At Home in Exile: The Living Paradoxes of Moyshe Nadir's Early 20th-Century American Yiddish Satire (Discussion and Translation)

By Wishnia, Kenneth | MELUS, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

At Home in Exile: The Living Paradoxes of Moyshe Nadir's Early 20th-Century American Yiddish Satire (Discussion and Translation)


Wishnia, Kenneth, MELUS


Moyshe Nadir [Itskhak Reiz] had been editing and contributing to the humorous newspapers, Der yidisher gazlen, Der kibitser and Der groyse kundes [The Jewish Robber, The Kibitser and The Big Prankster] for several years when a three-volume collection, Humor un satire, appeared in New York in 1912, containing Nadir's earliest satires. Nadir wrote at least thirty of the sketches appearing in the collection, under the names Itskhok Rayz, Moyshe Nadir, Itskhak Ben-Meyer and Rinaldo; some of the other pseudonyms may be his as well. This fertile exuberance and clowning, even at the supposedly authoritative level of declaring authorship, reflects the young Nadir's cheerful, iconoclastic attitude towards the hybrid nature of the American Yiddish-speaking community at the time, and the complexities of writing for such a community.

The audience for American Yiddish satire between 1905 and 1914 was an unprecedented mixture of rural peasants, urban workers, small shopkeepers, and radical intellectuals who had once been spread out across the old European continent and who therefore spoke numerous variant forms of Yiddish, but who were now crammed into the shared space of North American cities. Using laughter as a means of simultaneously criticizing and easing assimilation into American culture, Yiddish satirists writing for the new urban American audiences were attempting to fulfill diverse roles, including those previously played in European Yiddish folk culture by Purim players, trickster tales, and the badkhn's [wedding jester] parodies. But they also used laughter to teach the immigrant population and to guide them in their dealings with the complex problems of their newly adopted society. In Bakhtinian terms, the "ambivalent" laughter of folk satire, directed at Jews entering U.S. society, also reaffirmed their participation in it.(1)

This article will discuss four of Nadir's early satires in relation to the two distinct traditions of Yiddish and American humor. It will explore how this immigrant literature represents and mediates the interrelation of the two cultures and how it contributes to the development of American Jewish identity within American popular culture. Jewish humor has been an especially successful contribution to American literary and popular culture; indeed, one study found that 80% of the most famous American comedians were Jewish (Janus).

In contrast to the Hobbesian belief that humor is largely a matter of dominating and belittling the butt of the joke, Jewish humor, from Sigmund Freud onward, has often been viewed as being self-critical and therefore an indication of "self-hatred," or as "pseudo-masochism serving to deflect or deflate hostility, as internal corrective ... and as ironic reversal (victory through defeat, virtues out of supposed vices)" (Mintz 4). I would like to collapse these divergent definitions into the following: Laughter, even allegedy self-critical laughter, can be one of the most efficient and subversive forms of attacking one's oppressors. Laughing at yourself is laughing at others because the subtext is, "If I can laugh this hard at myself, imagine how loud I can laugh when I think of you."

A strong parallel can be found within African American humorous folklore, in which the principal figure is "the weaker individual," who uses superior cleverness to "overcome stronger opponents," often through the use of satire (Cook 111). For many slaves, deception was the only successful form of resistance (Osofsky 26). In the modem era, the ability to turn Jim Crow laws into a joke, often through gallows humor, like Dick Gregory's definition of a Southern moderate as "a cat that'll lynch you from a low tree" (Watkins 502),(2) bears more than a passing resemblance to a similar tradition in Jewish humor that even allows one to joke about the charge of having crucified Jesus. This charge has resulted in centuries of persecution, torture, and death, yet one is able to joke:

   Little Gerda [says] to little Moishe: "I am no longer allowed to play with
   you. … 

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