“A Rabbi Walks Into a Bank . . . ”
Fri, 03/19/2010
Special to the Jewish Week
Literary lights Alter Druyanov, Y.H. Ravnitzky, Simon Dubnow, Mendele Mocher-Seforim and Chaim Nachman Bialik
Literary lights Alter Druyanov, Y.H. Ravnitzky, Simon Dubnow, Mendele Mocher-Seforim and Chaim Nachman Bialik

 A witty man was once asked: “A doctor and a banker — which one is more important in the eyes of the Lord?”

The wit replied: “The doctor is more important in the eyes of the Lord. Proof: In the Ten Commandments, the Blessed Be He placed ‘Thou shalt not kill’ ahead of ‘Thou shalt not steal.’”

Dunno about you, but this one made me laugh out loud. OK, maybe it loses in translation. It is one of 3,170 numbered entries in the three-volume Hebrew classic “Sefer Habediha v’Hahidud,” (“The Book of Jokes and Wit”) compiled by a Jewish writer named Alter Druyanov.

Born in 1870, in a town near Vilna called (what else?) Druya, he gravitated as a young man to Odessa, which like the Upper West Side of today, was a lively mecca for Jewish writers. He was part of a circle that included Bialik, Ahad Ha’am and other serious Hebrew writers who told their jokes in Yiddish.

Like them, Alter was an avid Zionist, and even made aliyah in 1906, the same year as Ben-Gurion, but moved back to Russia in 1909 because he couldn’t make a living in Israel. (As they say in Yiddish, plus ça change.)

I would call it Palestine, but I don’t want you should get the wrong idea. This is not (wink) a political piece. It’s a humor piece. Except that all Jewish humor is political. Why do I say this? Imagine the joke above, slightly altered (pun intended) as follows:

Rash Limerick (not his real name) gets a radio call-in from a guy in Pasadena. The guy says, OK, I have a joke for you, and Rash says he loves jokes, so here goes. “Jewish doctors and Jewish bankers — who does God love more?” I give up, says Rash. “The doctors,” the guy says, “and here’s the proof: Because in the Ten Commandments, which God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ comes before ‘Thou shalt not steal.’”

Rash gives a big belly laugh. Ten million radio listeners laugh out loud in the privacy of their cars, from the Maine woods to the beaches of Hawaii. In some cars, they laugh louder than others, though many Jews are big fans of Rash too.

He’s clever and really gets it right about those jerks in Washington. But now, cruising in their Audis, these Jews hear this joke, and they are suddenly thinking about the financial powerhouse Goodman & Strauss Brothers (not its real name), which made a trillion dollars while the rest of America tanked.

The switchboards of the Major and Minor Jewish Organizations blow a collective fuse. The blogosphere bloggeth over.

Indignant press releases and demands for apologies are issued: not only does this joke target Jewish bankers, play into the hands of conspiracy theorists and channel the radio ghost of Father Coughlin, it harks back to dark anti-Semitic images of Jewish doctors who bleed their Christian patients to bake matzah (or hamentashen, as a Saudi newspaper reported a few years back: I kid you not.) Haman himself could have told this joke! (See the Book of Esther, aka the Megillah, Chapter 3, Verse 8.)

On the other hand, in Israel, you could tell this joke on the radio, in the original Hebrew and nobody would care. Obviously the doctor and the banker are Jewish, so what? It would seem corny and old-hat and most Israelis, especially young ones, wouldn’t even laugh.

It’s like a Yiddish joke: told by Jews, about Jews, for Jews. (In fact it is an old Yiddish joke: where do you think Druyanov got his mountains of material? He also collected dirty Jewish jokes, but alas elected not to publish them.) Of course, in Israel live many non-Jews, mainly Arabs, most of whom speak Hebrew. How they would react to the doctor-banker joke is an interesting question.

Let’s try another of Druyanov’s jokes: Number 624. (Reminds me of the old chestnut about the prisoners who tell jokes by number alone, and the new inmate who tries and fails to get a laugh, and the punch line: “You told it wrong!” But I digress.)

