Jewish humor is essential to Jewish culture. In America, the strongest influence comes from Yiddish culture. Some Yiddish words may sound comical to an English speaker. Terms like “shlemiel” and “shlimazel” are often exploited for their humorous sounds, as are “Yinglish” words such as “fancy-schmancy.”
Among the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, the powerful were often mocked subtly, rather than attacked overtly—as Saul Bellow once put it, “oppressed people tend to be witty.” For instance, a story was told that after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II of Russia, a government official in Ukraine menacingly addressed the local rabbi, “I suppose you know in full detail who was behind it.” “Ach,” the rabbi replied, “I have no idea, but the government's conclusion will be the same as always: they will blame the Jews and the chimney sweeps.” “Why the chimney sweeps?” asked the befuddled official. “Why the Jews?” responded the rabbi.
Humor and Jewish tragedy play a central role in the celebration of Purim. We laugh at the plans of Haman, who ALMOST destroyed all the Jews. We are never told exactly why Haman hates the Jews; it seems that Haman’s hate is innate to his personality. Neither the text nor our tradition ever explains why Haman hates the Jews ... The question is as old as our people: Why do they hate us?
The traditional answer is basically that “they are out to get us.” It teaches that the “enemy” of the Jewish people is always out there waiting, hiding. This is quite a depressing view of our history, but quite popular even today. Nowadays, it can be a person or a country or both. The insistence on this troubling view of the world prompted the eminent Jewish historian Salo W. Baron to coin the phrase “lachrymose conception of Jewish history.” (The word “lachrymose” comes for the Latin word for tear, lachrymal; in English it is an adjective that means given to tears or tending to cause tears). Baron thought that there was more to the Jewish experience than persecutions.
Let’s turn to the story of Purim. The selected reading of Jewish history fostered by the supporters of the lachrymose conception of Jewish history can be seen in how the story of Purim has been told to us in school.
The story of Purim has a less popular side: The Jews killed more Persians than Persians killed Jews! We read in the megillah:
“And the king said to Esther the queen, ‘The Jews have slain and destroyed five hundred men in Shushan the capital, and the ten sons of Haman.’”
There is something positive in celebrating the survival of our people; however, stressing only the persecution and survival of the Jew on Purim and making no mention of this violence seems, at the very least, disingenuous, and, at most, chauvinistic. Fostering Purim as the festival of our survival, while knowing how many people WE killed, seems rather unsettling. For many centuries now, books, teachers and rabbis have inculcated in us the lachrymose conception of Jewish history and have implanted it at the center of many of our dearest rituals and celebrations – Purim being a prime example.
As we celebrate Purim this month, let us rejoice and be merry, and let us boo Haman and eat his “ears.” But let us remember that the story of Purim is also a story of our triumph over our enemies, and be mindful of the “other” side of the story, because with victory, then and now, comes the responsibility to be a “holy nation” and a light of peace unto the peoples of the world.
Where do you come down on this debate? Is Jewish history a succession of persecutions and tragedies? Or is Jewish history an inspiring example of how to respond to adversity and misfortune? Why do they hate us? Are we still at risk? Are we still the victims of history? What do YOU think?