Ethnic Humor: The Joke As Story

Ethnic Humor: The Joke As Story

We’ve all heard them, told them, though we don’t seem to hear as many these days as in the past. Blame this as well on these high-tech times which keep isolating us, robbing us of our humanity, our literature, our heart and soul.

Where can one find a better narrative than a humorous story well told?
“There were two Irishmen at a bar…”
“A priest, a minister, and a rabbi get on a plane…”
“Ole and Sven were talking one day when Sven said, “You know Ole, you might want to close your blinds, because last night I saw you and Lena going at it hot and heavy.” Ole laughed and says “Oh, joke’s on you, Sven! I wasn’t even home last night!”

Scandinavian humor, Jewish humor, Italian humor, Polish humor, Irish humor, etc.—often at the expense of certain characteristics of ethnicity. But then again, that’s where the humor lies. Where the story is.

The ‘joke’ is old, old form of narrative.

That’s the “Once Upon a Time” truth for today: When telling a joke, you’re telling a story.

In oral telling, the story process is almost visible. Words come alive in the mouth of the storyteller. Characters, places, images inevitably change from one telling to the next as the mind grapples with the memory of the narrative, enhancing it, diminishing it, making it even funnier (if possible) than the time the teller first heard it…passing the tale now on to you for safekeeping…for further telling. For the tale never dies… –Norbert Blei

One day

Moshe goes to see the village rabbi and says: “Rabbi, I’ve Just heard a new word and I don’t know what it means. Its the word ‘alternative.’ What does it mean?

The rabbi thinks and replies: “Moshe, come back and see me tomorrow with the deeds for the little plot of land down by the river, and I’ll answer your question.”

The next day Moshe comes back. He has the deeds in his hand. “Right,” says the rabbi. “Now you’re going to go to the market in Radom, and come back with two rabbits, a vigorous buck, and a young doe.”

The next day Moshe is there with his two rabbits in a cage. “All right, Moshe, now listen carefully. You’re going to fence off the plot down by the river, where the soil is soft, and you re going to put your rabbits in there. In a few months you’ll have twenty young rabbits, you can sell half of them in the market, and reinvest the rest of the money to buy the neighboring plot, which you will also fence. By the end of the year you will have bought all the land along the river up to the bridge and you’ll be the richest man in the village. You’ll carry on with your business and your investments, buying up all the plots on both banks and down the valley, all the way to the village of Brentsk, and you’ll be one of the most prominent men in the region. You will marry young Sarah—oh, don’t deny it, Moshe, I’ve seen the way you look at her—so you’ll marry young Sarah then, and she’ll give you two beautiful children, a boy and a girl. Meanwhile, you’ll carry on breeding thousands of rabbits, selling them in the market in Radom, Piotkrow, and Kativice, and you’ll be rich, very rich. Your children will grow up, your daughter will start seeing the doctor in Lublin, the boy will start studying at Lodz. And then, Moshe …”

“Then, Rabbi?”

“Then the water level in the river will rise, an incredible flood, you’ll lose everything, the land will be carried away, the rabbits will drown in their thousands, you’ll be ruined, your wife will leave you, cursing you for your lack of foresight, your children will refuse even to speak to you, and you’ll end up drunk and penniless like a poor schnorrer. That’s what will happen.”

“But Rabbi. I don’t understand. You were supposed to tell me what ‘alternative’ meant.”

The rabbi thinks for a moment and says: “The alternative, Moshe? The alternative is ducks.”


  1. Steve Fortney.

    At the Madison Torske Klubben (a Norwegian men’s luncheon group) once a month occurs a perfect blizzard of Ole And Lena jokes. We revel in them and all that akavit we drink. Ooftah!

  2. Marty Robinson

    One of my favorites, which I may have told you:

    A matronly woman is reading in the lobby of a small Miami Beach hotel. She looks up to see a striking man of her age, a look-alike for Cesar Romero. She approaches him at the registration desk and says, “Excuse me, but I haven’t seen you before. Are you new here?”

    “No,” he responds, “but I’ve been away for a while.”

    “And, may I ask, where were you?”

    “I was up the river.”

    On a cruise?”

    No, I was in the penitentiary.”

    “If I’m not being too personal, why were you there?

    “I killed my wife, cut her body in pieces and threw them in the ocean.”

    “Oooh, then you’re single!”

  3. delphine sanks

    I can’t top those.

  4. Charlie Rossiter

    A CEO, a teabagger and a union guy are sitting at a table with a dozen cookies on a plate. The CEO takes eleven cookies and says to the teabagger “watch out for that union guy, he’s trying to get part of your cookie.”

  5. Barbara Vroman

    Delightful. It’s true jokes are becoming a lost art. Maybe partly because they usually had a patsy, and most often a ethnic one, which is not acceptable anymore. For a while
    we had a lot of elephant jokes. The elephants were big enough to take it.

  6. Jean Casey

    A doting grandmother was walking along the beach with her little grandson who strayed toward the water when a huge wave came in and swept him out to sea. Horrified, the grandmother wailed and called out to God that she would amend her life, go regularly to Temple, speak again to her sister-in-law, visit the sick, anything, anything, to have her beautiful grandchild returned to her. Suddenly a great wave appeared carrying the child to her alive and well. She looked him over carefully, clasped him to her in great relief….then she planted her fists on her hips, looked heavenward and exclaimed, “He had a hat!”

  7. Jude, hey

    I’m a bohunk and I don’t care who’s patsy – they’re FUNNY! … A Czech man went to the eye doc to have vision checked. The eye chart said: CVKPMWXFCZ. Doc asks “Can you read that?” Man says “Can I read it? I use to date her! … “.

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