One chasid says to another: “What if, God forbid, there was no money in the world? How would we give a pidyon (gift) to the tzaddik (rebbe?)”The other chasid says: “If there were no money in the world, there would be no tzaddikim in the world either.”

This one too carries the whiff of politics. Druyanov moved back to Eretz Yisrael in 1921, and the following year published the first edition of his joke anthology.

The expanded three-volume edition was published between 1935 and 1938, the year that he died; it was re-issued several times thereafter, and remains a favorite of Israeli cognoscenti. (Readers of Hebrew can enjoy chunks of it on a fabulous Israeli Web site: www.benyehuda.org/droyanov).

Druyanov organized his book by topic, and this joke (Volume Aleph, Chapter Vav) comes at the expense not of Jews in general, and certainly not Hebrew-speaking Zionists, but of chasidim and their rabbis.

It’s not very funny, I have to admit, and in Israel today, if aired on TV, it would seem as old as Red Skelton, and laughably tame compared with what you read in the daily Hebrew papers, where juicy reports of the venality (real or alleged) of fervently Orthodox rabbis and politicians do not hurt circulation one little bit.

But now let us segue to Hollywood. Do you remember a 1986 movie called “Short Circuit,” a comedy about a runaway robot, starring Ally Sheedy and Steve Guttenberg? Here too, one finds a joke about rabbis and money. (My vivid memory of it is supported by the “Memorable Quotes” department at the Internet Movie Data Base.)

“Listen closely. There’s a priest, a minister and a rabbi. They’re out playing golf. They’re deciding how much to give to charity. The priest says ‘We’ll draw a circle on the ground, throw the money in the air and whatever lands inside the circle, we’ll give to charity.’

The minister says ‘No, we’ll draw a circle on the ground, throw the money in the air and whatever lands outside of the circle, that’s what we’ll give to charity.’ The rabbi says ‘No, no, no. We’ll throw the money way up in the air, and whatever God wants, he keeps!’”

Is this funny? God yes! Or at least I thought so when I first heard it in 1986. “Short Circuit” (so far as I can divine) was written and directed by gentiles, and the joke-teller is a character named “Newton Crosby.” Does this make a difference? Is it a funny but anti-Semitic joke, kosher at the Shabbos table but treif on the big screen? What if Billy Crystal told it? Sarah Silverman? Alter Druyanov?

Context is everything. If this were a Coen Brothers movie, the same joke might be told about three rabbis. The question is, which rabbi would be which? Who’s the clever cheapskate? The Reform rabbi who knows what a Maserati is, but not a bar mitzvah? (Whoops, wrong joke: maybe you know that one.) The Orthodox rabbi who (in another joke) thinks Santa comes on Easter?

And incidentally, how did you like the Coens’ latest exercise in ultra-Jewish irreverence, “Father Knows Best” meets the Book of Job, “A Serious Man”? Just about all of my friends loved it, except for a few rabbis.

The great beauty of Jewish humor is that it provides everybody with something to complain about. In America, when you complain publicly about a joke like the one in the robot movie, you might be accused of being touchy and oversensitive, and then you can have the pleasure of complaining about that too.

It upsets me personally that space allows the citation of but one more quintessential Jewish joke, so I’ll make it a good one. A classmate who became chairman of the Harvard philosophy department told it to me some years back at a college reunion, so it must be taken seriously. Here in Jerusalem, I ponder it often:

Elderly, ailing Mr. Rabinowitz has demanded to be moved from St. Luke’s hospital to Mount Sinai. His new doctor wants to know why.

“Was the medical care inadequate at St. Luke’s?” asks the doctor.

“No,” says the old man, “it was all right.”

“How about the nurses?”

“The nurses were nice; I can’t complain,” he says.

“The food? You didn’t like the food there?”

“Nah, the food was all right, can’t complain.”

“So why,” asks the doctor, “did you demand to be switched to Mount Sinai?”

“Because here,” says Rabinowitz,

“I can complain.”

Stuart Schoffman, a senior fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute, is writing a book about tales and treatments of the Jewish Condition.