Soviet Jewish Jokes: Anecdotes & Humour in the Soviet Union

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Freedom for Soviet Jews

Soviet Jewish anecdotes talked about emigration, nationality, economics and discrimination. Emigration humour was hugely popular and served to highlight both the poor standard of life for Jews in the Soviet Union and the restrictive nature of the Party in refusing many Jews exit visa’s, leading to the term Refusenik. The above topics were very popular but I am more interested in the humour that Soviet Jews told about themselves. Many of these self critical anecdotes interestingly portrayed Jews as complainers, making fun of their desire to be seen as the victim. In some of these anecdotes for example, the Jew would automatically assume the role of the inferior in a confrontation like in the anecdote below.

Two jews are walking down the street when they notice two Russian men fast approaching. Khaim what are we going to do? There are two of them and we are all alone[1].

Much has been written about the negative effects anti-Semitic humour has had on the Jewish population living within the Soviet Union. Emil Draitser believes that jokes may have forced Jews to close ranks and become isolated.[2] Indeed, in Jonathan Frankel’s paper on the Anti-Zionist Press campaigns in the Brezhnev era, he explains that Jews chose isolation rather than assimilation.[3] This would also explain why 250,000 Jews emigrated to Israel when they were given the chance in the 1970’s.[4] But despite efforts to break them, the Jewish population show remarkable resilience in the face of discrimination and a thick skin.

What’s the difference between a Russian and a Jew?

The Russian dies but doesn’t surrender, whereas the Jew surrenders but doesn’t die.[5]

David Harris and Izrail Rabinovich have gathered hundreds of jokes specifically told by Jews, and compiled them in their book titled The Jokes of Oppression. They explain that Jews told these anecdotes as a way of coping with the pressures of Soviet life and the difficulties that arose with second class citizenship.[6] By telling a joke about themselves, they are gaining ownership of their image and protecting it from more hostile groups.[7] It gives Jews some control in the way a confrontation develops and can help deflect potentially more offensive anecdotes. They show a willingness to play a part in shaping their image, even if it is only damage limitation.

One way this is achieved is by making light of the Jewish tendency to overplay their plight. Two jokes below feature in The Jokes of Oppression and are told by Jews;

David’s mother was shocked to see her son’s appearance. Did’nt you react. Of course I did. I fell down, didn’t I![8]

Two friends meet.

‘Khaim, how are you today?’ asks one.

‘Worse than yesterday, better than tomorrow’, replies Khaim[9]

Self critical anecdotes may serve as a means of integration by lessening the distance between the joke teller and the listener.[10] By sharing some common ground, Jews are explaining that they have similarities with the average Soviet and that they can both share something. The idea that Jews exaggerated their discrimination is a theme that exists in many other anecdotes, and rather than combat this assertion the Jews comply with it by telling similar anecdotes. The Jewish joke teller is asserting who they are and what they stand for, but remains hopeful that coexistence is still an option by outlining their similarities with other Soviet’s in relation to comic taste. This reflects the desire for Soviet nationality in some of the Jewish population.

A Jew is filling out an official form. Did you serve in the Tsarist Army. NO. Nationality. Yes.[11]

Freud said that a joke could bribe the hearer with pleasure and convince them to taking sides with the teller.[12] Soviet Jews tell anti- Semitic jokes to seduce and persuade the hearer into lowering their defences, as the Jew has done in telling the joke.

Anti-Semitic jokes revealed the public’s animosity towards the Jewish population living within the Soviet Union and show a desire to belittle them. Anecdotes are a ‘powerful transmitter of popular moods in societies that can find no official outlet’.[13] As officially anti-Semitism was illegal[14], the anti-Semitic anecdote shows defiance in the face of the government and an active public mentality. These implicit politics of the people not only exist, but manifest themselves in anecdotes like the one below.

‘Beat the Jews and the bicyclists!’

‘Why the bicyclists?’[15]

Because the Soviet Union decided to specifically pick out the Jewish population in a republic that comprised of over 100 different ethnic groups[16], the Jewish population had to develop a means of defence. Although there were anecdotes about the Ukrainians or the Checha, Jewish jokes were always more pointed and popular. This could have been as a result of the Second World War. Yaacov Ro’i says the combination of Nazi propaganda and fear over what returning Jews would reclaim contributed in the declining popularity of the Jewish community.[17] Stalin’s doctor’s plot in the early 1950’s could have also proved a factor as well as the huge debate about emigration lasting through the 1970’s. Jonathan Frankel says how his eyes ‘ached’ from reading so much about Jews in the period.[18]

It could also be because Jewish people are traditionally wealthier than other groups in society and a certain amount of jealousy is directed at them because of this. In Russia for example, Pravda asserted in 1970 that although Jews only make up slightly more than 1% of the population, yet they are the third largest ethnic group as students at higher education institutes.[19]

The presence of this kind of Jewish humour shows a grudging acceptance on the part of the Soviet Jewish community to their discrimination. It provides a means of protection but also a means to survive and grapple with prejudice.

Sources:

  • [1] Harris. D & Rabinovich. I, The Jokes of Oppression; The Humour of Soviet Jews (Jason Aronson, 1995) p. 65
  • [2] Draitser. E, Taking Penguins to the Movies; Ethnic Humour in Russia (Wayne State University, 1998) p. 130
  • [3] Frankel. J, The Anti- Zionist Press Campaigns in the U.S.S.R 1969-1971 (Soviet Jewish Affairs, No.3, 1972) pp. 25
  • [4] Adams. B, Tiny Revolutions in Russia; 20th Century Soviet and Russian History in Anecdotes and Jokes (Routledge, 2005) p. 136
  • [5] Dolgopolova. Z, Russia Dies Laughing; Jokes from Soviet Russia (Unwin, 1983) p. 66
  • [6] Harris. D & Rabinovich. I, The Jokes of Oppression; The Humour of Soviet Jews (Jason Aronson, 1995) p. x
  • [7] Graham. SB, A Cultural Analysis of the Russo- Soviet Anekdot (2003) p. 157
  • [8] Harris. D & Rabinovich. I, The Jokes of Oppression; The Humour of Soviet Jews (Jason Aronson, 1995) p. 64
  • [9] Harris. D & Rabinovich. I, The Jokes of Oppression; The Humour of Soviet Jews (Jason Aronson, 1995) p.98
  • [10] Wilson. C, Jokes: Form, content, Use and Function (Academic Press, 1979) p. 147
  • [11] Adams. B, Tiny Revolutions in Russia; 20th Century Soviet and Russian History in Anecdotes and Jokes (Routledge, 2005) 164
  • [12] Freud. S, Jokes and their relation to the Unconscious (1905) p. 103
  • [13] The Social faces of humour: Practices and Issues (Ashgate, 1996)(ed) The Politics of Laughter by Arthur Berger p. 25
  • [14] Frankel. J, The Anti- Zionist Press Campaigns in the U.S.S.R 1969-1971 (Soviet Jewish Affairs, No.3, 1972) pp. 30
  • [15] Adams. B, Tiny Revolutions in Russia; 20th Century Soviet and Russian History in Anecdotes and Jokes (Routledge, 2005) 650
  • [16] Botev. N, The Ethnic composition of families in Russia in 1989; Insights into the Soviet Nationalities Policy (Population and Development Review, Vol. 28, No. 4) pp. 681
  • [17] Roi. Y, Jew and Jewish life in Russia and the Soviet Union pp. 190
  • [18] Frankel. J, The Anti- Zionist Press Campaigns in the U.S.S.R 1969-1971 (Soviet Jewish Affairs, No.3, 1972) pp. 2
  • [19] Ibid, pp. 29
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