There’s a book I’ve read over and over since I was a child, so many times that I’ve memorized most of its stories. My father and brothers also knew these stories and we’d often use them to illustrate whatever conversation we were having.
The book is entitled A Treasury of Jewish Folklore, edited by Nathan Ausubel. It was published in 1948.
The stories are great, but Ausubel’s introduction to each section is wonderful, I think.
So I’m thinking about some of the more absurd arguments all of us get into every now and then — no, not flamewars, just minutiae unto absurdity at times, how many angels can dance on the head of a pin kind of stuff. And I thought about the town of Chelm and the stories about the folks there.
Before I get to the stories, I’d like to share part of Ausubel’s introduction to the section of the book entitled “The Human Comedy:”
The overtones of satire, irony and quip we hear even in the Old Testament. For example, there is the gay mockery of the Prophet Elijah as he listens to the idol-worshipping soothsayers of Baal, invoking their god morning, noon and night: “O Baal, hear us!” To this, the rational-minded Elijah remarks tauntingly: “Cry ye louder, for he is a god; he is perhaps talking or walking, or he is on a journey or peradventure he sleepeth and must be awaked.”
We also find satire and irony in the Prophets, especially in the writings of Amos and Isaiah. With matchless skill they lay bare the weaknesses and the follies of their contemporaries. They satirize the hypocrite, the miser, the skinflint, the profligate, the coquette, the self-satisfied and the self-righteous. It is from this acid portraiture that much of Jewish folklore found its inspiration and themes. The fables, parables, anecdotes and sayings in the Talmud and Midrash, as the reader of this book will find out for himself, were rich in those very characteristics with which we associate Jewish humor today.
The liveliness and the many-sidedness of Jewish humor make it possible for everyone to find in it that which will suit his taste. It is a treasury in which lies stored up three thousand years of a people’s laughter. Its variety recalls the words of Bar-Hebraeus, the Thirteenth Century Syrian-Jewish folklorist, in his introduction to his Laughable Stories: “And let this book be a devoted friend to the reader, whether he be Muslim, Jew, or Aramean, or a man belonging to a foreign country or nation. And let the man who is learned, I mean to say the man who hath a bright understanding, and the man that babbleth conceitedly even though he drives everyone mad, and also every other man, choose what is best for himself. And let each pluck the flowers that please him. In this way the book will succeed in bringing together the things which are alike, each to the other.”
So onward … to the town of Chelm, and why these particular stories remind me of the kinds of knots we can tie ourselves into when it comes to arguing the finer points of any issue.