Yiddish in Amerike: Translating Multilingual Texts: Jacob Gordin's "Moses, Jesus Christ and Karl Marx Visit New York"

Article excerpt

And the opposite happened--Esther 9:1

[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] "[Un es iz gevorn farkert]"--Yehoash translation of Esther 9:1

[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] "[Un er hot gezen dafke farkert]"--"Moses" segment (Gordin, Ale shriftn 197)

"And he saw, on the contrary, the opposite." -Translation of Gordin (Ale shriftn 197)

This article will examine the historical context, thematic content, and translation problems associated with a turn-of-the-century satire by Jacob Gordin that also pits Moses, Jesus, and Karl Marx against the realities of twentieth-century life in the US. First published in the Yiddish American press, Gordin's piece, and other examples of modern American Jewish humor such as assimilationist rabbi jokes and Lenny Bruce's stand-up routine, "Christ and Moses," spring from the same cultural sources that produced the badkhonim (wedding jesters) and carnivalesque purimshpils (Purim plays), recycling and updating age-old motifs in Jewish folklore. (1)

From Abraham's bold-faced reproach in Genesis 18, "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?" and his marketplace-inspired bargaining with God over the number of righteous required to save the city of Sodom from destruction (down from the original asking price of fifty to the bargain price of ten), to one of Woody Allen's preferred formulas coupling the sublime with the mundane, "Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on weekends" (Allen 33) (2), Jews have had a tradition of taking God to task for perceived faults with God's universe in the twin forms of lamentations (sacralizing the profane) and jokes (profaning the sacred). God is perceived as the original source of this duality: the Book of Lamentations asks, "Out of the mouth of the Most High, do not both good and evil come?" (3:38), while the Yiddish proverb, A mentsh trakht, un got lakht (literally, "A person thinks, and God laughs"; more familiar in English is the proverb, "Man proposes, God disposes"), suggests not only that the best-laid plans of mice and men go astray if that is God's will, but also that God is not above laughing at us. "He who sits in the heavens laughs," the Psalms tell us (2:1). (3)

Yet laughter also makes us more divine. This idea, which appears in Western thought with Aristotle's maxim, "Of all living creatures only man is endowed with laughter," sees laughter as God-like and God-given, and therefore something, like the soul, that separates us from animals (Bakhtin, Rabelais 68-69). In Jewish tradition as well, the gift of laughter is equivalent to the gift of civilization itself in the form of the Laws of Moses: one Talmudic commentator writes, "Purim is as great as the day on which the Torah was given on Sinai" (Rubenstein 275). For the uninitiated, Purim is to Passover as Carnival is to Easter--a short period of satiric lunacy before the solemnities begin. The source is the Biblical Book of Esther.

The holiday of Purim has been especially influential in establishing a central role for humor in Jewish culture. On Purim, Jews laugh at Haman's humiliation as his plans to destroy the Jews are reversed ("And the opposite happened," Esther 9:1); they do not gather in solemn remembrance of the threat he posed, or their deliverance from it, as on so many other holidays. The earliest instances of parody in Jewish literature are predominately Purim-related: a thirteenth-century collection of maxims written in imitation of a portion of the Passover service urges "all good Jews to eat well and to drink plenteously on the night of Purim" (Doniach 237).

The medieval Midrash Abba Guryon has scenes in heaven, with Satan playing the part of Haman, and God playing the part of King Akhashverosh:

   Meanwhile in Heaven Satan had explained before the Lord Almighty
   the folly and the sinfulness of his people Israel. "Let Israel be
   destroyed!" said God; "bring me a roll that I may record the
   decree of destruction! …