in Vilna to discuss why such evils had befallen the Jewish people.
The elders decided the Jews were being punished by God. A return to strict observance was the only solution. Levity and luxury were to be avoided.
As one of the new conditions, wedding festivities became much more somber, and holidays such as Purim and Simchat Torah less raucous. The traditional Jewish comics were outlawed.
During one discussion on July 3, 1661, Gordon relates, a rabbi asked his colleagues, what about the badkhn? He’s not really funny, the rabbi said. In fact, he’s abusive.
The elders agreed, and the badkhn was exempted from the ban — he wasn’t a merrymaker and wasn’t encouraging levity. And that’s how the badkhn became the only Jewish comic permitted in the shtetls, Gordon says, and how his particular brand of sarcastic, bleak humor set the tone for what we know today as Jewish comedy. Before the 1660s, the badkhn was the least popular Jewish entertainer – now he was the sole survivor.
“Jewish humor used to be the same as that of the host country,” Gordon said. “Now it began to deviate from mainstream European humor. It became more aggressive, meaner. All of Jewish humor changed.”
The badkhn’s role was secure from the 1660s to the 1890s and the beginning of the great Jewish migration to America and to the larger cities of Russia and Ukraine. Gordon’s father, who came to America in 1929 from the Polish shtetl Bielsk-Podlasky, remembers the badkhn of his youth.
“He was always drunk in the cemetery, telling jokes to kids,” Gordon recalls. “He came out of hiding for Purim and weddings.”
Little remains of the badkhn today outside Chasidic communities, where they are the stars of the yearly Purim spiels. When Gordon lived in New York in the 1980s, he would take journalists to Chasidic synagogues in Brooklyn every spring to witness these raucous celebrations.
But the badkhn’s influence is still felt in mainstream culture, Gordon says, from the Borsch Belt humor of the 1920s and ‘30s, to contemporary Italian and African-American comedians who trade in barbed insults and self-deprecation.
“Even today, almost all Jewish entertainers have badkhn humor,” Gordon said. “Sarah Silverman is completely badkhn.
“What did my father find funny? Dirty jokes. Because that’s the badkhn humor he grew up with.”